Lamar Hunt will be 40 this summer, but it seems only a year or two ago that he was a fuzzy-faced cherub challenging the power and wealth and clogged arteries of the mighty National Football League. Now he is the biggest wheeler in sports, but if you walked past him on Elm Street or sat next to him at Shoemaker's Barbecue in Dallas, you wouldn't bother to look twice, which is just the way he likes it. Hunt's biography in Who's Who in America is a three-liner marked with an asterisk that signifies his noncooperation with the editors. "He just hated to be put in there," says his secretary of 10 years, Jean Finn. "He totally dislikes anything that makes him stand out."
But stand out he does, like it or not, and what a contrast it all makes to 1959, when word got around that Hunt was going to break the NFL's wagon with his tack hammer. "We shuddered on his behalf," a veteran football reporter remembers. "You should have seen his first press conference. Here was this poor little rich boy, son of one of the world's richest men, standing up there like he was making a speech in catechism class. He spoke almost in a whisper, without any force or authority. Somebody nudged me and said, 'Wait till George Halas gets ahold of this punk!' It was like watching the first act of a Kabuki play. No matter what else happens, you know the last act's gonna be a beheading."
The reports of Hunt's beheading turned out to be grossly exaggerated. The poor little rich boy of 13 years ago has lived to see his homemade football league fully assimilated into the NFL. His Kansas City Chiefs have become one of the most successful of all franchises, on the field and at the box office. His World Championship of Tennis, at the ripe old age of four years, has become the dominant factor in the game. He has interests in the Chicago Bulls of the NBA and the Dallas Tornado of the North American Soccer League, and he has side investments in sporting projects like a tennis village near Austin, Texas and a 72-lane bowling center in Dallas. His sports holdings are worth, conservatively, about $50 million, and they constitute a minor portion of his worth. "Most of my income comes from oil," he explains matter-of-factly. He is a vice-president of the Hunt Oil Company, the vast international sprawl owned by his father H. L. Hunt, the zillionaire oilman and novelist and political propagandist (SI, Sept. 7, 1970).
Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, now a spry 83, takes proper pride in the doings of his youngest son. "Why, Lamar's probably the most popular man in the country," H.L. once told sports-writer Mickey Herskowitz. "Even the pro-Communist writers like him. Have you ever heard anyone say an unkind word about Lamar?" Herskowitz had to admit that he hadn't.
Nor—with rare exception—has anyone else. "I'm just convinced he's the nicest guy the Lord ever put on this earth," says L. William (Bill) McNutt Jr., fruitcake baron and Hunt's partner in soccer biz. "He's warm and genuine and straight as a string. If everybody were like him, the world wouldn't have any problems." McNutt is an exception among Hunt's friends in that he wasn't a Southern Methodist classmate. "Lamar has nothing to do with Dallas high society," a longtime Huntwatcher says. "He always gets together with those old cronies from SMU—none of them smoke or drink—and they fly to football games and things like that. They're very close, and if there's such a thing as truly beautiful people, it's them."
A good many folk don't love rich Texans—it is pure pleasure to mock their tastelessness and new-rich airs and 22% depletion allowance—but the prejudice seems to stop short of Lamar Hunt, perhaps because he bears so little resemblance to the archetypal blusterer. Look at him pruning that bush over there. Isn't that a pathetic sight? Note the holes in his sneakers, almost a personal trademark. Observe the 1953 haircut with the ‚⅛" sideburns. Note how he wears his graying brown hair parted to the left and annointed with a touch of greasy kid stuff, like Wayne Morris in Kid Galahad. Observe the dishwater-blue eyes behind the Sunday school teacher-type plastic glasses, and his height—why, he isn't even a 6-footer! Does that look like a magnate of sport and industry? Does that look like a man whose Dun and Bradstreet rating runs clear off the top of the page? Note the undersize ears and undistinguished nose and the unassertive chin. Would you buy a used drilling rig from that man?
