This week, in the quaint Hudson River town of Peekskill, N.Y. the New York Jets of the American Football League open training with 28 rookies who cost a total of $1.1 million to sign, the most money ever committed for new talent in one year by any pro football team. Among the rookies coming on strong are Cosmo Iacavazzi, Princeton's All-America fullback; Verlon Biggs, mammoth defensive end from Jackson State; Bob Schweickert, All-America back from VPI; Jim Harris, a gigantic lineman from Utah State; George Sauer, the dropout flanker from Texas; and, finally, to the blare of trumpets, a roar of welcome from the M-G-M lion and a thumping bong from J. Arthur Rank's gong, the two most publicized college quarterbacks in America: Joe Namath (see cover) of Alabama, everyone's darling in the pro football draft, and John Huarte of Notre Dame, the Heisman Trophy winner. Namath, who cost the Jets an estimated $400,000, and Huarte, who so far has refused to develop a complex despite signing for only about half as much, will do battle with Mike Taliaferro, a holdover from last season, for the job of No. 1 quarterback. A few years ago, when the Jets were the hapless Titans, most pro football fans could not have told you if the team even had a quarterback, much less his name. Now, thanks to the astute handling and fathomless bankroll of David (Sonny) Werblin, the president of the Jets, the competition for quarterback has achieved all the supercolossal proportions of the casting of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. And with good reason: Sonny Werblin wants a star. "I believe in the star system," he says. "It's the only thing that sells tickets. It's what you put on the stage or playing field that draws people."
As a result of the brouhaha aroused by the signing of Namath and Huarte, the Jets have sold the improbable number of 35,000 season tickets, as compared to only 11,000 at this time last year, and on this score alone Sonny Werblin has to rank as one of the most clever, fascinating and energetic operators to emerge in sports since Larry MacPhail showed up at Cincinnati's Crosley Field with the Kaiser's ashtray and the idea of night baseball.
No one knows better than Werblin the value of a star. For 30 years Werblin worked and schemed and planned and plotted for stars in relative anonymity for the Music Corporation of America, the biggest talent agency ever known to show business. Upon his retirement last January as a vice-president of MCA Inc. and president of MCA TV, a subsidiary, Werblin was hailed as "the world's greatest agent." Variety, in a eulogy headed "SONNY... JUST LIKE IN MONEY," noted that Werblin had helped shape broadcasting "perhaps more than anyone else" in America, and "if he was not broadcasting's greatest showman, he certainly qualified as its greatest promoter and salesman." On Madison Avenue and in Hollywood, Sonny is revered as the father of the "package deal," and among the programs he handled for MCA were Markham, Mike Hammer, Wagon Train, The Virginian, M Squad, Treasury Men in Action, Overland Trail, Twenty-One (gulp), Shotgun Slade, Johnny Staccato, Whispering Smith, The Deputy, My Three Sons, Laramie, Riverboat and Bachelor Father. Stars he personally handled for radio and TV included Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Jane Wyman, Wayne King, Ben Bernie, Abbott and Costello, Don Ameche, Ralph Edwards, Horace Heidt, Sammy Kaye, Alvino Rey, Eddie Fisher, Alfred Hitchcock, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Ken Murray, Robert Cummings, Henry Morgan, Eddie Albert, Eddie Bracken, the Nelsons (Ozzie, Harriet, Ricky and David), Harry James, Betty Grable, Burns and Allen, Polly Bergen, Nanette Fabray, Gene Kelly, Ernie Kovacs, Jack Carson, Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray, Gisele MacKenzie, Phil Silvers, Oscar Levant, Jack Paar and Jack Benny. It was Sonny who moved Benny from NBC to CBS, and it was none other than Sonny who moved Benny back again. Among the stars Sonny personally signed for MCA were Edgar Bergen, Shirley MacLaine, Victor Borge, Dolores Gray, Xavier Cugat, Freddy Martin, Dean Martin, George Gobel and Liberace ("he was different"). Sonny not only discovered Eddie Duchin but roomed with him for two and a half years and was best man at both of Duchin's weddings. Werblin and his wife, Leah Ray Hubbard, who once sang with Phil Harris' band, were members of Morton Downey's second wedding party. The Werblins have a way with weddings. Both were in attendance at the fabled nuptials in the Essex House uniting Abe Lyman to his vocalist, Rose Blaine. Lyman, a frenetic gin-rummy player, had to be summoned to the ceremony from the card table, where he was happily on a Schneider, and when the service was over he immediately headed back for a hand as the rabbi concluded in words that still ring in Werblin's ears, "Remember, everyone, it was made legal by Segal." Werblin informed Lyman that their old friend Phil Spitalny knew nothing about the marriage. Spitalny was up in Boston at the Metropolitan Theater with Evelyn and Her Magic Violin and the rest of his All-Girl Orchestra, and after Sonny got the call through he put Lyman on. "I got married today!" Lyman burbled. "Dot's goot," said Spitalny. "I just broke der house record. Here's der manager. He'll tell you all about it."
