Three days after Christmas, Michael Gartner summoned the employees of the Iowa Cubs minor league baseball team to a staff meeting at Principal Park, the team's stadium in Des Moines, Iowa.
The team's sale to a global sports and entertainment company had closed that day, and Gartner, 83, said he wanted to give the employees their new business cards.
But there were no business cards in the envelopes that he handed out. Instead, inside were checks worth $2,000 for every year each employee had worked for the team — $600,000 in total for the 23 full-time workers.
Employees who work in maintenance, accounting, marketing and other areas received checks for $4,000 to $70,000, said Gartner, who was the team's majority owner for 22 years, until the sale closed Tuesday.
"My jaw dropped," said Alex Cohen, 33, who has been the team's radio broadcaster since 2018 and has worked in professional baseball since 2009. "It's an industry where you work really hard, and sometimes you don't get compensated like that."
Cohen described the checks as "a life-changing gesture" for some longtime staff members.
"Seeing all the people who had been there for two decades, three decades, tears streaming down their faces, it was a very special, emotional day," he said.
Gartner said Saturday that sharing proceeds from the sale "was the right thing to do."
"A lot of those people have worked for us for over 20 years, and they've helped us build a successful team," said Gartner, whose gesture was reported by Yahoo! Sports. "They're just fantastic people."
Gartner, who had owned the team with his son and three other partners, added: "They need the money more than we do. A lot of them still have mortgages and car payments and college payments."
Scott Sailor, 63, who received $46,000 for his 23 years working for the team in media relations, sales, marketing and other areas, said the checks were "not out of character" for Gartner, a businessman, lawyer and third-generation Iowa newspaperman.
A former editor of The Des Moines Register and a former president of NBC News, Gartner won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for editorial writing at The Daily Tribune of Ames, Iowa. Two years later, he bought the Iowa Cubs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, and became a fixture in the front office and in his usual seat behind home plate.
In 2020, when the minor league baseball season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, Gartner kept every full-time employee on the payroll, with benefits, Sailor said.
"The surprise was not that he was generous because that's the way he's been," said Randy Wehofer, the team's vice president and assistant general manager, who joined the club in 2008.
"We've had above-standard health insurance and 401(k) contributions, and we've always been the organization that people looked at and said, 'Gee, I wish everybody did that,' " Wehofer said. "That's always been his way, as long as I've been part of the organization."
Last month, however, the Cubs announced that the team had entered into an agreement to become part of Diamond Baseball Holdings, a subsidiary of Endeavor, a global sports and entertainment company based in Beverly Hills, California. The sale signaled the end of Gartner's local ownership.
In a list of the 30 most valuable minor league baseball teams in 2016, Forbes placed the Iowa Cubs at No. 22 and estimated the team's value at $30 million. Gartner declined to disclose the sale price.
He said he had felt less secure owning the team since 2019, when MLB proposed a major restructuring of the lower level of the minor leagues. And at 83, he said, "I just decided it was time."
Gartner said he hoped that his former employees would stay with the Iowa Cubs and that the checks would help persuade them not to look for jobs elsewhere.
"You know their spouses, and you know their kids," Gartner said. "You see them at the ballpark and at the office every day, and you see how hard they work and how much fun they have, and how much they enjoy it. And you want to make sure they're not tempted to go do something else."
Sailor said he had used part of his check to give his nephew and two nieces "very nice Christmas gifts" this year: $2,000 checks of their own.
Dustin Halderson, 32, a stadium operations manager who is getting married in two months, said his $16,000 check gave him "some stability."
"It was nice to feel good about the work I put in and that they recognized it," Halderson said. "The bonus was unexpected and just so nice."