You may say that none of us looks his best while gardening, but then how to explain that Hunt also looks superbly unimpressive when he's all gussied up in his good (and only) suit, the pinstripe that he's sorry he bought because it's a little too heavy for hot Dallas summers but won't replace "because it still fits pretty good, and one suit's enough for any man." At the rate he is wearing the pinstripe, it will be available for his funeral.
In a crowd Lamar Hunt stands out like wallpaper. Headwaiters consistently overlook him, and ma√Ætres d'h√¥tel ask him to "step aside, please," while they admit celebrities like the vice-mayor of Hasbrouck Heights and the chief dog warden of Gilpin County, Colo. Hunt shrugs, and stands quietly. He absolutely refuses to use his name or his prestige. It is easy to conclude he is shy, but a close friend says it is more than that: "An almost morbid fear of ostentation." Hunt does not entirely disagree.
"Yes," he says. "I do detest ostentation, big-dealing, like using your name to get a better hotel reservation or a good seat in a restaurant. I just can't stand to see people thinking they should get a better table because of some influence they think they might have. I believe in taking your turn. It's only fair."
Says the same friend: "Lamar comes across to some people like a pantywaist because he looks so unimpressive and he's so totally unpushy. And some people make the mistake of concluding that he's a Milquetoast. Ha ha! Lamar Hunt in his own quiet mannerly way is a very gutsy guy. He's gutsy because he's competitive; he got that from sports. And he's a giant-killer at heart; he got that from his daddy. They both of them like to take on the Establishment and beat it, and they're both good at it. But they're not the least bit devious. They tell you what they're going to do to you, look you straight in the eye, and then go out and do it. Of course, it doesn't hurt that they have a few bucks to start with."
Lamar Hunt steps on the tennis court, and it becomes immediately apparent that his game lacks the customary middle-age duplicities—the cuts and dinks that older players use to compensate for muscular collapse. He hits the ball flat and level, his body at right angles to the stroke, his feet firmly planted. Usually his return shots fall close to his opponent; his serve is straight and heavy; he does not seem to possess an overhead smash, but he grinds his opponent down with sheer consistency. At the end he says, with characteristic politesse, "You're just out of practice." Sometimes you feel like biffing him one.
As a child, Hunt was nicknamed "Lem" and then "Lemondrop," both deriving from Lamar, as "Bubba" in the South derives from Brother. But a more persistent nickname was "Games," from his penchant for making up new and original contests. "I'd take a ball and bounce it off a wall and then scratch out a little court with my foot, and there'd be scoring," Hunt recalls. "Even today I have this tendency to make up games. When my 15-year-old son Lamar Jr. and I were on the beach in Hawaii, we scratched a court in the sand and we took a beach ball and we made up a tennis game that we played with our feet, like soccer. I don't know, maybe I have some kind of creative impulse in me. Others paint or write, I make up games. I'm working on a terrific one at home. We have a putting green, and I've worked out four different tees and three water holes, and I'm using four different flags with four different colors on the green. It's a terrific game. Who knows? I might sell franchises!"
A similar creative impulse seems to carry into Hunt's sporting-business attitude. "I have no interest at all in buying into existing teams," he says. "I like to get in at the bottom and build something new, from the ground up. We started the American Football League, and the teams cost next to nothing, $25,000 per franchise. That's the ideal kind of investment. I like the challenge; I like watching something grow out of nothing."
"My husband combines two interesting qualities," says Norma Knobel Hunt, a ringer for Catherine Deneuve and a talented woman who combines a few interesting qualities of her own. "He's a hyperactive calm person, if you can imagine. He has tremendous inner calm, and no moodiness. His disposition never alters. He's always exactly the same easygoing person, but at the same time he's engaged in constant activity."
Says Hunt: "One of my main faults is I try to get too much into the average day, whether it's business or working in the yard or sightseeing. I don't ever sit down just to sit. I want to do things, and I know that life is short."
