Margaret Donahue: Changing the Business of Baseball

“Someone like Midge is an inspiration. It’s a thrill to learn more about her history.“ – Cubs President Tom Ricketts.[i]


Margaret Donahue is pictured here with season ticket orders in 1929, a concept she came up with.

Margaret Donahue is pictured here with season ticket orders in 1929, a concept she came up with.

For the better part of forty years, Margaret “Midge” Donahue changed the business of baseball through her actions. Miss Donahue was one of Major League’s baseball’s first female executives. Working alongside, William Veeck, Sr., and later the Wrigley family, Margaret transformed the crowd that came to see a game at Wrigley Field. Miss Donahue’s unique perspective on how fans should be able to see a game changed the clientele and business of baseball. Her actions still are effecting how executives run baseball clubs today.

The 1920s were a boom time for the United States economy. New inventions like the radio transformed how people could track their favorite sports teams. Women’s role in society greatly changed to new appliances which made house work easier and created more leisure time for the American family. In the workforce, most women worked in jobs that today would be thought of stereotypes – teacher, secretary, and nurses.

It was into this world that Margaret Donahue entered. Originally from rural Huntley, Margaret worked in a laundry during World War I and lost her job to a man at the war’s conclusion. To get back into the work force, Margaret placed an ad in the Chicago Tribune. She got eighteen offers, but she took the first offer place. She was hired by then Chicago Cubs President, William Veeck, Sr. to be a stenographer.[ii] Margaret said,

“I declined the job (but William Veeck) offered me far more than what I was making (at a laundry supply company) and persuaded me to take it. At the end of the season, I tried to quit again but he countered by making my hours 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and I stayed.”[iii]

Margaret quickly worked her way up the company ladder. She moved from stenographer to handling ticket receipts, checking the receipts against the turnstile counts, and paying visiting clubs.[iv] In the 1920s, baseball had a few women in positions of power.[v] A few were owners who inherited the team from their late husbands or fathers.

In 1926, Veeck shocked the baseball world by appointing Margaret Executive Secretary of the Chicago Cubs. The Board of Directors of the franchise approved her appointment. Veeck said of Margaret’s talents: “We feel that in Miss Donahue we have added a real asset to our club organization.” [vi]

Here is Margaret and William Veeck, Sr. in an ad for Quaker Oats

Here is Margaret and William Veeck, Sr. in an ad for Quaker Oats

In 1929, Margaret transformed the economic landscape of baseball three times. First, she came up with the idea of season tickets. Donahue got the idea after watching people save seats for their friends and families. Her niece later said, ““She was upset because they’d save tickets, people didn’t show up and that was a waste.” The season tickets plan was a huge success! The Cubs lead the National League in attendance in 1929 drawing 1.4 million fans.[vii] Fans rushed to get tickets to fill up the stadium by reserving seats. Today, season tickets are one of the main sources of income along with media revenue for ball clubs.

Margaret continued her unique vision to create a livelier ballpark to attend. She began selling regular game tickets using Western Union. This meant that fans could be assured of a ticket to the game without having to come to the ballpark to be guaranteed of getting a ticket.

The third aspect that Margaret always worked hard for was the children. She got Veeck to sell reduced prices for tickets for children.[viii] Earlier in 1919, Veeck had come up with the idea of Ladies Days to increase the attendance of women to the ballpark. Combined with Veeck’s idea, Margaret changed who saw baseball games. Baseball was now more of a family affair. Margaret always said, “I was trained by Mr. Veeck to do my best to make customers leave the ballpark happy, no matter what happens.”[ix] Author Paul Dickson said of the changes, “Teams like the Dodgers are worth $2 billion because people like Midge and the Veecks determined that the ballpark is for families. Before them, baseball parks were filled with men in white shirts.” [x]

In 1929, the Cubs had a great season reaching the World Series before losing 4 games to one to the Philadelphia Athletics. It was also the year of the Stock Market Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Despite the hard times, the Cubs thrived in the 1930s thanks in part to the crowds that filled Wrigley Field because of the ticket changes Margaret and Mr. Veeck made. The Cubs would make three more appearances in the World Series in the 1930s.

In 1933, Mr. Veeck passed away suddenly. She helped to run the team after the death of William Veeck, Sr.[xi] Under the Wrigley family she continued her duties.[xii] Chicago Baseball Museum executive director David Fletcher said, “They should have made (Donahue) the club president in the 1930s. If they did that, they (the Cubs) probably would have avoided their downfall.” [xiii] boss

Veeck’s son, William Veeck, Jr., who later would own the Indians and White Sox, learned a lot from Margaret. He said in his autobiography, “(Donahue is) as astute a baseball operator as ever came down the pike. She has forgotten more baseball in her 40 years with the Cubs than most of the so-called magnates will ever know.”[xiv] Before the 1937 season, the Cubs and Veeck, Jr. planted ivy on the outfield wall and built the now iconic bleachers. But on the field, the Cubs started to decline with their play on the field. Margaret said,

“I believe we fell behind the parade because we didn’t go into the farm business soon enough. Late in the ’30s, when others were developing their players, we were still trying to buy them. And we also refused to pay bonuses until recently.”

