We will stand here again someday," said David A. (Sonny) Werblin, standing there one bleak, freezing day five years ago, "and marvel together at what men of determination, goodwill and strong faith can achieve."
If the words had the ring of a Hillary contemplating the world from the top of Everest, the setting was more down to earth. Right at sea level, to be exact, in a forsaken New Jersey salt marsh known as the Swamp. In fact, what was billed as the ground-breaking for a "magnificent new world of sports and entertainment" looked more like the last rites for a cesspool.
Huddled on an island of landfill trucked in for the occasion, Werblin and his shivering guests were surrounded by industrial litter—auto skeletons, oil drums, bedsprings—settling into a glutinous mire. Nearby, rats the size of cats nosed through mounds of garbage, and off in the windswept reeds, in tidal creeks tainted with chemical wastes, fish lay belly up in the pale winter light. And overriding all, in shrill counterpoint to the lofty verbiage, were the shouts of a small band of protesters. "Werbling [sic] is robbing our land!" screamed one lady in a mustard-colored coat. "The racketeers are behind it!"
Undaunted, Werblin soared on. "The good Lord willing, we will transform what is before you today into an area of beauty, excitement and pleasure for you, your children and generations to come."
September 11, 1977
For Sonny (as in Money) Werblin, the renowned impresario and superagent to stars of stage, screen and playing field, it was another opening, another boffo show. Indeed, as opening acts go, the swamp number was what Werblin would call a real grabber, a crowd teaser full of irony, conflict and surprise. All it needed was a big finish, some kind of kicker to dramatize what all those manicured men in $350 suits were doing in a garbage dump and why New Jersey's governor at the time, William Cahill, kept calling it the "most valuable piece of undeveloped real estate in the world."
If Werblin were directing the movie version—and no one doubts that he could or might—he would top off the scene with a wide shot of the dignitaries trying to look inspired as the Rutgers Glee Club belted out You'll Never Walk Alone. Then, in one of those whirling aerial shots, the camera would pull back to show the surrounding desolation and then sweep up, up and away to reveal, etched against the horizon like a shimmering mirage (trumpets up, kettledrums rumbling), the glittering towers of Manhattan just five miles away.
Though the final act has not yet been written, Werblin is working on it. True to his prophecy, he stood there again one day recently to marvel at what man had wrought. And sure enough, there it was—the Meadowlands, a $342 million sports complex rising like Atlantis out of the primeval ooze.
"Look," said Werblin, stepping from his limousine onto a parking lot for 22,000 cars and 400 buses. "Look at that beautiful racetrack, that beautiful stadium," he said, gesturing at the cornerstones of the 588-acre playground. "Even now I can hardly believe that all this has grown from nothing, from a swamp."
But grown it has. Built specifically for "rectangular sports," the commodious stadium with 76,500 theater-type seats is the permanent home of the New York Giants and a sort of pied-√†-terre for the New York Jets, who play one regular-season game and two exhibitions there this year. Werblin's Baghdad on the Bog also hosted the Cosmos (né the New York Cosmos) this season for the first time. And with gratifying results—Pelé & Co. on their way to the championship played before an average crowd of 40,815 and set an NASL attendance record by drawing 77,691 for a playoff match against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. This fall the crush will continue when Giants Stadium will be the site of several big college football games, making it by all odds the premier stadium in the East.
Just a furlong or so away from the stadium, the one-mile Meadowlands track, which can accommodate 40,000 bettors, has become in its first season the nation's most successful harness track. To emphasize the point, last July Werblin staged the $425,000 Meadowlands Pace, the richest standardbred or thoroughbred horse race ever held in the U.S.
Not content to rest on these laurels, Werblin & Co. shut down the harness-racing operation during August, spent $100,000 resurfacing the track and reopened this past Tuesday with thoroughbred racing at night. All told, income from the first year's operation will exceed $50 million, double the original estimate.
And the bite that the Meadowlands is taking out of the action in the Big Apple and its outlying orchards across the river figures to grow even larger. Werblin plans to erect a 20,000-seat arena for basketball with the (ex-New York) Nets as the prime tenant; hockey, ice shows, circuses, conventions, rock concerts and other special events could turn Madison Square Garden into a warehouse.
In sum, the Meadowlands is well on its way to becoming the world's most successful and varied sports complex—if it hasn't, in fact, already reached that lofty eminence.
Which is precisely the way Werblin planned it. "We're just four miles from the Lincoln Tunnel," he keeps saying, "less than 15 minutes by bus from Times Square. And that's the secret—location and accessibility. It's as simple as that."