July 18, 1965
Sonny—"no one ever calls me David"—Werblin moves in ever-widening circles at ever-increasing speeds. "Every day is an anecdote with Sonny," says Joe Hirsch, a columnist for The Morning Telegraph and Daily Racing Form, who is a member of Sonny's racing crowd. It was Sonny who recently lined up Bob Hope for an honorary degree from Monmouth College. (Sonny never handled Hope, but Hope says, "He's a genius.") It was Sonny who put Eleanor Holm into the Aquacade and introduced her to Billy Rose, whom she later married. Sonny is the only man in America who has sons named after the heads of both Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola. His oldest son, Hubbard Steele Werblin, is named for the late Alfred Steele, chairman of Pepsi, and his middle son, Robert, is named after Robert Woodruff, former chairman of Coke. Sonny personally fired David Susskind from MCA. Susskind once said he was fired for insubordination, but he refuses to talk about Sonny now. In turn, Sonny not only refuses to talk about Susskind, he refuses to talk to him. The only other person with whom Sonny is not on speaking terms is Frank Sinatra. Ironically, Sonny and Sinatra are the only two persons who call Toots Shor by the nickname Blub.
The Werblins maintain an apartment in Manhattan and a rambling home in Elberon on the Jersey shore. Their three cars have the license plates MCA, MCA-1 and MCA-2. Sonny usually drives MCA to the races at Monmouth Park 10 minutes away. He is a large stockholder and a director of the track. The Werblins own a racing stable, Elberon Farms, and Mrs. Werblin gives all the horses show-biz names. The best horse so far is Time Step, who has won $50,000 in allowance races. The most promising is a $50,000 colt bought privately at Keeneland last year named One Night Stand, by Sailor out of Olympia Gal. Sonny is a large stockholder and director of the New Jersey National Bank & Trust Company, which has nine branches. He is a trustee of Rutgers University, his alma mater, and of the Peekskill Military Academy, where the Jets train and from which son Hubbard was graduated last month. He also has real-estate interests.
In appearance, Werblin is stocky, bald and bushy-browed. He wears glasses. His manner is hearty but low-keyed. He is a conservative dresser who buys his suits off the rack. His only concessions to flash are gold cuff links and tiepins with a football motif. He is 55 but, in common with other hard-striving MCA executives, he looks 10 years older. Years ago, when he was a student at James Madison High School in Brooklyn, Sonny said his aim in life was to be a "grown-up boy," and he has adhered to that ambition. His enthusiasms are catching. Robert Sarnoff, chairman of the board of NBC, an old pal and a bonefishing companion in the Keys, says, "Sonny has the ability to widen the horizons of others. I never followed pro football closely but, leaving aside the interest NBC has in the AFL [NBC has a five-year television contract with the AFL for $36 million], through my friendship with Sonny I've gotten to know something about football."
Sonny was born on St. Patrick's Day, and his favorite color is green. His Jet office has a green rug. Jet Stream, the team's house organ, which is given to such superlatives as JETS SIGN THE BEST, NAMATH, HUARTE LEAD THE PARADE, is printed in green ink. The team colors are green and white. When Sonny signed Namath he gave him a green Lincoln Continental.
Namath's magnetic quality, his "star" quality, impressed Werblin right away. "When Joe Namath walks into a room," says Sonny, "you know he's there. When any other high-priced rookie walks in, he's just a nice-looking young man. It's like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig or Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris." When Sonny actually signed Namath he said, "I don't know whether you'll play on our team or make a picture for Universal." If Namath had his way, he probably would do both. Away from the football field he comes across as a real ring-ding-a-ding finger-snapper, a girl ogler, a swingin' cat with dark good looks who sleeps till noon. His major interests are "girls and golf, girls and golf." Namath relishes the limelight and, for one reason or another, he always has been able to bask in it.
In high school in Beaver Falls, Pa., a steel-mill town of 16,240, Namath was celebrated as a star quarterback, a superb basketball guard, a crackerjack outfielder and a character. Once he drove a car up on the sidewalk because traffic was too slow. On another occasion, he climbed a 20-foot flagpole atop a three-story building to hoist a balloon celebrating a football victory. His old high school principal, upon hearing of his signing with the Jets, remarked, "I feel sorry for him. He will be racked up next fall like no one was ever racked up before."
