Owner of Iowa Cubs finds new ways to interact with Des Moines fans

Michael Gartner Feature Photo
Michael Gartner, majority owner and chairman of the Iowa Cubs, sits in the stands at Principal Park to enjoy the game on May 7, 2021.

By Madison Williams
Medill Reports

As a 9-year-old boy, Michael Gartner accompanied his father to his first minor league baseball game in 1947 in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa. The Des Moines Bruins had begun their affiliation with the Chicago Cubs that year.

Fifty-two years later, after working at The Wall Street Journal, acting as president of NBC News and winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1997, Gartner decided to buy his hometown team, now known as the Iowa Cubs, the Cubs’ official Triple-A team. Buying the Cubs allowed Gartner to not only return to his beloved hometown, but it also brought back a love of sports that Gartner had from his childhood. He was now able to share that love of baseball with his community.

Gartner became a well-known and admired figure in the Des Moines community over the course of 22 years of being a majority owner and chairman of the team. He can be seen talking to fans during almost every game.

“I call it his job, he calls it his habit,” President and general manager of the Iowa Cubs Sam Bernabe said. “He loves coming to the stadium. He is easily the organization’s biggest baseball fan.”

When he left NBC News, Gartner headed straight to Ames, Iowa, where he was the editor of The Ames Tribune. He stayed there until the opportunity to buy the Iowa Cubs arose. The boy who loved going to Des Moines Bruins games as a kid could now return to the ballpark to cheer on the Iowa Cubs whenever he desired.

Gartner’s father was a sportswriter, and he came from a baseball-loving family. He said he thought buying the Iowa Cubs would be a new way to connect with his family, and he thanked his father, who lived to be 102 years old, for giving him the essential skills he needed in a life of journalism and now sports.

“My father only made me do two things in his entire life. One was to learn how to type, and the other was to keep a box score. And they’re the only two skills I’ve ever really needed,” Gartner said.

Iowa Cubs fans quickly got to know Gartner as he attended almost every game and interacted with the crowd.

Loyal Iowa Cubs fan Steve Elsberry first interacted with Gartner when he spontaneously spoke to Elsberry’s chapter of Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) after their guest speaker did not show up. Gartner quickly agreed to stepping in as their speaker.

“He came in and spoke to us, and he’s just a great extemporaneous speaker. That’s how I first got to know him,” Elsberry said. “I don’t know if he knows me by name, but I know he knows me by sight.”

Gartner also found time to interact with the younger fans at the games. One of his rituals was to steal baseballs out of the dugout so he could throw them to kids in the stands who brought baseball gloves.

“The next day I’d get an email or something, and some man says, ‘You don’t know me, but you gave a ball to my son last night and he slept with it under his pillow,’” Gartner said.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, causing the minor league baseball season to be canceled, Gartner could no longer go to Principal Park. At 82, he had to be careful since he was now considered high-risk for the virus. He lives across the street from the field, which served as a constant reminder of how baseball was not happening.

“Looking over and seeing this place empty with no baseball or anything, it was just kind of a downer,” Gartner said.

The pandemic was difficult for every working individual in America, but Gartner wanted to make sure his employees did not have to worry. He kept every full-time employee on staff with full pay and benefits, costing the franchise around $4 million.

“He made the decision, and he made it right away,” Bernabe said. “He never wavered, he never said ‘All right, let me think about it.’ In the moment it looked like the season wasn’t going to happen at all, he said, ‘We’re going to keep everybody.’”

Vice President and assistant general manager Randy Wehofer added that because the Iowa Cubs were able to keep all of their employees, it made the transition to returning to baseball in 2021 much easier because the staff already knew their roles and responsibilities.

During the year off, Gartner kept Wehofer busy by giving him the task of auditing the organization to see what they could be doing differently. Wehofer ended up making a 40-slide presentation to highlight trends and offer new ideas.

“We used that time 20 years into the ownership and 40 years into the relationship with the Cubs in the middle of the pandemic to say, ‘What can we do better now that we have time to think about it instead of thinking about tomorrow’s game?’” Wehofer said. “Even in the pandemic, there was vision for where we were headed.”

The pandemic forced Gartner to change the way he interacts with attendees compared with the way he normally would due to social distancing and limited ticket sales, but he said he is grateful the ballpark is no longer empty. During opening week, dozens of fans approached Gartner and thanked him for reopening the park.

“A lot of them come up to me and say, ‘Thanks, it’s so great to be back,’ and I take all credit and I say, ‘Yeah, I was out mowing the field this afternoon and then I printed the tickets off,’” Gartner said.

Scott Sailor, a ticket operations employee who jokes he could write Gartner’s biography one day, replied saying “that may not have happened” to Gartner’s comment.

Although Gartner might not be mowing the grass or printing off the tickets, he does help run the ballpark smoothly. With no thoughts of retiring soon, Gartner said he hopes fans in attendance have fun when they come to Principal Park. And if he can help with making that happen, he will do whatever it takes.

“He’s a character,” Bernabe said. “He’s 82 and going strong.”

Madison Williams is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @madisonwsports.