There has been a lot seen, written and said lately about Harold Ballard, the Toronto Maple Leafs owner who went to hell 30 years ago. We know that’s where he went because that’s what the CBC documentary Offside: Harold Ballard — and everyone who appeared on it — told us, with great clarity.
The theory is Harold lives on as a curse, which he mysteriously bequeathed to his favourite hockey team. A long-time member of the front office, he assumed sole ownership of the team 50 years ago. Believe it or not, he’s credited with having a hand in the last four Stanley Cups the Leafs won, but he’s better remembered for destroying a team that now hasn’t won 55 years.
His legacy as a human being? He wasn’t a nice one. Ballard didn’t like anyone really, probably not even himself. His verbal punching bags were hit with epithets that were racist, misogynistic, homophobic, antisemitic and more. He fought with anybody, and cared little of the consequences. His rudeness may have even exceeded his greed, but when he dumped the two most popular Leafs, Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald (both are in the documentary), his “curse” was sealed. It will remain until Toronto wins a Stanley Cup.
As bad owners of sports teams go, Ballard has plenty of company — in history and in perpetuity.
Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was just as vile and money-hungry as Ballard. She often used the N-word while discussing her players of colour and she embraced Hitler, actions which led to two suspensions by MLB. Unlike Ballard, her team actually won during her 15-year reign of terror, but even that upset Schott, who was angry because she claimed there were no profits unless the World Series went five games, and the Reds won in four. Like Ballard, she refused to pay market value for players and whined about having to pay players when they were hurt.
The curse? Cincinnati hasn’t won in 32 years since then.
Baseball also had Charlie Finley, disliked by just about everybody, especially his Oakland A’s. He lost his best players — Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman, Vida Blue, Joe Rudi — either through contract violations, trades or attempted sell-offs after the A’s won three straight World Series. They won once after Charlie lost the team, in 1989, when they had to move heaven and earth…an earthquake forced an unprecedented 10-day Series delay. So Charlie’s curse isn’t as bad as the other two.
He must have been a little nicer.
There’s always potential for more owners like them. Francesco Aquilini, the Vancouver Canucks owner, is being excoriated these days for many reasons. His franchise about to go 0-and-53 in chasing the Stanley Cup. There is talk about the kind of person Aquilini is (three of his children accused him of child abuse), and his family had a handshake agreement with good friends, the Gaglardis, to buy the Canucks in 2006. Then, Aquilini made the deal for himself, behind the backs of and cutting out his partners. The ensuing legal challenge went to the Supreme Court.
Aquilini won. Not so much his Canucks.
Curse is only one reason bad owners lead to bad teams.
The other reason is karma.