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Original Issue


Wellington Mara is moving his beloved—if baffling—Giants to New Jersey, hoping others will love them, too

Father Dudley said the 6:30 a.m. Mass and then looked in on the St. Francis of Assisi breadline on Manhattan's West 31st Street that has been running since 1929—the oldest breadline in the world, according to Father Dudley. Not scheduled to hear confessions that day, Father Dudley got into his car and drove to the Giant training camp in New Jersey. There he watched the workouts, checked on the progress of the rookies and talked with his friend, Wellington Mara, the president of the team.

Father Benedict Dudley has been a fixture around the Giants since 1932 when a man saw him standing in the bleacher ticket line at the old Polo Grounds and said, "Take this, Father." It was a box-seat ticket right on the 50-yard line. There were three or four other men in the box, and Father Dudley kept up a running commentary on the performances of the players and the progress of the game. When one of the men allowed that Father Dudley certainly knew a lot about professional football, Father Dudley said, "I used to see the Frankford Yellow Jackets play when I lived in Philadelphia." It turned out that Father Dudley was sitting in the box of a very close friend of Tim Mara's, and from then on he never had to stand in the bleacher ticket line again.

Another priest, Father Kevin O'Brien, who was a professor of physics at Fordham, has always hung around the Giants, too. He became known as the defensive priest; Father Dudley was the offensive priest. Once at a dinner in Milwaukee the late Fred Miller, president of the Miller Brewing Co. and himself a Catholic, introduced Father Dudley as the offensive priest. Father Dudley drew a chortle when he cautioned Miller on pronouncing the first syllable in offensive. "The word has two meanings," he said.

In the course of years, Father Dudley has become not only honorary chaplain to the Giants but to what Wellington Mara calls "the Giant Family." The Giant Family is all-embracing; it includes the players, coaches, the front office and the lucky offspring who get to serve as water boys or help the team as Giant Juniors. The Giant Family also includes all the loyal fans who are said to will their season tickets and who show up at Yankee Stadium on Sundays in camel's-hair coats and parkas to scream, "DEE-fense, DEE-fense, DEE-fense!" As Mara, a father of 10, once told a friend, "Next to my own family, I do care most about the Giant Family."

In a way it is surprising that Hollywood never made a movie about the Giant Family, say Men of Mara, with Pat O'Brien and James Cagney as the priests, Charlton Heston as Alex Webster, Mickey Rooney as a Giant Junior and someone tall, trim, blond and shy, maybe Wayne Morris, as Wellington Mara. But count that as an opportunity lost. There is turmoil and uncertainty in the Giant Family now. A decade ago the Giants were at the top of the National Football League, and the Mass was in Latin. Nowadays nuns raid draft boards, the Giants are losers, and Mara himself, once revered as a genius at trades, is reviled both as a bungler who cannot recognize talent and as a greedy renegade who plans to move the team to New Jersey in 1975.

As the head of one of the last old-guard Irish family-owned teams in sports—a team that was treated kindly by the press even in the off-season—Mara has been hurt by the critics. "If I may use my Jesuit training in logic," he says, "they bother me emotionally but not intellectually." Still, to avoid emotional stress, Mara avoids his critics. He does not watch Howard Cosell, Dick Schaap or Jim Bouton on television, and he does not read the New York Post. Despite such precautions, his plans occasionally go awry when a well-meaning friend will call to say, "That was a terrible column about you today."

Only once has Mara ever replied to his critics in public. Last year at a welcome-home luncheon, a Giant Family gathering that Mara likened to Thanks-giving or Christmas, he answered Larry Merchant of the Post who, after attacking the shift to Jersey, had written about "The son of a bookmaker.... What else can you expect from an Irishman named Wellington?" In measured tones, Mara told the hushed members of the Giant Family, "I'll tell you exactly what you can expect from an Irishman named Wellington whose father was a bookmaker. You can expect that anything he says or writes may be repeated, aloud, in your own home, in front of your children. You can believe that he was taught to love and respect all mankind—but to fear no man. And you can believe that his two abiding ambitions are that he pass on to his family the true richness of the inheritance he received from his father, the bookmaker, the knowledge and love and fear of God, and second, that the Giants win the Super Bowl, for Alex and for you."

