One of my favorite sports interviews didn't take place in a dugout, a football locker room or a musty old gym.
To find this Hall of Famer, I had to go to the Kiewit Plaza in midtown Omaha.
The security guard at the front desk had me sign in. Then, he called upstairs to let them know I had arrived. I was given a number to push on the elevator, which was programmed to go to the specific floor.
Once I got off the elevator, a voice over a loudspeaker called me over to a door labeled “Berkshire Hathaway.” The lock on the door was released, and I went in to find Warren Buffett.
Buffett, of course, is chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, which now owns The Omaha World-Herald Co., the company for which I work. It occurred to me recently that with Berkshire's recent run of newspaper acquisitions, Buffett might be interested in talking sports with a newspaper columnist. I asked. He said yes. And there I was.
The office had a stately feel, an old-world look you'd find on Wall Street or an important law firm. Buffett was on the phone, so I sat in the small waiting area. And I could have sat there for hours.
The first thing visitors see is that the most important financial mind in the world is one whale of a sports fan.
Inside two large display cases are mementos that any man cave or sports bar would be proud to show.
Footballs signed by Tom Osborne, Bobby Bowden, Jim Tressel, Bill Snyder, Roger Staubach, Chase Daniel and Jeff Jagodzinski.
Baseballs signed by Ernie Banks, Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Whitey Herzog and Albert Pujols. A Kansas City Chiefs helmet signed by Charlie Weis. A Michigan helmet signed by Bo Schembechler.
A Lakers jersey signed by Kobe Bryant. A Cleveland Cavaliers jersey signed by LeBron James. A boxing glove signed by Muhammad Ali.
And that's just the reception area.
Down one hall was a collage of old baseball photos on the wall, including Buffett heroes Stan Musial and Ted Williams. There's a photo of Buffett and Tiger Woods, from the time Buffett caddied for Woods — a classic story I ask Buffett about below.
There's a photo of Paul Hornung with Vince Lombardi, which Hornung signed to Buffett, “You and Lombardi would have been famous friends.”
In one of Berkshire's offices, on two shelves, there were basketballs autographed by Pat Summitt and John Calipari and footballs autographed by Mike Stoops and Kirk Ferentz.
Finally, in the break room, a framed Alex Rodriguez Yankees jersey hangs on the wall next to the refrigerator. Buffett explained that during one of A-Rod's visits, the superstar just tossed a game-worn jersey on Buffett's chair. Buffett is still trying to find a better spot on the Berkshire walls to display it.
“We should open up a sporting goods store here,” Buffett joked.
There's only one sports memento in Buffett's personal office. An old, wooden replica of a baseball glove sits on a table.
For more than an hour Wednesday afternoon Buffett put aside annual business reports and talked sports. He waxed nostalgic and gave frank opinions about the games today. He talked about his love for Nebraska football and friendships with Osborne and Bob Gibson.
There was a twinkle in his eye as he talked about how, as a 10-year-old, he sneaked in to see an Omaha U. football game at Benson High.
Buffett also addressed a recent World-Herald report that said at least a portion of the ownership of the Omaha Storm Chasers, of which he is a partial owner, may soon be changing hands. He said he expects it to happen soon. While he couldn't say who will own the club, he said he met the person who would be the lead buyer.
He also expects the club to stay in Omaha.
He gave his opinion on whether Omaha could ever support a major-league franchise. And he was forthright on the topic of why he doesn't choose to contribute directly to University of Nebraska sports.
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Question: Did you have a favorite player growing up?
Answer: Stan “The Man” Musial. When I was 11 years old and reading The World-Herald every night, I just started reading about him. He was going 3 for 4 every night. I just got interested in him. I was at the exact right age to develop a superhero. And he never let you down. Staying with one team, too, was big. I became a Cardinals fan.
Q: Ever meet him?
A: Yes. He came back for the Bob Gibson golf tournament here several years ago. We were supposed to go to Bob's house in Bellevue afterwards and I had Stan come with me. We had to stop on the way because we got lost. Stan got out of the car, and asking for directions stuck his hand out to meet a guy mowing his lawn and said, “Hi, I'm Stan the Man.”
Q: You once had season tickets to the Washington Redskins. Are you a Redskins fan?
A: We moved to Washington, D.C., when I was in eighth grade, in 1943. My dad (Howard) was in Congress then. My older sister, Doris, dated Dudley (DeGroot) Jr., whose father was the coach of the Redskins. Sammy Baugh was playing for the Redskins. I made a pest of myself. Finally, Dudley Jr. arranged for me to be a water boy. I parlayed this younger brother pest situation into a stint as a water boy. I got onto the bench. I got to see Sammy Baugh in the locker room. It was great. Then my sister broke up with Dudley Jr. ... I was cut immediately.
Q: Do you follow sports?
A: I wasn't good at any. But I was a sports nut for most of my younger life. Now they have too many teams. I don't follow it remotely like I used to. I used to get the Sporting News as a kid. You got all the minor league stuff, all the box scores.
