SABR

John Galbreath

This article was written by Warren Corbett.

“He’s a little guy. Thinks he can do anything. Damn near can.” That description of John W. Galbreath came from the longtime manager of his Darby Dan Farm, Olin Gentry.

Galbreath built his Kentucky farm into a world-renowned thoroughbred racing stable. He owned the controlling interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates for 35 years and celebrated three World Series championships. In his business career he reshaped the skylines of cities from his hometown, Columbus, Ohio, to Hong Kong while amassing real estate holdings estimated at $550 million. At his funeral the famed pastor Norman Vincent Peale summed up his life as an “old, traditional American success story.”1

John Wilmer Galbreath was born in Derby, Ohio, on August 10, 1897, to Francis Galbreath and the former Mary Mitchell, who was called Belle. He grew up on a farm in Mount Sterling as one of six children, and was a 5-foot-6-inch shortstop on his high-school team. He launched his first entrepreneurial venture when he was 10 years old, selling not horses but horseradish. Needing money for college, he worked for a year peddling high-school graduation invitations and pins before he entered Ohio University. He waited tables, repaired bicycles, and played saxophone in a dance band. He set up a darkroom in his dorm room, took photos of his classmates, and sold them to the students’ parents.2 World War I interrupted his education; he served as a lieutenant in the field artillery before returning to graduate in 1920.

Soon afterward he went into the real-estate business with a college fraternity brother, founding John W. Galbreath and Co. in Columbus. His marriage to Helen Mauck produced two children, son Daniel and daughter Joan.

When Galbreath took up polo, he bought a stallion named Tommy Boy and several mares, with the idea of breeding polo ponies. But one of his fillies, Martha Long, won a $400 race at Beulah Park in Columbus in 1935, and that hooked him on racing.3 He bought a farm near Columbus in Galloway, Ohio, and named it Darby Dan Farm after his son and the Big Darby Creek, which ran across the land.

Galbreath turned the hardship of the Great Depression into an opportunity that laid the foundation for his fortune. He assembled investor groups to buy defaulted real-estate mortgages for as little as 40 cents on the dollar and resell when the market recovered. By one account they bought and sold $7 million worth of property, with Galbreath collecting a 5 percent commission on every transaction. As his prominence grew, he served as president of the local and state real-estate boards.

In 1944 Galbreath was elected president of the National Association of Real Estate Boards. The association credited him with creating a strong nationwide organization by persuading real-estate boards in all 48 states to join what is now the National Association of Realtors. He represented the industry in lobbying for the disposal of surplus government property after World War II and in pushing for government-sponsored low-interest home loans for veterans, a key feature of the G.I. Bill of Rights that enabled millions of American families to become homeowners and transformed vast swaths of the landscape into suburbs.

One of Galbreath’s Columbus friends and fellow Ohio State University football boosters was George Trautman, a baseball executive who would become president of the minor leagues’ governing body. When Galbreath expressed interest in getting into the game, Trautman tipped him that the Cleveland Indians were for sale. Galbreath decided not to make a bid and Bill Veeck bought the team.

Frank McKinney, a cigar-puffing Indianapolis banker who owned the city’s Triple-A team, was seeking investors to buy the Pittsburgh Pirates. On Trautman’s recommendation, Galbreath joined McKinney’s syndicate as a minority shareholder, along with singer Bing Crosby and Pittsburgh attorney Thomas Johnson. They closed the deal in August 1946. Despite Organized Baseball’s horror at any connection with gambling, new Commissioner Happy Chandler, a former governor and senator from Kentucky, did not share the late Judge Kenesaw M. Landis’s distaste for horse racing. Chandler made no effort to block Galbreath and Crosby, who was also involved with racing. Galbreath was named vice president and treasurer of the ballclub.

The Pirates had won six National League pennants early in the century, but none since 1927. The club was in last place on the day the new owners took over and rose only one spot, to seventh, by the end of the 1946 season. In December McKinney made his first big move to upgrade the team by acquiring slugger Hank Greenberg from Detroit. The deal fired up Pittsburgh fans, who rushed to buy season tickets. Just one problem: Greenberg announced his retirement.

