Edward Simmons Irish, once the prophet of big-time basketball and now president of the worst team in the National Basketball Association, is a man virtually without casual acquaintances. Irish has enemies who suggest, "Cut the son of a gun and he won't bleed." He has friends who insist, "He's the finest buddy a man can have." But what is missing from the wide circle about the calculating, headstrong, occasionally brilliant New Yorker are the neutralists. No one is neutral about Ned Irish. No one says simply, "He's all right, I guess."
This vivid reflection of a promoter who has been a dominant figure in sports for 27 years would seem to ally him with the strongest personalities of our time, from Cus D'Amato to Nikita Khrushchev. It is the strong and strident personalities who make neutralism an untenable policy. But Irish's personality, which mixes saber-rattling with intense shyness, does not fit into a familiar pattern. Like his success, it is something that is unique and puzzling, even to his friends.
Irish was farsighted enough to take basketball out of college gymnasiums and put it into Madison Square Garden. But he does not seem to know enough about the game to run a winning team. He was a diligent newspaperman who took delight in the craft of reporting. But his relations with reporters at large and with New York reporters in particular are a model of inept press relations. He was aware of the danger of fixed college games long before they were confirmed in court, but his reaction to the 1951 scandals was alternately naive and hysterical.
Last week his comment on the current scandal was more sober: "I would have thought the boys would have learned their lesson from 1951." But he still showed no awareness that the Garden atmosphere and the presence of gamblers there might contribute to the fixes.
March 27, 1961
Ned Irish is president of the Garden, a vast, aging arena on Manhattan's underdeveloped West Side which is famous nationally for big-time sports and infamous locally for sullen ushers and 50¢ beers. On a fight night, when most of the floor is covered with removable benches, the Garden can hold almost 19,000 people and, for all the New York building boom, it remains what it was when Tex Rickard, using borrowed money, built it in 1925. The Garden is the only major indoor sports arena in the New York metropolitan area.
This is a rich and eager market, and Irish milks it mechanically and thoroughly, starting with the two teams the Garden owns. Through the Knickerbockers, for whose disastrous record he must be held responsible, he makes money. (The nearest rival team is in Philadelphia.) Through the Rangers, who have reached the National Hockey League playoffs only five times since World War II, he makes more. (The nearest rival team is in Boston.) In between these house promotions, Irish books college basketball double-headers, an ice show, professional wrestling, a horse show, track meets, a rodeo, a dog show and, occasionally, a fight. The Garden is seldom dark and, however dull the attraction, seldom empty. It is the sort of natural monopoly to warm a poor man's dreams.
Irish was once a poor man and, unquestionably, he dreamed, but his success has been a chilling, isolating thing. With few exceptions, sportswriters complain that he is arrogant and aloof. His current woes with the Knickerbockers have produced soft cries of delight throughout the NBA. It is easy to ascribe such unpopularity to a history of success, a phenomenon evidenced by the anti-Yankee bias of many New Yorkers. But Irish's unpopularity transcends resentment. One business associate calls him "the perfect mortgage forecloser."
At 55, Irish is bald, sharp-featured and thin-lipped. His voice is flat and colored by the accents of New York City. His manner is brusque and humorless; except with old and trusted friends, he creates the impression of a man preoccupied with people and things more important than the person or question he is facing at the moment. He guards his income figures fiercely, but sound estimates put his yearly take from all sources at something over $200,000, or almost a hundred times what it was when he left the newspaper business in mid-Depression.
The authorized account of Irish's emergence is probably most famous in the Bill Stern version, or Vulgate. Stern, whose fables were imposed on innocent radio listeners some 20 years ago, used to tell his audience: "The newspaperman sent to cover the game at the Manhattan College gymnasium found the gym so crowded that he had to crawl in through a window and, as he did, he ripped his best pair of pants. It was this that first led that newspaperman to dream of taking basketball out of the gyms, that prompted him to bring basketball into Madison Square Garden, to invent, yes, to invent, big-time basketball. And that man's name was [flourish of hautboys] Ned Irish."
For all its impact, this narration is weakened by several considerations, including fact. Irish did put basketball into the Garden on a regular basis, but the original idea was not his. He insists that he ripped his trousers, but Lou Black, now head of the Associated Press Sports Bureau in New Haven, Conn., covered the overcrowded Manhattan game with him and is not sure that anyone's clothing was torn, or that Irish's subsequent thoughts advanced beyond the usual newspaperman's complaint: "Something ought to be done about this mess."
Irish had worked as a student sports correspondent at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn and at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was enrolled for a business course. Through a variety of promotions, which ranged from organizing a job-placement service to selling sheet music after musical comedy performances staged by The Masque and Wig, he earned as much as $100 a week while still an undergraduate at Penn, but sportswriting, rather than a business career, appealed to him. He wanted to be a good newspaperman, he said, and when he graduated he went to work for the New York World-Telegram at $60 a week, a sum he supplemented as publicity man for the New York football Giants.