Originally, getting there was about as simple as Pickett's romp through Gettysburg. From the beginning, in fact, the Meadowlands was a battlefield in a war between states. During the past half dozen years Werblin and his swamp brigade found themselves in combat with all manner of financiers, lobbyists, legislators, mayors, governors and a former Vice-President of the United States. While fending off 14 lawsuits and countless Wall Street ambushes, Werblin's forces have become involved with such diverse outfits as the Audubon Society, the Bank of Tokyo, the University of Alabama, the United States Supreme Court and a Kuwaiti sheikh.
For Werblin, a slight, soft-spoken man with the cajoling look of someone about to say, "Yes, but look at it this way—," the triumph has been worth the heart attack and the sieges of pneumonia and exhaustion he has suffered. Upon celebrating his 67th birthday last spring, he declared, "I enjoy a good fight."
And what of the strident lady in the mustard-colored coat? Though the survivors of the great Battle of the Meadowlands agree that victory would not have been possible without Werblin, none is able to articulate exactly what it is that Sonny does so well. At least none has summed it up as precisely as Mrs. Margaret Hallaway of Kearny, N.J., the lady in the mustard-colored coat. "Mr. Werbling," she says, "is a great persuader." Simple as that.
Mrs. Hallaway should know. After the ground-breaking ceremony, Werblin invited her and the other pickets to a press reception in a nearby enclosure. She accepted, partook of the refreshments and listened as Werblin informed her that the money to build the Meadowlands would not come from the taxpayers but from private funds raised through a bond issue, that the sports complex would be operated and, ultimately, solely owned by the state, and that he served as chairman of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority without pay and would share in none of the profits. Then for his big finish he invited Mrs. Hallaway to take a helicopter tour of the site and, four years from then, to be his guest at the grand openings of the stadium and the racetrack.
Werblin not only followed through but also seated her in his private box, where on Oct. 10 she hobnobbed with his friends Bob Hope and Telly Savalas. Mrs. Hallaway still complains. Only now she does it by note and phone, urging that such crises as a tear in one of the Meadowlands billboards be repaired right away. Says Werblin, "Your work is never finished where the public is concerned."
Multiply Mrs. Hallaway by several thousand other converts and you have the reason for the very existence of the Meadowlands and for its success. Part missionary, part carny barker, Werblin has an almost obsessive concern for keeping the customer happy. A stickler for the niceties, he demands that the pari-mutuel clerks at the track say, "Good luck, sir," every time they sell a ticket. Usherettes—never ushers—direct the flow of people, forever insisting that any mix-up is their fault. Rest-room doors are marked "Ladies" and "Gentlemen," never "Men" and "Women."
"We stress courtesy and cleanliness," says Werblin. "That's why we hire a lot of college kids, have people sweeping, cleaning up all the time. It's the old Disney trick. If you treat your fans like ladies and gentlemen—and not sneer at them like the ticket seller in New York does—they'll act that way, have a good time and want to come back."
When they leave the track, in short, the old showman wants his audiences humming the results of the last race. In a very real sense the Meadowlands is Werblin's Little Theater off Times Square, and he treats it as if it were a Great White Way unto itself. Along with the clam bar and the ice-cream parlor, the riot of flags and the sound system blaring The Meadowlands Theme, there is a huge computerized video matrix board at the track, which comes on like a chorus line. It belts out messages in letters as high as a horse (HERE THEY...COME!), telecasts each race live on closed circuit and tunes in NBA games, boxing matches and the like in between. "It's show business," says Werblin. "We're selling entertainment. If we put on a better show, we'll get the customers."
They have. When harness racing opened at the Meadowlands last September, 42,133 bettors stormed the turnstiles and another 10,000 came over the wall. The rush has been on ever since. Average nightly attendance, originally projected at 12,000, was 17,213 during the 283-day season; the average handle, projected at $1.4 million, was nearly $1.8 million.
Says Racing Director Robert Quigley, "We're really grinding out the money."
And wearing down the competition. At Yonkers Raceway, 17 miles northeast of Times Square on the New York side of the Hudson, business fell off by 30%. The area's other major harness track, Long Island's Roosevelt Raceway, 27 miles east of New York City, felt the same crunch during its season: its attendance dropped 28%.
And now, with his 100-night thoroughbred meeting, Werblin is taking on New York's flat tracks. As uncouth as it may seem to traditionalists, the advantages of night thoroughbred racing are predicated on such a profoundly sensible equation—more available customers plus less road traffic equals better business—that the New York Racing Association, which operates Aqueduct and Belmont Park in the New York City area, is as skittish as a filly around a fire engine.
Surveying his impact on New York racing, Werblin advises calm. "We've not established our beautiful edifice to knock anyone out of business," he says, none too convincingly. "We're not competitive, we're compatible. You're always much better off with two theaters on the block."
