SABR

Del Webb

This article was written by Dan Levitt and Mark Armour.

Del Webb’s father was a native-born Californian who spent his youth playing baseball before becoming a construction executive. Del followed a similar path. After washing out as a ballplayer, Webb spent several years as a carpenter before starting his own construction company. By landing a number of large government contracts during the Depression and World War II, Webb built his construction company into one of the largest and most profitable in the country.

As the War dragged on, Webb began considering additional business challenges. Always a ballplayer at heart, owning a baseball team intrigued him, and he informally scouted for opportunities to acquire one. He was lucky in that one of the most profitable and successful teams in America was available because of estate tax issues, and on the heels of the Depression, in the middle of the War, very few had any money to spend buying a baseball team. In January 1945 Webb purchased an interest in the New York Yankees, America’s preeminent sports franchise, for a war-depressed, bargain-basement price.

Three years later, Webb, along with Dan Topping, acquired full ownership of the team as equal partners. Webb’s force of personality and good business sense quickly made him one of baseball’s most powerful owners. Webb dominated the most important baseball issues of the 1950s and early 1960s, particularly the franchise shifts and expansion. He and Topping also continued the tradition of Yankee excellence: under their seventeen years of direct control, the Yankees won fourteen pennants and nine World Series.

On May 17, 1899 in Fresno, California Delbert Eugene became the first of three sons born to Ernest and Henrietta (Forthcamp) Webb. Webb’s paternal grandfather spent time in the state legislature, and his mother’s family later left her a sizeable inheritance. During Del’s youth his father ran a profitable sand and gravel operation.

By the time he was thirteen Webb stood six foot three but weighed only 130 pounds. He was regarded as a standout first baseman and occasionally played semi-professionally. Unfortunately, in 1913 economic disaster struck the family, and Webb was forced to quit school and go to work as a carpenter’s apprentice. After America’s entry into World War I, Webb went to work in the Oakland shipyards for $8.00 a day and played on the shipyard baseball team.

When the war ended Webb married his childhood sweetheart, Hazel Church, then an operating room nurse. Webb continued to believe he had a future in baseball, and for a few years he wandered around the Western United States playing semi-pro ball and working carpentry jobs. As a player he had developed into a powerful pitcher, now standing six feet four and weighing around 200 pounds. But he never got the break he longed for. Webb believed that by 1921 his heavy pitching workload had wrecked his arm.

In 1928, after playing a game in San Quentin against the prisoners, Webb missed the return boat carrying his teammates because of a hangover. Thirsty, he asked one of the inmates for a glass of water and caught a later boat. The inmate turned out to be sick and highly contagious; Webb contracted Typhoid Fever, a life-threatening disease at the time. Webb’s weight fell to just 99 pounds, and on a couple of occasions it appeared as if he might not survive. He was hospitalized for eleven weeks and incapable of working for a year. After finally recovering the doctor advised Webb to move to a dry climate. Webb and Hazel took their $100 in savings and moved to Phoenix, Arizona.

In Phoenix Webb was hired by grocery store developer A.J. Bayless to build his stores. When the Depression came, he managed to secure large government projects to keep his company afloat and even thrive. By the mid 1930s Webb’s annual gross sales was in the neighborhood of $3 million. Webb’s contacts eventually included President Franklin Roosevelt, oil millionaire Ed Pauley, and Democratic power broker Robert Hannegan. The government contracts Webb landed during World War II made his company one of the country’s largest contractors.

He also became a teetotaler. When he went to a doctor complaining of a minor illness, the doctor took a routine medical history. “When I told him I drank 10 to 20 bourbons a day,” Webb recalled, “he damn near dropped his teeth. He said I should cut down, but I told him I would quit. And I did.” 1

When the Oakland Oaks, a franchise in the Pacific Coast League, became available for $60,000 during World War II, Webb considered buying it. But while contemplating the purchase Webb encountered Larry MacPhail, whom Webb knew from his frequent visits to Washington to negotiate war-related construction work. MacPhail, then working as an assistant to Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson, was working to purchase the New York Yankees and trying to put together a moneyed syndicate. MacPhail told Webb to quit fooling around with a minor league team and come in with him to buy baseball’s most storied franchise. Webb knew a good deal when he saw one. “Count me in,” he told MacPhail.2

As MacPhail tried to assemble his investment group, Webb returned to his government construction contracts. While building the El Toro Marine base Webb ran into Dan Topping, a Marine captain and wealthy sportsman. Topping mentioned that he was also hoping to purchase the Yankees, with or without MacPhail. Yankees president Ed Barrow loved running the Yankees and didn’t want to sell, particularly to MacPhail, a longtime antagonist. The Ruppert family trust that owned the team, however, had a large estate tax liability and little choice but to sell. Finally, Barrow agreed to sell to a three-headed partnership of Webb, Topping and MacPhail, and in January 1945 the threesome purchased the Yankees for $2.89 million.

