The possible sale of the Seattle Mariners by Nintendo America may bring up some unpleasant memories for Major League Baseball. In January 1992, Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent tried to explain away why his ownership group had a policy that barred non-American citizens from owning a Major League Baseball franchise with the exception of the two Canadian teams, the Montreal Expos and the Toronto Blue Jays. Vincent and his owners had a major problem on their hands, Jeff Smuylan, the man who invented 24-hour a day sports talk radio in the United States, was having financial problems and reached a deal in principle to sell his majority share of the Seattle Mariners to Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of the Nintendo.
The problem with the bid was simple. Yamauchi was offering $75 million for 60 percent of the Mariners franchise. That was the good news for Vincent’s owners but the bad news was that Yamauchi lived in Japan and that was a major problem as owners wanted nothing to do with a foreigner running a Major League Baseball team.
Yamauchi’s son-in-law ran Nintendo’s American division in Seattle. His son-in-law, daughter and grandchildren lived year round in Seattle. The company employed 1,400 people in Seattle and Yamauchi pledged to keep the franchise in the city.
That didn’t seem to please Vincent or his owners. Vincent was looking for excuses that would keep the Mariners franchise out of foreign hands.
Eventually after Major League Baseball was put through the ringer as Seattle and Washington state officials along with Washington Senator Slate Gorton started questioning baseball’s anti-foreigner ownership policy. A compromise was reached. Yamauchi was allowed to buy a significant stake in the franchise but could not be a majority owner. On July 1, 1992, Major League Baseball closed the deal. Major League Baseball celebrates diversity now but nearly a quarter of a century ago, that wasn’t the case. It was an episode that Major League Baseball would like to forget.
Republished with permission Evan Weiner for The Politics of Sports Business.