As the owner of Elberon Farm, a racing stable on the Jersey Shore that has produced big stakes winners like Silent Screen and Process Shot, and—before he became involved with the Meadowlands project—a part owner of Monmouth Park racetrack, Werblin is confident that his fellow horsemen will have no trouble adapting to the Meadowlands late show. "Once they discover that they no longer have to get up at 6 a.m. to see their horses work out," he says, "they'll come around."
Jack Krumpe, who resigned as NYRA president to become executive director of the Meadowlands, is certain of it. "Some people say that a horse was not meant to run at night," he says. "I don't know what Paul Revere would say about that, but we believe differently. The truth is, this track is a natural nighttime operation. By day, you overlook warehouses. But at night the place comes alive. The lights, the Manhattan skyline, the colors—it's an exciting place to be."
Another benefit of running at night is that the Meadowlands will be able to attract the top jockeys who work the day shift in New York. Krumpe anticipates that many will commute by helicopter, but what he hopes will really race their rotors is the purse structure—perhaps $100,000 an evening. Krumpe hopes for a nightly average of 19,000 bettors wagering $2 million, placing the Meadowlands among the nation's top 10 thoroughbred tracks in its first season. "From there," he says, "we accelerate." Or as Werblin likes to say, "Anything is possible in the heart of the megalopolis."
Megalopolis? What ever happened to the august Greater New York Metropolitan Area? "There's no more New York," Werblin says matter-of-factly. "Who lives in New York today? From Stamford, Connecticut down to Philadelphia it's one big city. We're talking about a market of 18 million people within an hour's drive of the Meadowlands. From our point of view, we've put a store on our best corner."
The New York Giants, without so much as a bye-bye to New York City, were the first to motor over to Sonny's stately pleasure dome in East Rutherford, N.J. New Yorkers have a strong sense of territorial pride, and the loss of prestige and glamour that goes with losing a major league team smarts. Predictably, before they moved into Giants Stadium last season, there were cries that the New York Gypsies were abandoning their faithful fans for the wilds of East Boondocks.
But that furor lasted only until Werblin broke out the maps to show that the Meadowlands is just one mile farther from midtown Manhattan than Yankee Stadium, the Giants' former home. Still, for many loyalists the whole thing has the wrong ring. The reaction of one New York Times columnist is typical: "Jersey Giants? Ugh!" Though the Giants discreetly removed the "NY" logo from their helmets, they remain a two-headed freak. In the National Football League they are still officially known as the New York Giants; in Greater East Rutherford they are officially the Football Giants.
But what's in a name or—more to the point—an address? Noting that the Dallas Cowboys play in Irving, Texas and the Detroit Lions in Pontiac, Mich., Werblin contends that only narrow minds are confined by boundaries. "You know something," he says, "you pave the Hudson River and it'd just be 13th Avenue. People wouldn't even realize they're in New Jersey. The Giants haven't left New York. They've just moved to another part of the megalopolis."
As if to prove Werblin's point, the people who count—namely 98% of the Giants' season-ticket holders—followed the team to New Jersey. Long before Giants Stadium was completed, in fact, there was a waiting list of 125,000 ticket seekers.
Projected as a loss item last year with only 10 major events scheduled, Giants Stadium turned an operating profit of more than $1 million. This year it will feature 35 of the kind of big productions that the old metropolis used to be noted for. Take the weekend of Oct. 15: on Saturday Notre Dame will play Army, on Sunday the Giants will meet the San Francisco 49ers and in between the thoroughbreds will pick off the stragglers. All told, in one 24-hour period, upward of 200,000 people are expected to pass through the Meadowlands, all of them presumably richer in spirit if not in pocket.
As if that were not enough for one man's fantasies, at the end of each racing program the track's video matrix board lets the world in on a secret: THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING!
Nothing if not a visionary, Werblin moves restlessly about his office under the Meadowlands clubhouse like a youngster contemplating his first Erector Set. Scattered about him are models, drawings and blueprints, the disjointed parts—a zoo, a tower restaurant, a hotel and an exposition center—of a grandiose whole. As he paces, interrupting himself to direct an aide to replace a parking-lot sign that "looks like hell," he talks. "We want to build a complete entertainment center here," he says. "We're going to have a theme park like Disneyland, all very high class. There'll be an aquarium, a theater and an arena for basketball and hockey. We're going to be better than Disneyland, better than Ascot, better than the Tivoli Gardens. Did you ever see the Tivoli Gardens at night? Colored lights, flowers, shows, magic...."
There was a time when such heady talk elicited a stock response: "In New Jersey?" The truth is, regardless of what the Meadowlands accomplishes now or in the future, nothing will ever be quite as remarkable as the fact that all this is taking place in New Jersey, the most maligned state in the union. A victim of geography, the Garden State has never been able to shake its image as a blighted, odoriferous corridor of oil refineries and factories between New York and Philadelphia.
