Team owner's act of generosity leaves staff 'speechless,' in tears

On his final day as principal owner of the Iowa Cubs, Michael Gartner surprised his staff with an unforgettable goodbye gift.

He shared profits from the sale of the Des Moines-based minor-league baseball team with all 23 of the club’s full-time employees.

Gartner didn’t reveal his intentions until Tuesday evening during a staff-wide gathering inside a ballpark lounge overlooking left field. As some employees scarfed down hot dogs and sipped beer and others watched from afar via Zoom, Gartner punctuated an emotional farewell speech by unveiling a stack of envelopes.

“Here are your new business cards,” Gartner joked.

“Everyone knew something was up because of the way he said it,” Alex Cohen, the team’s lead broadcaster, said.

What was actually inside those envelopes were checks worth a total of approximately $600,000, general manager and minority owner Sam Bernabe told Yahoo Sports. Gartner, Bernabe and the other three members of the team’s ownership group determined how much each full-time staffer received based on how long he or she had worked for the Chicago Cubs Triple-A affiliate.

The generous gifts unleashed a flood of emotion from the recipients. The team’s longest-tenured employee had tears rolling down his cheeks. Everyone from marketing managers, to stadium operations workers, to the janitorial staff struggled to find words to thank Gartner and his partners.

“It was the single most genuine gesture I've ever seen,” Cohen said. “You work in sports and it's usually long hours and low pay. You’re not in it to make money. But this is an ownership group that really cares about its employees. And this gesture really typified that.”

Gartner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist and former president of NBC News, purchased the Iowa Cubs with his partners in 1999. Since then, the club has been the last stop before the Big Leagues for many Chicago Cubs luminaries including Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

While highly touted prospects have come and gone, Gartner’s ownership group has been the mainstays. Gartner, 83, has strove for years to maintain a cozy, family-friendly environment at Principal Park. Whether in his second-floor office or his lower-level seats, Gartner has often been present and hands-on yet never overbearing.

“[Gartner] was infamous for saying to me all the time, ‘Let's do the right thing,’” Bernabe said “That's how we operated the business. It was my charge and my challenge to do all the things that he thought were right.”

For years, that simply meant offering employees generous retirement and healthcare plans or making sure they had adequate personal or vacation time. Then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down minor league baseball in 2020, and suddenly Gartner challenged Bernabe anew.

At a time when many cash-strapped Triple-A teams were furloughing or laying off their employees, Gartner sat down with Bernabe and told him firmly, “We aren’t going to let anyone go.” Gartner knew that his fellow owners would suffer a financial hit yet he once again he felt that it was the right thing to do.

“We got a little bit of PPP money and a little bit of help from the state of Iowa,” Bernabe said. “The rest was Michael and the ownership group.”

The decision paid off the following year when Bernabe had to reopen Principal Park while implementing new COVID-19 rules. Bernabe says it would have been “disastrous” to have to teach a whole new staff how to run a baseball team while also worrying about socially distant seating and locker room safety protocol.

Michael Gartner and the rest of the Iowa Cubs ownership group pose before a recent game. (Photo credit: Iowa Cubs)
Michael Gartner and the rest of the Iowa Cubs ownership group pose before a recent game. (Photo credit: Iowa Cubs)

As Gartner’s 83rd birthday approached in October, he and his partners began to explore the notion of selling the Iowa Cubs. He agreed to a deal with Endeavor, a California-based sports entertainment and marketing company that was in the process of also scooping up eight other minor league baseball clubs.

Given Gartner’s history of generosity, Bernabe wasn’t surprised when the outgoing owner approached him a few weeks ago with an idea for what to do with the sale proceeds. He proposed to Bernabe and the other minority owners to distribute the sale money among the Iowa Cubs’ employees.

“Everyone said, ‘Great, let's do that,” Bernabe said. “It was that easy.”

The reward for the ownership group was the response from their staff this past Tuesday evening.

“The overwhelming majority were very surprised,” Bernabe said. “I had a couple of them come up to me and thank me afterward and they had a hard time finding the words. They were speechless.”