For the first three years of their Yankees ownership Webb and Topping let MacPhail run the team more or less autonomously. But after an infamous altercation in New York’s Biltmore Hotel in 1947, Webb and Topping had to make a change. [See Chapter 1, "The Yankees’ Ownership," page 22-24.]

After this incident the two were no longer willing to keep their baseball investment in the hands of the mercurial MacPhail. They immediately called their lawyers and drew up papers to buy MacPhail’s third. “We sent word that we would give him $2 million [a huge profit on his original investment] and he’d damned well better take it,” Webb recalled. “We gave him until 6 o’clock that night. I was in the back room that afternoon...they came in and told me that MacPhail had signed and wanted to see me. I went outside and MacPhail was standing there smiling and he put out his hand and said, ‘Del, you’ve been a good partner to me.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to shake your hand,’ and told him what I thought of him and walked away.” 3

Webb and Topping now owned the Yankees equally. Both were wealthy and independent and neither liked or had experience with equal partners. Moreover their personalities were diametrically opposed: “Webb is the far westerner who looks as though he just shucked off his cowboy stuff,” wrote Harold Rosenthal. “Topping is an Easterner in the yachts-polo-anyone-for-tennis mold. Unless Webb has known you a long time, you’ll get a “yes,” “no” or “maybe” from him. Topping is the open, friendly type, the kind the headmaster tells you your boy will turn out to be when you enroll him in one of the more fashionable Eastern prep schools.”4 Nevertheless, the duo made a surprisingly long-lasting and effective team. In general Webb took the lead in league matters, while Topping oversaw the operational side.

The Yankees could not repeat in 1948, and recently promoted general manager George Weiss, with the blessing of Webb and Topping, jettisoned manager Bucky Harris. “The main reason was that Bucky believed it wasn’t necessary to work with a club much beyond the time it took to play a game,” Webb explained. “He didn’t think it was his job to develop young players.”5 Weiss wanted to hire Casey Stengel, a somewhat quixotic choice, and Topping had some misgivings. Webb, however, had known Stengel for many years and vouched for him to Topping, who acquiesced.

Webb’s next high-profile baseball involvement came in December 1950 when the owners were considering extending the contract of baseball commissioner Happy Chandler. Webb detested Chandler and considered him rather a prude and prone to offer opinions and decisions without all the facts. Webb also had a more personal reason dislike the commissioner. “His construction company built the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and I investigated to make sure that Webb’s involvement with the gambling center ended there,” Chandler recalled. “This seemed a sensible and understandable precaution, but Webb was furious.”6

Webb and Topping proved adept at working the backrooms of baseball ownership. Despite initial support for Chandler among many of the owners, the Yankees duo, supported by St. Louis Cardinals owner Fred Saigh, maneuvered the vote away from Chandler. Webb was not reticent about his involvement: “If I’ve never done anything else for baseball, I did it when I got rid of Chandler.”7

During the 1950s the owners spent considerable time and energy mulling over the geographic future of their sport. After 50 years of franchise stability, many of baseball’s owners began to salivate over the potential huge payday in untapped metropolitan areas. Webb believed in realignment as opposed to expansion, as there were still plenty of struggling two-team cities that could no longer support two teams.

St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck, after an abortive attempt to move his franchise to Baltimore early in 1953, tried again at the end of the season. He believed he had effectively lobbied the other owners and expected approval. Webb, however, wanted Veeck, who was barely in front of his creditors, out of baseball and maneuvered him into selling to a more stable Baltimore group. Veeck received a nice price for the team, and the franchise moved to Baltimore.

The next year the league had to deal with another two-city team going bankrupt. The Philadelphia Athletics were on the verge of receivership. One of the most aggressive and persistent suitors for the Athletics was Arnold Johnson, a Chicago based businessman and business associate of Webb and Topping who also owned the minor league Kansas City Blues stadium and planned to move the A’s there. After some financial maneuvering that benefitted Messrs. Johnson, Topping, and Webb, the Athletics moved to Kansas City.

By the end of the 1950s it was clear to most observers there were more Major-League-ready cities than there were franchises to go around. Business interests and politicians in those cities were pressing baseball for expansion. The inherently conservative baseball owners, however, continued to resist growing beyond sixteen franchises. Ironically, the greatest pressure came in New York. To rectify the situation, well-connected New York lawyer Bill Shea, with the support of New York politicians and the possibility of a new stadium in Queens, began canvassing the country for potential investors and cities in a new, third major league, named the Continental League.