Now working for the Wrigley family, the Cubs and Margaret worked to continue to provide a great product for fans to come and see. Playing baseball under the lights became popular for many team in the Great Depression. It was one way that fans could work during the day and then attend a night game and not miss any work during the day. So, before World War II, Margaret ad other Cubs executives attended a White Sox night game to see how lights affected the quality of the product baseball.[xv] After the attack at Pearl Harbor, President William Wrigley donated the metal frames for the lights to help the war effort.

Margaret continued working for the Cubs through 1958. When she retired she was given a golden pass to attend any National League Game free of charge. Her greatest accomplishment, according to her nieces, was how she made the ballpark a family place.[xvi] Current Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts said, “Some of those ideas that came from her made her doubly remarkable. Her story is an inspiration. And the fact that she accomplished what she did almost 100 years ago makes it truly remarkable and impressive.” [xvii]

Margaret Donahue’s life is an inspiration. As a woman, she succeeded in an era when men dominated the business and the sport. Her ideas about season tickets and how the ballpark should be a place for more than just men is still having a huge effect on the business of baseball today. Baseball is now played in stadiums that dwarf those of the 1920s and 1930s. Filling up those stadiums are families. That is how Margaret Donahue saw what baseball could be, a place where the family could have a good time watching a game. She was decades ahead of her time. In the summer of 2014, the Chicago Cubs donated over $1 million to a park to be named in Margaret’s honor.[xviii] Now, her achievements are noticed and put on a display for a whole new generation.

Margaret's Golden Ticket to any National League Game

Margaret’s Golden Ticket to any National League Game

Endnotes

[i] Owens, John. “Pioneering Female Exec Midge Donahue to Be Honored. “ Chicago Tribune. May 2, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-pioneering-cubs-female-exec-midge-donahue-to-be-honored-20140502-story.html.

[ii] Dickson, Paul. (2012). “Margaret Donahue: First Lady of the Front Office.” Accessed Online at: http://www.thenationalpastimemuseum.com/article/margaret-donahue-first-lady-front-office. October 15, 2014.

[iii] “New Cubs Secretary.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Dec 14, 1926; pg. 23.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Baseball Men Beware! Women Prove They Can Run a Team.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Apr 20, 1941; pg. B3.

[vi] Castle, George. (July 2, 2013). “Cubs’ Donahue far ahead of her time as baseball’s first female executive.” Chicago Baseball Museum. Accessed online November 17, 2014 at: http://www.chicagobaseballmuseum.org/files/CBM-Margaret-Donahue-baseballs-first-female-executive-20130702.pdf.

[vii] Owens, John. “Female Cubs executive left her mark on the big leagues. “ Chicago Tribune. June 22, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-07-22/news/ct-met-pioneering-cubs-female-executive-donahue-20130722_1_chicago-cubs-baseball-reliquary-laura-ricketts.

[viii] Dickson, Paul. (2012). Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick. Walker and Company: New York. 21.

[ix] Castle, George. (July 2, 2013). “Cubs’ Donahue far ahead of her time as baseball’s first female executive.” Chicago Baseball Museum. Accessed online November 17, 2014 at: http://www.chicagobaseballmuseum.org/files/CBM-Margaret-Donahue-baseballs-first-female-executive-20130702.pdf.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Vaughan, Irving. “CUBS TAKE TIME IN SELECTING NEW PRESIDENT: May Not Decide on Veeck Successor.” Chicago Daily Tribune. Oct 10, 1933; pg. 23.

[xii] “Wrigley, Entire Staff Re-elected at Cub Meeting.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Jan 13, 1938; pg. 19.

[xiii] Owens, John. “Female Cubs executive left her mark on the big leagues. “ Chicago Tribune. June 22, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-07-22/news/ct-met-pioneering-cubs-female-executive-donahue-20130722_1_chicago-cubs-baseball-reliquary-laura-ricketts.

[xiv] Dickson, Paul. (2012). Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick. Walker and Company: New York. 21.

[xv] Prell, Edward. “Cub Officials See Sox Play Under Lights.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Aug 15, 1939; pg. 15.

[xvi] Castle, George. (2013). Chicago Baseball Museum. Margaret Donahue: Baseball’s First Female Executive. Accessed Online November 23, 2014, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CTN1hzZYnQ.

[xvii] Owens, John. “Female Cubs executive left her mark on the big leagues. “ Chicago Tribune. June 22, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-07-22/news/ct-met-pioneering-cubs-female-executive-donahue-20130722_1_chicago-cubs-baseball-reliquary-laura-ricketts.

[xviii] Owens, John. (2013). “Aunt Midge – A Wrigley Field Innovator.” Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-pioneering-cubs-female-exec-midge-donahue-to-be-honored-20140502-story.html.

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