When there is nothing else at hand, Hunt is an inveterate gleaner and cleaner. His eagle eye will spot a gum wrapper 30 yards away under an azalea bush, and he'll rush over to retrieve it. He became almost compulsive about the parasitical vines that run up the trunks of the oaks and yaupon and bois d'arc trees that shade the grounds of his new 11-acre estate in Dallas. He braved stickers and acrophobia to whack away at the vines, and when he developed a galloping case of poison ivy he rubbed on cortisone ointment and returned to the fray. Friends grew accustomed to arriving at his home and hearing a muffled voice call down from the trees, "Hey, y'all, be with you in a minute."
Inside the huge French-style chateau, Lamar Hunt speaks to his 7-year-old son Clark in pure Texas drawl. "Hey, Clark, thay-er's a piece of paper under thayer. Would you grab it? Looks lak a candy wrapper to me. Bubble gum. Oooh, that's a crucial thang, picking up that paper, id'n it? Good, you got it. Now tell us—where's Hawaii?"
"The 'cific Ocean."
"Right! O.K., time to go out. Bug out! Suck it up!" When Clark is gone, Hunt explains: "That's an expression the football players use all the time. 'Suck it up!' It means get going. Clark says it to some of his little friends. I'm not sure they understand him."
For that matter, Hunt is not sure that all his own friends and acquaintances understand him, especially on the subject that seems to come up the most often: money. "I probably basically am a cheapskate," he says. "I hate to spend money on things that when they're gone, they're gone, and you can never get the money back. Also, I pride myself on being a good businessman, or trying to, but I'm the world's worst when it comes to handling my personal finances. I very seldom have any money in my wallet, and that causes some misunderstandings."
Lamar Hunt, possessor of a net worth firmly into nine figures, tools his Chrysler LeBaron along Cedar Springs Road in Dallas, sometimes going 15 or 20 mph over the speed limit, once brushing the curb with his right front tire, bearing out his reputation as one of the world's worst drivers. The car sputters, and the fuel indicator registers "E." With a deft spin of the wheel, Hunt slips into a Shell station. "Hi," he says to the attendant. "Gimme 31¢ worth of regular."
"He runs out of gas all the time," says Norma. "It's one of the children's favorite subjects, how their daddy is always running out of gas, and the adventures that happen because of it."
"I just don't take the time," Hunt says. "As long as that car keeps running, why stop?"
"The truth is he's not really interested in anything about cars or machinery," Norma says. "He can hardly tell a Cadillac from a Ford. He just doesn't care."
"But I can tell a Chrysler every time," Hunt says. "They're our sponsors. That's business. I drive a Chrysler because they give me one every year free, but cars aren't something that specifically interest me. Now Norma, she loves cars, and she drives a Corvette. But to me a car's a little like clothing—when it's worn out, it's gone, the money's lost, whereas a good substantial investment in something like an antique retains its value forever. What I hate the most is money that is lost and gone forever. I don't know what makes me like that."
Slightly unfairly (but only slightly), Lamar Hunt is legendary for parsimony, just as his father has often been taken for an old skinflint. "People misunderstand a lot of things," Lamar says, "and you really can't go around making explanations. For example, my father brings his lunch to work in a brown paper bag. But it's not an economic thing. My father likes certain foods that you can't get in restaurants. Like carrot cake. He brings sandwiches made of wheat that's grown in Deaf Smith County, Texas. It's supposed to be healthier, and my dad is 83 and very healthy." The Hunts, H.L. and his six offspring, are on a first-name, almost loving basis with the almighty dollar, and they are highly secretive about the romance. H.L. Hunt has always kept the total valuation of the Hunt Oil Company close to his vest; the most he has ever said about his personal fortune (reputed to be $2 billion) was at a party where a nosey woman said to him, "Mr. Hunt, I hear you are terribly rich."
"Honey," the old man said, "I'm plenty rich."
