Since the middle of the manic 20s Madison Square Garden has been the premier sports palace of America. Boxing, hockey and basketball, six-day bike races, horse, dog and ice shows, the circus and rodeo have for 30 years drawn throngs, sometimes in evening dress, to seamy, down-at-heels Eighth Avenue. There the Garden imposes its dingy brick and ornate concrete front on the block between 49th and 50th streets. Its setting is a drab jungle of saloons, pawnshops, tenements, cheap hotels and strip-tease costumiers. The Garden has prestige enough to permeate this ragout with its own strong flavor. The bars run to names like The Neutral Corner and Mickey Walker's Tavern. The bookstores sell not only sex-perfumed paperbacks but books on how to box.
The setting was chosen because desirable New York real estate is expensive and the Garden, though on the fringes of Hell's Kitchen, is within easy reach of Times Square and Broadway.
For all that the Garden lives in a sleazy neighborhood, it has enjoyed a dignity comparable to that of the big house in a poor section of town. Its original backers were known as "the 600 millionaires"—an exaggeration—and its directors have been men of probity and position. They earned their reputations and fortunes for the most part outside of sport but enjoyed association with it.
The average sports fan never has known or cared much about the corporate structure of the Garden or the backgrounds of the men who have run it. Most of its 15 directors had names found more readily on the financial than the sports pages. Yet last week their names leaped onto the front page: six of the 15 resigned.
June 19, 1955
Ordinarily, the business activities of these six men fail to attract Page One headlines. What made the news bannerworthy this time was the added element of James D. Norris, whose name has become increasingly important in sports and, in recent years, in Garden affairs. The Norris family has owned Garden stock for more than 15 years, but recently Jim Norris has been picking it up in ever larger amounts. With Arthur M. Wirtz, his Chicago partner, he now controls some 60%.
Although the Garden is revered by millions, to Jim Norris it is only a part of his boxing-hockey octopus centering around the International Boxing Club, of which he is president, and the three National Hockey League teams owned by Norris interests. In such an organization the Garden is becoming a tarnished link in a long chain. It has assumed the aspect of a mere part of the Norris family empire, which includes such sports arenas as the Detroit Olympia and the Chicago Stadium.
Norris, though a multimillionaire and equipped by money standards to fit into the Garden's corporate structure, is a strange departure from the old Garden ruling class. His interest in sport was nurtured by his father, a passionate hockey fan, then roiled by association with thugs to whom sport is a commodity to be adulterated for profit. From the days of his youth 48-year-old Jim Norris has been the buddy pal of thieves and killers, gamblers and fixers. He began this association with the scum of the Chicago underworld and extended his range to the garbage of New York and Miami.
Obviously, such people, though they hang around the Garden on fight nights, are not likely to know Garden directors. But they know Jim Norris.
The reasons the resigning directors gave for their action were either none or various. Bernard F. Gimbel, a fine amateur boxer in his youth, has a lifelong interest in sports. Chairman of the Garden board for 10 years, Gimbel courteously referred to a long, pleasant relationship with Norris. The department store owner said he had been thinking for years about cutting down "outside" activities.
Sidney J. Weinberg, the investment banker, made it clear, however, that Norris' control was not to his liking.
"I fundamentally believe," he said, "that a director who is beholden to one or two men is a captive director. But my resignation had nothing to do with the boxing investigation (by the New York boxing commission). Whenever a company is owned by one or two men you become a captive director."
After that, silence, except for statements by Norris, who now becomes Garden president, and echoes by General John R. Kilpatrick, who moves up from president to chairman of the board. Norris was quick to deny that the resignations stemmed from his testimony before the New York State boxing commission (SI, May 30), where he had been quick to deny that in 20 years of friendship with Frank Carbo he had ever learned how the hoodlum made a living.
A BOARD OF NINE
The new board, reduced to nine, consists of Norris; Kilpatrick; Wirtz; James I. Bush, retired utilities executive; Edward S. (Ned) Irish, executive vice president of the Garden; Daniel R. Topping, co-owner and president of the New York Yankees; Henry Crown, Chicago businessman and sole owner of the Empire State Building; Benjamin C. Milner Jr., of the law firm of Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett, which handles legal matters for the Garden; and Edwin J. Weisl, also of the law firm.
