CINCINNATI – At Marge Schott's funeral, Johnny Bench said the former Reds owner should be remembered for what she did, not for what she said.
"Actions speak louder than words," said the Reds great and Hall of Fame catcher. "I judged her by her actions. She had a big heart."
It was Schott's big heart that Bench, Pete Rose and other Reds heroes, baseball execs and her Tri-State fans celebrated following her death on March 2, 2004. The 75-year-old Schott, a heavy smoker, went into Christ Hospital in February with breathing problems. Her mourners forgave her – or at least, they overlooked her big mouth that got her thrown out of baseball.
Twenty years earlier, Cincinnati fell in love with Schott after she bought controlling interest in the team on Dec. 21, 1984. Tri-Staters already knew and admired her as a tough-minded businesswoman who fought General Motors to keep ownership of Schott Buick after her husband died, as a generous benefactor, especially for Children's Hospital and the zoo, and for her lovable St. Bernard named Schottzie.
Over the years, Schott also gave millions to the Boy Scouts, Boys & Girls Club, animal shelters and Catholic institutions like St. Ursula Academy in East Walnut Hills and All Saints Church in Kenwood, where her funeral was held. She willed $2 million to the University of Cincinnati athletic department, and they used it to build a state-of-the art baseball field named Marge Schott Stadium.
"Marge Schott was probably the most misunderstood woman in the United States," said her longtime friend, Arnie Barnett. "That woman's got a heart [of] gold. I've seen her write million-dollar checks out for charities without batting an eye."
Schott was a limited partner when she bought the Reds and called it a Christmas gift for the city and for herself. Here she was, only the second woman to own a major-league baseball team that she hadn't inherited, and her hometown could not have been prouder.
She was a popular owner, endearing herself to fans by bringing Pete Rose back as player-manager in August, 1985, and by keeping ticket and concession prices low. It also helped that the Reds started winning again after 101, 88 and 92 losses the previous three years. They finished in second place the next four years.
"When I was the manager, the Reds were the 'Pete and Marge Show,' " Rose said at her funeral on March 6. "She loved the team. She loved the fans. And she loved Cincinnati."
With Schottzie in tow, Schott won hearts wherever she went, especially with children. She sat in the first row at Reds games and welcomed kids who came to her for autographs. She signed and passed out cards bearing a dog's footprint and the words, "Woofs and licks! Love, Schottzie." She walked kids – and Schottzie – around the field before games.
She was everybody's favorite Aunt Marge.
But Cincinnati only knew Good Marge. It took several years for Bad Marge to go public. That started in 1992 with accusations by a Reds employee that she used racial slurs in referring to two of the team's black stars, Eric Davis and Dave Parker. Schott said she made the comment in jest. Then it got worse.
An Oakland A's employee said she overheard Schott saying she would hire "trained monkeys" before she would hire blacks. Her marketing director said he called him "a beady-eyed Jew." Schott, a fifth-generation German-American, said Hitler was "OK" for Germany "in the beginning."
"He rebuilt all the roads. You know that, right? He just went too far," she said.
Outraged Jewish and black groups protested, and Baseball suspended Schott for the 1983 season. But that didn't silence Schott.
She said she didn't like Asian-American students getting better grades than "our kids."
She referred to men wearing earrings as "fruits."
Once, sitting with Bart Giamatti at a Reds game, she looked out on the field and, drawing on a cigarette, said to the National League president who later became commissioner:
"Is that a boy or a girl?"
"A young man with a modern haircut," Giamatti replied.
"He'll never be out here again with long hair," said Schott.
WATCH that exchange in the video player above.
Schott was also outted as a heavy drinker. During the 1990 World Series, she went on the field to give a patriotic speech in support of the troops in Desert Storm and referred, in slurred speech, to the war in the "Far East."
There was more, but you get the point. By 1996, when Sports Illustrated trashed her in a cover story, referring to her as "Cincinnati's Red Menace," she had become a disgrace to baseball, and she was suspended again from May, 1996 through the 1998 season.
A lot of Reds fans turned their backs on Schott, but others attributed her vicious words to her German-American upbringing or her drinking or even her loneliness. Schott never had kids, and she used to say that she hated to go home to her empty mansion in Indian Hill when the Reds games were over.
Later, Davis and Parker said Schott apologized to them and they publicly forgave her.
Schott sold her controlling interest to Carl Lindner in 1999 and became a mostly silent limited partner. She stopped going to games after Great America Ball Park opened in 2003. She went once, her nephew said at her funeral.
When Schott died, the people from the zoo and the Boy Scouts and the Boys & Girls Club and St. Ursula spoke positively about her generosity and her good intentions.
The zoo built a new elephant preserve with Schott's donations. The Boy Scouts made an 18-acre lake at their camp. St. Ursula built a new classroom building. All Saints built a gym and cafeteria. All of them bear Schott's name.
"She was rough on the outside, but she was very tender on the inside. She had a very soft heart," said an employee at the Warren County Animal Shelter, where they were adding to their building thanks to a donation from Schott.
"It's the loss of a benefactor, but more importantly it’s the loss of someone who cared about young people and wanted to find ways to improve their lives," said the director of the Boys & Girls Club in Covington, where Schott helped remodel the rec center. "Our kids have benefited from thousands of free Reds tickets season after season and for most of these kids it probably was the only opportunity to see a ball game."
Late in her life, Schott invited WCPO into her home and talked about her favorite times as Reds owner.
"I think the thing I enjoy the most is dealing with the general public, to try to make people happy," Schott said. "If you don't have the fans, if you don't have the public, you have nothing.
"It's the everyday guy who's important,"
The WCPO interviewer told Schott: "You're important to them."
"I hope so," Schott said, "because that means a lot to me."