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Sale of the St. Paul Saints ends an era of iconic ownership

“The simplest way to put this is, this is our baby, and it’s still our baby. You don’t walk away from something you poured a lot into.”

Goldklang Group chair Marv Goldklang
Goldklang Group chair Marv Goldklang: “The offer was completely unsolicited. We didn’t put the team up for sale. And candidly, until I received the offer, the thought hadn’t occurred.”
MinnPost file photo by Tony Nelson

In the St. Paul Saints’ corporate offices at CHS Field, a sign on one wall reads, “Gone Fishin’.”

It’s a holdover from the club’s days as the flag-bearer of independent baseball, the spot where outgoing employees and selected players signed their names before moving on to more prestigious and presumably better-paying gigs. “The Saints’ version of gallows humor,” general manager Derek Sharrer said.

Players stopped signing when the Saints became the Class AAA affiliate of the Twins, for practical reasons. The big club shuttles so many players back and forth the Saints would have needed a wall the size of Fenway Park’s Green Monster to hold all the signatures. But departing employees still sign. And now, even departing owners.

Last month The Goldklang Group, owners of the Saints since their founding in 1993, sold the club to Diamond Baseball Holdings (DBH), an offshoot of a large entertainment company that’s been buying up minor-league franchises coast to coast. Marv Goldklang, the chairman, and his son Jeff, the company president, came to St. Paul in early April to meet with staff and discuss the sale. There was a dinner at the St. Paul Grill with senior executives, then a full staff meeting the following morning.

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This wasn’t some cold, cut and dried, cash-the-check-and-see-you-later type of visit. For longtime Saints employees, Goldklang and partner Mike Veeck were the only baseball bosses they ever had. Goldklang and Veeck devoted their hearts and money to a renegade club that wasn’t supposed to last six months. Now it’s one of professional baseball’s model franchises, in a sleek modern ballpark, still with a squealing pig on site. It’s been quite the ride.

“There were a lot of tears, and a lot of laughter,” Marv said in a telephone interview from his office in New Jersey.

The next day, Goldklangs were saying their goodbyes when Sharrer asked them to sign the wall. Marv printed his name, then added this: “For Now.” That’s because Goldklang plans to return from time to time. That’s how much the Saints mean to him.

“The simplest way to put this is, this is our baby, and it’s still our baby,” he said. “You don’t walk away from something you poured a lot into – and I’m not talking about financial resources. I’m talking about a commitment to build something special – then turn on a dime and walk away. Whoever owns the Saints, they’ll always be a part of our legacy, and we’ll always be tuning in to the games.”

So why sell in the first place? Goldklang, 80, said it wasn’t his idea. “The offer was completely unsolicited,” he said. “We didn’t put the team up for sale. And candidly, until I received the offer, the thought hadn’t occurred.”

But Veeck, the Saints’ co-owner and front man, thought differently.

The 72-year-old Veeck says he’s a different person since his beloved daughter Rebecca, just 27, died in 2019 of a rare genetic disorder. Rebecca Veeck lost her sight in childhood to retinitis pigmentosa, making her passing a double whammy of heartache for Veeck and his wife Libby. Veeck found himself reordering his priorities, finally concluding the Saints staff no longer needed him or anyone else looking over their shoulders.

“The thing that’s wrong with this country isn’t diversity or Title IX or all of the causes that we have,” Veeck said in a phone interview from Charleston, South Carolina. “Guys my age should get out of the way and let the young guys do it. I kept saying that, and here I was. Derek’s never had another employer but us. That’s staggering; 30-some years.

“We were putting it out there for a long period of time. Now it’s time for Derek and Tom (Executive Vice President Tom Whaley) and (Executive VP) Chris Schwab and Sierra (Assistant General Manager Sierra Bailey) to put it out there themselves. They don’t need to be, as I’ve taken to calling it, ‘Pelosied.’ (referring to Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s decision to step down from Democratic leadership in favor of younger leadership).”

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Veeck tells lots of stories about his father, the Hall of Fame owner and impresario Bill Veeck. But this led him to one about his mother, Mary Frances, who died last year, nine days after her 102nd birthday. Veeck remembers waking up in the wee hours one morning to find his mother, once a publicist for the Ice Capades, trying to burn some old scrapbooks. “She was a very beautiful woman, and felt that after six children, nature had taken its toll,” he said.