All that many Americans know of the state is what they have seen out of their car windows on the stretch of New Jersey Turnpike that links the two largest cities on the East Coast. And one glimpse—or whiff—is enough; Gasoline Alley leaves an enduring impression. "New Jersey," goes one of the lines favored by Manhattanites, "looks like the back of an old radio."
The result, says Werblin, is that "the whole state has an inferiority complex. North of Trenton the people look to New York, south of there they look to Philadelphia. They've always felt they have nothing of their own to look to."
Though it is more populous than 43 other states and has the nation's sixth-highest per capita income, New Jersey is an orphan in almost every sense. It never had a major league team. It has no true statewide newspaper. And it is one of only two states (Delaware is the other) that do not have a commercial TV station.
Says Werblin, "New Jersey is supposed to be a place where mobsters and corrupt politicians live, where you can't get things done without payoffs and strikes. But that's not true now, if it ever was." Even so, Werblin is not ready to discount the underworld adage about the swamp: "You kill 'em in New York and bury 'em in Jersey." "I don't know how true that is," he says, "but I'll tell you, we were a little careful of where we were digging."
The problems Werblin faced in attempting to marshal all the forces necessary to build a sports empire in New Jersey are perhaps best summed up by Ralph Dungan, former chancellor of the state's Department of Higher Education. "No one runs New Jersey," says Dungan. "No one even thinks about it very much. There is no continuing political or social mechanism to coalesce people. There is a lack of unity, a lack of principle. People only camp here. In terms of moral theology, New Jersey has no soul."
But now it has the Meadowlands, throbbing away, and Werblin, for one, feels a strong pulse. New Jersey lives, he says. "Ask anyone and they'll tell you, the Meadowlands is the best thing that's ever happened to this state. It's given East Rutherford more datelines than Washington, D.C. It projects New Jersey as a doer state." Former Governor Cahill, now practicing law in Princeton, N.J., says, "The Meadowlands announces the entrance of New Jersey into the big leagues. It has given the state pride, an identity and, I hope, a winning football team."
That will take more than civic cheer-leading. Meanwhile, the New York press was having a little fun pointing out that, given the deficiencies of the Giants' offense, there are more bodies buried under the new field than on top. Which is a bit more tasteful than the halftime routine performed by the Columbia band during a game with Rutgers in Giants Stadium last season. Playing a funereal air, the band formed an arrow pointing at the 50-yard line and spelled out HOFFA?
Not so coincidentally, Rutgers' emergence as a sports power in the past few years has become another source of state pride. Long burdened with a sub-Ivy League complex and the fact that most people are unaware that Rutgers is more properly titled the State University of New Jersey, the school's athletic program took a sharp turn for the better after a trustee delivered a persuasive speech to the university board. Pointing out that at other large state universities the flow of money from the legislatures as well as alumni rose and fell in direct relationship to the performance of the football and basketball teams, the trustee strongly urged that the Scarlet Knights "go big time."
The board agreed and adopted a resolution to that effect in 1971. Five short years later, after the selfsame trustee helped persuade future All-America Phil Sellers to forsake Notre Dame for Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights' basketball team raced through a 31-2 season, finished fourth in the NCAA playoffs and earned Tom Young Coach of the Year honors. For the current fiscal year the state legislature, notoriously stingy to the university in the past, has boosted Rutgers' funding from $82 million to $89 million and alumni contributions jumped 20%.
The name of the persuasive trustee, of course, is Sonny Werblin. He recalls, "When I went to a Nebraska-Kansas game with Johnny Carson a few years ago, I was surprised to find that there were 23 New Jersey kids on the rosters. Then I discovered that Arizona State couldn't even field a team without New Jersey. So we decided to do something to keep our kids home." During the past five years the proportion of New Jersey athletes at Rutgers has increased from 48% to 78% and the football team's record had gone from 4-7 to a sterling 18-0, the longest major-college winning streak extant. With Scarlet fever mounting, Rutgers dropped Columbia from its schedule in favor of a big-time opening game against Penn State at Giants Stadium.
Earlier, playing the familiar role of double agent, Werblin had called an old business partner, Bear Bryant, and said, "How'd you like to play Rutgers?" Werblin, who is involved in selling a line of checkered hats made famous by the Alabama coach, likes to recount Bryant's reaction in a drawl that is pure South Broadway: "And Bear said to me, 'Sorry, I'm done booked up till 1987.' Then I told him that we could fill 76,500 seats at an average of $12 a ticket. And Bear said, 'Whoa, I just done found two open dates.' " Coming up: Rutgers vs. Alabama at Giants Stadium in 1980.