No one is more full of Giant lore and tradition than Mara. Nostalgically, he can recall the Giants' first game against the Browns ("Steve Owen really invented the 4-3 defense that day") or the palmy days of the '30s when he roomed with Ward Cuff, a halfback. The players all stayed at the Whitehall Hotel on upper Broadway, where Coach Owen had the penthouse, and would take afternoons off to golf. Instead of jet planes, there were trains then, with time to banter, play cards, get to know a man's character.

In the midst of last season Mara, occupied as he had been with the decision to move to Jersey, felt that he was not as close to the Giants as he would like to be. He called in Bob Lurtsema, a defensive end now with the Vikings and then the Giant player representative, and asked him to make a survey on what kind of rapport he had with the players and what they thought of the Giant Family image. Dutifully Lurtsema went to the players one by one and, as Lurtsema now recalls, he went to see Mara on a Tuesday afternoon at one o'clock. "He asked for an honest report, and I gave it to him with both barrels," Lurtsema says. "I told him, 'You have no rapport with the players, and the Giant Family image is not there. There is no question about it.'

"He was crushed when I told him. I wasn't trying to hurt the guy, but to tell him the truth he asked for. He sat back, maybe asked me a couple of questions and then shook my hand and said, "At least I know you gave me an honest answer.' At 4:30 I was on waivers."

Mara, who has come to feel that he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't, says he did not know until after the meeting that the coaches had decided to release Lurtsema, and then he did not want to interfere.

Lurtsema, who is not particularly impressed with that argument, said recently that before he left the players were tense at practice because Mara was always around whispering to the coaches, and several of them were unable to get up for a game because Mara's youngsters invaded the locker room before the kickoff and played ticktacktoe on the blackboard. Mara regards both charges as silly.

Lurtsema was not the only unhappy Giant. Fred Dryer, the defensive end now with the Rams, says, "I had to get out of that place while I had my sanity." He found the organization slipshod, even down to the way the equipment manager dried wet shoes by putting them on top of a heater—"It looked like you were in Holland," he says—and feels that the Giants will never be a winner.

The criticism that stings Mara most is the suggestion that he step aside for a professional football man. "I think I am a professional football man," he says. "I've been in the game my whole life." Now a youthful-looking 56, Mara was nine years old when his father, Tim, bought the New York NFL franchise for $500 and started the Giants. He remembers standing outside church after Mass with his father and a friend and his father saying, "Today's the day we see if professional football can go over in New York." Except for a couple of years when he was in the Navy and two games he had to watch on TV because of the press of business, Mara has seen every Giant game played since 1938.

Tim Mara was a colorful character who liked to say he had founded the Giants "on brute strength and ignorance—the players' strength and my ignorance." The son of an immigrant Irish widow on the Lower East Side, Tim left school at 13 to run bets for bookmakers. In time be began acting as a "beard," or betting agent, for Chicago O'Brien, an astute gambler who did not want his fellow plungers to know what he was doing. Tim prospered by betting his own money on O'Brien's selections and then went into bookmaking on his own, eventually setting up a stand at Belmont Park before the advent of mutuel machines. Through a legal quirk, Wellington and his older brother Jack became the owners of the Giants while they were still youngsters. In 1928, Tim Mara got a bank loan for $50,000 to assist Al Smith in the presidential campaign, with the understanding that the Democratic National Committee would repay the loan afterward. When the Democrats denied making any such agreement, the bank sued Mara. He lost the case, but the bank was unable to collect because Tim had transferred all his holdings to relatives, with Jack as president and Wellington as secretary of the Giants.

Wellington attended Loyola, a Jesuit school at 83rd Street and Park Avenue, just across the street from the family apartment. At Loyola and later at Fordham he used to give away Giant tickets to classmates. Two of his Fordham classmates were Ray Walsh, now general manager of the Giants, and Vince Lombardi, then one of the football team's "Seven Blocks of Granite." Mara, who remembers Lombardi as "a very piercing and tenacious student" in philosophy class, became a great admirer of Lombardi some years later when the ex-Block was serving as an assistant coach on the Giants. In 1959 Mara let Green Bay sign Lombardi with the understanding the Giants could have him back when needed. The very next year the Giant coaching job became vacant, but Green Bay officials, much in the manner of the Democratic National Committee, did not recall any understanding, and Mara signed Allie Sherman instead.

