He was the first African American to head a Major League Baseball franchise.
What does Ulice Payne Jr. have to say about his time with the Brewers ogranization?
He sat down with WTMJ’s Libby Collins on this week’s episode of WTMJ Conversations.
A portion of the conversation was transcribed below, courtesy of eCourt Reporters, Inc.
LIBBY COLLINS: Why did you decide to go into business for yourself?
ULICE PAYNE JR: Well, you know, I was practicing, again, I was fortunate to work with some great lawyers, and I was at Foley & Lardner at the time, I chaired the International Business Team. We had 17 offices around the country, some in Europe, it was a great opportunity. But I had been appointed by Governor Thompson to the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District that was set up by law to build and operate and own the new baseball stadium. And I got very involved in that, and it was a challenge. We had a great board, and I got very involved in that, and we had some challenges to get it done. It was taxpayer money, very controversial.
And so, my participation in that got me closer to major to Major League Baseball, and we were in the American League at the time, we needed the league’s help. We went around the country trying to figure out how to build this stadium with a retractable roof, which had never been done before, you know. And so, it was in that process where, when it was over, I get a call one day from the president of the Brewers, Wendy Selig, who also used to be at Foley & Lardner by the way, she’s a very bright lawyer but went to work with her father. She came to see me, I was a managing partner at the time, and I thought it was about, you know, Brewers had some issue and we needed to give them legal advice on. And she said, no, I’d like for you to replace me. Kind of floored me.
And so, we talked about it, I’d gotten to know her during that whole stadium process, of course, and — and I thought, you know, the Lord blessed me with this opportunity. There’d never been an African-American CEO and president of a baseball — major league baseball club, and to this day still hasn’t been except for me. So, it was one of those things, I talked to my parents about it, and — well, actually, my father had passed at the time, but I talked to my mother and my aunts about it. And they said, you know, Junior, this might be for you, and it won’t be easy but, you know, if you’re up to it, give it a shot. So, that’s what made me switch.
So, I left and went to the Brewers, and that lasted a little over a year, year-and-a-half, and it was a little different working in that environment.
LIBBY COLLINS: How was it different?
ULICE PAYNE JR: Well, Major League Baseball’s a unique — like most professional leagues, they got their own rules, kind of no one — they govern themselves, put it that way, right. And, you know, how things are operated, you know, it’s not an independent — it’s independent business, but not, right.
So, it was clear after a year-and-a-half or so, I thought we made some changes that we needed to make, but, you know, change is hard for a lot of people when you’re used to one thing. We made changes we thought we needed to make to get us — you know, we were second year in the new — in the new ballpark the year they came to me, and we had lost like 106 games out of 162. And there was an assumption and belief and hope by the fans that with a new stadium that was very expensive that the team would be better, right. And so, it’s like anything else, it wasn’t because there were, you know, people didn’t try, but something tells you you have to do things differently, right. And to do things differently, you know, it’s change, and change is hard for everybody. They say, Libby, you know, the only person who likes change is a wet baby. So, you gotta know that, you know.
It was one of those things, again, I give — I thank Commissioner Selig and the Selig family for giving me an opportunity, and there were other owners too, he was just, you know, the general partner, but they had many other owners, so I got to know them. And it was just a question for me really to decide is this what I want to do, right. I was — you know, I was sort of at the top of my game as a lawyer, I was 48, which is kind of prime. And so, I knew a bit about it, I got into it, I made some changes I think that structurally were needed, you know, bringing Prince Fielder and these guys up faster and doing things with the fans, women on Wednesdays, the Hispanic broadcast, which still goes today every Saturday night, we did it first. So, those are some structural changes you just kind of needed to give people hope, right.
And then about a year after I left, not long — less than a year, the Seligs sold the team to Attanasio, who has done great. So, they continued and accelerated, right. And so, in that sense, we all have a different role, and it was clear in my role what it was, which was to make adjustment. And I could come in without any sort of inhibition, but also, I had a successful career up to then. So, I believe that walking away from it — and we agreed, walking away from it wasn’t a problem, because as I told them, I said, you know, I came into the job with my dignity, and I’ll leave it with my dignity. So, it was a mutual parting of the ways.