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On a spring Saturday shortly before noon, Wrigleyville is astir. The bro bars on Clark Street fling open their windows, belching out waves of music and stale beer. Red Line trains shriek into the Addison stop, disgorge blue-and-red hordes, and then clack away, kicking sparks. Joining the throngs who are making their way to the ballpark is a lanky guy in his 40s with thinning hair and a round, amiable face.
As he circles the upper deck, wearing pleated khakis and a blue lightweight fleece adorned with a Cubbie patch, he looks like any other Chicago dad off to get his kid a hot dog. But then he begins saying hello to strangers and handing out baseballs signed by the likes of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. Only at that point do most people seem to recognize him: Tom Ricketts.
While his family’s purchase of 95 percent of two of the city’s most sacred institutions—the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field—happened four years ago, Chairman Ricketts and his clan still aren’t well known or understood here. When they do make news, it isn’t always flattering. The 2010 appearance of Tom’s younger brother, Todd, on the CBS reality show Undercover Boss, in which he was canned for poor toilet-scrubbing skills, was slightly cringe inducing. But that was nothing compared with the public relations disaster that followed a New York Times report last year that Tom’s father, the conservative billionaire Joe Ricketts, was considering a $10 million preelection ad campaign linking President Obama to “incendiary comments by his former spiritual adviser.”
Joe Ricketts, 72, who has retired to Little Jackson Hole, Wyoming, isn’t giving interviews. But his four children—Pete, 48, who lives in Omaha, and Tom, Laura, and Todd, 47, 45, and 43, respectively, who live in the Chicago area—all agreed to speak to me for this story. (All four are on the Cubs’ board of directors.) Interviews with them, with friends and colleagues of Joe’s whom he authorized to speak for him, and with contacts in Chicago and in the family’s home state of Nebraska help explain the family’s approach to the high-stakes negotiations with Wrigleyville rooftop owners that they’re currently embroiled in—an approach that has puzzled some and enraged others.
As you know, in April the Rickettses announced the hard-won framework of an agreement with the city for a sweeping $500 million renovation to the historic but crumbling Wrigley Field and its environs. But when Wrigleyville rooftop owners hinted at suing to protect their views, Tom Ricketts dropped a bombshell: If people continue to stand in the Cubs organization’s way, it may have to look at moving the team to the suburbs.
Is the family really willing to yank the Cubs from hallowed Wrigley and move them to suburban Rosemont, Schaumburg, or Cicero? Will they risk a move that instead of robing the Ricketts name in glory would cloak it in ignominy? And more fundamentally: What drives these superrich Nebraska natives? What values shape their decisions? Who are they beyond the cardboard bios put out by their public relations team?
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