April 09, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“New Year’s Day always occurs in April for me. I never liked New Year’s Eve parties, never had a date for that night in high school. Major League Baseball says that there are always new beginnings in April. Everyone has a smile on their faces Opening Day and a feeling that you have a chance to start all over again. Spring is really, really here.”
We caught up with our “Mister Chicago” and legendary Atlanta Braves Chairman Emeritus Bill Bartholomay just after he had returned from his team’s opening game on the 4th of April. He had taken a day trip to Atlanta, just an hour and twenty minutes on his plane, and had a great visit with his close friend Hank Aaron, baseball legend and still Senior Vice President of the Braves. Bill had brought Aaron to Atlanta in 1966 and was one of the 53,775 fans at Turner Field to watch Aaron break Babe Ruth’s record in 1974.
Describing himself as a “realistic optimist,” Bill, at 87, exudes more energy than anyone in any room, probably even most locker rooms. An entrepreneur all his life, Bill continues to direct several insurance brokerages in Atlanta as well as Chicago, and uses the day baseball trips to Atlanta to “double up” with business appointments. He currently serves as Vice Chairman of the Willis Group in the Willis Tower.
“We are all here for a certain amount of time. The creed of my life has been to do everything I conceivably can to leave the world a better place. I am a Christian. I may be controversial at times but then Moses was, too. Think if he had decided to turn back. I am active in Democratic politics. I continue to work hard for civil rights and gender equality, particularly in sports. We have a lot of catching up in many areas. Title IX has done much for women, such as in tennis and track and field, but is still slow in other sports.”
One of his greatest priorities, however, is his family. He is often planning family gatherings in Palm Beach and Lake Geneva to spend time with his five children and his stepdaughter, twelve grandchildren, and five great grandchildren.
He is similarly dedicated to the many friends he has made over the years. This list of friends is populated with names of people who have made a difference in the public arena, including Senator Dick Durbin, who went to the floor of the Senate last year to honor Bill:
“Bill has led an uncommon life and is the finest bridge builder I know. He brought Major League Baseball to the South. He has owned a restaurant, candy store, toy stores, and some of the most successful insurance brokerages in the world. He worked with Ted Turner to transform CNN. Most of all, he is a man of principle and of integrity. He is a true philanthropist, who started his own foundation that has benefitted so many. His love of baseball is surpassed only by his love of people. In 1968, Satchel Paige, legendary Negro League and Major League pitcher, needed just a few months of service with a Major League team to obtain his pension. Bill was the owner who stepped up, giving him a job as pitching coach, and Satchel’s presence with the team did much to help quell the race riots in Atlanta that year.”
When we talked earlier this week, Bill described those early days in Atlanta.
“The Braves are celebrating their 50th year in Atlanta this year. In 1966, 100 years after Reconstruction began, we moved the Braves from Milwaukee to Atlanta. At that time Birmingham was much bigger than Atlanta, and was run by George Wallace; there was so much bigotry. Atlanta was emerging as the capital of the New South, and we really put that to the test. We had two black players on the team. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Atlanta Mayor and businessman Ivan Allen, and the sports editors in town all told us it was time for integrated sports teams and that their City was ready. I remember Dr. King’s magnetic personality, wonderful sense of humor and the ability to see the big picture. Some of his associates didn’t have his joie de vivre. He loved Chicago. King was a great baseball fan, telling me that he was pretty busy, but would help out in any way he could. He said that I could count on his close associates Andy Young and Jesse Jackson to be of help in any way. They are still my close friends today.”
Asked about who among his great circle of friends really stand out, he replied, in his always courtly manner, that he wouldn’t want to leave anyone out – understandable when you think political leaders, business executives, celebrities, and so many others are all proud to call him their friend.
“Of the Presidents, I probably knew Richard Nixon the best. I am very close today to his daughter Julie Eisenhower and her husband David. David has the most marvelous rye sense of humor.”
Remembering the late Nancy Reagan, Bill recalled watching her play tennis in Lake Geneva. He often spent summers with his grandmother at Black Point, built in 1888 by his ancestor Conrad Seipp, the legendary beer tycoon.
“I was younger and I remember Nancy couldn’t have been nicer to the children around. I was probably 10 or 11 when I saw her on the tennis courts; she was a great player and also a terrific dancer. Her beauty overwhelmed me instantly. My cousin wanted to date her. We stayed friends though the years.”
Although he has lived in many places, including New York, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Lake Geneva, and Palm Beach, he says he has the best of all worlds with his footholds in both Chicago and Atlanta.
Though Atlanta is near and dear to him, Bill is a Chicago boy at heart. He grew up during World War II, attending North Shore Country Day in Winnetka. While his grandmother often took him out of school to attend the Symphony with her, his mother treated him to an altogether different tune: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Together they would take in a baseball game when the Cubs were in town.
“I loved sports but wouldn’t say that I was a particularly great athlete. I really thought that I was pretty good at baseball and wanted to be the captain of the team. Wouldn’t you know, I was made captain of the basketball team? I remember how disappointed I was. I’ve always loved baseball.”