When asked for specific figures, the Hunts stick to a favorite line of the patriarch: "If you know how rich you are, you aren't very rich." Says Lamar: "We just don't talk about how much we're making or losing. It doesn't seem right." A friendly enemy quipped: "Of course it doesn't seem right. You don't talk about religion."
It also doesn't seem right to waste money, or to spend it too conspicuously. In some ways, Lamar and Norma Hunt seem to be simulating a struggling young couple trying to make ends meet. Several years back, Texas E. Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, walked into Hunt's den and noted that it was absolutely empty. "Lamar," Schramm asked, "what's happened to your furniture?"
"Aw, Norma's been arguing me about that," Hunt said. "I promised her we could furnish this room when the Chiefs reached 20,000 season tickets."
"Well, you've reached 20,000, haven't you?" Schramm said.
"Yeah, that's what Norma says, too, but she's counting the kid tickets, and I don't think it's fair to include the kid tickets." A year or so later, when the Chiefs had sold 20,000 season tickets, excluding "the kid tickets," the den was furnished. (K.C. now sells 70,000 season tickets, tops in pro football, but there are still rooms in the new Hunt mansion that are not completely furnished.)
A Dallas reporter recalls a trip to Honduras with Hunt and his soccer team, the Dallas Tornado. "We were leaving the hotel in Tegucigalpa and Lamar studied the bill and found an extra $200 on it, so he refused to pay. The $200 was just because he was Lamar Hunt, you can be sure of that, and Lamar is accustomed to this sort of thing, so he always double-checks bills. Why, he's embarrassed me in restaurants, going down the check item by item to make sure it's right.
"Anyway, the hotel sent a policeman to follow us to the airport to collect the $200, arguing with Lamar all the way, and Lamar keeps saying, 'I'm not paying it! If they can explain to me in a letter, O.K., I'll send a check by return mail.' That cop had a gun two feet long, and it began looking bigger and bigger. Finally we started to board the plane, with the cop right behind us. 'Walk fast and don't look back!' Lamar says, and we walked right into that plane and took off."
Hunt is not in the least defensive about such stories; most often his face lights up and he enjoys the joke on himself. He delights in telling a hoary tale about an early AFL meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria, where he arrived with one shoe newly half-soled. "Stop the meeting!" Sonny Werblin hollered. "I've heard of people being cheap, but I want everybody to see Lamar's shoes. He's too cheap to get both shoes repaired!"
There was an explanation, of course; Hunt had become aware of the holes in his shoes when the rain began seeping through, but he had arrived at the shoemaker's at closing time and barely succeeded in talking the grumpy cobbler into repairing the leakier shoe. "Come back tomorrow," the shoemaker said, "and I'll do the other one." When Hunt tells the story, he often as not leaves out the explanation; he's content to be known as a cheapjack who got one shoe half-soled, so long as his friends can get a few laughs out of it.
In the Hunt den, resting place for the 1970 Super Bowl trophy, a battered old shoe sits on a ledge. "That was given to me by my friend Buzz Kemble," Hunt says. "He had it silvered for me after we climbed a mountain together in Wyoming. I guess he thought it was a first, that I'd actually retired one of my shoes. But I had to. Look at it." The beautifully silvered shoe has four beautifully silvered holes.
"I have a very unusual quirk in me about my things," Hunt says. "I just get to likin' 'em. These old beat-up tennis shoes I have on right now—I use 'em to work in the yard, and I'd rather die than throw 'em away and buy a new pair. I just don't like to spend money on things like shoes, because once they're gone, they're gone, and so is the money. Gone forever."
"Lamar, you might also mention that we're the world's outstanding tourist-class travelers," Norma notes.
"Well, tourist isn't as comfortable as first class," Hunt says, "but flying first class is just wasting money. It's not an investment. When you step off the plane, the money's gone."
"We even fly tourist to Europe," Norma says.
The Hunts are flying home from a vacation in Hawaii, tourist class all the way, and in midflight young Clark walks back to his father's seat. "How much money do you have?" he asks.
