Schott was born in Cincinnati, one of five daughters of Charlotte and Edward Henry Unnewehr. Her father grew wealthy in the lumber business. She attended parochial schools and graduated from the Sacred Heart Academy. While in college, Marge Schott became a member of Theta Phi Alpha fraternity. She married Charles Schott, a member of a wealthy Cincinnati family, in 1952, and inherited his automobile dealerships and interests in other industries when he died of a heart attack in 1968. A widow at 39, Marge Schott never remarried and had no children of her own.
Schott had been a Reds fan for most of her life; from 1963 onward, she held an auction to raise money for the Cincinnati Children's Hospital, attended by several Reds players. In 1981, Schott bought a minority interest in the Reds as part of a group headed by insurance magnates William and James Williams. On December 21, 1984, she purchased a controlling interest for a reported $11M, making her managing general partner, and becoming the first woman to buy an MLB team. In 1985, she was named president and CEO of the club. Five years later, the Reds won the World Series, when they swept the Oakland Athletics.
Schott quickly became one of baseball's most publicly visible owners. The Reds had long been a family-oriented franchise, and fans praised her efforts to keep ticket and concession prices low. For instance, she kept the price of the basic hot dog at one dollar, and kept box seats around $12—the cheapest in baseball. Unlike most owners, she sat in a regular box seat at Riverfront Stadium, and often signed autographs. Despite not having any children of her own, she often allowed groups of children on the field to run to deep center field and back. She was also noted for always having Schottzie, her pet Saint Bernard, with her.
She was also criticized for not spending the money it would have taken to build the Reds into contenders. This "cheap" attitude was sometimes conveyed in her own statements. She would publicly comment on occasion about having to pay players while they were on the disabled list, notably World Series hero José Rijo (who had an elbow injury), about whom she once complained of "paying three million dollars to sit on his butt!"
On November 13, 1992, Charles "Cal" Levy, a former marketing director for the Reds, stated in a deposition for Tim Sabo, a former employee who was suing the team, that he'd heard Schott refer to then-Reds outfielders Eric Davis and Dave Parker as "million-dollar niggers." Sabo, whose position was "team controller," alleged that his 1991 firing was due to testifying against Schott in another lawsuit brought against Schott by several limited partners and because he opposed the unwritten policy of not hiring blacks. Schott's countersuit alleged that Sabo wrote unauthorized checks to himself and paid health insurance premiums to retired front-office employees. She asked for $25,000 in damages for defamation. Sabo ultimately lost his suit.
Levy, who is Jewish, alleged that Schott kept a Nazi swastika armband at her home and claims he overheard her say "sneaky goddamn Jews are all alike." The next day, Schott issued a statement saying the claims of racism levied against her were overstated and that she did not mean to offend anyone with her statement or her ownership of the armband. Schott explained that the swastika armband had been a gift from a former employee.
On November 29, Schott said the "million-dollar niggers" comment was made in jest, but then stated that she felt that Adolf Hitler was initially good for Germany and did not understand how the epithet "Jap" could be offensive.
During the same season, a former Oakland Athletics executive assistant, Sharon Jones, is quoted in The New York Times as having overheard Schott state: "I would never hire another nigger. I'd rather have a trained monkey working for me than a nigger," before the start of an owners' conference call.
A four-man committee was convened to investigate Schott. On February 3, 1993, she was fined $250,000 and banned from day-to-day operations of the Reds for the 1993 season. Jim Bowden took over as managing partner. Schott returned to work on November 1.
On May 18, 1994, during a speech before the Ohio County Treasurers Association, Schott commented that she did not want her players to wear earrings because "only fruits wear earrings." She said, "I was raised to believe that men wearing earrings are fruity." Up to 1999, the Reds had a long-standing rule prohibiting players from having facial hair. The rule was rescinded after a discussion between Schott and newly acquired outfielder Greg Vaughn.
