From the Pages of Vine Line: Margaret Donahue’s lasting impact on the Cubs and MLB

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When the long winter hit Huntley, Illinois, a quaint farm town about 50 miles northwest of Chicago, the Donahue kids would take to a nearby sledding hill. Margaret, the oldest of seven, was routinely elected to head down the hill first to test the run. She was, after all, the de facto leader and therefore the one tasked with carving that first swath through the snow so her kin could follow safely.

And what a fitting allegory that would turn out to be.

In 1919, not long after those sledding days were finished and with very little formal schooling under her belt, Donahue blazed a new trail into baseball history as a pioneer for women in professional sports.

“She was the first [female] executive who actually worked her way up into the position throughout all of Major League Baseball,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig.

Hired as a stenographer by then-team Vice President Bill Veeck Sr., Donahue was quickly elected club secretary by vote of the Cubs stockholders at a board of directors meeting. She held that role for a quarter century, until she was elevated to team vice president in 1950, becoming the first woman in the game to hold such a lofty position. But Donahue was much more than just a token female executive.

“The things she did helped change the way people appreciate baseball,” Hartig said.

Donahue is considered a vital part of the team’s storied history, gender notwithstanding. She is largely credited with championing the concept of season tickets, helping usher in record-setting attendance, and attracting generations of fans through her projects and promotions. Upon her retirement on Feb. 1, 1958, the Cubs board of directors gave her an ornately calligraphed farewell letter expressing, among other sentiments, that she “provided valuable service to the club as a capable and conscientious corporate officer, and as a nationally acknowledged authority on the intricacies of baseball rules and regulations.”

In June, a half-acre park in the Lakeview neighborhood, just a few blocks southwest of Wrigley Field, will be dedicated to Donahue’s memory, an honor her family, the Cubs and the city of Chicago worked together to bring to fruition.

“What a fitting tribute to a woman who was a great part of our history,” said Mike Lufrano, executive vice president of community affairs for the Cubs.

Donahue’s work and the elevated position she held, coupled with the era in which she held it, are incomparable, if not widely known. The Cubs won five National League pennants under her watch, and attendance hit the 1 million mark for the first time in any NL ballpark. Wrigley Field doubled in size, and the Cubs brand became synonymous with radio and television broadcasts.

Closing in on a century after she was first hired, women are still underrepresented in executive positions in sports. But Donahue more than did her part for gender equality.

***

In the tidy living room of a Victorian home a block away from small-town Huntley’s Main Street, three sisters spoke of their beloved, warmhearted, hat-loving aunt.

“Work did not scare her away,” said Barbara Ernesti, 87, the eldest of Mabel Donahue Emmer’s three daughters and Margaret Donahue’s only nieces. “She just got in there and did it.”

Ernesti was perched near her sisters, Mary Beth Manning, who turns 84 this month, and Margaret Manning, 77, (their husbands are unrelated) at the latter’s home on a warm mid-March day. Dozens of Donahue-related newspaper clippings, photos and mementos the sisters had collected over the years were spread atop the dining table.

“She was a great manager,” Mary Beth Manning said.

That talent, she surmised, may have been honed early in life.

Donahue was born on a Huntley farm on Dec. 13, 1892. Six other children swiftly followed. She had an older brother by one year, Daniel, but he died at age 7 when diphtheria swept through the town.

When Donahue was young, the family rented out the farm and moved into town so the kids would be closer to school. After graduating eighth grade, Donahue logged just one year of high school and a year at a business college in nearby Elgin, Illinois, before heading out into the workforce.

And that meant big-city Chicago.

Living with her aunt on the South Side, Donahue landed a job in 1919 at a chemical company that manufactured soap and laundry supplies. It was a brief employment, according to Margaret Manning, as Donahue lost her job to a veteran returning from the trenches of World War I.

She then decided to place an ad in the Chicago Tribune seeking a position as a secretary or stenographer. Bill Veeck, vice president and treasurer of the Chicago Cubs, spotted her ad and phoned her home while she was away at Sunday Mass. Her father took the call and told Veeck she’d be happy to meet with him.

But there was one problem: Donahue didn’t want the interview. She wanted a job in the Loop, where she had received other offers, not way out on the North Side. Her father persisted, and she met with Veeck on June 22, 1919. The following day, she reported to work at then-Cubs Park for the first time.

***

Donahue was a force of nature. She handled season tickets, press passes, stock transfers for the Cubs and all Wrigley Field events, Hartig said. She was the keeper of receipts and paid the players and umpires after the games, forking over cash out on the field before depositing the remainder in a downtown vault, her nieces said.

The only other woman in the small Cubs front office was the bookkeeper, who retired in 1920. Donahue assumed those duties too “temporarily” until they could hire someone new—which happened almost a decade later in 1929.