Greenberg, a proud man, was disgusted at his treatment by the Tigers, after 16 years with the club (four of them in military service). Detroit had to put him on waivers and all other American League teams had to pass before he could be sent to the National League. The Tigers sold the former MVP to Pittsburgh getting no players in return. Greenberg heard about the sale on the radio, then received only a terse telegram from the Tigers. In his memoirs he wrote that it left “a very harsh, bitter taste in my mouth.”4

To entice Greenberg to Pittsburgh—and assuage those disappointed ticket buyers—McKinney called on his closer. Galbreath met Greenberg in New York and asked what it would take to bring his bat to the Pirates. Greenberg complained that he was sick of long train trips; Galbreath said he could fly between cities. Greenberg was tired of hotel rooms and roommates; Galbreath guaranteed him a suite to himself. Forbes Field, the Pirates’ spacious ballpark, was a graveyard for home runs; Galbreath promised to shorten the fences. He also offered Greenberg’s wife, an equestrian, one of Darby Dan’s thoroughbreds, but she declined.

At 36, Greenberg didn’t have much left. His greatest service to the team was as mentor to the young Ralph Kiner, who hit 51 home runs in 1947 and led the league in homers for seven straight years. But the Pirates still finished seventh. They climbed to fourth in 1948, then fell back to sixth.

As attendance dropped along with the team’s place in the standings, McKinney and Galbreath squabbled over the direction of the franchise. Partner Tom Johnson described them as “two prima donnas” who couldn’t get along.5 On July 19, 1950, Galbreath and Johnson bought out McKinney, and Galbreath became president of the Pirates. Although he still lived in Columbus, he had put down some roots in Pittsburgh; his company was building a 35-story tower for U.S. Steel and Mellon Bank, and he had opened an office in the city.

Galbreath knew whom he wanted to run his team. Branch Rickey had turned the nearly bankrupt St. Louis Cardinals into the National League’s powerhouse, and then moved on to build another powerhouse in Brooklyn. Twice he had created a baseball revolution, by developing the farm system and by signing Jackie Robinson. In racing terms, Rickey’s past performance was unparalleled. Besides, Rickey was another small-town Ohio boy who had to work his way through college and was even a member of Galbreath’s fraternity, Delta Tau Delta. In his lust for Rickey, Galbreath—widely respected for his integrity—engaged in some chicanery to get his man.

Walter O’Malley, who controlled 50 percent of the Dodgers’ stock, wanted to rid himself of Rickey and gain complete control of the franchise. O’Malley was out to make money; Rickey liked to spend it. Under an agreement among the team’s stockholders, if any of them found a buyer for his shares, the others had the right to match the offered price. Galbreath conjured up a buyer for Rickey’s 25 percent: William Zeckendorf, a fellow real-estate deal-maker and Delta Tau Delta brother, offered $1 million—three times what Rickey had paid for his stock.

O’Malley smelled a rat. Why would a canny businessman like Zeckendorf, who was not particularly interested in baseball, want to be a powerless minority partner? But that was the price for O’Malley to be free of Rickey. When the time came to write the check, O’Malley learned that Zeckendorf had included a twist of the knife: He was due an additional $50,000 as payment for tying up his money while his offer was pending. Zeckendorf endorsed that check over to Rickey, adding to the Mahatma’s retirement fund and to O’Malley’s anger.6

When Rickey signed on as the Pirates general manager in November 1950, he was nearly 69 years old. Still, Galbreath gave him a five-year contract for $100,000 a year, plus an additional five years as a consultant at $50,000. Rickey’s tenure would be spectacularly unsuccessful in the standings, but he fulfilled his mission. By signing hundreds of young players—applying his dictum, “Out of quantity comes quality”—he built the foundation for Galbreath’s first championship. But the victories did not come fast enough, to the frustration of the Pirates’ fans and owners. The ever-blabby Tom Johnson later said Galbreath “thought Rickey was the greatest thing since sliced cheese, and the old phony showed up here.”7

Rickey began his stewardship by paying baseball’s first $100,000 bonus to a high-school pitcher, Paul Pettit, who would win only one major-league game. Rickey spent another $400,000 on bonuses to untried amateurs in his first year. He tripled the size of the scouting staff and expanded the farm system. The major-league Pirates might have been able to win in one of those minor leagues, but not in the National. From 1951 through 1955 they lost at least 90 games every year and finished last in four out of five seasons, bottoming out with 112 defeats in 1952. Events conspired against Rickey’s youth movement; several of the best prospects, including Dick Groat and Vernon Law, were drafted for two years of military service.

