July 8, 2009
Jamie McCourt —From Minsk to Maccabiah
Attention, baseball fans!
When the baseball competition of the 18th Maccabiah opens on July 14 at 3 p.m. in Tel Aviv’s Sportech Tzafon, Jamie McCourt will have the honor of pitching the first ball.
A woman throwing the first pitch at the eagerly awaited Israel vs. United States opener? A McCourt at the all-Jewish Olympics?
Not to worry. Jamie McCourt is as Jewish as they come, and as president and CEO of the Los Angeles Dodgers she knows more about the game than 95 percent of American men.
The idea of throwing out the first ball is “beyond fantastic,” she said, but her involvement in the Maccabiah, which runs from July 12-23, isn’t limited to ceremonial pitches.
The Dodgers are underwriting the entire cost of the baseball tournament and donating a boatload of Dodger tote bags, caps, T-shirts, tattoos, pocket schedules and notepads to outfit the players, coaches, umpires and a thousand lucky fans.
McCourt, considered the most powerful woman in American sports, declined to give a dollar figure for this largesse, but she agreed that it was “substantial.”
She was recruited for the cause by Los Angeles real estate developer Steve Soboroff, who enlisted 30 top business and entertainment industry leaders to raise a total of $1.5 million, with additional revenues expected.
His committee also arranged for widespread television coverage of the games in the United States and 43 other countries through Jewish Life TV (JLTV.tv).
As official VIPs, the Los Angeles philanthropists will have front-row seats at major events, meet with President Shimon Peres, visit the Tel Nof Air Force Base and award medals to some of the winning athletes.
McCourt, who has become an ardent Californian since moving here in 2004, is not surprised by the successful effort of the local support group. “Los Angeles always steps up to the plate,” she said. “We put our money where our mouth is.”
The day before she left for Israel, the petite, blond McCourt sat down for breakfast at the Bel Air Hotel with a reporter. Immediately a waiter materialized and reproached McCourt, “You kept me up late last night.”
That’s when the Dodgers eked out a victory over the Colorado Rockies in the 13th inning, after a game that ran more than four hours.
McCourt was born Jamie Luskin in Baltimore, the descendant of a grandfather from Minsk who opened a kosher food market in the new country, and a grandmother from a town along the ever-changing German-Polish border.
Her parents owned an appliance discount store, but lost everything in the early 1930s, and “I grew up with a Depression mentality,” McCourt said.
The Luskin home was non-religious but ardently Zionist. “I was an odd kid — I actually loved Hebrew school,” she said.
Both a multitasker and single-minded from childhood on, 7-year-old Jamie played shortstop on the neighborhood team, while telling her parents that she planned to buy a baseball team and park when she grew up.
Although she didn’t know it at the time, the plan edged closer to reality when the 17-year-old freshman at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., met an 18-year-old fellow student named Frank McCourt, whose roots were in Boston’s Irish Catholic community.
Frank and Jamie married after an eight-year courtship, extended by a “meltdown” on the part of the bride’s parents, who declined to attend their daughter’s wedding.
“It was like a scene from ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” Jamie McCourt recalled.
In the meantime, she continued her education with a bachelor’s degree in French from Georgetown, a law degree from the University of Maryland, a master’s degree in business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, interspersed with semesters at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Sorbonne in Paris.
At MIT, she proposed writing her thesis on a model for buying and developing a professional baseball team, but the topic was turned down by each of her professors.
After marriage, Frank and Jamie McCourt became full business partners in developing a Boston-based real estate empire. In 2004, they bought the Dodgers franchise for a reported $421 million-$431 million, with Jamie running mainly the business side of the operation.
One of her first acts was to affix a mezuzah to Dodger Stadium.
She has also devoted a lot of time to creating the Dodgers WIN, or Women’s Initiative Network, to involve women, who make up 40 percent of the team’s fan base, in both the social and athletic sides of the game.
Not the least of her jobs has been to raise four sons — Drew, Travis, Casey and Gavin — ranging in ages from 19 to 27, and imbuing them with a sense of her own Jewish and Zionist values.
Drew had his bar mitzvah in Jerusalem, and the three younger ones at Brandeis University.
The Maccabiah trip will be McCourt’s fifth visit to Israel. The first was as a teenager on a trip organized by her Baltimore synagogue, where she learned to love the country and loathe tour buses.
The second was for her semester at the Hebrew University law school, which she also loved, though she was somewhat taken aback by a citizenry in which everyone was absolutely certain that he/she was completely right all the time.
The entire family, including her husband, holds membership in the Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills.
Not everyone is totally enamored of Jamie McCourt. Especially in the early day of her residence, Los Angeles Times sports writers took delight in labeling her as “a screaming meanie,” “a carpetbagger with no interest in Los Angeles” and even accused her of “smooching in public with her husband.”
She shrugs off these attacks as if removing a speck of lint from an immaculate black dress.
In addition to all her other activities, Jamie McCourt swims at least a mile every day and ignores the Dodger Stadium elevators in favor of walking up and down the stairs.
The effort has paid off: at 5-foot-2, McCourt weighs in at 98.5 pounds.
Asked, with considerable hesitation, about her age, she shot back, “How old do you think I am?” “45,” was this reporter’s answer.
“No, 55,” Jamie McCourt responded with a triumphant smile.
Olympic Gold Medalist Moves on to Maccabiah