Considering his background, the fact that Werblin has become the agent for a university as well as an entire state is not too startling. It's just Phil Spitalny and his All-Girl Orchestra all over again, give or take a few million extras. Ed Sullivan once said, "Sonny's a terrific agent because he's always had that undergraduate zing." Raised in Brooklyn, Werblin began his zinging at James Madison High, where he played center on the football team and was voted the handsomest boy in his graduating class—but he adds, "You don't know what an ugly class we had."
"Beautiful" was Werblin's impression of the Garden State when he visited relatives there. "I actually fell in love with the place," he says. That led him to enroll in Rutgers, where he managed the swimming team and served as a part-time correspondent for no fewer than seven different newspapers. "I made so much money they broke me up as a monopoly," he says. "Actually, I earned more in my senior year than I did for the next five years."
Graduating just in time for the Great Depression, Werblin got a job as an office boy at the Music Corporation of America, the giant talent agency, for $85 a month. He soon moved up to band manager, touring with the likes of Guy Lombardo, Xavier Cugat and Eddie Duchin. He recalls, "That's when I learned to count the house, which can be tricky if you're playing for percentages." Once, when he caught a ballroom manager sneaking in customers on the side, he scooped up all the money he could carry and fled on the band bus.
One engagement Werblin extended was with Leah Ray Hubbard, a singer with the Phil Harris band. They were married in 1938. (Leah Ray's most popular song: On the Sunny Side of the Street.) Though lore has it that he got his nickname from one of MCA's major clients, Al Jolson, whose record Sonny Boy was all the rage, Werblin says that what the singer really gave him was "an interest in racing. Jolie loved horses but he couldn't move anywhere around the track without becoming the center of a mob scene. So I used to make his bets for him. It was my mother who called me Sonny, because I was the oldest of three boys."
Werblin's show-biz smarts eventually made him a vice-president of MCA Inc. and president of MCA-TV, a subsidiary. Hailed by Variety as broadcasting's "greatest promoter and salesman," during 30 years he handled such stars as Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Jack Paar and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
Werblin's specialty was packaging. He would create TV shows, cast them with MCA's own clients and sell the packages to sponsors and networks. He was also famed for "walking the talent." For instance, when NBC failed to renew its option on Wagon Train, he walked the show over to ABC. Then, to fill the gap left in NBC's schedule, he sold the network The Virginian. At one point he walked Jack Benny from NBC to a better deal at CBS and then, when the price was right, back to NBC. He was a master, reported Variety, "of the time-honored show-biz dodge of starting a war and selling ammunition to all sides."
In 1963, two years before he retired from MCA, Werblin wrote a personal check for $1.1 million and bought the debt-plagued New York Titans of the American Football League. At a cocktail party soon after, Werblin agreed to let three of his partners in Monmouth Park racetrack—Leon Hess, Phil Iselin and Townsend Martin—in on the deal. "Through the importuning of Iselin's friends I also gave Don Lillis [then the president of Bowie racetrack in Maryland] a share," says Werblin. "We thought we'd have our own little sports empire, but it didn't work out that way."
Walking the talent, Werblin moved the Titans to Shea Stadium, named them the Jets in deference to nearby LaGuardia Airport and dressed them in Kelly green in honor of his Saint Patrick's Day birth date. The Jets did not take off immediately. "At our first game," Werblin recalls, "we drew 3,800 and 2,700 of them were related to me."
Adhering to his maxim that "a million-dollar set is worthless if you cast a two-dollar actor in the main role," Werblin went looking for a leading man and found him starring in an Alabama road show. Joe Namath? Forget the rifle arm and the hotshot rep. What Werblin saw in that raw, slump-shouldered bearing was "star magic." Upon signing Namath in 1965 for $400,000, a record for those comparatively pre-inflationary times, Werblin told him, "I don't know whether you'll play on our team or make a picture for Universal."
Werblin played the media like Yehudi Menuhin playing a Stradivarius. He put floodlights on the $400,000 price tag and packaged and peddled Namath into a superstar before he had thrown a single pass. And when it came time to count the house, there were 53,658 screamers on hand to see Broadway Joe's opening act at Shea—or about 20,000 more fans than the Titans had drawn their entire final season.
That done, Werblin dropped in to see his old fishing buddy "Bobby"—that's Robert W. Sarnoff, then chairman of the board of RCA—and came away with a $36 million TV contract for the foundering AFL. "The football writers came running," Werblin recalls. "Other high draft choices went AFL and the league was off and winging."
But as the Jets climbed to the top of the league in attendance and edged toward destiny in Super Bowl III, relationships in the front office deteriorated to the point where in 1968 Werblin sold his 23.4% share for $1,638,000. Shortly after assuming the presidency of the Jets, Don Lillis spoke on behalf of the partners. "The team was Sonny's whole life and he did a great job," he said. "But we were on the outside peeking in. We were completely forgotten men. Nobody knew there were other owners. And that's what led to the disagreement. We had a lot of money invested and all we were getting out of it was a free box and a free lunch before the game. We offered to sell and when Sonny said no, we said what the hell, we'll buy you out."
"It was sheer jealousy," says Werblin. "Before the team was a success they were never around. You didn't see them in Kansas City when it was 14° below and your feet stuck to the metal floor. But the moment a profit appeared, we were suddenly running everything by committee, and everyone knows you can't run an entertainment enterprise by committee.
"They offered to sell, but the price was not right and they wanted cash down. So I made my offer and that's when Leon Hess told me, 'I'll never sell as long as you stay in.' So then I agreed to sell and I never spoke another word to any of them again. I just don't want to know people like that."
Shunted to a seat on the 10-yard line, Werblin watched with bittersweet emotions as the Jets powered their way through the season and on to an upset 16-7 victory over the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. "I was happy the boys won," he says, "but it hurt to see the way they've come apart since then. But I had my choice and I refuse to look back."
When Werblin left the Jets, he occupied himself with his partnership with Johnny Carson in Raritan Enterprises (producers of the Tonight Show), his racing stable, medical data-bank firm, investment company, real estate interests and seats on the boards of Rutgers, Monmouth Park, the New Jersey National Bank and the Lake Isles Country Club. To his football friends, he said, "I'll be back."
That it would be in the guise of the Jersey Swamp Fox is a role that not even Sonny Starmaker could have dreamed up. But then the Hackensack Meadowlands is not your everyday bog. Carved by a glacier some 25,000 years ago, it is a reedy channel, three miles wide and seven miles long, that follows the meandering Hackensack River northward from Newark Bay to just west of the George Washington Bridge. Named for the local Indian tribe, the Hackensack is the lifeline for a maze of tidal streams that have been resisting man's encroachment since the Dutch first tried diking and draining the marsh in the 17th century. By the late 1960s the area had degenerated into one colossal garbage dump; 50,000 tons of solid waste were being carted into the marsh each day. Dammed upstream and choked off below, the Hackensack River was close to dying.
In 1968 the state legislature created the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission to perform the tricky balancing act of cleaning up the environmental mess while exploiting the economic potential of 20,000 acres of marsh, an area larger than the island of Manhattan. Talk of including a major league stadium in the Hackensack Meadowlands master plan began in earnest when the Cahill administration took office in 1970. Trouble was, stadiums are such notoriously low-return enterprises that 70% of those built in the U.S. have had to be financed with taxpayers' dollars. And Cahill was loath to take that politically sensitive risk in New Jersey.
So State Treasurer Joe McCrane, a linebacker on the Davis-Blanchard teams at West Point, came up with a novel alternative. Float a public tax-free bond issue to raise the money for a stadium and a racetrack. Then use the profits generated by the horses (which figured to be about 30 times greater than those produced by the stadium) to pay off the whole lot and—voil√†!—it's kickoff time in the swamp.
Though skeptical, Cahill agreed in the hope that the sports complex would relieve the state's "identity crisis" and be the "catalyst that sets the Meadowlands on fire." He recalls, "Everybody, including the New Jersey press, banged the idea. And I realized that this was going to be my crown of glory or crown of thorns. 'Cahill's Folly,' some people started calling it. But this is America and sports are a symbol. You've not really arrived until you have a major league team. So the sports complex seemed like just the thing to change New Jersey's image."
Signed in May 1971, the bill establishing the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority stipulated that a major league franchise in either baseball or football had to be secured before the bond issue could be sold. Because of league rules protecting territorial rights in both sports, that meant that the Authority would have to lure one or more of the existing New York teams. The Yankees and the Giants, tenants in the then sadly deteriorating Yankee Stadium, seemed the likeliest candidates. But how to go about getting them? What was needed was someone who could pull off a really big package deal, someone who could persuade, entice....
Enter Werblin. "I accepted the position," he says, "because I feel that if a man can afford to perform a public service in his lifetime, he should, and because it gave me an opportunity to combine the three things I enjoy most—football, horse racing and entertainment." To avoid any conflict of interests, he sold his stock in Monmouth Park and became chairman of the Sports Authority in June 1971. Two months later the Giants announced that they had signed a 30-year lease with the Meadowlands.
"Selfish, callous and ungrateful!" wailed New York City Mayor John Lindsay. To keep the restless Yankees from following the Giants, Lindsay quickly proposed, and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller quickly authorized, the city to spend $24 million to buy and refurbish Yankee Stadium. In equally quick succession three New Jersey thoroughbred tracks—Monmouth Park, Garden State and Atlantic City—sued on grounds that the Meadowlands legislation was unconstitutional. Powerful environmentalist groups like the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club weighed in with their objections.