"Oh, I don't know," Lamar Hunt answers. "You mean in my pocket?"
"No," the child says. "In the bank. I know it's at least $100."
"Children with money aren't all that aware of it," Norma Hunt explains, "especially if their circumstances are continuous. They just don't realize that there's money in the family. Why, Clark came home from school the other day and said, 'Mommy, is Grandaddy-Pop rich?' And I said, 'Well, Clark, I guess you could say that.' He said that somebody at school had told him."
"When I was a kid," Lamar Hunt says, "I wasn't exactly unaware that we had money, but it didn't impress me. I knew we lived in a big house, and the yardman or the cook used to drive me to school sometimes in our Plymouth, and I was embarrassed getting out in front of my classmates. But money was no big deal. If I wanted a little money, I just asked my mother, and generally she'd let me have it. It doesn't sound like I was too well trained, does it? I would have been a lot harder on me than my mother was."
Predictably, Hunt was kidded about his riches when he played on the SMU football team. Since then he has often been ribbed about being third string, usually by people who didn't make a college team at all, but as in most such matters he is not the least touchy. "I'm proud I made third string," he says. "I played behind men like Doyle Nix and Raymond Berry and Ed Bernet. That was a tough team. Players like Forrest Gregg and John Roach. I played football because I loved it; there were only one or two of us on the team who weren't on scholarship, and it was one of the great experiences of my life." Like all the other SMU scrubs, Hunt took a pounding. One day he was thrown all the way off the field, across the cinder track, and into a concrete curb on two successive plays. On the second hit, 250-pound Willard Dewveall picked him up and said, "Poor boy, you better get Popsie to cover that curb with foam rubber!"
Lamar Hunt's secretary, Jean Finn, says, "Lamar is courteous to everyone and especially to women. After all these years, he still goes out of his way to thank me for every little thing I do. Typing a letter. Transferring a phone call. Anything and everything."
A female visitor is taken for a tour of the Hunts' chateau, and the conversation goes on. "Oh, what a lovely room." Thank you. "I do like that armoire." Well, thank you. "Your pool's beautiful!" Thank you. "It must be great to have a lighted tennis court." Yes, it is, and thank you. Thank you again. Thankyouthank-youthankyou....
The Hunts and his visitors go to dinner at Pietro's, a small Italian restaurant halfway across Dallas in a neighborhood as unpretentious as Hunt himself. The visitors have been thoroughly briefed on his eating habits. "He's a total zero about food," a friend explained. "Food is a foreign country to all the Hunts; they eat to live. Once Lamar and his brother Bunker [owner of one of the world's largest string of thoroughbreds and one of the world's largest strings of oil wells] took me to dinner in London, and where do you think we ate? Trader Vic's in the London Hilton! Why, all those Trader Vies are all alike. We could have gone to Stone's Chophouse or Simpsons', but it doesn't matter to the Hunts."
At Pietro's, Hunt orders hamburger pizza, but declines wine. "I'm not against drinking or smoking," he says, "although smoking seems kind of silly in view of what we know about it. But I don't drink for a couple of reasons: I don't like the taste of it, and I can't see any positive value in it. Sure, I'll take a sip of wine. I've gotten to the point where I kind of like white wine, just a few sips. I don't care for a whole glass. My friends say I'm going downhill fast, sipping white wine. But I can't stand the red stuff, and hard liquor is brutal. I don't know how you people can get that stuff down."
A dinner companion passes him a glass of Valpolicella 1964, a fine Northern Italian red. "Come on, Lamar," he says. "Give it a fair try!"
Hunt lifts the glass, sips the wine, and hands back the glass. "Nope," he says. "Sorry. I still don't like it. But thank you anyway."
A short, Latin-type man walks up to the table and addresses Hunt. "Say, do you have to be a college man to play on your soccer team?"
