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


[i] Owens, John. “Pioneering Female Exec Midge Donahue to Be Honored. “ Chicago Tribune. May 2, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:

[ii] Dickson, Paul. (2012). “Margaret Donahue: First Lady of the Front Office.” Accessed Online at: 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:

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

[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:

[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:

[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:

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

[xviii] Owens, John. (2013). “Aunt Midge – A Wrigley Field Innovator.” Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:

Ken Norton: The Man Who Shut Up Ali

My students look at me funny when I talk about watching sports in the 1970s. Every Saturday afternoon was reserved for the Wide World of Sports. It is not like today where one can turn on the TV and find several 24 hour sports networks. In the early 70s, the greatest athlete was none other than Muhammad Ali. It was always a thrill whenever Ali showed up on TV, especially when Howard Cosell was doing the interviewing. Never have an athlete and an announcer been so linked as those two. Ali was a boxer and showman unlike any other the world had seen. He still is the most well-known athlete on the planet, even more than Michael Jordan. In March of 1973, a man born in Jacksonville, Illinois not only defeated Ali, but also broke Ali’s jaw. It was a fight that shocked the world. Ali had only lost to Joe Frazier previously. However, Ali was beginning to move from his early 30s to his mid 30s. Norton, 29, changed the boxing landscape in the 1970s and gave Ali his hardest challenges in the ring over the next three years.

Leading up the fight, Ali had not taken Norton seriously. In the prefight discussion, Cosell mentions Ali’s attitude and light 10 oz. gloves and how those gloves could harm a man. In the first round, the newspapers reported that Norton had broken Ali’s jaw. Trainer Angelo Dundee wanted to stop the fight, but Ali would not let Dundee throw in the towel.

The fight, seen here in its entirety, shows Norton’s unorthodox style of dragging his right foot while putting more pressure on his left.

The resulting decision for Norton reshaped the boxing landscape for Ali. Had Ali won, George Foreman would have been next. However, with Norton’s win, a new champion would determine the order of battle.

Norton had led a checkered and unusual life. Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, Norton grew up in the central Illinois town wanting to get out. Boxing was no where on the horizon for him. Football and track were if he could make it to adulthood. Sports Illustrated’s Dan Levin described Norton’s early life:

He was kind of a wild kid, not delinquent wild but wild in a way that made it seem he would never live to grow up. One day when he was 8 he raced a train to a crossing on his bike and lost. There was not much left of the bike, but all of Ken seemed to be there still. At 14, on another bike, he was hit by a trailer truck and wound up on its hood, again unscathed. Scratch another bike. In high school he lettered in basketball, football and track and got numerous scholarship offers.

He chose Northeast Missouri State and immediately was hit by a car, breaking his collarbone. Six months afterward he drove his car into the side of a bridge, where it hung by the rear door from a piece of railing 50 feet above a lake. Later, on a bet, he took eight sleeping pills and had to have his stomach pumped.

Eventually, Norton joined the Marines and it was there he learned to box. Norton said, “The Marines were tough but they taught me to be my own man.” From 1965 to 1967, Norton won the All Marine Corps Boxing Championship. Shortly before his release from the Marines, Norton turned pro.

Norton struggled for several years to eek out a living. When Norton was signed to fight Ali, he was ranked number seven in the world. He was not the number one contender and Ali saw the fight more as a tuneup before Foreman. Norton saw the fight as an opportunity to put food on the table for his young family, including his son and future NFL linebacker, Ken Norton, Jr. Norton never forgot that about Ali. For this reason the two would meet again six months later in September of 1973. Today, years take place between title fights for some boxers. But in the 70s, it did not take long.

Ali was in much better shape for the second fight. He trained hard. The results of the second fight reshaped both men’s careers. Sports Illustrated wrote of the fight:

Ali won the first half of the fight. By the middle Norton’s youth and strength began to flourish. By the 12th round Norton had caught up, and the match looked so even that Ali decided he had to gamble. He met Norton in the middle of the ring with combinations of punches and a show of determination that made the younger man stop his steady advancing. Ali stood in and fought, and at the bell it was still undecided whether he had won. Referee Dick Young’s vote carried it for him […] Ali himself was so unsettled that seconds after the bell he took a poke at Bundini, who turned around and swung at Bingham. Bob Aram, Ali’s lawyer, might have wanted to swing at all three of them. He had in his pocket a $10 million offer from a London promoter for a fight with Foreman and another offer for a rematch with Frazier in December. Now both fights were endangered. The offers hung on Ali beating Norton, which he did—but perhaps not convincingly enough.

Ali would win the split decision but it would be another three years before they fought again. Some boxing figures and sports writers had Norton winning the second fight. In the meantime, Norton became an actor while Ali would fight the biggest names in Frazier and Foreman. A third fight would take place in 1976. For Norton, these were big paydays that allowed him to not only help himself, but others. He began doing charity work and continues to do so today.

The third fight was just as controversial as the results of the second.

Ken Norton was a dog that would hound Ali the rest of his days. While Ali wanted to fights the Fraziers and Foremans of the boxing world, he was left trying to fully defeat Ken Norton in a manner that would satisfy Ali’s critics. He never did. And in the end for Ali, maybe that was best. His best days were either well behind him or taken from him for refusing to serve in the military during Vietnam. For over three years in his prime, Ali did not box and could not get a license to do so. When he got his license back in the early 70s, Joe Frazier was who he wanted to fight. Ali did three times, and decidedly beat him twice. But it was Ken Norton who gave Ali everything. BY the time it took Ali to get Norman off his back, Ali was past his prime and George Foreman was just entering his. The year Ali spent fighting Norton was one he would never get back.

For Further Reading:
Going the Distance : The Ken Norton Story
Believe: Journey from Jacksonville
Sports Illustrated: