Currently established at No. 19 Green Street, London, W. 1, in what was once the Bulgarian embassy, is a pinstriped, buttoned-down, rep-tied entrepreneur named William Drought Cox, almost Yale '30. Students of track, the Wall Street scene, Santa Claus, fine arts, the lumber business, minor league pro football, major league pro football, horse racing, major league baseball, politics, Greek mineral deposits, the Olympic Games, soccer, Latin American republics and the international postage-stamp trade may recognize the name.
Bill Cox is tall, only slightly plump, pink of cheek and gray of hair. His voice is deep, and most frequently used to pass along—in strictest confidence—tales of stupefying chicanery in high places, face-to-face confrontations with the movers and shakers of the world and assessments of exciting and vital programs that somehow never attain the glorious blossoming for which they seem so surely destined. In recent weeks the activity around the old Bulgarian embassy has been especially frenetic, for one of Cox' most exotic enthusiasms has—against all odds—come to full flower.
As late as last September, Cox' current project was nothing more than an idea without takers. But suddenly it caught hold, and now deeply involved is World Sports magazine, an internationally respected British monthly which, thanks to Cox, has gained still further prestige by conducting a poll to determine the first modern-day all-star team of world soccer. Involved, too, is the Republic of Nicaragua which, also thanks to Cox, will net a million dollars or so and pick up valuable promotion by issuing a colorful set of postage stamps honoring the team. Even the sport of soccer is getting something out of it. Nicaragua, hardly a world soccer citadel, is busy building soccer's very first international Hall of Fame. Thanks to Cox.
And Cox, the man who brought all this about? What is he getting, aside from the satisfaction of producing stamps and promoting soccer?
May 3, 1970
"Well...er...uh...," groaned Cox on a recent afternoon in the drawing room of his ex-embassy, as he undiplomatically covered his eyes with an agonized hand. "I don't want to answer that question. Let's just say that people who succeed in selling stamp motifs are in the same class as authors who write bestsellers. But I receive no advance. I don't take a penny out of it until the stamps are issued."
Some of Cox' schemes have sold like Gone with the Wind, and some have only gone with the wind. But his machinations, often in the realm of sport, have never been dull. He was only 15, the second youngest in his class, when he entered New York University, where he ran track and cross-country. Yale was always his goal, however, and after a year at NYU he transferred to New Haven and repeated his freshman year. At Yale, he was a catcher on the freshman baseball team and a middle-distance runner for the track team, an unlikely diversification, but typically Cox. He did not stay long enough to graduate with his class—1930—but quit school at the end of his sophomore year. Cox lays part of the blame for this on an Ivy League athletic committee.
"It ruled that anyone who had competed at one college would be ineligible if he transferred to another," he says. "There I was, 17 and a tramp athlete. It was ridiculous." On Oct. 29, 1929—a date easily remembered for its depressing repercussions in stock-and-bond circles—Cox went to work for a Wall Street brokerage firm. Undaunted in this get-rich-never atmosphere, he turned a quick profit on, of all things, that famous old bit of Christmas humbug called "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
Cox had heard that the rights to the famous 1897 New York Sun editorial had lapsed, so he bought them for $1,000. He next convinced an ad agency that it should use the editorial as a yuletide promotion gimmick on the Ma Perkins radio show. Then Grosset & Dunlap brought out Yes, Virginia in book form and sold over 50,000 copies. In all, Cox cleared a quick $10,000 on the editorial.
By the mid-'30s, with help from some Wall Street connections, Cox had established himself as an entrepreneur in American art, dealing in Eakins, Bellows and the like. However, his devotion to the fine arts waned in 1936 when he learned, on a friendly tip, of the profit to be made supplying rustic wooden lampposts to the city of New York. That success led to the purchase of a lumber company being sold to pay off a debt. Cox parlayed it into a small fortune. In 1938 he married Margery Gilbert, a girl from a wealthy Englewood, N.J. family, and that didn't hurt his Dun & Brad-street rating, either.
Cox now felt ready to indulge a cherished ambition. In 1941 he bought the New York Yankees. Well, this was not exactly the New York Yankees, but rather the New York football Yankees of the American Football League, a minor professional circuit that included entries from places like Columbus and Milwaukee. Cox signed two highly publicized All-America backs—Tom Harmon of Michigan and John Kimbrough of Texas A&M—to their first pro contracts. But that was the only notable feature of his ownership, and with the coming of war both the team and the league died. Cox was lucky to break even.
Still, he remained eager to invest in more sporting playthings. As the operator of a strategic business (lumber), Cox was draft exempt (he later volunteered, but changed his mind in time and remained a civilian), and so in 1943 he was around when baseball's Philadelphia Phillies came on the market. Cox and some friends outbid Jack Kelly Sr., plus a couple of other combines, to obtain the hapless last-place team for a mere $80,000 in cash.
Cox, who held 92% of the stock, took command of the Phils just a couple of weeks before the start of spring training. Being wartime, manpower was short, but nowhere so short as on the Phillies.
"I had to play shortstop myself for the first four games in training camp," Cox remembers with obvious relish. "Finally my new manager, Bucky Harris, said to me, 'Mr. Cox, you'd better not stay out there. You could get killed.' "
Reluctantly taking himself out of the lineup, Cox helped Manager Harris in putting together an effective team, and the Phils began winning. After finishing last in six of the preceding seven years, and only once in the first division since 1918, the Phils became a threat. As late as midseason they were in fifth place, six games out of third. Then, in July, Cox fired Harris. The Phils finished seventh. But attendance had doubled, and it seemed that young Cox, only 33, had made a good start as a big league owner. Unfortunately, he was in trouble with Baseball Commissioner Landis. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis had been hired in the '20s to clean up the image of baseball, sullied by the bribery and betting scandals of the 1919 World Series. By contrast with the more lenient standards that exist today, any connection between baseball and betting was not to be tolerated. When Landis learned in midseason that Cox owned a promising 3-year-old racehorse named Maezaca, he ordered him to sell the horse or sell the Phils. Cox sold the horse.
Within weeks he was back in Landis' office in Chicago, this time seeking the judge's approval on a job offer he had received. In the fall of 1942 Cox had been one of the most active organizers in Thomas E. Dewey's campaign for governor of New York. After Dewey was elected he nominated Cox as a state racing commissioner. Judge Landis was outraged.
"See those millions of people down there?" Landis said, pointing to the street far below. "They'd never understand it if baseball got into bed with horse racing." Cox was told once again to choose. He turned down Dewey.
There was to be one more confrontation between Cox and the judge. Friends of the Phils' deposed manager, Bucky Harris, were now saying that Cox bet daily on baseball games with his bookmaker. League rules forbade this, and once more Landis called Cox on the carpet. At first Cox denied the charges, then confessed to them, citing ignorance of the rule as his only justification. Landis demanded a more detailed accounting, which Cox refused to give. This time Cox was given no choice. He was ordered to sell the Phils. He sold them to the current owners, the Carpenter family, for slightly more than he had paid. Then Landis declared Cox "permanently ineligible" to hold office in organized baseball—in other words, he was barred for life from the sport.
It was a dismal end to what might have been a happy year. Now, 27 years later, Cox says he was a victim of circumstances and provides a rather curious explanation as to why he denied, then confessed to, the betting charges.
"The trouble was that I made the mistake of trying to be my own detective," he explained recently, sipping a dry martini in the Polo Bar of London's West-bury Hotel. "I never placed a bet of any sort on baseball games. I figured that somehow saying I had bet would smoke out the person who had really done the betting, using our office phone. A New York paper sent two reporters down to Philadelphia, and they couldn't find any evidence that I'd bet, nor could Landis' office. But after I said I had bet I think he felt he had no alternative but to penalize me."