"Well, I know a 17-year-old kid who can do tricks with a soccer ball. You know how they kick the ball in the air and then keep it going with their heads and knees and feet and all? Well, I saw him do that 150 times."
Hunt is impressed. "Get his name and address for me, will you?" he asks. "I'd like to try him out. And thank you!"
Someone else walks over. "Mr. Hunt," the new visitor says, and once again Hunt puts down a slice of hamburger pizza to listen. "Did you see the bike races today? No? Well, take my advice, stay up tonight and watch 'em on the news. Bike racing's the coming thing! Did you know that there are more people interested in bike racing than any other sport?"
After the intruder leaves, Hunt is silent for a while. Finally Norma says, "What are you thinking, Lamar?"
"I was just wondering how it would sound," Hunt says. "Hmmmmmm. The National Bicycling League. Headquarters: Dallas, Texas. How would that sound to y'all?"
It is no accident that Lamar Hunt's first pro football team was called the Dallas Texans, or that his soccer team is Dallas-based, or that the grand finale of his World Championship of Tennis is played in Dallas. Hunt is an unabashed booster of both Dallas and Texas, reveling in their uniqueness, faithfully buying their products and admiring their wonders. For example: "I drink Dr Pepper whenever I can. We're proud of Dr Pepper. It's now 95% national in coverage. It's a Dallas-based company." But does he like Dr Pepper? "I drink it whenever I can," Hunt says, ordering up another can from his doting wife. "I enjoy it."
Hunt was born in El Dorado, Ark., brought up in Dallas, attended The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa. and has made Dallas his permanent home ever since his SMU days. He can talk your arm off about the city's skyline, the "unbelievable" new airport, the gross annual income of Dallas companies, large and small. He is absolutely impervious to insults or jokes about his home state ("Have you ever been abroad?" "Yeah, I spent three days in Texas once"). He sheds such cracks with the cool dignity of one who knows in his heart that he is right, and he firmly believes that most Americans see Dallas and Texas under the same halo. When his Dallas Texans were forced to move to Kansas City, Hunt was stubborn about retaining the name "Texans," and it took hours of argument to convince him otherwise. "I wanted to hang onto the past, I suppose," he says, still halfway arguing that there would have been nothing odd about calling a team the Kansas City Texans. "The Lakers didn't change when they moved to Los Angeles, did they? There's no lake in L.A. The Lakers were a winning team, and the Dallas Texans were a winning team, and doggone it, Texans was our name!" Reason prevailed.
It was Hunt's hometown chauvinism that triggered the American Football League in the first place. "All I ever wanted was a professional football team for Dallas," he explains. "I tried for six months to get one, but the NFL wouldn't let me in. It was strictly to get a team for Dallas that the AFL was started, at least in my own motivation."
His memories of the AFL's struggle for parity are bittersweet and poignant and proud. "Sometimes it was scary," he recalls. "My neck was on the line, both financially and personally. I'd have just looked like an idiot if the league had failed. It was tough at first because we had an obviously inferior product and a harebrained idea. We should have been scared."
It is typical of H.L. Hunt's business acumen that all of his children share the same office space and the same office staff but otherwise are completely independent of their father, and thus the old man knew nothing about the creation of the AFL until he read about it in the Dallas Morning News. Lamar got a call from one of the company officials: "Your dad wants to talk to you about football."
"Sure, I was a little nervous," Hunt recalls. "J knew that my dad wasn't really current about professional football. He grew up in southern Illinois, 60 miles from St. Louis, and they were all baseball fans, Cardinal fans. So I went into his office, and he just said, 'Tell me about the football. Do you really think it's a good thing?'
"I said I thought it was, but then he started trying to talk me out of it, in his mild way. He said he thought it might be an undesirable business because he knew of some teams that had lost money. He was thinking of the 1930s and 1940s, when professional football was a losing proposition.
"Well, he happened to have two friends in football: Tim Mara, of the New York Giants, and Jim Bruel, who had an interest in the old Buffalo team. So he got them on the speaker telephone and he said, 'My son's thinking about getting into football. I just wondered what advice you might have.'