Convinced that he had the Giants because Yankee Stadium could never be made suitable for football ("They'd have done better to spend the money on the parking lot at Aqueduct"), Werblin made his peace with the environmentalists, who wound up more or less appeased by plans for turning 130 acres of the complex into an environmental study center and providing such safeguards as systems for the control of water and air quality.
In the spring of 1973, after borrowing $51 million from a consortium of New Jersey banks to start construction, Werblin and Adrian Foley, a prominent Newark attorney and the Sports Authority's financial chief, put on a hard-sell promotion for their bond issue for a group from 150 Wall Street financial houses. Afterward, Foley recalls, "They were tugging at our lapels, begging us not to leave them out." So far, so good. But nastier problems were ahead.
In March, with hopes high and all systems go, the Sports Authority announced its $262 million bond issue. That was on a Wednesday. That night, at Governor Rockefeller's behest, a 92-page bill was put together that called for major changes in New York's racing laws, all of which greatly enhanced the competitive position of the state's tracks. Passed by the legislature on Friday and signed by Rockefeller on Saturday, the bill hit the Meadowlands like a tidal wave. "Within two weeks," says Foley, "the financial houses supporting our bond began dropping like flies." At the suggestion of Dillon Read & Co., underwriters of the project, the issue had to be withdrawn for lack of buyers.
"It was a brilliant ploy," says Foley, "and was indicative of Rockefeller's single-minded determination to stop us. So there we were, owing $51 million and with no visible means of support. The bankers were looking at us cross-eyed and everybody considered us stone-cold dead."
Clearly it was time for Werblin to go into his act again. At the Saratoga races in August he met a friend from Hornblower & Weeks-Hemphill Noyes, the large Wall Street investment firm, and after a little friendly enticing, Hornblower & Weeks, in tandem with Merrill Lynch & Co., agreed to underwrite a second Meadowlands bond. Hiked to more than $280 million because of inflation, the issue was to be launched in October.
"So what happens?" says Foley, still incredulous. "The day we announce the issue, Rocky takes a helicopter ride over New York and then trots out Bus Mosbacher [then chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board] to reveal plans for a new $275 million sports complex—a racetrack, stadium, the whole deal—to be built on a platform over the railway yards in Sunnyside, Queens. It was a complete hoax! They never had a feasibility study, never had a plan—nothing! But with that, we went down the drain again."
Werblin heard of Rockefeller's latest gambit on the car radio while en route to a Rutgers football game. "I was absolutely frustrated," he recalls. "There was no phone in the car and it was the hottest September ever." During half-time Werblin passed out in the press box and was rushed to the hospital. "I still don't know if it was a heart attack or heat exhaustion or both," he says. "All I know is that I was damn tense."
While Werblin recovered, construction was halted and late at night in swampside bars there was talk of the hex of the Hackensacks. To stifle the doomsayers, Foley says, "We borrowed an old pile driver from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and kept it pounding away out there on the site so people wouldn't think we were totally dead."
After Werblin returned to action, the underwriters agreed to float a third bond, but only if the New Jersey legislature backed it with a "moral pledge," a move that would bolster confidence in the bond but would not legally bind the state to rescue the sports complex if it faltered. Even so, there was enough opposition to the implied obligation to require some strong convincing, especially in view of the uncertain political climate.
Up for reelection and hurt by the failure of the first bond issue as well as by charges of campaign fund-raising irregularities, Cahill had lost the June primary, and his successor, Brendan Byrne, was not due to take office until January 1974. Nonetheless, in his last hurrah, Cahill summoned a group of key legislators into his office in late November and, citing the dirty tricks played by Rocky's mob, concluded, "That's what those bastards have done to us. New York is pushing us around again and that's why New Jersey is the way it is. Are we going to sit still for this?"
Some of the most prominent legislators jumped up right in the State Assembly during a memorable session, pointed defiantly toward New York and shouted, "We're No. 1!" State Senator James Dugan preached, "This legislature is finally telling Rockefeller that we're no longer simply going to be a dumping ground for New York. We're standing up to New York and telling it we're its equal!" The moral pledge was approved by a vote of 29 to 7.
But times were tough: construction deadlines were pressing, contract penalties were mounting, the price of the third bond had risen to $302 million and the market was in a bad slump. Werblin says, "I just put on my blinkers and traveled the country, talking megalopolis and trying to sell bonds."
At one point, while Werblin was coming on like a bit player in one of the old Abbott and Costello shows he used to package, a towering Arab in flowing robes walked through the office door carrying a copy of National Geographic identifying him as an emir from Kuwait. Kissing Werblin on both cheeks, he offered to loan him the entire $302 million. Though the offer was seriously weighed, it was declined. As Werblin puts it, no one wanted to get involved with "a guy right out of central casting."
