Wellington Mara, The White Sox and my touch with History
By Richard J. Garfunkel
October 27, 2005
The rainstorms of October have washed away the long, hot days of summer. The Yankees, after a frustrating up and down season were once again not in the World Series. Over the last ten years we started to believe in the myth of Yankee invincibility and that the Bronx was its only legitimate home. But George’s open checkbook policy of signing “over the hill” former trophies has finally come home to roost. Inconsistent play was the hallmark of the former champs and baseball is still a team game.
Baseball history was surprisingly served the last two years by the success of two perpetual “bridesmaids,” who were two of the original American League franchises, and have coincidentally similar names. The Red Sox and the White Sox have now ended two of the longest championship droughts that had lasted over 80+ years. The White Sox 4-0 sweep over the Houston Astros, replicated three previous other times in baseball history when one league was able to sweep the other league twice in a row. In 1927-8, the Yankees Murderer’s Row teams with Ruth and Gehrig swept both the Pirates and the Cards. Again in 1938-9 the Bronx Bombers with Gehrig and DiMaggio swept the Cubs and the Reds. And of course recently, the “Torre” Yanks swept both the hapless Padres and the Braves. The White Sox, who had a long history of futility emanating from the infamous Black Sox Scandal of 1919, came back into the championship spotlight under the enlightened tenure of Al Lopez in 1959. But since then they had not made an appearance in the Fall Classic and had not won a World Series since 1917, with their ill fated star Shoeless Joe Jackson.
We have a slight connection with the White Sox through one of Linda’s fiends from Barnard College, whose husband is very close to one of the owners of the White Sox. Not too long ago we went to see the Edward R. Murrow film, Goodnight and Good Luck with them and we all wanted the White Sox to win. Months earlier at another dinner we had all speculated about the slim possibility, of the then surging White Sox’s ability to sustain their momentum and win. For sure very few baseball fans would have thought way back in April, that these two teams would have been playing for the championship come October.
Meanwhile the local football season has been shocked by both the collapse of the Jets, with their numerous injuries, and the death of Wellington Mara, the long-time patriarch and owner of the Giants.
In the late 1950’s I started caddying at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, at the invitation of my Mount Vernon neighbor, the famous and flamboyant William J. O’Hara, a former member of the old Westchester Board of Supervisors. Bill O’Hara, who was affectionately known as the “Commissioner,” was the lawyer of both the old Brooklyn Dodgers and the football New York Giants. Not only was the late Bill O’Hara, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 87, a great golfer and a remarkable individual, but he attended and played football for Fordham College with not only Wellington Mara, but with the late great Vince Lombardi, who was a member of their famous “Seven Blocks of Granite” front line.
Ironically I had another indirect connection with that Fordham class of 1937. They had a wonderful football team that year, and were undefeated when they met a determined University of Georgia Bulldog squad. Fordham was expecting a Rose Bowl invitation. In those days, before the Big 10 Conference winner had an automatic invitation to play the Pacific 8 Champion, the Rose Bowl quite often invited the best team from the East to play. In fact, remarkably, Columbia University beat Stanford 7-0, in 1934.
Fordham, expecting to finish the season undefeated, faced a determined Bulldog team that came to New York, with a young Frederick W. Rosen, a cousin of my wife Linda. Fred later earned fame with his service during World War II with the PT Boats and his friendship with young Jack Kennedy. He met the future President in Charlestown, South Carolina and eventually trained with him at the Melville Motor Boat Training School in Rhode Island, later attended his wedding at Hammersmith Farm in Newport, RI and was part of the team of former PT Boat veterans that campaigned for Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential campaign. Fred, was a member of Peter Tare, the PT Boat Officer’s Alumni Association that later presented the President with a Stueben glass replica of the ill-fated PT-109. Of course Georgia wound up tying the Rams 10-10 and as a consequence of that tie, Fordham eventually lost their invitation to the Bowl game to the University of Pittsburgh.
In the 1950’s, I was a young teenager and had the pleasure and unique experience of caddying for Wellington Mara at Winged Foot. Wellington Mara was the younger son of Tim Mara, a local legal bookmaker at the New York tracks, who had acquired the NY franchise of the Giants in 1925, for an amount reportedly between $500 and $2000. Supposedly that money represented a gambling debt owed to Mara, but the real details have only been rumored about.
The inaugural 1925 season opened inauspiciously with three straight losses. Their first home game, at the fabled Polo Grounds, was a loss to the Frankfort Yellow Jackets 14-0, and played in front of 40,000 fans, of whom only half had paid. The Giants were able to win the next 7 games including 4 shutouts, but despite their new success they became a financial disaster. By the time the Chicago Bears came to town, they were deep in debt, probably about $40,000. Tim Mara’s friends and colleagues were urging him to the man to forget this ill-fated business. Wellington Mara clearly recalled that Governor Al Smith, a friend of his father, and a frequent visitor to their home, telling him “Pro football will never amount to anything, why don’t you give it up.” Reportedly Tim Mara answered, that the boys, Jack, age 18 and Wellington, age 9 would never forgive him. Of course Al Smith, a great governor was also wrong about FDR. When he was warned by friends not to let FDR, a potential state rival, nominate him at the 1928 Democratic Convention, and become the candidate for NY State governor, Smith said, “don’t worry, he’s a sick man and won’t live another year.”
But resurrection, to coin a phrase for a family of devout Catholics, was at hand. The Chicago Bears were on their way to New York with their most recent acquisition, the great, legendary Harold “Red” Grange and his wily agent Charles C. (Cash and Carry) Pyle. Grange had played his last college game the Saturday before Thanksgiving and his first pro game on Thanksgiving Day. The “Galloping Ghost,” from the University of Illinois, as Grange was nicknamed by the famous sportswriter Grantland Rice, was still technically a senior in College.
With the game scheduled for December 6, a week after the Army-Navy Game at the Polo Grounds, thousands of seats were still in place. By the game time 70,000+ seats had been sold, and more then 20,000 fans were perched on Coogan’s Bluff that overlooked the Polo Grounds, and the neighboring apartment buildings. It was said that Grange made $30,000 on that game alone, and $250,000 that season. Mara’s $40,000 debt was wiped out and at season’s end he had made a profit of $18,000.
Of course, in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, Wellington’s older brother Jack ran the Giants. When Jack died in 1965, Wellington, who was the personnel director of the Giants, took over the reins of the team. He owned half the Giants along with his brother’s widow and their son Tim. Unfortunately with the dual burden of management and personnel, the Giants entered into a long period of failure and fan disillusionment.
But, be that as it may, I did caddy and get to meet Wellington Mara a number of times. His reputation as a gentleman, a sportsman, a family and religious man was second to none. Mara was the last survivor of one of the founding families that included George Halas and Art Rooney. Who would know, certainly not the politically astute Al Smith that this ramshackle and disorganized league, where franchises were bought and sold for hundreds of dollars, would eventually become a multi-billion dollar enterprise?
An old era has finally passed with the death of the last witness to the earliest days of the National Football League. Will there also be a change in the Bronx, as the Yankees start to feel their age? Will see next spring.