"He must have expected to get very negative answers, but remember this was 1959, and the Giants had won a championship in 1956 and then lost in that great overtime game with Baltimore in 1958, and things were looking good in pro football. So both Mr. Mara and Mr. Bruel told my father the same thing: 'Pro football's a good investment. It's something your son will really enjoy.' I'm sure this gave my dad consternation, but he didn't show it. He just said, 'Well, if you want to do it, it's yours to do.' He's great about things like that. He's never tried to force me to do anything or not to do anything. His attitude was, 'Well, this new football league is your problem, and you're gonna have to learn for yourself.' That's another reason I'm glad it worked out as well as it did.
"I'm sure you've heard the classic story about me and my father? The one where a reporter's supposed to have told him, 'Mr. Hunt, your son is going to lose $1 million a year on that new league.' And my dad's supposed to have answered, 'Well, at that rate he'll be finished in 150 years.' It's a great story, it ought to be true, but it just isn't. My dad would never say a thing like that. It's just not in his personality, and it wasn't true anyway, about me having that much money. I wish it was true. That story has been written in every language on earth. I'll bet I've read it 1,000 times myself."
Of all the memories of the early years of the AFL, one titillates Lamar Hunt the most. "A golden opportunity missed," he says, using one of his favorite expressions. "A big mistake on our part." The Texans, owned by Hunt, and the Chargers, owned by hotel scion Barron Hilton, were playing at Dallas in the last game of the 1962 season. The game was meaningless, the crowd prospects were poor, and the Dallas team was slated to move to Kansas City. The night before the game, the two young men had a talk. Hunt remembers: "I said, 'Barron, I read somewhere about a game in the 1930s when two owners locked everybody out and sat one on one side of the stadium and one on the other and cheered for their teams. Let's do that tomorrow.'
"Barron thought that was a great idea. He said, 'Jeez, they'll write about this! He said, 'Jeez Christ, this'll be great!' Barron has such a natural way of cussin', it doesn't even sound bad. It just comes out like strawberry syrup. 'Jeez Christ,' he said, 'this'll be great!' We worked out a way to get the gates closed and go on the radio and refund all the money on the 10,000 tickets we'd sold. But then at the last minute we chickened out. It was gutless of us. We should have done it. People would still be talking about it."
Hunt laughs at his own audacity, at one of his famous "golden opportunities missed." "Those were strange days," he says. "We were highly involved in the business of sport, and all of us had to keep reminding ourselves that we were not just fans anymore—that there was money at stake. I remember one time when Barron's team was playing ours, and he was sitting up in the press box at the Coliseum, and his father arrived in the middle of the second quarter. Conrad Hilton himself. He picks up the program and he says, 'Hmmmmmm, look at all these full-page ads. That's good!' His son Barron is cheering and hollering at the game. Mr. Hilton flipped some more pages, and he says, 'Hmmmmmm, Seagrams took a full-page ad. Good work!' Then he says, 'By the way, Son, we closed the deal for the Hawaii Hilton. Forty-two million dollars.' Barron turns and he says, 'Jeez Christ, Dad, it's third and 12!' "
Money comes to money, the cliché has it, but Hunt has taken several financial baths and emerged poorer and wiser. He was a heavy backer of a national bowling league that lasted about three days, and he still retains the 72-lane bowling center that came along in the deal. A teen-age social center failed to make it. A commercial fishing lake lost money because of poachers. A plan to turn Alcatraz Island into a sort of astronautical Disneyland was war-whooped out of existence. "That's just the nature of business," Hunt says. "Sometimes you lose. Why, I drilled a dry hole just last week. Several dry holes. Sometimes you get a dry hole in the sports-entertainment business, too."