The official Norris-Kilpatrick explanation for the resignation en masse was that "the Garden board for many years has operated as a harmonious unit but it was felt that many decisions of policy on important pending matters could be effectively resolved by a smaller board...." Norris added that it would also be easier to get a quorum of five with the new, smaller board. Asked what previously constituted a quorum, he said nine. Unaware of the implication, Kilpatrick quickly corrected him. "It was five, too," he said.
Norris made it seem that he had been on the verge of requesting the directors' resignations when they beat him to the punch. Actually, no such move had been intimated. The directors who resigned did so out of resentment that Norris would have made them mere window dressing for Norris' operations. He wanted to reduce the executive committee of the board to three men—Norris, Wirtz and one other—who then would do as they pleased, regardless of what the directors wanted. The proposal was too great an indignity for the six directors and, since Norris controlled the situation, they had no recourse but to quit.
LOSING ITS LUSTER
As Norris has figured more and more prominently in the Garden management, the great arena has begun to lose its onetime luster. It is in trouble. It is named, along with Norris, Wirtz and the IBC, in a federal antimonopoly action. This is scheduled for trial in October. On its outcome may depend the very existence of the IBC, and if the IBC goes out of existence the face of televised boxing will change, perhaps for the better. Norris told the New York Daily News:
"It all depends on what happens in the government's antitrust suit. The government may say that the Garden should run its own boxing and in that case I am prepared, as president of the Garden, to do just that and dissolve the IBC."
The Garden also has reason to doubt that its lucrative Ringling Brothers circus contract will be renewed. However, five years ago Norris, Wirtz and Hopalong Cassidy, the then owners of the Cole Brothers Circus, merged with the Barnes Brothers Circus. The Garden may yet have a circus next spring—and a Jim Norris circus at that.
Another problem, which Norris never has worried deeply about, is that boxing crowds, the Garden's mainstay in its founding period, have dwindled to studio size under television.
But so they have in all fight arenas. The Garden's real problem is that it is tarred by proximity with a brush that has been dipped in boxing's dirty business. Jim Norris is the Garden's and boxing's bigwig. Boxing today is in the three-fingered grip of Norris (via the Garden and IBC), the International Boxing Guild (a mutual benefit association of managers) and Carbo, the underworld boss of boxing, powerful enough to impose his will on matchmakers and managers.
When Julius Helfand, chairman of the New York State boxing commission, questioned Norris about his long association with Carbo he may have had in mind Section 17, Paragraph (b) of the commission rules and regulations. The paragraph states: "...the commission may suspend or revoke a license or refuse to renew or issue a license, if it shall find that the applicant, or any person who is a partner, agent, employee, stockholder or associate of the applicant...has consorted or associated with bookmakers, gamblers or persons of similar pursuits...."
The Madison Square Garden of today is the third of its line to bear the name. It is 23 blocks uptown from Madison Square, where an abandoned car barn became, in 1870, Franconi's Hippodrome, later Barnum's Hippodrome when it housed P. T. Barnum's circus and finally, when William K. Vanderbilt bought the building, Madison Square Garden. The ladies and gentlemen of the National Horse Show Association held their first show there in 1883 and later, with Barnum, commissioned famous Architect Stanford White to design a new Garden in the same location. Of brick and stucco, with exterior colors of cream, buff and terra cotta, it sported a swank lobby café. Its Moorish tower was the highest edifice in the area, and its crowning glory, a roof garden, became the gathering place of café society in the early 1900's, despite the slight discouragement of the murder there of Architect White by Harry K. Thaw.
Today's Garden, built in 1925 for Tex Rickard, is far more efficient, far less glamorous. It is an office building joined to a sports arena, its ground floor let out to stores—cigars, haberdashery, shoes, hats, sporting goods—and a counter restaurant (hot dogs and a vitamin-fortified orange drink). On its second floor are the offices of Nat Fleischer's boxing magazine, The Ring, and the International Boxing Club (James D. Norris, president). Above that is mostly unrented office space and a skating rink.