The dreary team was driving away fans and Rickey was feeling pressure. He wanted to get rid of Ralph Kiner, by far the highest-paid Pirate, but Galbreath refused to sell a player to cover his financial losses. Galbreath personally negotiated Kiner’s contracts; when the star’s salary reached $90,000, the owner was said to be paying a big chunk of it out of his own pocket rather than the Pirates’ treasury. Exasperated, Rickey wrote Galbreath a confidential letter before the 1952 season disparaging Kiner: He couldn’t run, couldn’t throw, and demanded special privileges. After Kiner slumped to a .244 average in 1952, while leading the league in homers, Galbreath stepped aside and assigned Rickey to negotiate a pay cut. When Kiner objected, Rickey told him, “We finished last with you and we can finish last without you.”8 In June 1953 Kiner was swapped to the Chicago Cubs in a four-for-six-player deal (four from the Pirates, six from the Cubs), with the Pirates receiving a reported $100,000.

At the same time he tried to build up the Pirates, Galbreath decided to move into the big leagues of thoroughbred racing. He had acquired a second farm, also renamed Darby Dan, in Lexington, Kentucky. He embarked on a buying spree of unprecedented cost and scope. Thoroughbreds were far more expensive than ballplayers. To strengthen his stable of stallions, he paid a record $2 million for Swaps, a former Horse of the Year. He bought another Horse of the Year, Sword Dancer. In 1959 Galbreath paid a stunning record $1.35 million to lease the stud services of the undefeated “wonder horse of Italy,” Ribot. One of the Italian stallion’s sons, Graustark, was the leading Kentucky Derby contender in 1966 until he broke down. Although some estimated Galbreath had spent more than $5 million on horses, he demurred: “Frankly, I never thought about the total investment, and what with all the many transactions going on all the time I wouldn't know where to begin.”9 The acquisitions secured Darby Dan’s position as one of racing’s elite stables.

Galbreath married even more thoroughbreds: His wife, Helen, had died in 1946, and in 1955 he wed Dorothy Firestone, a widow. Her horse Summer Tan ran third in the 1955 Kentucky Derby. Galbreath told The Sporting News his goal was to win the Derby and the World Series. He was an enthusiastic fan of both his sports teams; he would often drive his convertible around the farm until he found a spot where he could pick up the Pirates broadcasts from Pittsburgh. In 1956 he sat through a nine-hour doubleheader at Forbes Field.10 He would never say whether he loved baseball or thoroughbreds more; it would have been like a father choosing one child as his favorite.

The baseball franchise was hemorrhaging money, saddled with Rickey’s free spending and dwindling attendance. Losses totaled $2.2 million during Rickey’s five years. Galbreath said, “I have my hands in several businesses, most of them much bigger than baseball, but none has ever given me the worry and headaches I get from baseball.”11

With Rickey’s contract as general manager coming to an end in 1955, he made noises about staying. Instead, Galbreath nudged him into a graceful retirement. Galbreath said, “We’re not too far away from a contending team and it would be nice if Branch gets some of the credit when we do get going.” He told reporters he had turned down four offers to buy the club and insisted he would never give up: “When you have a plan you stick with it. You don’t quit until the plan has had a chance to work out.”12

Rickey left a legacy that would vindicate his plan. As their prospects matured, the Pirates clung to first place early in the 1956 season and attendance doubled, even though the team fell back to finish seventh. In 1958 they climbed to second with the core of the 1960 championship team in place. When the Pirates clinched second place, their owner was on a hunting safari in Africa, but was able to hear the game on Armed Forces Radio. During the trip he survived a charging leopard and water buffalo, killing both along with a rhino and several zebras.

