Lewis Wolff owns the Oakland Athletics, a team that prides itself on building championship contenders while spending much less money than its competition.
After missing out on the playoffs for several years, the A’s returned last year and are off to a great start this year as they are leading their competitive American League West division.
The Forward’s Raphael Gellar spoke with the eccentric owner and discussed his passion for sports, his relationship with his rabbi, the Hollywood hit ‘Moneyball’ and what makes general manager Billy Beane so special.
Raphael Gellar: When did you fall in love with sports?
Lewis Wolff: Well like any kid, as far back as I could remember I was always involved in any sport I could be in. It was a lot safer in those days. My mother would throw my glove to me at 8am and then somehow I would come back late for dinner and that was it. I played every sport. In high school I was a very good baseball player. My friends and I would take two streetcars to go to see the Browns and Cardinals play professional baseball games.
Did you look up to Sandy Koufax? Did you look up to him because he was Jewish?
I would like to answer yes to that, but I really wasn’t focused on that. Even today, I prefer to play than be a spectator (laughs). I really didn’t identify with ethnic or religious background of players. I do that more today than I did back then.
What has it been like for you to be an owner of a franchise? What kind of development have you seen in the MLS?
Though I grew up with a lot of soccer around me, I never thought much about soccer. Like all business deals, sometimes they come from left field. I got a call from the previous owner of the San Jose Earthquakes and he asked me if I could buy a franchise for the San Jose team. I said yeah, that would be great. My only condition was that they didn’t take the Earthquake name. I don’t think I would have bought the team if I had not been in baseball. I didn’t do it out of love of soccer but I thought it would be interesting and fun and to be honest it has actually been really fun.
I don’t believe that a majority of the MLS franchises are profitable yet, but families love it and it’s a healthy sport. Our entire payroll probably doesn’t reach the cost of one major league ball player. But I will tell you this, the owners are extremely behind the teams.
There are a lot of Jewish sports owners. What is it like to be in that club?
Well first of all, there aren’t that many Jewish owners. I don’t really think about. In our management team [Oakland A’s] one guy is Catholic, two are Jewish and one is Muslim. We have an international group surrounding me. I really don’t care what their religion is as long as we win ball games. Competing is most important.
What is so special about Billy Beane?
He’s just a quality decent mensch. He is devoted to family. He respects the value of everyday. Whether they are making 30,000 dollars a year or 12 million he respects the player the same way. He is just a very decent person. He has lots of talent and is probably one of the best people in the history of baseball to look at talent and understand it. He is extremely intelligent.
Can you talk about the film “Moneyball”?
I thought the movie was excellent. Sports films are not always huge but I thought it was a particular good one. I thought it helped our brand but I think our brand is already established because of Billy. One thing that also helps your brand is winning. Winning helps a lot. The movie has reinforced the brand and we were very happy with the film.
Do you have a relationship with Israel?
I have been there only once. One of my grandsons went over and played basketball in the Maccabiah games. My daughter is much more active in Jewish life than I am. Sometimes we go to Temple and the rabbi will say “Hello Gene” to my wife and look at me and say how are you?
What’s next for you Mr. Wolff?
I will probably stop working when I can simply not work anywhere. What I like doing today is investing in young people’s activities. Though the baseball is a wonderful last chapter. I really like helping young who are doing independent activities. Whatever comes around, the baseball is fun because it’s something to do every day and a discussion or a decision to make every day.