Nothing to delight the eye, the Garden nonetheless is America's temple, symbolic and actual, of sports. Jim Norris runs it now.
THE SIX DIRECTORS WHO RESIGNED
SIDNEY J. WEINBERG
Partner with Goldman, Sachs and Company, investment bankers, Weinberg is a former governor of the New York Stock Exchange and a director of such companies as Cluett, Peabody & Co., Continental Can, General Cigar and General Electric.
Former ambassador to Spain and other nations, he joined with Floyd Odium of Atlas Corporation to acquire control of the Garden in 1933. Griffis is a trustee of Cornell University. A fishing buddy of resignee Gimbel, he has movie, banking interests.
WILLIAM M. GREVE
Onetime president of New York Investors, Inc. and director of many companies, he amassed a fortune. His directorships have included the Brooklyn Trust Co., Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Co. (subway), Hupp Motor Corp. and Thompson-Starrett Co.
BERNARD F. GIMBEL
Owner of the famous department stores, Gimbel is an ardent sportsman, was varsity football sub at Penn and a fine amateur heavyweight boxer. He succeeded Griffis as chairman of the Garden board in 1947 and remained so until Norris took command.
WALTER P. CHRYSLER JR.
Heir to the Chrysler automobile millions, he has headed the Chrysler Building Corporation since 1938. He produced the movie The Joe Louis Story and has from time to time owned racing stables. His collection of modern paintings is worth $1 million.
Senior partner of Hemphill, Noyes & Co., investment bankers, which Griffis helped found, he is director of the National Horse Show, which helped build the old Garden. Other Noyes firms are Southeastern Greyhound Lines and Colonial Stores.
THE RULING FAMILY OF SPORTS IS LED BY EMPEROR JAMES
Some have estimated the wealth of James Dougan Norris at a quarter of a billion dollars. That is a good $50 million more than the presumptive value of the fabulous estate left only three years ago by his father, James Norris. Mrs. Norris was left two homes—at Lake Forest, Illinois and Mattituck, Long Island. A secretary was left $30,000. The rest went in equal shares to the four children, James D. (the eldest, now aged 48), Eleanor Norris Kneibler, Bruce and Marguerite.
James D. ended up with the major voice in that portion of the quarter billion (more or less) which the Norrises have invested in the field of sports. It's a big portion. The elder Jim Norris, son of a Montreal grain dealer, played hockey fiercely for the Montreal Victorias. He made his financial start in the Chicago grain pits, extended it in rails, cattle, hotels, banks, shipping and more besides. But what he loved most was hockey and when, having built the Chicago Stadium, he decided to buy the Detroit Olympia, he took the Detroit Red Wings hockey team into his fold, too.
It was he, in fact, who started the sports colossus now lorded over by his son Jim. Young Jim, a personable 6-footer who wore a mustache in high school, never managed to get into college but hung around Colgate (with a man assigned by his father to see that he stayed on the premises) for a while. A widower, Norris commutes busily between an apartment on New York's East Side and homes in Long Island and Miami.
In the years since Norris Senior's death, there has been much trading of his sporting legacy among the Norris children. Bruce, for instance, sold his interest in the Chicago Stadium to Jim and Arthur Wirtz. In turn, Bruce bought Wirtz's one-third interest in the Detroit Olympia, leaving Bruce and Marge as sole owners of the Olympia and the Red Wings, except for a small Red Wing interest held by Eleanor. Jim owns the Chicago Black Hawks. Madison Square Garden owns the New York Rangers. Jim, Wirtz and the Garden own the International Boxing Club.
Some years ago Jim was dropped from the Social Register, although the rest of his family is still installed in that choosy roster. And Jim's stepmother has little interest in his new friends. When Wirtz's name was mentioned to her at a recent dinner party she replied vaguely: "Oh yes, that man who is a friend of James's."