As the Pirates closed in on the long-awaited pennant in September 1960, Galbreath joined the team on a road trip for ten days, waiting to witness the clinching game. The backhanded clincher came in Milwaukee on Sunday, September 25; the game with the Braves was in the seventh inning when the scoreboard flashed news that the Cardinals had lost, assuring Pittsburgh its first pennant in 33 years. Galbreath left his box seat and went under the stands to shed tears in private. Drenched with Champagne in the clubhouse, he hugged manager Danny Murtaugh and called it “the biggest thrill of my life—a dream come true after 14 years of striving and hoping. Nothing can match it.”13

Three weeks later, in another raucous clubhouse celebration after Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic homer gave the Pirates an unbelievable World Series victory, he shouted, “Have we paid our debt to the city of Pittsburgh now? We have. We have. Thank heaven, we certainly have.” In a calmer moment he reflected, “There will never be a thrill to match this.”14 But he had not yet won the Kentucky Derby.

Galbreath had little time to savor the triumph. That fall, as a member of the National League’s expansion committee, he stepped in as mediator when the two leagues butted heads over expansion plans. He herded the contentious owners to an agreement at a meeting that lasted until 2 a.m.

Characteristically, Galbreath became a leader in baseball circles. In 1951 he negotiated the resignation of Commissioner Chandler. He supported the man who had paved his way into the game, but was overruled by other owners who wanted Chandler out. He served on the pension committee for many years. In 1965 he and Detroit owner John Fetzer headed the search committee to find a successor to retiring Commissioner Ford Frick. The committee approached General Curtis LeMay, chief of staff of the US Air Force, but LeMay, who was overseeing the bombing of North Vietnam, would not leave his post in wartime. He recommended his logistics specialist, retired Lieutenant General William Eckert. When the unknown Eckert was elected commissioner, a juicy though unconfirmed story circulated that the owners had confused his name with that of the former Air Force Secretary Eugene Zuckert.

Racing and baseball made Galbreath famous; he and his family appeared on CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow’s interview show, Person to Person, in 1955. But it was his real estate deals that made him rich. He managed his three careers by traveling in a private plane, sometimes touching down in four cities in a single day. “He never rested,” his grandson, John Phillips, recalled. “He was always on the move. He enjoyed life.”15 Sportswriter Whitney Tower called him a “walking dynamo.”16

Galbreath operated on a grand scale. He put together syndicates of investors that bought several entire towns—company towns unwanted by their corporate owners—and renovated the houses for resale. He built a planned community, Bramalea, outside Toronto. His office towers and industrial complexes became landmarks in more than two dozen American cities. His most ambitious undertaking was Mei Foo Sun Chuen in Hong Kong, said to be the largest housing project ever built with private funds. When completed after 13 years, it encompassed 100 apartment buildings with 13,000 units and 80,000 residents, on land reclaimed from the sea.17

In the tycoon-eat-tycoon world of big-time real estate, where a wheeler-dealer could stand atop his skyscraper one day and descend to bankruptcy court the next, Galbreath was a conservative businessman. He took no ownership stake in many of his most famous projects, limiting his risk while he profited by collecting large management fees. He would not break ground until he had lined up an anchor tenant, a large corporation that pre-leased much of the space.18 The Wall Street Journal described him as “ironfisted.”19

Galbreath didn’t smoke or drink, but there was showmanship in his soul; he loved to recite poetry and once signed his name on $100 bills and passed them out to employees to celebrate his birthday. He chartered buses to bring 900 residents of his childhood hometown, Mount Sterling, to see a Pirates game. Women from Mount Sterling catered parties at his Ohio farm in return for a donation to their church.20 Guests at Darby Dan in Kentucky included President Gerald Ford and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, who boarded some of her racehorses there.

While entertaining royalty and millionaires, Galbreath regularly attended local Rotary Club meetings in Columbus. As a leading booster of the Ohio State Buckeyes, he recruited Heisman Trophy winner Vic Janowicz (who later signed with the Pirates) and basketball all-American Jerry Lucas. He remained true to his rural roots; he enjoyed talking to other farmers about crop yields and the price of corn.

Galbreath achieved his second sporting goal when his horse Chateaugay, a son of Swaps, carried Darby Dan’s fawn-and-brown silks to victory in the 1963 Kentucky Derby. A 30-to-1 longshot, Proud Clarion, gave Galbreath a second Derby victory four years later. Darby Dan’s Little Current won the other two legs of racing’s Triple Crown, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, in 1974. Galbreath became the first owner to win the premier races on both sides of the Atlantic when Roberto (yes, named for Clemente) edged Rheingold by a head in Britain’s Epsom Derby in 1972. “You haven't lived until you've crossed over the track to the infield to get a plate or a trophy,” Galbreath said. “There isn't any sport like it.”'21

Galbreath served as chairman of the board of Churchill Downs, the storied Louisville track that is home to the Kentucky Derby. While chairman of the Greater New York Association, he supervised construction of the new Aqueduct race track and the rebuilding of Belmont Park in the 1950s.