In 1995, Schott famously announced in the middle of the season that manager Davey Johnson would not return, regardless of how well the Reds did. By all accounts, this was because of a personality clash between Johnson and Schott. Most notably, Schott did not approve of Johnson living with his fiancée before they were married later in the year. The Reds won the division (before losing the National League Championship Series to the Atlanta Braves, 4 games to 0), and Johnson was fired anyway.
The Reds traditionally played the first game of the season at home. On April 1, 1996 they played the Montreal Expos. The weather was cold and blustery and it had snowed earlier in the day. Shortly after the game started, home plate umpire John McSherry called a time out and motioned towards the Reds dugout, it was later presumed, for medical attention. After taking a few steps, McSherry collapsed and fell to the artificial turf face first. Attempts to resuscitate McSherry failed and he was pronounced dead at University Hospital about an hour later. The other umpires decided to postpone the game until the next day. Video showed Schott visibly upset that the game was to be postponed; reportedly she groused: "Snow this morning and now this. I don't believe it. I feel cheated. This isn't supposed to happen to us, not in Cincinnati. This is our history, our tradition, our team. Nobody feels worse than me." Schott later insisted that she was standing up for the fans; critics saw her comments as insensitive. Schott reportedly offended major league umpires in general—and members of McSherry's crew specifically—by regifting a bouquet of flowers given to her, adding a sympathy note and sending it on to the funeral home. During the team's next homestand, Schott attempted to smooth over the feud with the umpires, apologizing to them—despite none of them being in attendance at the game in question, only to have them refuse the gesture.
Schott was the target of frequent criticism for allegedly allowing her ever-present St. Bernards, Schottzie and Schottzie 02, near complete free rein of Riverfront Stadium, including their defecating on the field.
Schott was known for not wanting to hire scouts, stating that "All they do is sit around and watch ball games," and wanting not to post scores of other games on the Riverfront Stadium scoreboard (the cost of this service was $350/month). Schott said of the scoreboard issue, "Why do [fans] care about one game when they're watching another?"
On an airplane, Marge Schott was allegedly approached by a woman who introduced herself as Edd Roush's granddaughter. Schott then replied, "That's nice hon, what business is he in?" Roush is a Hall of Fame center fielder who had many of his greatest years with the Reds. The New York Times later dubbed her "Baseball's Big Red Headache."
On May 5, 1996, Schott aroused ire when she made statements favorable of Adolf Hitler, saying he "was good in the beginning, but went too far." MLB again banned Schott from day-to-day operations through 1998. Later in the month, Schott was quoted in Sports Illustrated as speaking in a "cartoonish Japanese accent" while describing her meeting with the prime minister of Japan. Further, she said that she did not like Asian American kids "outdoing our kids" in high school.
On April 20, 1999, Schott agreed to sell her controlling interest in the Reds for $67 million to a group led by Cincinnati businessman Carl Lindner. At the time she was facing a third suspension, failing health and an expiring ownership agreement with her limited partners, who planned to oust her. Schott remained as a minority partner.
In addition to her interest in the Reds, Schott was a major contributor to charitable organizations in Cincinnati, including Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and the Cincinnati Zoo, where they named an Asian elephant after her, Schottzie, also an elephant preserve, as well as Saint Ursula Academy in East Walnut Hills. She is recognized for her major donation to the local Dan Beard Council of the Boy Scouts of America that was used to create an 18-acre (7.3 ha) lake at Camp Friedlander. The lake was christened Lake Marge Schott.
Marge Schott was also a generous contributor to special events at the University of Cincinnati such as the annual Homecoming Parade. Marge Schott Stadium at UC is named in her honor.
In 2001, Schott, a long-time smoker, began to develop health problems. She was hospitalized twice for breathing problems and suffered from pneumonia in 2003. On February 9, 2004, Schott was hospitalized. Some reports claim she was hospitalized due to a cold while others said she complained of knee ailments. However, during her stay, she developed breathing problems and had to be put on life support. She died at age 75 at The Christ Hospital, in Cincinnati.
Schott's funeral was held at All Saints Catholic Church in the Cincinnati suburb of Kenwood. She was interred at Gate of Heaven Cemetery wearing her signature red suit with elephant lapel pin.