After fighting a cagey rearguard action for a roughly a year, Webb eventually realized he had little choice but to accept a National League expansion team in Queens as the least bad option. He was also the driving force in directing American League expansion into Los Angeles. Although other cites appeared to have more support, Webb wanted an American League team in California, and if the National League was going to force a second team on his city, he could do the same in Los Angeles.

In the aftermath of the 1960 World Series, the Yankees duo eased both Stengel and Weiss out of their positions. “We had been bringing Houk [subsequent manager Ralph] along in our organization,” Webb defended the substance if not the staging of the managerial change, “And we couldn’t hold Houk any longer because other clubs had been making managerial offers...I still think this was good organizational thinking to make the change when we did. I think one of the big mistakes that baseball commits is to hang on to a star for sentimental reasons without having a capable replacement ready. The same thing applies to Stengel.”8

The two owners botched another managerial firing four years later when they jettisoned Yogi Berra after winning the 1964 pennant. Webb had never been in favor of hiring Berra in the first place but had been talked into it by Topping. “I never thought it wise to select a manager from the player ranks,” Webb justified later, “particularly to handle a group of men with whom he has played. I also have thought that managing in the minors is by far the best method of developing a major league manager.”9

This public relations disaster was generally overshadowed by the sale of the Yankees to CBS, announced in August 1964 and dragged out by additional revelations and commentary throughout the offseason. “I didn’t want to sell,” Webb claimed. “It was Dan’s doing. He wanted to get out and I couldn’t run it by myself because I’m too busy with my other things, so we talked it over and decided it was best this way. Dan has ten kids to think of. He has to take care of them and now’s the time to start thinking about it.”10

CBS now owned 80% of the Yankees and Webb and Topping split $11.2 million. CBS agreed to keep Webb and Topping on as executives, but Webb had little desire to remain in a generally ceremonial position; in March he sold his remaining share for $1.4 million.

Del Webb owned the Yankees during one of the greatest runs in professional team sports. The team that he and his partners had purchased in 1945 for $2.89 million sold twenty years later based on a valuation of $14 million, and along the way the Yankees were consistently baseball’s most profitable franchise. And although he did not initially intend to play an active ownership role, once he and Topping took full control, Webb, the consummate backroom politician, became the most influential power broker in the American League.

When Time magazine put Webb on its August 3, 1962 cover the accompanying article devoted only one paragraph to his ownership in the Yankees. The publicly-traded Del E. Webb Corporation built and owned hotels in Las Vegas, shopping malls and office buildings in Phoenix and Tucson, large housing communities throughout the Southwest, military bases and missile silo complexes all over the country, and large high-profile construction projects all over the world.

Maybe most significantly, though, Webb created and introduced the giant retirement communities that now seem ubiquitous all across America. In the late 1950s Webb bought 10,000 acres in Arizona on the distant edge of the Phoenix metropolitan area to build a community for active seniors. The concept proved a huge and immediate hit. Webb delivered a “complete and functioning town,” for people who “loved their grandchildren, but didn’t want to ‘raise somebody else’s children.’”11 Named “Sun City,” the community became the blueprint for many similar developments throughout the Southern United States, built by Webb and later imitators.

As his empire grew, Webb began living a much faster paced life, although he remained a teetotaler and anti-smoking fanatic. He split his time between three first-class permanent hotel suites: the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California, which he built; the Mountain Shadows resort in Phoenix, which he also built; and the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Each was kept fully furnished, including a complete set of clothes, with an ample staff. In 1953, after thirty-four years of marriage, Hazel divorced him although the two remained close. In August 1961 Webb remarried the much younger Toni Ince after meeting her on a blind date on the previous Halloween. Webb had no children from either marriage.

Not surprisingly for someone building casinos in Las Vegas in the 1950s and 1960s Webb worked with suspected mobsters. Accusations later surfaced that some of these business relationships might be less than fully above board. A March 19, 1977 story featured Webb and accused him of being “an active business partner with organized crime figures for three decades.”12 The article claimed that Webb was more intimately involved in the ownership of the casinos than previously believed. Surprisingly, given the widespread distribution the series received and the other high profile public personalities referenced in the articles, few repercussions ever came out of the enormous investigative effort.

After the 1964 sale of the Yankees, Webb remained active running his construction company. Most significantly he expanded internationally into the leisure business. In March 1973, at age seventy-three, Webb became Chairman of the Board and made Bob Johnson the new Chief Executive Officer. Since his bout with Typhoid Fever and giving up drinking, Webb had generally been in good health. This changed about a year later when Webb needed a tumor removed from his right lung. The surgery was apparently successful, but shortly thereafter Webb was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Following additional exploratory surgery, Webb died on July 4, 1974. At Webb’s request no funeral was held. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered over Arizona.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.