I'm not the same way now. I go down to St. Louis probably once or twice a year. I went down for the first game of the World Series; I should have gone to that sixth game. I'm still a Cardinals fan, but it's just not what it used to be. I don't know all the players anymore.
Now, on Saturday night, I watched the fight (Pacquiao-Bradley). Before that, I watched the Celtics and the Heat play. I had that experience with LeBron. (James visited Buffett in Omaha, where they shot a video together for a Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting.) I still hear from him occasionally.
Q: What are your early memories of sports in Omaha?
A: I had two baseballs signed from games I went to. One was signed by one of the DiMaggio brothers, either Dom or Vince. I think the game was in Council Bluffs.
Back then Omaha U. played at Benson High. Another kid and I tried to sneak into the game and we got caught. The guy said, “Listen, if you'll stand out here and tell people where to park, 10 minutes after the game starts, I'll let you in.” We were out there freezing. These South Dakota State (players) got off the bus and saw these two kids freezing. They formed a circle around us and we all just walked in together. When South Dakota State wants to do something with me now, I still have a soft spot for them.
The big thrill was going to Nebraska games. And there was a guy named Al Storm. He worked for one of the railroads. He was a friend of my dad's.
We went down to a game on the train and of course we didn't pay our way. He bluffed our way on there. Then we get to the game and Al says, “You know, Warren, you just walk in front of me. Whatever you do, don't stop, don't look around, just keep walking.” We get up there and I'm walking around. Al is wearing this hat, he looks like a coach, he looks like he belongs. This ticket-taker yells at me, “Hey kid, where are you going?” Al turned to the guy and said, “That's OK, he's with me.” And we just walked in. That was my first experience with gate-crashing.
Q: What's your favorite sport to watch?
A: It would have to be college football. I still don't pay much attention to pro football. I went to a Super Bowl a couple years ago, but I still don't think there's anything better to watch than a college football game.
It used to hurt to go to those Oklahoma games. Now that I have more money, I'm usually in a box or something. But I was always outside. Not only would we lose, but I'd freeze to death. I had my heart broken many times.
Q: Do you get offers to attend major sporting events?
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A: I get offers to go to a lot of games. But I don't go very often. I've only been to two Super Bowls.
Q: As a Cardinal fan in Omaha, do you know Bob Gibson?
A: Bob Gibson and I have been good friends for just about 50 years. To the best of our memory, we met through our wives. They became friends. Then Bob and I became friends. I really like the guy. He's careful about who he makes friends with. I think we have a similar personality, say what we think. I've always liked him. This was way before his ERA got down to 1.12.
We worked on starting a bank, around 52nd and Ames. One of the things I found about the athletes, including Bob, A-Rod — they're smart guys. And it's amazing how well they handle success at an early age. They get a lot thrown at them.
Q: How did you meet Alex Rodriguez?
A: He reached out to me at one point. He wanted to talk about investing. We hit it off well. He came out twice, I guess. I ran into him at the Super Bowl. He did call me when he had that stalemate with the Yankees.
Q: What about LeBron?
A: I'm not sure how that started. He came out there to do that movie with me. We must have spent three hours together and then we went to lunch. They didn't have milkshakes or malts, so I sent someone down to Goodrich to get some. He and I have the same eating habits.
Q: Anybody else stop in?
A: Charlie Weis came by. He was terrific. I have a friend who was paralyzed in an auto accident a long time ago and he's a huge Notre Dame fan. Charlie not only gave me some things to give to him, but he actually went back to the family in New Jersey and visited them. He didn't need to do that at all. That was very impressive.
I get a lot of them that just want to talk. Billy Beane called. He's a Berkshire shareholder. He was running the A's. He was running them like Berkshire, he thought. There's a fair number of them who are shareholders.
Q: Does LeBron get a bad rap?
A: He made one mistake. Someone talked him into that ESPN thing. (His televised announcement that he'd be “taking my talents to South Beach.”) That's not him. He's a smart guy. He's a fierce competitor. He's a decent guy. I don't know who promoted that idea, but it wasn't a good idea. I like LeBron a lot. I email him occasionally.
Q: What's your relationship with Tom Osborne?
A: I know Tom quite well. We met in the mid-'70s. There's nobody I admire more than Tom and Nancy (Osborne). They are just terrific human beings. I do a thing with him every fall for Teammates (Osborne's mentoring program). He did a (video) thing for us this year (for the Berkshire meeting), where we had a team full of robots. And he sounded like Tom, too, let me tell you (laughing).
It wouldn't surprise me if he was a shareholder of Berkshire. But Tom doesn't need any financial advice. I supported him for governor. I changed my registration so I could vote in the primary for him.
Q: Did he retire from coaching too soon?
A: I think he felt obligated to (Frank) Solich. I tell you, if I had owned the team, he'd still be coach.
Q: Speaking of ownership, what's the latest with the Omaha Storm Chasers?
A: That's just coming to an end. I can't tell you. Anything has to come from them. But it's getting sold. They can't be moved anyway because of the Sarpy (lease, 25 years). That's the reason Walter (Scott) and I bought it. (They each own 25 percent of the team.) (Omaha) will always have the Storm Chasers now.