Three or four years ago, a lesser man than Hunt would have decided that professional tennis was a genuine dry hole and racked his pipe and gone home. World Championship Tennis had been thrust upon Lamar Hunt, more or less; he had bought a modest 25% of the modest operation and then awakened one morning with 75% after one of the partners pulled out. "It was terrible," Hunt says. "We made mistake on top of mistake. We had it figured out where we could net $17,000 a week, but we never came close. We were asking our players—at first we had eight of them, known as 'The Handsome Eight' or 'The Handsome Seven Plus Tony Roche'—to play two tournaments a week, and that was too much. And we were just doing everything wrong. We were acting as agents, supplying players for tournaments, and that's no way to get ahead in tennis."
WCT's executive director and working head, the former Welsh tennis pro Michael Davies, takes up the tale: "By 1970 it was plain that WCT was going to be out of business within a year. I went into my hotel room for three days and I worked out plans for a World Championship of Tennis, and Lamar and I sat down to talk it over. I said, 'The time is urgent. The time is right now, I want to go out and sign 32 players, the best players in the world, and I want to create the World Championship of Tennis, and I want $1 million to do it.' We went over every last detail of the plan for four hours, and at the end of that time Lamar said, 'O.K., let's go.' "
The battle that erupted with the slightly senile nabobs of world tennis—settled only recently at a conference in London—is still too close in time to afford Hunt any pleasure in re-creating it. For the first time in his life he became the subject of a torrent of abuse that would have been more becoming to Lord Haw-Haw. The British press accused him of everything short of sadonecrophilia, and Hunt's equanimity was threatened. "They managed to put it all on a very personal basis," he recalls. "They'd write things like, 'Texas oil riches are trying to control the game and steal it away from the green grass of Wimbledon, away from the hallowed, ivy-covered tower....' That sort of thing. And stealing control of world tennis was the furthest from our intention.
"Writers like J.L. Manning in the London Evening Standard would write, 'Hunt is the alltime enemy of England.' The whole English tennis Establishment and the whole English sporting press were saying, 'We've got to hurt Hunt,' and 'We got to hurt the WCT.' "
"What the British were showing," says a sportswriter close to the scene, "was plain old-fashioned prejudice, not only anti-Texas and anti-oil, but anti-anybody who has the money to take on the fusty old tennis Establishment. For a long time they were running around saying Lamar will ruin tennis. Sure he will! Lamar will ruin tennis just like he ruined pro football."
Before the shooting war ended, Hunt's 32 pros—including seven or eight of the world's top 10, players like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Cliff Drysdale and Arthur Ashe—found themselves barred from Wimbledon and Forest Hills, whereupon Hunt scheduled a $50,000 St. Louis tournament at the same time as Wimbledon. "We had to do something, didn't we?" Hunt says. "We couldn't just say, 'Well, we're barred from Wimbledon, so let's just let our players sit around.' The English press look this very antagonistically. They interpreted it as an attack on Wimbledon. Well, my God, we were barred from Wimbledon! What were we supposed to do?"
Now that the matter has been settled, Hunt sees a bright future for the sport that caused him so many headaches. "Professional tennis is going to be big, very big," he says. "I can't say that affirmatively for soccer in the U.S.—I wish I could—but I can very definitely say it for professional tennis. Very big. Why, our tournament at Philadelphia this year, the 12th leg of the World Championship of Tennis, had 57,000 people paid, with 12,000 for the finals. In a year or two, events like that will be completely sold out, and in three years a tournament like that will draw 100,000 fans in a week at good prices. And that doesn't mean that events like Wimbledon won't continue to be big. Their ticket sales are a record this year, and that's great for tennis, and we're as happy as can be about it. Anything that is good for Wimbledon is good for WCT, and vice versa. If WCT is successful—and it's been in the black for several years now—it can only help tennis, the same way the AFL helped football. The more stars you build, the more teams, the more good games, the bigger the future of any sport. Think of the kids that'll watch WCT on TV and then want to rush out and play tennis. Six, eight, 10 million viewers at a time. The future is limitless."