For a few years Irish was just one of the brigade of sportswriters working in and around New York City. He was a good reporter, but at a time when W. O. McGeehan and Damon Runyon were gracing New York sports pages, no one noticed his writing style, which was adequate and undistinguished. Perhaps aware of this limitation, he began devoting more time to inside work—writing headlines, planning layouts, performing the important, anonymous jobs without which no newspaper can exist.
Basketball then was an unprofitable sport both for the colleges, with their small gyms, and for the promoters who matched pro teams in armories and in dance halls. Joe Lapchick, now head coach at St. John's and once the center of the Original Celtics, recalls, "The guys who played for the Celtics made a little money. The man who managed the team got free bus rides."
Start of the boom
The first evidence of basketball's ultimate potential was provided by the late Mayor Jimmy Walker during dark Depression winters, when Walker, trying to raise funds for unemployment relief, organized a committee of sportswriters to promote basketball benefits in Madison Square Garden. On Jan. 19, 1931 a college triple-header drew a capacity house; on Feb. 22, 1933 a seven-game program that ran both afternoon and night attracted a total of 20,000. Big-time basketball had been born. Irish attended the birth as junior member of the sportswriters' committee.
Afterward, a number of people approached the late General John Reed Kilpatrick, president of the Garden, with schemes for promoting basketball regularly. "We were more interested in ability than in security," Kilpatrick said later. "We wanted someone with a concrete program."
When Irish approached Kilpatrick, he had both a plan of his own and backing, apparently from the late Tim Mara, owner of the football Giants. Irish proposed to run college basketball as a concession, which is how large arenas customarily run parking lots, but is not how they customarily run permanent bookings. As concessionaire, Irish guaranteed the Garden $4,000, which was then the average cost of renting the arena for one night. He would handle scheduling, control tickets and direct the necessary publicity. The Garden was to share in profits above the guarantee on a percentage basis. Kilpatrick agreed, and under terms of the contract Garden basketball was established as Irish's dominion and was to remain his dominion as long as he met the minimum of $4,000 a night.
On Dec. 29, 1934 Irish matched NYU against Notre Dame, and this game, which began a rousing rivalry that ran for 23 years, attracted 16,188 fans. It brought the Garden something in excess of $4,000 and brought Irish roughly the equivalent of six months' pay at the paper. Suddenly, Irish's future was as big as basketball's.
On Irish's terms
He could not quite believe what had happened. When the Telegram refused his request for a leave, he quit, but he clung to his job with the Giants as a hedge against the day when his promotions might end as abruptly as they had begun.
They did not end, because both fortune and opportunism were on his side. With strong squads from NYU, City College, Long Island University and St. John's serving as Garden home teams, plus the freshness of a fine sport's first blossoming, the 1930s were exciting times for college basketball. Irish had bottled the excitement and, as a concessionaire, he was accountable to no one for his methods. Any athletically ambitious college—which is to say, most major colleges in the U.S.—that wanted the attention of a Garden showing had to play for Irish on Irish's terms and on the date he assigned it. A few athletic directors grumbled over the college's cut ($500 on sellout nights in some cases), but Irish was Congress, court and executive of big-time basketball. "My terms," he reminded athletic directors, "or go back to your gyms." Yet for all the strength of his position, for all his seeming assurance, the emperor of basketball doubled as a football press agent and kept on doubling until 1940.
Irish's instant success created instant arrogance. Except for a few reporters (Tom Meany, then of the Telegram, Arthur Daley of the Times), Irish walled himself off from his old newspaper associates. Lou Black, who had moved to New Haven, found himself involved in a Garden ticket mixup and wrote Irish a letter of explanation. "Ned's reaction," Black remembers, "was that he was no longer a newspaperman but now an executive, who wanted to know from nothing, from nobody."
For 15 years Irish's successes were continuous and unrelieved, and although he antagonized some college officials and newspapermen, the worst anyone could say about him was that he had a sneer of cold command. Strangely, when trouble found him, it seemed to concentrate on the weaknesses in his makeup.
The first basketball-fix scandal, which broke at the Garden in 1951, called for humility and genius at public relations. Irish possesses neither. The scandal, which struck in many places, like a soap opera, involved at least six colleges, four of them in New York City, and 33 players.
Twenty-one of the players pleaded guilty to "dumping"; 10 others, beyond the jurisdiction of New York District Attorney Frank Hogan, admitted their guilt. Some players and bribers were sentenced to prison, and the careers of several coaches were ruined. This whole affair killed big-time college basketball in New York for many years.
"Underlying the scandal," Hogan said in a formal report, "was the blatant commercialism which had permeated college basketball. What once had been a minor sport had been hippodromed into a big business."
But Irish, the chief hippodromer, refused to accept any responsibility, though the presence of gamblers at Garden games was as obvious in those days as major league baseball scouts are at an NCAA tournament. (In the years since the scandals, any sophisticated fan has been able to spot gamblers at a Garden college or pro basketball game.) Irish went so far as to accuse Frank Hogan of timing his arrests during the scandals for publicity purposes.
The 1951 scandal scarred and shocked, but it passed. The New York Knickerbockers, while hardly as dramatic a problem as corruption, are a continuing headache. When the Basketball Association of America, ancestor of the NBA, was organized in 1946, the plan was to create a pro basketball big league. Irish, with the Garden in his pocket, was assured of admission, but he did have one competitor in Max Kase, a popular newspaperman who is sports editor of the New York Journal-American.