When Mara was graduated from Fordham in 1937, his father wanted him to follow Jack to law school. "I had skipped the fifth grade," Mara says, "so I said to my father, 'Let me have this year with the team.' " His father agreed, and Mara never left the Giants except for service. "All the fellows were my age," says Mara of the 1937 Giants. "I was close to them, part of them. There was an entirely different atmosphere in pro football in those days."

Mara has been president of the team since Jack's death in 1965. No matter what title he has held, Mara has had the same approach to the Giants, concentrating on the players and leaving business details to others. He gets up at six at his Westchester home, attends Mass and receives Communion and drives to the city with Walsh, who lives nearby. In the off-season, he puts in a full day at the Giants' office on Columbus Circle, breaking it with a noontime workout at the New York Athletic Club and then a light lunch back at the office. Four times a year he lunches with Jimmy Dolan, a retired radio executive who used to have lunch with Jack. "Since Jack died, we keep it up," Mara says. "A spring, summer, winter and fall luncheon." There are times when Mara thinks he might get a better press if he were more of a man-about-town.

During the season Mara dons a sweat suit and runs while the Giants practice. On game days he sits in a small booth that hangs from beneath the upper stand on the 50-yard line. There are usually a couple of assistant coaches with him, and Mara shows them the Polaroid pictures he takes of the opposing team's formations. If a picture shows anything of significance, Mara stuffs it into an old sweat sock weighted with football cleats and flings it to the bench below. "The spirit of modern times!" exclaims Mara, thinking about his supply of sweat socks and cleats. "We could have put in a wire, but then that gets complicated. Actually, I just sit up there to stay out of trouble."

A homebody, Mara spends evenings with his wife Ann and their six girls and four boys. Often in the winter he will take some of the youngsters to Madison Square Garden for Knick games. Occasionally Mara and his wife go into the city for the theater. They like musical comedies. Before her marriage, Mrs. Mara worked for the Jesuit Missions. She and her husband met one day at Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola when they went to help an elderly lady who had fainted. Ann Mara, a very attractive, vivacious blonde, says, "It was a sporting courtship. While all my friends were at the Stork Club, I was at the Fordham gym." Although she more than shares her husband's distaste for his critics—"All I need is them burning football helmets on the lawn," she says—she was amused by one story about her husband that said he hung out in P.J. Clarke's, St. Patrick's Cathedral and the New York A.C. Mara himself laughs about that. "I've been to Clarke's maybe four times in my life," he says of the restaurant hangout of New York's blasé sporting crowd, "which is more times than I've been to St. Patrick's."

Aside from football people, most of Mara's friends are physicians. Until they moved recently to a larger house, the Maras lived in suburban White Plains, up the street from Archbishop Stepinae High School. "When the school was built, a lot of Catholic doctors with large families moved there," Mara says. The doctors are staunch Giant fans, and they take up 30 seats in Section Five of the stadium mezzanine. When a woman once chided Mrs. Mara for attending a Giant game in the late stages of pregnancy, she said, "I'm better off in the stadium. We have everything right there: an obstetrician, a pediatrician, a dentist, an internist, a heart surgeon, a chief of surgery and an anesthetist." Mara adds, "In case they fail, there are always a couple of priests around."

In point of fact, 30 seats in Section 36 in the upper stands is known as "Jesuit Row." Mara sends tickets for every game to the rector at St. Ignatius and to friends at Fordham. His clerical beneficiaries are of the old school adhering to black suits and roman collars.

The changing times and low estate of the Giants are very much on Mara's mind. Not given to chitchat, he can talk at length on the decline of the Giants and what he thinks are the reasons for it. "Through 1956 to 1963, we won the Eastern championship six times: '56, '58, '59, '61, '62 and '63," he says. "Six out of eight years, and in 1957 and 1960 we were the team to beat. We did this basically with the same team—Conerly, Rote, Huff, Gifford. They perpetuated themselves; they never wanted to come out of a game, and we almost never developed a younger player. Every game was important to us, and our great tendency was to use what I call the patch-up system: you trade for a Tittle, a Shofner. I remember about 1962 I talked to Tex Schramm in Dallas about a trade, and I said, 'Tex, when we go, we'll go with a bang.' But I thought it was worth trying to stay on top rather than to provide for the future five years ahead, and so we would trade a first draft choice for a player who would give us two years.