Namath, whose parents are divorced, is "full-blooded Hungarian." He was the youngest son, and he shined shoes to help out. His first coach was his brother Bob, who had to forgo college to work in a mill. In high school Namath was such an outstanding baseball player that the Cubs offered him a $50,000 bonus, which he turned down to go to Alabama on a football scholarship. Namath had the pro scouts so excited over his passing ability that he was marked "blue chip" in scouting reports even as a sophomore. He still needs 15 semester hours for his degree, a major in industrial arts with a minor in physical education, and overall he has a C average. "It's damn hard to go through college in four years and graduate," he says. "I don't know many boys who graduate in four years." In January he plans to resume his studies in Tuscaloosa.
Last January, after almost beating Texas in the Orange Bowl on one leg, Namath had an operation on his right knee to remove the torn cartilage that had plagued him through his senior year. There have been disquieting stories that he will not only be unable to play this year but must undergo another operation. "I can't tell you what I'll do tomorrow," Namath said recently. "Any athlete who has had a knee injury might get hurt again. But my leg's in good condition." But later he added, "I can't do right this season. People are going to be looking for so much. If I throw three touchdown passes, they'll say why didn't I throw four. If I throw four interceptions, I'll be shot at."
Namath and Huarte are contrasting types. Namath slouches; Huarte is ramrod-straight. Namath is easygoing, Huarte is reserved. Huarte wears conservative suits and rep ties. He is precise and analytical. He never does anything without a reason. "I think it makes good sense to approach things in an analytical way," he says. He happened to attend Notre Dame not just because of football—"I didn't know if the football would turn out"—but because he wanted to study at a good major university. Similarly, he signed with the Jets instead of the Philadelphia Eagles for several reasons. "One, the total sum was the most attractive offer," he says. "Then there was New York versus Philadelphia for future employment. Then there was the type of team, the growth life of this club. Then there was the kind of coach and the kind of system that they have. And, of course, there was the spirit. There is tremendous spirit at Notre Dame and tremendous spirit around here. I like to play in front of fans who show appreciation for merits and demerits." During the off season Huarte will live in New York and attend graduate school in business. He reads The Wall Street Journal and is thinking of a career on the Street. "Football is a very important part of my life now,'" he says, measuring each word. "My main interest is to refrain from limiting my future."
Huarte, who is 22 (11 days older than Namath), was born in Orange County, Calif. He has four brothers and one sister. His father, who is of Basque descent, used to play minor-league baseball. Mrs. Huarte is of German descent. The Huartes own an orange and avocado ranch in Anaheim, and John threw oranges long before he ever threw a football. With all the groves around the house, open space was rare, and Huarte used to play football in a nearby cemetery. "I used the large markers as defensive halfbacks," he says, "and I practiced field goals with the only thing that resembled a goalpost, a family mausoleum with crosses at the ends. Any ball between them was good. Everything was great until one day I hooked one a little too much. You can still see where the cross broke off." At Mater Dei High School he was an outstanding quarterback. "John always was an excellent passer," says his old coach, Dick Coury, a onetime Notre Dame player. "However, his biggest asset was his attitude. He worked so hard that we used to have to chase him off the field."
Huarte came very close to not even getting on the field at Notre Dame. In his sophomore year he was injured, played only five minutes and failed to win his letter. In his junior year, when Hugh Devore was the interim coach, he played only 45 minutes and again failed to letter. When Ara Parseghian came to Notre Dame as coach in 1964, he told Huarte, "You're going to be my quarterback even if you throw 11 straight interceptions." As a result, Huarte won his letter, the Heisman Trophy and a pot of gold from Sonny Werblin.
Aside from an instinctive feeling that Namath will project better than Huarte in the star system he seeks to install at Shea Stadium, Werblin does not particularly care which boy wins the Jet quarterback job. The main thing is that the Jets hopefully will have their star while Sonny Werblin, the real star of the show, operates in the background, just as he always has done.
Born in Brooklyn, Werblin was the oldest of three boys and is now the only survivor. One brother, Theodore, was killed in an auto accident at 19; the youngest brother, Lee, died of a heart attack last month at 46. The father died when Sonny was only 14, and Sonny is the only member of his immediate family who has lived to see a son graduate from high school. When Werblin was only 30 he had a massive heart attack that sidelined him for a year. Then he bounced back, fatiguing only his doctors.