The dozen men attending the organizational meeting appointed Maurice Podoloff, now the NBA president, as temporary chairman, and Podoloff began with a short talk, loosely lifted from the ceremony of marriage. "I'm going to call on each prospective member in turn," he said, "and if anyone else has an objection, let him speak now or forever hold his peace."
Irish gets the franchise
Podoloff then called representatives of cities about which there was no dispute—Cleveland, Philadelphia and so on—until the unborn league was 10 teams strong and only New York remained unsettled.
"I represent a corporation with more than $3.5 million in assets," Irish began his speech.
Kase later outlined a scheme for a team that would play in a Manhattan armory. "Three and a half million," Irish broke in from time to time. When the matter was put to a vote, Irish, or Madison Square Garden, won handily.
"But," recalls an owner, "Irish also won a lot of resentment with his patronizing big-money talk. We didn't need him to tell us about Madison Square Garden."
From this sour start, Irish proceeded to sour matters further. He immediately insisted that the home team keep all the receipts, an arrangement ideal for the Garden but brutal for owners stuck with small arenas who'd been hoping for paydays in New York.
When the BAA swallowed the old National Basketball League in 1949, the temporary result was a 17-team hodgepodge, including an entry representing Moline, Ill., Rock Island, Ill., and Davenport, Iowa which was called Tri-Cities and was run by Ben Kerner, who now runs the St. Louis Hawks. Irish promptly told Kerner that he was not going to cheapen his marquee "by putting 'Tri-Cities' up there."
"O.K.," Kerner said, "but when we play you at home, we're not gonna put New York on our marquee."
Consistently during this period, Irish announced that unless things went his way he was going to pull out of the league. "The way college basketball draws," he confided, "the Knicks are nothing but a tax write-off anyway."
Tax write-off or not, Irish wanted the Knicks to win, and he hired Joe Lapchick as coach. While Lapchick ran tactics and the bench, Irish ran power plays behind the scenes. After the season of 1948-49, Irish decided to bolster the Knicks with both Vince Boryla, an itinerant collegian, and Ernie Vandeweghe, probably the best basketball player ever to attend Colgate. Under the complicated draft rules of the NBA he probably could have landed one or the other, but not both. "If I don't get both, the Knicks will have to fold," he told the other owners. He got both.
When he heard bright reports on Harry Gallatin, a blond forward at Northeast Missouri State Teachers, Irish concluded that he had to have Gallatin, too. He signed him, although Gallatin had finished only two years of college and, supposedly, was not eligible to be signed.
When he saw Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton bull his way toward rebounds for the Harlem Globetrotters, Irish told Abe Saperstein, the proprietor of the Globetrotters, that he wanted to buy Clifton.
The Globetrotters' regular bookings at the Garden are not only profitable for Saperstein but give the team valuable big-city exposure. Saperstein didn't have to be told the facts of life.
"I'll be glad to let you have Clifton—and, by the way, how's the family?" Saperstein said, in effect.
Each of these maneuvers enraged Irish's NBA colleagues.
After nine years and seven first-division finishes, Lapchick, grown gaunt from too much travel, resigned and returned to his old coaching job at St. John's. With the wise, respected old pro gone, Irish assumed a more active part in both the planning and the running of the Knicks. His draft choices, since Lapchick's resignation, have been consistently wasted. He has traded carelessly, losing, among others, Gene Shue, who made the all-league team in 1960. He has fired two coaches, although one, Vince Boryla, now works for him out of Denver under the sententious title of "general manager player personnel."
The current Knickerbockers are the cumulative result of Irish's policies and actions and, as such, with the worst record in NBA history this year, are a source of great embarrassment to him. Since he can no longer bully other NBA owners, Irish was recently reduced to threatening to fold the team because "the Garden can't be in the position of supporting a failure." The Knicks make money, and the Garden is a corporation which feeds on profits. This was a caricature of a threat.
A hard man to interview
For all of his bluster and braggadocio, Irish, as one meets him across a table, is not a blustering man. His answers are clipped and uninformative. He seems uncomfortable during interviews, as though he would prefer checking the books or going about his business to discussing what it is that makes his business exciting. He keeps his wife and two sons in the background, and he tries to dismiss public relations by insisting, "I don't care what they say about me as long as they buy tickets." He has never been able to go much further than that, or to explain a devotion to the Garden so intense that he has hidden in distant reaches, waiting to spring when he catches an usher moving a $2 customer to a $3 seat in exchange for a 50¢ tip.
"I think," says one old acquaintance, "that Ned is really a hell of a nice guy. The trouble is, he's afraid somebody might find out." On that score, as matters stand, he is in no danger.
But there is more than a wisecrack to this sad success story. Perhaps more conclusively than anything else now before us in sports, it demonstrates that success does not necessarily warm the spirit or automatically provide a glittering armor in which to stride through life. It can be a burden or even a disaster. After all these years, Ned Irish, who is more feared than admired, more accepted than liked, has become almost a walking advertisement for failure.