For as much as he shaped the downtown Cleveland skyline and the fortunes of its baseball team, Dick Jacobs was about as reluctant a public figure as the city has ever seen.
The buttoned-up millionaire businessman, who rose from modest Akron roots as a potato peeler at a popular drive-in restaurant, guarded his privacy as passionately as he negotiated real estate deals. But privately, away from the spotlight, his tight circle of friends socialized with a man who flashed a sense of humor, was able to laugh at himself and, yes, even reveal a sensitive side.
"He was tough and he was kind and he was soft and he was a very bright man," said Dominic Visconsi early Friday morning, a few hours after the death of his former business partner. Visconsi said they had lunched together at Jacobs' Gold Coast condominium as recently as last Saturday. "We were laughing and recounting [the past]," Visconsi said. "It was one of his better days in the last few weeks."
Richard E. "Dick" Jacobs, the commercial real estate mogul and former Cleveland Indians owner who helped refurbish downtown Cleveland and turned its baseball team into a winner, died Friday after a long illness. He was 83.
"He was a hard-working person who enjoyed risk-taking and enjoyed success," said Jeff Jacobs, who followed his father into a real estate development business of his own. "His two strongest values were hard work and integrity. Anything that came about through hard work and integrity he would think was a successful endeavor."
The bricks and mortar downtown and in surrounding suburbs, the championship banners raised in the Indians' ballpark during his ownership suggest there were many successful endeavors.
Jacobs was chairman and chief executive officer of what is now called the Richard E. Jacobs Group, a firm he founded with his late brother, David, and Visconsi in 1955. A company spokesman said Jacobs made provisions for the future of his company, which has developments planned or underway in Northeast Ohio and Florida. The Jacobs Group provided few details about those plans Friday beyond confirming that the current executive team would continue.
Most visible, the Westlake-based company developed the 57-story Key Center and adjoining Marriott hotel on Public Square, and the Galleria at Erieview at East Ninth Street and St. Clair Avenue, the first retail shopping mall in downtown Cleveland.
One of his closest political allies was former City Council President George Forbes, who he met over lunch in early 1980s. At the time, Jacobs wanted to bring Bob Hope's memorabilia to Cleveland, and to find other ways to honor the Cleveland-bred performer, who was a friend. Through that discussion and countless others, he and Forbes forged a respect that evolved into friendship.
"He was a man that mixed with people of all walks of life," Forbes said. "I'll never forget I was at the Lancer, [a restaurant popular with black people on the city's East Side] and up drives Dick Jacobs. I thought, 'What the hell is this man doing here?' He was socializing with his friends. And it wasn't just one occasion. I'm not kidding you."
Although Jacobs made his fortune in real estate, he went from mainly playing behind the scenes to center stage when he and his brother, David, bought the Indians from the Steve O'Neill estate in late 1986 for $40 million. David Jacobs died in 1992.
The Indians, who had fielded one of the weakest teams in baseball over the previous 30 years, were restored during the Jacobs regime, winning two American League pennants, in 1995 and 1997. They were the first Cleveland pennants since 1954.
Jacobs quickly established his low-key management style on the day he bought the club. "There is no Walter Mitty in me," he said.
Jacobs promised to run the club with sound business fundamentals. He wanted to "stay out of the way" and hire baseball experts to direct the team. He never told them what to do, only that they keep him informed, operate within the parameters of the budget and be successful.
But it wasn't as if he didn't exact his business acumen.
"He gave me my first lesson in economics," said John Hart, the former Indians vice president and general manager who flew into Cleveland on Thursday when he was told Jacobs was in poor health. "I was in his office one winter's day. I was going to ask him about some free agents. He said, 'John, come over here.' We looked out his window onto Lake Erie.
"He said, 'John, picture 30 owners walking into the lake, each wearing a hat. My hat is going to float a lot sooner than most of those guys. It doesn't mean I don't want to win. I don't mean I don't want to spend money. We just have to outsmart people.' "
Jacobs attended most Indians games, sitting in his loge behind home plate. He seemed to be uninterested in seeing his picture in the paper or in being interviewed. On the rare occasions when he was interviewed, he spoke briefly, often deferring questions to publicists or team officials who were present.
Although he viewed the purchase as a real estate investment, the ballclub also presented Jacobs an ideal outlet for his social circle.
Jacobs traditionally flew about 30 of his closest friends to spring training each season, loading them on to the private jet used by the NBA's Orlando Magic.
" 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous' - that's what it was like," said long-time Cleveland lawyer and Jacobs friend Bob Rotatori.
In 2000, to thank Jacobs for his generosity, his friends threw him a dinner at Johnny's Downtown in the Warehouse District, one of his favorite restaurants. Rotatori wrote new lyrics to "Thanks for the Memories" and sang it to Jacobs.
"Thanks for the memories," he sang toward the end of the tune.
"Division Championships galore, American Conference Titles and more The World Series with Miami went seven, it was heaven How lovely it was! Thanks for the memories Of flying at 30,000 feet, drinking Grey Goose neat Making us feel elite and all the while what a treat Thank you so much!"