Sonny was raised in comfortable circumstances—his father was a partner in a paper-bag company—and he had the usual boyhood interests. He made a radio crystal set and built a boat that was too big to get out of the cellar. He was a good student and a fair athlete, playing center on a James Madison football team that lost only one game in two years. He was voted the handsomest boy in his graduating class, but he says, "You don't know what an ugly class we had."
Because of his father's death, Sonny gave up plans to go to Dartmouth and instead enrolled at Rutgers to be near home. At Rutgers he played lacrosse and football, briefly, and studied economics and journalism. He was an energetic campus correspondent. Indeed, in his junior year he was working for seven newspapers, including The New York Times, the Sun, the American, the Journal and the Brooklyn Eagle. On the side, he read copy for the New Brunswick, N.J. Home News. "I made so much money that they broke me up as a monopoly," he says. Upon graduation, he was offered a job by the Times, but the salary disappointed him. Moreover, his late father's partners had bought out the family interest in the company and Sonny, hankering to prove that he could do well in the field on his own, went to work for another paper-bag company. He worked in a mill and served as a salesman. "I was making $17 a week," he recalls. "This was really the Depression, but at least I was doing something." One day in 1934 he had lunch with Jack Carney, a college chum (and older brother of Art Carney) and Carney introduced him to Harry Pinsley, a fraternity brother from Illinois. Sonny and Pinsley became friends, and Pinsley, who was working in the New York office of the Music Corporation of America, suggested Sonny go to work there. MCA, which had been founded in Chicago in 1924 by Dr. Jules Stein, an eye doctor, and Billy Goodheart, a piano player, represented bands for a flat 10% commission. Since Sonny was earning so little anyway and MCA sounded interesting, he went to work for Goodheart in New York as an office boy.
Goodheart hardly lived up to his name. Each morning he tried to beat Sonny into the office to berate him for being late. He would empty his inkwell out the window and break pencil points, then summon Sonny to bawl him out for not having the office ready. He also sent Sonny on a variety of fruitless errands. After four months of torture Werblin passed all the tests and went out on the road as a band boy for Guy Lombardo. Later on, when Sonny succeeded Goodheart, he adopted some of his techniques. He sent a new agent to Albany to sign a band leader. "I told him not to come back unless he signed him," Sonny says. "He never came back."
As a band boy, Sonny arranged for transportation and hotel reservations, had the musicians' uniforms cleaned and pressed, set up the instruments, laid out sheet music, checked the lighting and, above all, made certain that the band got its fair share of receipts. "When I started, being a theatrical agent was one of the lowest forms of humanity," Sonny says. "With MCA, there was no cheating of anybody. I soon learned how to judge the size of a house and to know that doors that were locked were really locked." Until he could get to a Western Union office, Sonny carried the receipts in $1,000 bills in a money belt. On one occasion Lombardo's band was being taken by a local dance-hall promoter. "I knew we were getting swindled," Werblin says. "This promoter had relatives all over the place taking money. I went up to him—he was a great big man in shirtsleeves and suspenders—and I asked, 'Can you change $1,000 bills?' He said, 'Sure, son,' and he began emptying his pockets, which were full of money. I just grabbed what I could and ran for the bus."
Werblin did so well on the road that he was called back to New York and put to routing bands. Then he began dealing with nightclub and theater owners. He sold MCA to the Waldorf, then helped move MCA into the Plaza, the Commodore, Biltmore and Astor. He dealt with advertising agencies as MCA moved into radio. In 1941 Goodheart retired, and Sonny succeeded him as head of the New York office. He became a grocery and supermarket prowler, taking note of what goods were stacked where and why. He knew the problems of every client and, in the days of radio, when ad agencies were putting the programs together, such knowledge was handy. Werblin still prowls in supermarkets, and now that he owns the Jets he has become a stadium walker as well. A survey he had made of the parked cars at Shea Stadium revealed that the Jets draw heavily from northern New Jersey.
Throughout his multiple wheelings and dealings in TV, Sonny was a figure of mystery. He never gave interviews, but he was widely reputed to be the most powerful man in television. His feats were legend within the industry, but his name never came before the public unless news of a particular coup leaked out. In a rare story on him, a trade magazine, Television, put the value of his MCA stock holdings at $11 million in 1961, and the magazine attempted to assess his role in TV by quoting anonymous executives. One summed up Sonny as a "smart, tough operator with the wiles of a CIA agent working undercover in the Kremlin." A former MCA employee attested to Sonny's stature within the company by noting that during a crap game at an MCA party Sonny's partners ran after the dice for him. In an article on MCA, which had now grown so large it was known as The Octopus in show business, FORTUNE reported that when Robert Sarnoff and NBC President Robert Kintner were puzzling over programs, Werblin came into the room, and without further ado Kintner said, "Sonny, look at the schedule for next season; here are the empty spots, you fill them." Although the story was denied, it was an indication of the awe in which Werblin was held.