Q: Have you ever thought about owning a major league team, NFL, NBA? Have you ever tried to buy a team?
A: When I was a kid, I would have said the first thing I would have done when I got some money was own a sports team. But if you live in Omaha ... who knows what I would have done if I lived in a city where there was a major league team? I get called on every one of them, in the last 20 years. But I just don't have any interest in it.
You could live here and own a team somewhere else, but I wouldn't identify with it. I don't need it for the money, so I would do it to identify with it. And here, I identify with Nebraska football.
Q: Who recently has asked for your interest?
A: I can't name them. When the Texas Rangers came up, someone called me. Nolan Ryan came up one year. It wasn't for that. We watched the College World Series together.
He was terrific. I talked to Nolan about this; I have this feeling they pull pitchers too fast. I told Nolan, it would be real interesting to take your record, or Bob Feller or Bob Gibson or Walter Johnson, and take the batting average of the opposing team from the seventh to the ninth inning compared to one through six and see if they really did weaken in the late innings. I don't believe they did, and he agreed with me on that.
Q: Could Omaha support a team?
A: I don't think so. It's just a question of TV revenues. Money comes from the cable TV revenues now, and you just wouldn't have the money there. You'd have everyone enthused here, but it wouldn't have the cable revenue. Kansas City and those towns are three times as big and they don't compare to the revenue that the Yankees have.
Oklahoma City has pulled that off. It could be (an NBA or NHL team), but to some extent, people in the state identify very much with Creighton basketball and Nebraska football. We have our teams. To succeed in a smaller market, I think you would need that market to identify with whatever that team was. Everything else would have to be secondary. I don't think I would have much luck pulling away from Cornhusker football.
Q: Many Husker fans would like to see you do what Boone Pickens does for Oklahoma State. They wonder why you can't write Husker football a big check.
A: Generally speaking, the message I give to (Buffett's foundations) is to give to the people who don't have a natural funding constituency. Nebraska football has a natural funding constituency.
Boone's a pretty good friend of mine. He's invited me to some games down there, and they were pretty good games. But that's what interests him. I say more power to him.
Dan Cook wants to give money to Nebraska football. That's terrific. It has a lot of appeal. If it had no appeal, I might put it on the list.
(Buffett also pointed out that his foundations do contribute to NU, but it is unlikely the football program derives any benefit. He said funding through his foundations has aided “a couple thousand” students in need going back to the 1960s.)
Q: How many Nebraska football games do you get to these days?
A: Maybe two or maybe three a year now. I'm in the box. I'm not outside anymore. I went through that. I was down at Nebraska when Tom Novak played, and who was that guy from Grand Island who was so damned good? Bobby Reynolds. The stands weren't very full, either.
Q: Are you a bowl guy or college playoff guy?
A: I like the playoffs. If the top four played it down to one, that would be good. You have to settle these things. That year we were co-No. 1 with Michigan, that's no fun.
Q: How's your golf game?
A: I haven't played for two years. I played a lot when I was a kid. I used to go to Elmwood Park. A friend of mine who I used to play with came back to town and wanted to play Elmwood. I told him we had to start on No. 2 and finish on No. 17 because that's how we used to do it, sneaking on the course.
Q: Are you a member of Augusta National? Do you go to the Masters every year?
A: I do belong to Augusta. I haven't played there in awhile. I probably joined more than 15 years ago. Maybe it was 20 years ago. I honestly don't know how it happened. One day someone called and said, “You're a member.” I would only go down a couple times a year. I've never gone to the Masters. I get these tickets, I give them to my friends. I can see it better on TV. If I go there, I'm going to be sitting on one hole. If you told me 50 years ago I would be putting on a green jacket, I would have thought for sure I'd go. But your perspective changes as you move through life.
Q: If you could trade places with one athlete over history for one day, who would it be?
A: There would be a lot of them. Arnold Palmer making one of those long putts to win a major. Grover Cleveland Alexander staggering out to the mound to strike someone out. Everybody fantasizes about doing something like that. I also realized it was a fantasy when I got out there and tried to hit the ball. I played, but I was never any good. My destiny was sealed early. My eyes were lousy, so I was always having to wear glasses in whatever I was doing. I wasn't the last guy chosen, but I wasn't the first, either.
Q: I need to hear the Tiger Woods story.
A: I caddied for him at an event at Isleworth a few years back. It was part of an auction. Of course, I didn't actually carry the bag. I drove a cart around.
We got to the 18th hole, 460-yard par-4. He said, “Warren, I understand you play this game.” I said, “Well, we're not talking about the same game.” He said, “Nobody goes on the course with me and doesn't play me for money.”
I said, “What kind of money?” He said, “Serious money.” I said, “What's serious money?” He said, “Five dollars.”
I said, “That's serious.” And so I took him up on it.
I'm not exaggerating when I say he got down on his knees and he hit the ball 260 yards. That's when I said, “OK, you win.” And I gave him the five bucks.
But then I said, “Tiger, you're forgetting something.” He said, “What?”
I said, “Caddies get 10 percent.”
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