When the Pirates claimed their next World Series championship, in 1971, Galbreath chartered two planes and took more than 200 club employees and their spouses—including office personnel, scouts, minor-league managers, and batboys—to the games in Baltimore. In the 1970s he turned day-to-day management of the club and his real-estate company over to his son, Dan. But when Pete Rose crisscrossed North America auctioning his talent to the highest bidder after the 1978 season, John Galbreath invited the free agent to his farm and promised him two mares with good bloodlines, plus the services of Darby Dan’s stallions to breed them. Rose preferred the cash offered by the Philadelphia Phillies, but the Pirates won the 1979 World Series without him. After the Series, baseball owners presented the 82-year-old Galbreath with an award for meritorious service to the game.

Just two years after the ’79 championship, Pittsburgh’s attendance fell to the lowest in the league. By 1984 the Pirates had sunk to last place in the National League East while losing $6 million. Allegations surfaced of cocaine use in the clubhouse, with the team’s mascot serving as the players’ drug courier. At an emotional press conference in November 1984, Dan Galbreath said the club was for sale, but no buyers emerged. Rumors swirled that the team would leave town until a group of Pittsburgh business and civic leaders stepped up to buy it in October 1985.

John Galbreath’s life of striving and succeeding ended on July 20, 1988, three weeks short of his 91st birthday. Within a few years a severe real-estate downturn brought the Galbreath Company, and Dan Galbreath, close to bankruptcy. In 1998 Lizanne Galbreath, the third-generation CEO of the family business, merged the company with Jones Lang LaSalle. The founder’s legacy lives on at Darby Dan Farm, now operated by his grandson, John Phillips.

 

This biography is included in the book "Sweet '60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates" (SABR, 2013), edited by Clifton Blue Parker and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.

 

Notes

1 Edward L. Bowen, Legacies of the Turf: A Century of Great Thoroughbred Breeders, Vol. 2 (Lexington, Kentucky: Eclipse Press, 2004), 49, 51.

2 The Sporting News, December 7, 1960, 7.

3 Bowen, Legacies of the Turf, 50.

4 Hank Greenberg, with Ira Berkow, ed., The Story of My Life (New York: Times Books, 1989), 177.

5 Andrew O’Toole, Branch Rickey in Pittsburgh (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000), 12.

6 Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey, Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 488-492, 495-496.

7 O’Toole, Branch Rickey in Pittsburgh, 14.

8 Lowenfish, Branch Rickey, 519.

9 Whitney Tower, “The Man, the Horse and the Deal that Made History,” Sports Illustrated, June 1, 1959, online archive.

10 Rick Cushing, 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates: Day by Day (Philadelphia: Dorrance Press, 2010), 85; The Sporting News, November 30, 1955, 13.

11 O’Toole, Branch Rickey in Pittsburgh, 112.

12 The Sporting News, November 30, 1955, 13; and June 27, 1956, 2.

13 The Sporting News, October 5, 1960, 8.

14 The Sporting News, December 21, 1960, 7.

15 John Phillips interview, September 30, 2011. Information about Galbreath’s personality and family life comes from this interview.

16 Whitney Tower, “The Derby Victory Prance,” Sports Illustrated, May 13, 1963, online archive.

17 National Association of Realtors, “Presidents of the National Association of Realtors: 1944—John W. Galbreath,” http://www.tourthenewrealtor.com/library/virtual_library/president1944?tourthenewrealtor. Accessed August 14, 2011; “Dan Galbreath 1928-1995,” National Real Estate Investor, October 1, 1995, online archive.

18 Wall Street Journal, February 19, 1991, B1.

19Wall Street Journal, February 19, 1991, B3.

20 The Sporting News, July 31, 1957, 20.

21 Associated Press, New York Times, “John Galbreath, 90, a Sportsman and Real Estate Developer, Dies,” July 21, 1988.

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