"He loved it so much that he had brass plaques made with the words and gave one to everybody," Rotatori said. "He loved the camaraderie of the guys."
Jacobs continued the spring training trip, even several years after he sold the team to current owner Larry Dolan.
One day when the new owner crossed paths with the former owner during camp, Dolan asked if he could help himself to the extensive spread Jacobs had laid out for his crew, joking that he had to make up for the money he just spent on the team.
"Larry," Jacobs said, "you're going to have to eat a lot of gumbo, a whole lot of gumbo."
Jacobs would routinely hang around the batting cage in Winter Haven, Fla., in his trademark casual wear -- yellow dress pants with white shoes. Indians center fielder Kenny Lofton needled the boss about his fashion sense, Jacobs would laugh at the teasing.
When the Indians clinched the division title in 1995 for their first trip to the postseason since 1954, Manny Ramirez and Julian Tavarez were pouring bottles of champagne over Jacobs' head in the locker room. These two young kids from the Dominican Republic pouring champagne over the head of one of the richest businessmen in the country was a sight to behold.
Afterward, Jacobs said, "I usually take my alcohol internally."
Jacobs' baseball success was not immediate. The Indians suffered through losing seasons in his first seven years. The team finally became a winner in 1994, when the maturing players began producing and the Indians moved to a new ballpark. Jacobs had flirted with moving the team to Florida but stayed in Cleveland after making a deal for the new stadium. The new park, Jacobs Field, bore his name from its opening in 1994 until it became Progressive Field in 2008.
The Indians were a huge success at Jacobs Field. The new facility, coupled with a winning team, produced sellout after sellout. The influx of money made the Indians one of the wealthiest teams in baseball and enabled them to compete in signing top players.
In 1993, their last year at the old Stadium, the Indians had a team payroll of $17 million. Later in the decade it had risen to more than $80 million.
"On the business side, we have a winner," Jacobs said. ""But we all want a World Series ring on our finger. We're going to get it very shortly, in my opinion."
It never happened. The Indians lost in six games to Atlanta in the 1995 World Series and in seven games to Florida in 1997.
Even after the heartbreaking World Series loss, in which NBC had already invited him and Hart down to the clubhouse to accept the trophy, Jacobs recovered from the sting quickly.
"By the time we got down there, we'd blown the lead," Hart said. "So we sit and watch the rest of the game on TV in the little cubby hole that's the manager's office. When we ended up losing, Dick popped out of his chair and said, 'John, great season. We'll get 'em next year.'
"He went out, slapped some of the players on the shoulder and off he went. I wanted to crawl out of there. We were both heartbroken, but to Dick it was all about next year."
"On the plane back he was already laughing and thinking about the opportunities for success the following year," his son Jeff Jacobs said. "He was a man of tremendous resilience."
In May 1999, with the Indians having sold out 308 games in a row, Jacobs put the Indians up for sale. "It's not a question of having to do it," he said. "It's a question of wanting to do it. It's just a logical thought process."
The Indians lost to Boston in the division playoff at the end of the season. In November, Jacobs sold the team to Dolan for a reported $325 million
"Jacobs was the best owner in Indians history," The Plain Dealer editorialized. "What he accomplished is one of the greatest stories in the history of professional sports."
Off the field, Jacobs was instrumental in creating the Chagrin Highlands business park, but his involvement evolved into a feud with longtime Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White. Cleveland owns the land where the park sits and is a partner in the development.
For seven years Jacobs and his partner, Harry E. Figgie Jr., publicly promised to build a ritzy campus for corporate headquarters, but privately, internal memos later revealed, they spent those seven years planning to include a mall bigger than Beachwood Place. In 2001, after White learned of the mall plans, he said, "The Chagrin Highlands project has been one of the greatest swindles in Cleveland's history."
While keeping the mall plans secret, the businessmen publicly talked of the office park, persuading two governors to provide more than $100 million in tax dollars to add express lanes to Interstate 271 and to build a Chagrin Highlands interchange at Harvard Road.
Jacobs tried in 2001 to change his agreement with Cleveland and put stores in Chagrin Highlands, but White blocked the move, preserving the project as a business park. Five years later, though, the push for stores at Chagrin Highlands brought a new shopping center with Value City Furniture, Bed Bath & Beyond, OfficeMax and the region's first Filene's Basement discount clothing store.
In 1997, Forbes magazine reported Jacobs' net worth at $380 million. At one time, the firm controlled by Jacobs owned more than 40 shopping malls, six office buildings, 19 hotels and two office parks in 15 states. His company also held a chain of Wendy's restaurants in metropolitan New York. He began selling most of his real estate about the time he announced the sale of the Indians.
Born in Akron during the Great Depression, Jacobs' first job was at age 13, peeling potatoes at the venerable Swenson's drive-in in Akron. Jacobs graduated from Akron's Buchtel High School in 1943 and served in the Army during World War II. He received a bachelor's degree in business from Indiana University in Bloomington in 1949.
Jacobs is survived by his son, Jeff Jacobs, of Cleveland and Palm Beach, Fla., and daughters Nancy Jacobs, of Minneapolis, and Marilyn Jacobs Preyer, of Chapel Hill, N.C., as well as 11 grandchildren.