Grave Story: Carl Pohlad (1915-2009)

Here lies Carl Pohlad, former owner of the Minnesota Twins. During his tenure from 1984-2009, he went from a hero who saved the Twins to a villain who almost drove the team out of existence. Such is the life of a baseball executive.

Carl Pohlad was born on August 23, 1915 in Des Moines, Iowa, as one of eight children in the family. Unlike other American billionaires, Pohlad didn’t come from money. His father was a railroad brakeman and his mother cleaned houses and did laundry to help support the family. As he grew up, he worked for a banker, collecting delinquent loans or selling items that the bank collected as payment or repossessions. He would stay involved in banking for the rest of his life. Even while in high school, he would sweep the floors of the local bank after classes.

Carl Pohlad as a high school football star. Source: Des Moines Tribune, Sept. 27, 1933.

Pohlad was involved in high school athletics. He played golf and was an all-state football player. He was also a starter on the Valley Junction High School basketball team. He attended college at Long Beach and then transferred to Gonzaga, where he played football. He was recruited to play football for Gonzaga by Bing Crosby, an alumnus of the school.

Pohlad served overseas in the Army during World War II, in the infantry. He was awarded three purple hearts, two bronze stars and a battlefield commission of lieutenant. He said in a 1982 interview that he “was wounded four or five times, but never seriously.”

By 1942, Pohlad was working as the manager of Federal Discount Corp. in Iowa. He would spend about 15 years in the Midwest, working at various banks and helping to reorganize their departments. Banking had its risks. He was manager of the Thrift Loan Company in Des Moines in 1947 when a first-time bank robber held the place up and got away with $1,884. Pohlad had left for a few minutes when the robber pointed a gun at two female employees. “If that guy comes back I’ll have to shoot him,” he reportedly said. Baseball history would have been dramatically different if Pohlad had returned to the bank just a little earlier.

A brief bio from 1954 states that Pohlad traveled to Minneapolis to work at the Marquette National Bank and fell in love with the city. He moved to Edina with his wife, Eloise and their sons. The couple would have three children: James, Robert and William. Pohlad, by then, was executive VP of the Marquette bank and president of the Chicago Lake State Bank. He was also an officer in the Independent Bankers of America and other banking groups.

Pohlad became president of the Marquette bank and continued working his way through the business world. He was awarded with a Golden Doorknob in 1964, which was presented to executives who opened the most doors for women in business. He diversified his interests, from airlines to real estate to becoming a large shareholder of Pepsi Cola. Banks were his primary business, and he would own or control several dozen, primarily in the Midwest. He knew people in the Vatican and was friends with the likes of Robert Redford and Sean Connery. By the early 1980s, he had quietly become one of the wealthiest and most influential people in the country.

“Pohlad moves more and shakes more than most of the people who get credit for being movers and shakers,” U.S. District Judge Miles Lord told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1982.

Pohlad was a humanitarian, giving to numerous charities and helping employees and others in need of aid, in a behind-the-scenes way. He was a fundraiser for Democrats and a member of the board for the Minneapolis Boys Club. He said that he didn’t like to seek publicity, but publicity would find him in a few years when he made a big splash in the baseball world.

It was announced in May 1984 that Pohlad, 68, would buy the Twins from owner Calvin Griffith. He paid $32 million for the 52 percent of the team owned by Griffith and his sister Thelma Haynes. A group of Tampa businessmen had attempted to acquire the other portion of the Twins as a means to bring the team to Florida. But with Pohlad as the owner, the Twins would stay in Minnesota, and he was greeted with cheers when he rode into the Metrodome in a convertible on the day the deal was completed.

Source: Star Tribune, June 23, 1984.

“I’m not going to get involved in the day-to-day operation of the team,” Pohlad said at the time. “But I don’t think running a baseball team is any different than running a business. The key is good management.”

(Incidentally, there were rumors that Donald Trump was attempting to buy the Twins for $55 million. The Twins denied it.)

Pohlad saw some immediate success, as the Twins won the 1987 and 1991 World Series. They had a good mix of home-grown talent like Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek, and they made some smart free agent signings like Jack Morris. However, after winning 95 games in 1991 and 90 in ’92, the Twins went into a tailspin, finishing at or near the bottom of their division for the next eight seasons. The Twins’ team salary was kept low, and the ownership was fighting for a new ballpark that would be partially publicly funded. Considering that Pohlad was worth more than $1 billion at the time, he didn’t get a lot of sympathy when rumors started to float that he would sell the team if he couldn’t get his stadium. In his defense, he was a one-man ownership team at a time when corporate entities like Nintendo and Time-Warner were entering the baseball world.

“For the last 10 years, we’re put out an average of $10 to $12 million a year in pure losses,” he told the Star Tribune in 1997. “There’s no way anybody can be expected to fund losses to that extent. It just isn’t practical to do. It doesn’t allow us to field a competitive team… What my legacy is, it will have to be what it is, because there’s no way we can continue the way we are.”

Pohlad’s tenure as owner reached rock bottom in November 2001. Reports stated that Major League Baseball planned on buying out the Twins from Pohlad and contracting the team out of existence, along with the Montreal Expos.

It was an awful idea and served no other purpose than to antagonize the MLB Players Association and make MLB look weak. Imagine being the premier baseball league in the entire world, and you’re admitting that you’re not strong enough to keep 30 teams in existence. They couldn’t find new owners or relocate a team, so killing two franchises was the only option. In Minnesota, it was an act of betrayal. After two World Championships, the Twins were stuck with tiny payrolls and couldn’t compete in the American League, but they bounced back in 2001 with an 85-win campaign. More than 1.78 million fans came to watch the Twins, representing an attendance increase of more than 780,000 people. And still the team was facing the death penalty, solely because the owner, worth more than a billion dollars, wanted the city to pay for a new stadium. Regardless of whether it was a good business move, it was a PR disaster, as Pohlad became the symbol of greedy owners.

“I put the blame for all of this squarely on Carl Pohlad,” said one Star Tribune Reader.

“I don’t have a very high opinion of Mr. Pohlad. He’s a greedy little man,” said another.

“To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, ‘Money isn’t everything with [Pohlad], it’s the only thing,’” said another.

At the end of the day, contraction never happened. The Twins stayed put, and Pohlad maintained ownership of the team, albeit with a damaged reputation among the team’s fanbase. The team stayed in playoff contention, playing in a weaker Central Division and made multiple postseason appearances — in spite of the fact that team payroll stayed well below league average.

Pohlad eventually got his new stadium. The Minnesota legislature passed a measure in May 2006 for a $522 million stadium, which would be paid for mostly by Minnesota taxpayers. Target Field was scheduled to be completed in 2009 with a 2010 opening date. Pohlad never got to see a game there.

By 2005, Pohlad was confined to a wheelchair or a walker, due to various ailments in his hip, back, knee and ankle. He still attended many Twins home games, but by 2007 he had turned over the role of CEO of Twins Sports Inc. to his son Jim. He was still the richest owner in baseball — his wealth was an estimated $3.6 billion in 2009, according to Forbes.

Carl Pohlad died on January 5, 2009 at the age of 93. His funeral was held at the Basilica of St. Mary and was attended by family, friends, government officials and numerous former Twins players.

“Our dad was the American dream, a man who made so much from so little,” said his son Bob at the service.

He is buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

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