After stopping her, he said they talked about attrition, and knowing when to leave. “She said, `You know honey, your father and I won’t be remembered for a lot of things, but one thing people said about is, we knew exactly when to go,’” Mike Veeck said of the conversation with his mother. “And I’ve never forgotten it.”

Bill Veeck sold the White Sox in 1981 and died five years later.

Sharrer said the transition from the Goldklang Group to DBH has been smooth, yet sad for longtime Saints employees like himself. “Those guys are my family,” he said, meaning Goldklang, Veeck and co-owner Bill Murray. “It’s definitely been an emotional transition for those of us in the front office who’ve worked with and for those guys for so long.”

DBH, founded in 2021, now owns 16 minor league clubs, including the Class AAA Iowa Cubs and Oklahoma City Dodgers as well as the Wichita Wind Surge, the Twins’ Class AA affiliate. DBH likes to buy clubs entrenched in their markets and generally leaves front office staffs intact. Last week, a visit to a game at CHS Field offered no evidence the club had changed hands. There were the usual MC-led shenanigans, between-innings gags, the seventh-inning peanut bag toss from the press box and appearances by this year’s pig, named Mud Grant after late Vikings’ coach, Bud Grant.

Mike Veeck: “All I was trying to do in ’93 was position the Saints away from (affiliated) baseball.”
St. Paul Saints
Mike Veeck: “Guys my age should get out of the way and let the young guys do it. I kept saying that, and here I was.”
Marv Goldklang said he and Veeck have known DBH CEO Peter B. Freund for more than 15 years, since bringing him on as co-owner of another Goldklang Group club, the Charleston RiverDogs. Goldklang and Freund are also minority owners of the Yankees.

“They understand not only who the St. Paul Saints are from the standpoint of a ball club, but they understand the culture of the organization, and I think they also understand the vision that we have,” Goldklang said.

“So we ultimately concluded it was the right time, and it was the right purchaser. Candidly, if someone had walked in the door with the same offer that we didn’t know or didn’t have a real comfort level with, I’m certain the decision would have been different.”

At its height, the Goldklang Group ran five minor-league teams. Now it’s down to two, the professional RiverDogs and the amateur Pittsfield (Massachusetts) Suns of the collegiate Futures League. But Goldklang isn’t looking to retire or close up shop.

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“I’ve been blessed with a wonderful wife for 55 years (Sheila), and she has made it clear to me she doesn’t want me home for lunch,” he said. “We are looking at some other opportunities. Not further contracting our footprint, but expanding.”

Veeck has things on his plate as well: A documentary about four generations of Veecks in baseball, another book and some speaking engagements. That is, when he’s not walking on the beach with Libby.

His father told him never to fall in love with a team, but Veeck couldn’t help but fall in love the Saints. How could he not? From the rainy opening night at sold-out at Midway Stadium in 1993 through five independent league championships through the affiliation with the Twins, the scruffy Saints delivered thousands of gags and laughs and memories. All from a flicker of an idea from Miles Wolff, who founded the Northern League and suggested Goldklang hire Veeck for the fledgling club in St. Paul.

“The truth of the matter was, we thought we’d have a hell of a time for two or three years, run out of money, and then go and do something else,” Goldklang said.

Added Veeck: “It makes me insane when Marv goes, `I thought we’d invest for two or three years, lose our money and go do something else.’ And I’m like, `Marv, what planet did you come from? I couldn’t lose my money. That was every nickel I had.’”

Then Veeck laughed, that throaty cackle that punctuates so many of his stories. The Saints revived Veeck’s baseball career after personal and professional hardship, and St. Paul and its fans will always hold a special place. And, he adds, they haven’t seen the last of him.

“You can’t have a love affair like that and not revisit the first careless rapture,” he said. “I may not hang out at Gabe’s every night or live at the Lexington and have Rebecca sleeping in a chest of drawers with two pillows as her bedding, but those were wonderful years. It was a lot of fun.”

Besides, Veeck has to come back. There’s a wall for him to sign.