Monday, December 7, 2015

Ballplayers struck out as slumlords

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

Dozens of professional athletes, including major league baseball players, were shown they were not in the big leagues when it came to slimy Chicago politics in 1963 when their investments in “slum” real estate went south, leaving them holding the bag for up to a reported one million dollars.

The ballplayers were among the backers of Consolidated Investment Associates, an Illinois corporation that fell into receivership in early 1963.

That company owned or controlled 22 buildings in what a Chicago newspaperman termed “various Chicago slum areas.” CIA was headed by R. Patrick Wagner, who the reporter described as a “pal of many major leaguers.” The company was formed around 1957.

Wagner reportedly induced many of those ballplayers to put money into his corporation and, for a time, came through with the promised 20 percent annual dividends.

Then, as the 1962 baseball season was drawing to a close, Wagner went incommunicado, leaving the players in the dark as to the state of their investments.

Louis Wexler, an assistant corporation counsel for the City of Chicago, was in charge of prosecuting building violations cases against Wagner’s CIA. At one time city building inspectors reportedly found a total of 2,693 violations in 18 of the 22 buildings owned by CIA.

In late February, 1963, Wexler said, “It now appears that investments made in Wagner’s companies are a total loss.”

In his defense, Wagner was quoted as saying that “pressure men” had brought down his real estate venture. “There are 150,000 buildings like ours in the city, and we own 22 of them. It should seem obvious that we are the victims of harassment.”

The slumlord blamed the University of Chicago for his plight. “The university did not want buildings in this area repaired,” he charged. “The university wanted them torn down so the tenants would be driven into other neighborhoods.”

Wagner seems to have been able to induce the ballplayers and other investors into putting up money in a “sure thing.” Rentals of from $65 to $100 a month in the dilapidated buildings were being paid not by individual tenants, but by the Cook County welfare department, insuring a continued revenue stream.

While most of the ballplayer investors preferred to keep their involvement under wraps, CIA corporation papers at the time showed Walt Dropo, recently retired 13-year major league veteran, as executive vice-president, with Billy Pierce, Ken Boyer, Bob Shaw, Jimmie Dykes and Jim Rivera listed as members of the board of directors.

Two of the players, cited anonymously in an article by Jim Enright in the March 2, 1963, issue of The Sporting News, said they had lost $5,000 each in the venture. The headline on the TSN article was, “Slum-Property Deal Backfires on Ball Players”.

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