The baseball ban still stands, but Cox has found numerous other sports and teams to promote. Just three years after he was blackballed by Landis he bought into the New York franchise of the All-America Football Conference, the pro league that briefly challenged the NFL during the mid-'40s. After two seasons Cox and his partner, Gerald Smith, had lost $100,000 apiece, and they sold the football Dodgers to Branch Rickey.
Understandably Bill Cox' great zest for the cut and thrust of sports promotion had diminished, and it was not until 14 years later that he got back into it. Meanwhile he sold his lumber company and put his money into mineral development in Greece. He made $200,000. Next, Cox joined with billionaire J. Paul Getty in a Greek oil partnership that fizzled.
During his visits to Europe, Cox became a soccer fan. In 1959, convinced soccer could become a major sport in the U.S., he set up the International Soccer League. It consisted of professional soccer clubs that Cox brought into New York from all over the world to play a 10-week, round-robin tournament schedule. Cox considered the ISL as merely the foundation for an American major league, similar to the ones already operating in baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey. The league began in 1960, playing doubleheaders at the Polo Grounds in New York. Games were farmed out to other cities, among them Los Angeles and Chicago and Chicopee Falls, Mass., and by 1966 the ISL had become a modest success. It was then that Cox invited 40 people to a lunch at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, men of substance, the owners of baseball and football teams and other wealthy sports promoters. Cox hoped that from this group might come the backing for the first truly professional soccer league in the U.S.
"I told them that all I'd done was set the foundation for the league, that it was up to them if they were interested to take it from there," says Cox. "Then, out of reasons of avarice, a hole appeared in the dike. Something happened to make mincemeat of the idea."
Almost immediately two factions developed. Both sought recognition from the FIFA, which governs world soccer. The result was that one group, the U.S. Soccer League, got FIFA blessing but not a television contract. The other, the National Professional Soccer League, got CBS but not FIFA. The two leagues tried to operate in competition, and the result was a disaster. When the leagues finally merged on a vastly reduced scale, after a 10-month fight, there was no longer a television contract. Cox, a part owner of the San Diego franchise, sold his share and eventually dropped out of professional soccer altogether.
How much money did he lose this time? "Just a modest investment," claims Cox. "I have too much of a head for business to have gotten badly caught in that." He and his ISL associates still have a $1.5 million suit against the U.S. Soccer Football Association.
Whatever the decision of the court, Bill Cox has gone a long way—via Nicaragua—toward recouping his soccer losses. This latest saga began in the capital city of Managua one morning early last September, when a limousine carrying Cox, a presidential military aide and Major General Lowell English, commanding general of the Marine Corps recruiting depot in San Diego, arrived at the white presidential palace. General English, a former West Point instructor, had come along to introduce Cox to President Somoza, who had attended West Point. It was an added frill to Cox' flourish. Already he had been to Jamaica, the Bahamas, Malta, Monaco and Luxembourg trying, without success, to sell his idea for soccer postage stamps. Maybe a general would help.
In the past philately has provided Cox with a string of happy successes. "My father first gave me a stamp album when I was a kid," he says. "I was the first one in my class at grammar school who could spell Czechoslovakia." Later he made some money publishing postage-stamp albums. The first appeared in 1936 and—possibly because Cox had just gotten into the lumber business—was devoted to stamps on which trees were featured. His next album, circa 1946, contained all the sports stamps ever issued. The third, published after the 1956 Olympic Games, was a complete history-through-stamps of the Games. The fourth, published in 1959, was a general album, with 1,200 pages and 300,000 words of text.
"When I put together my catalog of all the sports stamps ever issued," Cox says, "I noticed that it contained not a single Olympic winner. I thought there must be some way to eulogize them." So in 1956 he sold the Dominican Republic on the idea of bringing out an issue of stamps honoring the alltime great Olympians and the outstanding winners that year at Melbourne. Fine, but why the Dominican Republic? Think small, answers Cox.