"After the 1963 season—and that defeat in the playoff was a sore blow to Al Sherman—Al felt that we would not win with what we had and now was the time to replace some of the cogs he thought were wearing out. We traded Huff and Modzelewski. I don't think anyone on the staff fully comprehended the emotional esprit de corps those two players had for the Giants, particularly on the defensive unit. I make one exception, Jim Lee Howell. He had tears in his eyes the day we traded Mo. We traded Mo because we thought his best days were behind him, but he was the mortar who held the bricks together. He was a highly intelligent, very sensitive guy who disguised it all purposely to play the buffoon. He could break the tension at a time when the players would be down. He'd come up with a gimmick, usually himself as the butt. A lot of people can laugh at other people, but someone who can laugh at himself is very valuable.

"So Mo, the mortar, was gone. Sam Huff was a controversial figure. Sam wanted to win, and he didn't care who he had to kick to do it. He wasn't as popular with his teammates, but he was just as valuable a part. Looking back, I didn't realize the emotional impact that Huff had. Not that the players were devoted to him, but they believed in him. He maybe symbolized the belief they had in themselves that they were the best.

"The trades shook the players' belief in themselves and their chances for the future, and we began to play badly. Then we made another mistake: we did not discard the patch theory. We stayed with it until, well, Webster took over. I think this was a case of where competitiveness was carried to an extreme that made it a vice. The idea was, gee, this defensive end has never played pro ball, they'll go right through him, so let's trade a draft choice for that old vet. Sherman was willing to stake his career on going for the whole thing. Some people have said that Al 'destroyed' the Giants because he was a little man with a Napoleonic complex who was jealous of the old players. That's not true. Al's thing was for the Giants to be No. 1, and for my part I didn't want to have a loser while the Jets had a winner."

After five exhibition defeats in 1969, Mara fired Sherman and appointed Webster head coach. In 1970 the Giants finished with an astonishing 9-5 record, then slumped to 4-10 last year. In part, Mara blames 1971 on Webster for running a poor training camp and on himself for not seeing that all players were signed when training began. Then again, he blames himself for a preseason harangue he gave to the Giants. "I usually don't talk to the players," he says. "That's not my place, but I wanted to shock them. I told them they had gotten terribly selfish. It came too late and was probably better left unsaid. You should never talk to individuals like that without building them up afterward, but I just got so mad and carried away that I left them on the downgrade."

With stoic resolve, Mara is also determined never again to impose his personal tastes on the players. This is especially difficult for him, too, for long hair grates on him emotionally. "I'm reluctant to accept it," he says, "but I know that's the way it is now, baby. As Cicero said, 'De gustibus non est disputandum.' "

Realistically, Mara thinks it will take the Giants a couple of years to become topflight again but he has faith that the Giants can make it, just at the time they move into their new stadium in the Hackensack Meadows of New Jersey. The stadium is part of a 750-acre sports complex that is supposed to include a racetrack, an indoor arena for hockey, basketball and conventions, and a huge hotel. The Giants get the 75,000-seat stadium on very generous terms. They get free office space, free watchmen, free maintenance staff, free cops, free scoreboard crew, free insurance, free water, free heating, free electricity, free sewage and waste disposal and free transportation for all fans who have to park more than a quarter of a mile away. The Giants only pay for the P.A. announcer and their phone calls. The Giants also get 25% of parking fees, 400 free parking spaces, 50% of concessions, all advertising in programs and souvenir books, about 75% of the gross ticket revenues, all membership fees in the stadium club, all radio and TV revenue and up to 2,700 free tickets per game.

Mara is perhaps overoptimistic about moving into the Jersey pot of gold by 1975. Taxpayer and environmental organizations are contesting construction of the sports complex in the swamps, and as one environmentalist puts it, "Even if we lose, we could hold the Giants up for nine years."

With his faith in the goodness and the rightness of the Giant Family cause, Mara ignores such gloomy predictions. The great majority of the fans is behind the team, he says, after sheafing through his mail. Naturally, now and then, there are hostile letters, but Mara handles them with an innate grace. Not long ago, for instance, an 11-year-old girl wrote calling Mara a mean old man for trading Fran Tarkenton to the Vikings. Mara replied, giving his reasons for the trade and noting that although he had been called mean before, no one had ever called him an old man.

Several days later, Mara is pleased to report, the girl wrote back to apologize. My father says, she wrote, that anyone who would answer her letter was certainly not mean.


MARA WITH FAMILY JEWELS: Kyle Rote in salad days, Coach Alex Webster in sadder times.