“Today you’d almost need a law degree to do all that,” Hartig said, adding that Donahue even advised her boss on the occasional trade.

Being an industrious sort (the office motto was “longevity, loyalty, versatility”), Donahue also took on some payroll duties for the Bears when they moved to Cubs Park in 1921. Two years later, she was promoted to Cubs assistant club secretary and would serve as acting secretary while John Seys, the man who held the position, was on the road. In late 1926, at the same board meeting that saw Cubs Park become Wrigley Field, she assumed Seys’ role as club secretary when he was advanced to second vice president of the team, according to Hartig.

“Baseball changed a lot in those 25 years she was secretary,” Hartig said. “It wasn’t the same job.”

In just a few short decades, the Cubs franchise experienced the advent of radio and television, integration, war, multiple World Series bids and the Great Depression, among other things.

What Donahue did would require the work of an entire office staff today. It seems almost any task fell within her domain, including the aforementioned handling of payroll and receipts, with which she was famously fastidious; drafting contracts and waivers; assisting injured players on the field; entertaining kids lost in the ballpark; and even washing the shirt of a fan who had an unfortunate run-in with some falling wet plaster.

“She was good at it,” Ernesti said. “She could keep her finger on a lot of things.”

Donahue is credited with popularizing and standardizing the practice of seat-specific season tickets, encouraging special pricing for children, and following through with the concept of Ladies Day, which had foundered at Wrigley Field and at other parks.

“For Margaret,” Hartig said, “it went gangbusters.”

The Cubs brass had a cautiously optimistic approach to Ladies Day, even though it hadn’t been successful in previous attempts. Before the Veeck-Seys-Donahue tenure, Cubs Park was a madhouse. Attendees were rowdy, often drunk and hardly polite—not the most hospitable environment for a mother and her children looking to have some wholesome fun. Veeck, who became team president shortly after Donahue was hired, spearheaded cleaning up the park, with uniformed ushers as well as improved concessions and trash pick-up. He then handed the weekly Ladies Day reins over to the executive secretary.

“She tried to make the games more family-oriented,” Ernesti said.

On Aug. 6, 1929, an otherwise unspectacular game against the Dodgers drew close to 50,000 fans, nearly 30,000 of whom were women looking to see the game for free. The Cubs had to turn roughly 10,000 people away at the gate.

The Cubs would continue with a Ladies Day promotion in some form until 1990, and eventually had to cap the number of free tickets at 20,000 per game due to its popularity. The team’s model under Donahue was considered the most effective promotion in Major League Baseball.

***

Of course, being a pioneering woman in professional sports did have its drawbacks. When Veeck died in 1933, Donahue supporters thought she could easily have been promoted, Mary Beth Manning said.

“If she had been a man,” Ernesti said, “she would have been the one to move up.”

Donahue made a healthy living, especially during the Great Depression, but she wasn’t without her detractors—some of whom were presumably uncomfortable taking orders from a woman.

“She had a couple of tough years,” Mary Beth Manning said, referring to occasional run-ins with management.

Upon her promotion to executive secretary, people were shocked, Hartig said. But the stockholders voted her in year after year, a feat her family called amazing.

A 1941 Chicago Tribune article about women executives in baseball titled “Men Beware! Women Prove They Can Run a Team” mentions Donahue as “helping run the club, in one capacity or another, since 1919.” Donahue was also a fan of the game and had played a bit as a teenager. She was a novelty back home, her nieces said, where she would hold conversational court with women and men at family gatherings.

“She would always be very much talked to by the men, about baseball and so forth,” Ernesti said.

While taking in a game for fun was a rarity—she usually gave her box seats away—Donahue worked a lot and was often the first one in and last one out of the office each day. She never married, but she shared a Rogers Park apartment with, at times, upward of three siblings. She also played hostess to two of her nieces for years. She sent money home to care for her parents and took one vacation per year every February, often inviting a relative to join her. Sundays were reserved for church.

In 1950, she was elected team vice president, a position she held while continuing as executive secretary. She retired in 1958 at age 65 with close to 40 years as part of the Cubs front office under her belt. At that point, she lived in Evanston with siblings but eventually moved back home to Huntley, where she died in 1978.

“It’s quite amazing what she did,” said Mary Beth Manning, her eyes falling to the table heaped with the archives of her aunt’s life and work. “It really is.”

Other than her gravesite, there is no public marker in Donahue’s hometown commemorating her achievements. But the city of Chicago, the Cubs and her nieces are seeing to it that her life will be remembered near the place where she lived so much of it.

The large public park in her name has been designed to attract folks across ages and interests in the hopes of beautifying the community as well as providing a teachable moment about its namesake.

“We realize that so many of our fans are women,” Lufrano said. “Margaret was a part of making that happen.”

—Kerry Trotter

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