"The big nations have their own stamp committees, and they're not likely to accept an outside idea," he says. "I never even bother with the United States. Even if they accept an idea, you're lucky to get more than a thank you in payment."
The Dominican Republic's Olympic issue made a couple of million dollars for that nation's treasury, and Cox received a flat fee of $20,000. Though the alltime Olympians honored on the stamps were supposedly picked by a poll of 100 U.S. sportswriters, there were some surprising inclusions—for instance, an Italian walker named Ugo Frigerio—and several startling omissions—for instance, Emil Zatopek, the Czech who won three gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The list of 25 outstanding winners in Melbourne contained walkers, shooters, pentathletes, cyclists, but not Vladimir Kuts of Russia, who dominated the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races, nor any other Soviet competitor, despite the fact that the Russians won more medals than anyone that year. The omission was, of course, political. The Soviet invasion of Hungary that autumn was on everyone's mind, and Dictator Trujillo was not about to allow any Communist heroes on his stamps.
So here was Cox at Nicaragua's presidential palace 13 years later, peddling a similar idea, this time honoring soccer's best 11 players of the post-World War II era. Cox seldom runs out of ideas, but this time he had almost run out of countries. Nicaragua was his sixth. The three men were ushered past the sentries guarding the palace gate, into an anteroom and finally before the president himself. General Somoza rose from behind an immense desk to greet them. Cox noted with relief that he seemed cheerful and friendly. The two generals reminisced about their days together at the Point, and then Cox spoke up.
"Would your government be interested in a stamp motif that would not only be popular in its own right but might also start a more general interest in Nicaraguan stamps?" Cox asked the general, still concealing the exact nature of the motif.
"Ah, yes," Somoza said. "I'm all for that." Another meeting was arranged for a few days later.
At the second meeting Cox revealed that he had approached the London-based Crown Agents, a mammoth institution loosely affiliated with the British government that serves as a financial and commercial agent for other countries. Their philatelic division, which profitably handles the stamp issues of 55 other countries, would be very pleased, Cox told the generals, to produce and distribute this particular—but as yet unnamed—motif should Nicaragua decide to issue it. At a third meeting with Somoza, his minister of finance and the chief of his philatelic bureau, Cox not only revealed the motif in full, but also broached the possibility of Nicaragua's opening the very first-ever-in-history Soccer Hall of Fame right there in downtown Managua. General Somoza was delighted with the idea.
The Nicaraguans agreed to issue the stamps, but by now it was late September and Cox was running out of time. The stamps had to appear before the start of the World Cup soccer tournament on May 31, and Cox, so far, didn't even have a team to put on his stamps. He had previously decided that to establish the unquestioned authenticity of his team it must be determined by a poll of the world's foremost soccer writers. To induce a convincing response, the poll must be sent out by a distinguished publication located in a country where soccer is the major sport. No magazine or newspaper was particularly anxious to hold such a poll, and Cox knew he would have to push a little.
His first pitch was to the London Sunday Times, which was not keen to act as an agent for the Nicaraguan government. Next Cox tried Eric Batty, an internationally known soccer expert and statistician, who is an editor of World Soccer. The meeting produced nothing but mutual disagreement. Cox thought Batty wanted too much money to conduct the poll. Batty thought there was something suspicious about Cox' mailing list.
"One of the people on his voting list was the Nicaraguan minister of public health," Batty claims. "Also, he refused to advance me money to do the job, and he wouldn't even tell me why he wanted the team."
Cox denies there were Nicaraguans on the list. And, he says, "I did not feel it necessary to divulge the reason for making the poll as long as the poll itself was thoroughly legitimate. There's a lot of piracy in this stamp business."
On Dec. 12 Cox finally presented his idea for a poll to Doug Gardner, features editor of World Sports, the magazine he probably should have started with in the first place. World Sports has readers in more than 110 nations and covers soccer widely, but Cox had hardly heard of it.