To Sarnoff, Sonny is the best he has ever met. "He represented the interests of his clients very well," Sarnoff says, "and at the same time had an appreciation of the needs of his customers." On one occasion, Sarnoff recalls, "we had a problem on Wednesday night, and Bob Kintner and I had a general idea on how to solve the problem. We came in to see Sonny to talk it out. Sonny indicated he might have a solution, and out of that came Wagon Train." A couple of years later, Sonny gave Sarnoff the idea for The Virginian when they accidentally happened to meet on a plane. When Sonny heard that CBS was having difficulty with Nat Hiken, a talented writer, he suggested that CBS have Hiken think up an idea for Phil Silvers. CBS agreed and put Hiken to work on the project. He came up with the Bilko series.
"Werblin could play both sides of the fence with effortless dexterity," Variety reported in its eulogy. "On many days, he would appear in the offices of each of the three network presidents—often selling programs which he had plotted to be scheduled opposite each other.... He was a masterful practitioner of the time-honored show biz dodge of starting a war and selling ammunition to all sides. When he supplied a network with a 'hit' such as Jack Benny or My Three Sons, he would make the web remember it by giving him still more business. When he sold a 'turkey,' he would make the network forget it by selling them other shows, quite often including the dud's replacement."
Because Werblin had helped supervise the original AFL football package that was sold to ABC five years ago, he had a good insight into the league. In the fall of 1962 he knew that the New York team, then called the Titans and owned by Harry Wismer, was in deep financial trouble. He suggested that MCA buy the team, but the company attorneys, wary of antitrust action, advised against it. The result was that Werblin and some of his Monmouth Park associates, Philip Iselin, Leon Hess and Townsend Martin—and Bowie Race Course President Donald Lillis—bought the team from bankruptcy court for $1 million in the winter of 1963. "I figured any sports franchise in New York was worth SI million," says Sonny. "Now all these guys who say they saw the second Dempsey-Tunney fight say they almost bought the Jets."
All Sonny's friends predict great success. "Sonny can do no wrong," says Eleanor Holm. "He's astute. He's kind. He'd never throw anyone a curve. He's been in show business all his life, and he's got guts. He's going to make this football team the greatest of all time. Know why? He's got a flair!" Toots Shor says, "Sonny is a fighter. Always go, go, go! He's got some bum in him, too. Every good guy has got to have some bum in him. He is a fun guy and a hero worshiper. He loves sitting with Namath and Huarte. They are heroes to him. And brains, believe me, he has one helluva mind. He has handled the sports game like show business, getting it to the public. He knows the value of publicity." Vice-President Taft Schreiber of MCA says, "Sonny is the great judge of talent. I don't really care what the talent may be for. He can spot talent in any area. He has a nose for greatness."
In 1963, Werblin's first year of ownership, the Jets lost $700,000. Last year they lost $648,000. This year the Jets expect to make money. "The NFL owners try to perpetuate the idea that they are the richer, older league," says Werblin. "The NFL couldn't buy shoe polish from most of the owners in the AFL. Over there you have a bunch of jaded old guys who have been making a million a year on a gross of less than $3 million and with no capital investment. The whole attitude of the National League is that they found it, it's theirs and no one else can get in it. They talk about us as a 'young' league—I think the National League attitude is immature. They won't talk to us. But heads of rival industries and companies, if honorable and decent men, talk to one another.
"I think a lot of this stuff about the National League being so far superior is a lot of bunk. I would say this—and this is a cold professional analysis, not my own—there are four teams in our league that can beat any team in their league. The answer to the scoffing is that the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings are about the same age as our league, and the Vikings may be the best team in the NFL. Buffalo has the best four front men in either league. Tom Sestak is probably as good a football player as there is in the country. We cut Johnny Contoulis. and he played for the Giants the same season. In building this ball club I didn't want to feast on anything that had the air of expediency. It would have been very easy for me to hire a lot of ex-Giants. But I said to Weeb [Ewbank, the coach], 'Let's build a new organization.' Actually, I have not been terribly interested in what the Giants do. I liken the New York franchise in the AFL to the Yankees in the 1920s."
All Sonny needs is a Babe Ruth, a star. "What do I want?" he asks. "The best football team in America. Without being jingoistic, the city deserves it—and I want it."