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Chicago Cubs Ownership History

Year Owner Franchise Cost
1871 Formed  
1875 William Hulbert  
1882 Albert Spalding  
1902 James Hart  
1905 Charles A. Murphy
1914 Charles Thomas, Charles Taft  
1916 Charles Weeghman

William Wrigley, Jr. (Sole owner 1921)
Phillip K. Wrigley (1932)
William (Bill) Wrigley (1977)

< ~ $400,000
1981 Tribune Company
$20.5 M
2004 Forbes Magazine Franchise Value Estimate
$287.0 M
2008 Forbes Magazine Franchise Value Estimate
$642 M

The Chicago White Stockings were formed in 1871 to play in the National Association of Professional Baseball Players. When the great Chicago fire burnt their stadium in October 1871, the team lost their shot at a pennant and became a semi-pro team for the next few years.

In 1874, the team re-entered the National Association, but had lost all of their star players following the fire. However, in 1875 William Hulbert purchased a controlling interest in the club and made it competitive again. His first move was to bring in Boston's ace pitcher Albert Spalding.

In 1882, Hulbert died and Spalding took over the club's ownership for the next 20 years. In 1902, Spalding sold the rest of his ownership stake in the club to James Hart, who had served as club President since 1892.

White Stockings 1871-1889
Colts 1890-1897
Orphans 1898-1902
Cubs 1903-current
SOURCE: baseballreference.com

With the American League now joining with the National League to form the Major Leagues, the team finally settled on its permanent nickname, the Chicago Cubs, after being called the White Stockings, Colts, and Orphans. Ironically, the American League team from Chicago was now called the White Stockings.

After three short years of ownership, James Hart sold the team to Charles A. Murphy following the 1905 season. (According to BaseballLibrary.com his name was Charles W. Murphy and he was originally financed by Charles Taft, the brother of 27th President William Howard Taft, and bought the team for $125,000). Then, in 1914, Charles Thomas purchased the team from Murphy, with the continued financial backing from Charles Taft. However, both Thomas and Taft were from Cincinnati and soon sold the team to Charles Weeghman who had owned the failed Chicago Federal League Whales.

Weeghman headed a group which bought the team in 1916 for $500,000, including a $50,000 stake owned by William Wrigley Jr. a Chicago-based Chewing Gum magnate. Although the details are blurry, Wrigley acquired enough stock in the ballclub to make him the majority shareholder by 1921 (my guess is 80%).

(Unless otherwise sourced, all facts and dates above come from the "Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Team Histories - National League", Peter C. Bjarkman, Editor; Art Ahrens Author of Chapter 3: "Chicago Cubs - Sic Transit Gloria Mundi")

William Wrigley prized the Cubs and held on to the team until he died in 1932. The team was left to his son, Phillip K. Wrigley, with a mythic deathbed admonition to never sell the team. True to his father's desires, Phil Wrigley owned the team until his death in 1977, but did not pass along the deathbed request. In fact, Phil Wrigley has often been criticized for keeping the team while not having the passion of his father.

In 1981, Bill Wrigley, the third generation Wrigley to own the team sold it to Chicago based media conglomerate the Tribune Corporation. At the time, Wrigley sold his 80% stake in the team, plus an option which allowed the Tribune Corporation to buy the outstanding 20% of the team for $20.5 million. The majority of this money was used to pay Bill Wrigley's estate taxes following the death of both of his parents, who apparently didn't plan their estates to avoid any taxes.

The Tribune Company purchased the team to help complement its other entertainment ownings, such as WGN TV and WGN Radio. The sale of the team to the Tribune Company was a natural progression considering the close relationship between the Wrigley's and Tribune company for nearly 30 years.

With corporate ownership, the Chicago Cubs emerged from being the private plaything of an incredibly wealthy owner, and became a key asset for a publicly traded media company (Tribune Co. was publicly traded beginning in 1983 under the ticker symbol TRB.)

As a result, new marketing measures were taken to make the team profitable, and new baseball executives were hired to make the team competitive. Throughout the eighties and early nineties, the team became gradually more popular. However, following the 2003 season and the Cubs trip to the National League Championship series, the Cubs have reached the zenith of popularity. The following year, 2004, the Cubs reached 3 million fans for the first time in a season. They have continued to surpass the 3 million mark every year since (as of 2007).

In early 2007, dogged by a low share price, the Tribune Company fell under pressure from one of its biggest shareholders, the Chandler Family of Los Angeles. The Chandlers pressured CEO Dennis Fitzsimmons to sell the company. After initial resistance, the Chandlers prevailed and an offer from Chicago Billionaire Sam Zell was accepted for the Tribune company.

As part of the leveraged buyout that made the Tribune Company a private company, TribCo assumed billions of dollars of debt. In his plan to repay that debt, Sam Zell promised to sell the Cubs to the highest bidder and use the proceeds of the sale to pay down debt.

The sale of the Cubs was expected to occur between October 2007 and April 2008, but complications have arisen and the team still belongs to the Tribune Company.

One such complication is Sam Zell's desire to sell Wrigley Field separately from the team. Zell is hoping to sell the venerated ballpark to the Illinois Sports Facilities Administration (led by former Governor Jim Edgar). The scheme is being touted by Edgar and current governor Rod Blagojevich as a no-cost opportunity for the tax payers of Illinois, but that argument ignores the fact that current sales and entertainment taxes collected on Cubs tickets will be redirected from government services to the ballpark. (To see my encounter with Governor Blagojevich in which we discussed the ISFA offer, please click on the link. Also, a Chicago Tribune Article on the subject.)

Another complication delaying the sale of the Chicago National League Ball Club is Sam Zell's desire to sell naming rights to Wrigley Field. This revenue stream is being slowed by several factors including the provisions of the Wrigley Field historical landmark agreement the Cubs agreed to in 2004 in order to expand the bleachers and increase the number of nightgames to 30. The Cubs are now claiming that the Landmark agreement does not prohibit them from changing the lettering on the Wrigley Marquee, which is a laughable assertion in one well respected people's opinion.

As of May 1, 2008, it appears that ISFA offer for Wrigley Field will not have the political support in Springfield, so the Tribune Company is expected to publish a deal book on the Cubs in the near future. Additionally, a 'significant erosion' in the Tribune Company's operating results in early 2008 are increasing the likelihood of a default on their debt. To avoid defaulting, Tribune is under heavy pressure to sell several assets, including the Cubs.

Prospective Cubs Owners

There are several groups who are rumored to be interested in purchasing the Cubs. The consensus is that the most likely group to win the bid is led by Madison Dearborn founding partner John Canning Jr.

Others rumored to be interested are Don Levin, the owner of the Chicago Wolves, and Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. And finally, some fans are clamoring for Bill Murray.

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