"A bloody good idea, was my first reaction," says Gardner. "I wish I'd thought of it myself. Of course, we weren't going to budge an inch on it until we knew why Cox was so keen on the vote. We knew he wasn't just giving away ideas out of the goodness of his heart." The editors of World Sports finally agreed to sponsor the poll and to get started right away. But right away was not quite soon enough, because the artist needed the names and photographs of the players by Jan. 20.
"Cox was on the phone three or four times a day." reports Gardner, "ideas shooting out of him like satellites. Finally we had to say, 'Look. We have to get out a magazine as well as this poll. If you're in such a hurry you set it up.' "
From his own address book, from the files at World Sports and with the help of FIFA and the International Soccer Writers Association in Brussels, Cox stitched together a mailing list of 120 soccer journalists from 44 countries. World Sports worked out the poll's format. To eliminate the possibility of coming up with, say, three goalies on the team instead of 11 players from 11 different positions, and also to keep the poll simple and easily understood by voters, the ballot offered a list of 44 players active since 1950. It included four goalkeepers (pick one), eight fullbacks (pick two), 12 halfbacks (pick three) and 20 forwards (pick five). The deadline for returns was Jan. 19. By Dec. 16, only four days after Cox had walked into the World Sports offices, the ballots had been printed on World Sports stationery. Editor Don Wood had signed 120 letters to accompany them and they had been mailed. The night of the deadline 80 replies were back in London, and by Jan. 20 the artist—a former Hungarian soccer player now living in England—was at work on the first two paintings. World Sports announced the results of its poll in the April issue and this month the first soccer stamps will begin streaming across post-office counters in Nicaragua and to stamp dealers around the world. Cox is planning to publish an album containing all the soccer stamps ever issued. As for the Hall of Fame, it's coming along famously even if the locale is not exactly the one the sport itself would have selected.
"These days people have to have creative ability to think of something absolutely new," says Cox. "I've never tried to be a promoter of one-shot things, though occasionally it happens. I consider myself a builder."
THE ANATOMY OF A SPORTS PROMOTION
Selections of "all-everything" teams is nothing new, nor is the issuance of commemorative stamps, nor the establishment of sport halls of fame. But with characteristic enterprise and imagination, promoter William Drought Cox has managed to unite all three elements and come up with the world's first combined all-world all-star team, stamp issue and Hall of Fame for soccer players. Some of the fruits of his labors are seen in the reproductions of Nicaraguan postage stamps arrayed above, depicting the 11 players selected as the best since World War II by a panel of sportswriters from 35 soccer-playing countries.
Cox and World Sports magazine, which undertook sponsorship of the poll at Cox' urging, restricted any nation from having more than four writers on the selection panel and forbade any panelist from voting for a player from his own country. These restrictions were aimed at preventing another ballot-stuffing incident, such as the one that marred the 1957 All-Star baseball selection.
The precautions seem to have worked, since the team reflects a strong continental mix and includes three players from behind the Iron Curtain.
Top vote-getter among the select 11 was, unsurprisingly, Brazil's Pelé, with 76. Lev Yashin of Russia was second, with 69, and Alfredo di Stefano of Argentina got 68. Others, in descending order, were Djalma Santos (Brazil) 57, Joseph Boszik (Hungary) 45, Franz Beckenbauer (West Germany) and Ferenc Puskas (Hungary) 44, Stanley Matthews (England) 40, Billy Wright (England) and Giacinto Facchetti (Italy) 38, and Bobby Charlton (England) 37. Of the top 11, five are still active: Yashin, Facchetti, Beckenbauer, Pelé and Charlton.
The choice of Nicaragua as the focus for Cox' scheme stemmed less from that nation's importance in the soccer firmament than from the imperatives of the postage-stamp business. Issuing a new line of stamps means perhaps a million dollars to the nation's treasury, and thousands to Cox'.