John Wilmer Galbreath, the man who pulled off one of the great coups in American racing history, is an ebullient real estate tycoon who plans projects of mammoth and glittering proportions while riding in an airplane and works a 14-hour day with a hyperthyroid drive that would sap the energies of most normal men at the end of an hour. Smallish (5 feet 8 inches), he is an essentially unpretentious, even diffident man with simple, direct ways and a penchant for financial orthodoxy. Practically the only thing he shares in common with the other self-made moneymakers of his day is his almost pathological distaste for failure—a fact which serves to underscore a paradox in Galbreath's life. Since 1950 he has been the president and the majority stockholder in the Pittsburgh Pirates.
John Galbreath broods about the Pirates often. Even after last year's second-place finish in the National League, they remain the one imperfect operation of his entire career.
"The frustrating thing about baseball," Galbreath said morosely not long ago, "is that unlimited money and untiring efforts don't solve problems. I spent three times more than I ever intended to put into my team, and for eight years the living hell was irritated out of me by a ball club that was the doormat of the league. They told me this year I had a shot at the pennant, but I've been hit over the head so often I don't dare dream of winning."
The Pirates alone have thrown a monkey wrench into a career that led from a humble Ohio farm to the leadership of a realty and construction empire with an estimated annual volume exceeding $100 million. Galbreath was the prime mover, among other things, behind the $43 million, 45-story Socony Mobil skyscraper in New York, the largest building erected anywhere in the world since 1933. Galbreath, who prides himself on finding simple solutions to complicated problems, met the rigorous conditions laid down by the trustees of the Robert W. Goelet estate, which owned the choice square block diagonally opposite Grand Central Terminal, and plucked out the lushest plum in a quarter century with a cash outlay of only $650,000.
May 31, 1959
While this was undoubtedly the outstanding single achievement of his career, Galbreath takes his greatest pride in a quite different operation. He pioneered—and is still leader of—the movement to rehabilitate the festering eyesore of the company town, and in doing so brought home ownership to tens of thousands of families. Nothing he has done has ever given him more satisfaction.
Oddly, Galbreath is almost unknown to the public as a tycoon. It is for his activities in sport that he has won fame in America. Balanced almost equally with his ownership of horses and the Pirates in the public mind is his partisanship for Ohio State football teams. The office of John W. Galbreath & Co. in Columbus, Ohio is dominated by] photographs of four players. Three enshrined heroes are former Ohio State stars—Chick Harley, the school's first All-America in 1916; Vic Janowicz, the 1950 Heisman Trophy winner; and John Borton, a member of the 1954 team that won in the Rose Bowl. The fourth player got in on a pass. He is Daniel Galbreath, Amherst '50. "Danny was just a run-of-the-mine fullback," his father says apologetically, "but he's the best athlete we've ever had in the family, so I put him in my little Hall of Fame."
Sometimes accused of being a frustrated athlete himself, Galbreath laughs uproariously at the idea. "Sports are strictly a diversion to me," he says. "I strained for 30 years to pull myself up by the bootstraps. I'm in a position to enjoy myself now, and nothing gives me more pleasure than sports."
Actually, Galbreath was the shortstop on his high school team at Mount Sterling, a little town 25 miles south of Columbus, and he played in the outfield at Ohio University for two years. Married in 1921, he has two children, Danny, now learning his father's business, and Joan, who is married to James Phillips and has four children. Galbreath's first wife died in 1946. In 1955 he married Dorothy Bryan Firestone, a distinguished sportswoman in her own right, who was the widow of Russell Firestone, son of the tire-company founder.
Galbreath got into baseball in 1946 when he invested a modest $400,000 in a four-man syndicate that purchased the Pirates for over $2 million. His associates were Frank E. McKinney, an Indianapolis banker and politico who was the majority stockholder; Bing Crosby, who bought—and still holds—a 15% interest; and Thomas P. Johnson, a Pittsburgh attorney. Galbreath's share was less than 20%—but not for long.
Three years later, after the syndicate had spent $5 million to rehabilitate both the Pirates and their dilapidated ball park, and had furthermore been skinned alive in a deal with Branch Rickey, then the resident genius in Brooklyn, McKinney escaped to the comparative safety of Indiana politics, selling his interest in the team to Galbreath in July 1950. Galbreath wound up with 70% of the stock and the presidency of a team rooted in the cellar. His first move was to hire Branch Rickey as his general manager.
Rickey tore the organization apart, expanded the scouting staff from five to 15 men and signed 425 players (the year before the Pirates had signed 12). He got rid of his few stars and played young ballplayers who weren't ready for the majors, theorizing that they would develop under forced pressure. The memory of that policy still makes Galbreath grimace.
"The program was better than anything in sight and I went along with it," he said, "but there was one complication I didn't anticipate. Our teams were so bad we antagonized the fans." In 1954, with the Pirates languishing in the cellar for the third successive season Galbreath told Rickey the gravy train was over. Rickey held out for two more years before surrendering his General manager's job to Joe L. Brown.
"A lot of people think I stayed too long with Rickey," Galbreath reflects today, "but I don't know. I've been knocking my brains out trying to figure why Rickey's system functioned so well for 30 years in St. Louis and Brooklyn but flopped in Pittsburgh. We gave contracts to more than a thousand kids in four years, but only two, Dick Groat and Bill Mazeroski, really made the grade. I just don't know the answer. If I did, I'd be a happier man."
Richer, too. Between 1952 and 1956, according to the figures revealed by the House Judiciary Subcommittee investigating baseball, the Pirates' net loss was $1,537,303.
Galbreath, however, believes that the game has taught him one thing: patience. "When you start from scratch as I did," he says, "it takes a long time for a team to ripen on the vine. Boy, you've got to have patience, even if it kills you."