The uncertainty soon turned to fright. When the third Meadowlands bond was finally floated in January 1974, the underwriters found to their consternation that, save for a $2 million commitment from the Manhattan branch of the Bank of Tokyo, not a single New York bank would touch the bonds. Suspicions of a new and grander conspiracy were confirmed in Werblin's mind when, just two days before the issue was to go on sale, an investment house that had pledged itself to a huge $50 million order suddenly reneged.
"It was a sandbag," says Werblin, "the fine Italian hand of New York at work again." According to one conspiracy theory, the last-minute defector was supposedly acting on behalf of the Chase Manhattan Bank, whose chairman is Nelson Rockefeller's brother David. Subsequently, several New York bankers admitted that the call for their freeze-out came from Albany, which, with billions invested in New York banks, did not have to dictate, but merely suggest.
"In 30 years in Wall Street," says Robert Wohlforth, then of Hornblower & Weeks, "I've never seen such a deliberate effort to undermine a deal. Selling those bonds was one of the worst things I've ever been through in my life."
On the verge of going under for the third time, Werblin and crew bailed away during a frantic 24-hour period that saw a spokesman for Governor Byrne announce, "For all practical purposes the sports complex is dead." But with a $140 million block of bonds still to be sold, who was being practical? The New Jersey banks and insurance companies, preaching pride and feeling panic at the thought of losing their original $51 million loan, scraped together another $50 million to plug the gap left by the last-minute defector. The underwriters squeezed an additional $30 million out of Wall Street and finally the mighty Prudential Life Insurance Co. of Newark, N.J. lumbered forward with the $50 million clincher.
And soon, with pile drivers pounding for real, the Meadowlands was grinding out its own ad campaign: "There's Excitement Building in New Jersey!"
Meadowlands bond buyers obviously agreed. Selling at a low of 64 in January 1976, the bonds are now bouncing along at 111. Not missing a trick, Werblin not only was instrumental in selling the scoreboard advertising for a record $7.5 million over a 10-year period, but he also has seen to it that the manure from the Meadowlands stables, which most tracks pay to have removed, is sold as fertilizer to a local mushroom farmer for $65 a truckload. "In this business," he says, "you have to get every dollar you can."
With the Meadowlands making money, Werblin is able to concern himself with other matters. His day is likely to begin with an inspection tour of the highways between his Colt's Neck, N.J. mansion and the Meadowlands. Peering out of his limousine one recent morning, he frowned and said, "If they could just police this area and wash those signs, it'd give New Jersey a better image."
The help at the Meadowlands, ever alert to his white-glove strolls, refers to Sonny as "Partly Cloudy"—and for obvious reasons. His eyes darted as he walked, looking for a loose tile, a missing button, a wad of chewing gum stuck under a seat. He critiqued everything from the color of the rest-room walls to the graphics on the clubhouse menu. Bending to pick up a cigarette butt wedged in a crack, he said, "It's like a Broadway show. There's always the danger of going stale, and the only way to prevent that is to open every night as though it were opening night."
Confident that he has another hit, Werblin spent more time than usual at his oceanfront home in Golden Beach, Fla. this winter, recovering from a bout of "walking pneumonia." While the controversy over the possibility of the Jets' moving to the Meadowlands raged in New York, Werblin was teeing up outside his cabana and blithely rapping ball after ball into the Atlantic with a six-iron. "You know," he said, locking his elbows, "the Meadowlands has given me an opportunity to use all the useless knowledge I've accumulated over the years." Thwack. "I've been to hundreds of gathering places, ballrooms, nightclubs, opera houses, steel piers. Now I'm just applying everything I've ever learned." Thwack.
Later, while mixing himself a vodka martini, Werblin stared at a large blowup of Namath in action mounted behind the bar, its colors faded by the sun. "Old Joe," he mused. "I once said that I preferred my horse Silent Screen because at least he's got four good legs, but that's not true. Actually, I've had several chances to buy another team but all my friends tell me that it's no fun anymore because of the labor situation. It's like a girl you once loved. You see her again eight years later and she doesn't look so good."
The future? "Make me an offer," Werblin said, allowing that he was going to make one himself that he felt would, sooner or later, bring the most prestigious event in harness racing, the Hambletonian, to the Meadowlands. He talked on about the new $10 million aquarium that is in the advance planning stage, about hosting a national political convention, staging a six-day bike race, rescuing New York.... How's that? "I'm a strong advocate of creating a 51st state," he said. "It would extend from Bridgeport to Poughkeepsie to Asbury Park, an area that has all the same problems—welfare, transportation, unemployment." Pausing just long enough to swirl his drink and formulate the details for another dream empire, he continued, "Now what we have to do is...."