Werblin did so well on the road that he was called back to New York and put to routing bands. Then he began dealing with nightclub and theater owners. He sold MCA to the Waldorf, then helped move MCA into the Plaza, the Commodore, Biltmore and Astor. He dealt with advertising agencies as MCA moved into radio. In 1941 Goodheart retired, and Sonny succeeded him as head of the New York office. He became a grocery and supermarket prowler, taking note of what goods were stacked where and why. He knew the problems of every client and, in the days of radio, when ad agencies were putting the programs together, such knowledge was handy. Werblin still prowls in supermarkets, and now that he owns the Jets he has become a stadium walker as well. A survey he had made of the parked cars at Shea Stadium revealed that the Jets draw heavily from northern New Jersey.
Throughout his multiple wheelings and dealings in TV, Sonny was a figure of mystery. He never gave interviews, but he was widely reputed to be the most powerful man in television. His feats were legend within the industry, but his name never came before the public unless news of a particular coup leaked out. In a rare story on him, a trade magazine, Television, put the value of his MCA stock holdings at $11 million in 1961, and the magazine attempted to assess his role in TV by quoting anonymous executives. One summed up Sonny as a "smart, tough operator with the wiles of a CIA agent working undercover in the Kremlin." A former MCA employee attested to Sonny's stature within the company by noting that during a crap game at an MCA party Sonny's partners ran after the dice for him. In an article on MCA, which had now grown so large it was known as The Octopus in show business, FORTUNE reported that when Robert Sarnoff and NBC President Robert Kintner were puzzling over programs, Werblin came into the room, and without further ado Kintner said, "Sonny, look at the schedule for next season; here are the empty spots, you fill them." Although the story was denied, it was an indication of the awe in which Werblin was held.
To Sarnoff, Sonny is the best he has ever met. "He represented the interests of his clients very well," Sarnoff says, "and at the same time had an appreciation of the needs of his customers." On one occasion, Sarnoff recalls, "we had a problem on Wednesday night, and Bob Kintner and I had a general idea on how to solve the problem. We came in to see Sonny to talk it out. Sonny indicated he might have a solution, and out of that came Wagon Train." A couple of years later, Sonny gave Sarnoff the idea for The Virginian when they accidentally happened to meet on a plane. When Sonny heard that CBS was having difficulty with Nat Hiken, a talented writer, he suggested that CBS have Hiken think up an idea for Phil Silvers. CBS agreed and put Hiken to work on the project. He came up with the Bilko series.
"Werblin could play both sides of the fence with effortless dexterity," Variety reported in its eulogy. "On many days, he would appear in the offices of each of the three network presidents—often selling programs which he had plotted to be scheduled opposite each other.... He was a masterful practitioner of the time-honored show biz dodge of starting a war and selling ammunition to all sides. When he supplied a network with a 'hit' such as Jack Benny or My Three Sons, he would make the web remember it by giving him still more business. When he sold a 'turkey,' he would make the network forget it by selling them other shows, quite often including the dud's replacement."
Because Werblin had helped supervise the original AFL football package that was sold to ABC five years ago, he had a good insight into the league. In the fall of 1962 he knew that the New York team, then called the Titans and owned by Harry Wismer, was in deep financial trouble. He suggested that MCA buy the team, but the company attorneys, wary of antitrust action, advised against it. The result was that Werblin and some of his Monmouth Park associates, Philip Iselin, Leon Hess and Townsend Martin—and Bowie Race Course President Donald Lillis—bought the team from bankruptcy court for $1 million in the winter of 1963. "I figured any sports franchise in New York was worth SI million," says Sonny. "Now all these guys who say they saw the second Dempsey-Tunney fight say they almost bought the Jets."
All Sonny's friends predict great success. "Sonny can do no wrong," says Eleanor Holm. "He's astute. He's kind. He'd never throw anyone a curve. He's been in show business all his life, and he's got guts. He's going to make this football team the greatest of all time. Know why? He's got a flair!" Toots Shor says, "Sonny is a fighter. Always go, go, go! He's got some bum in him, too. Every good guy has got to have some bum in him. He is a fun guy and a hero worshiper. He loves sitting with Namath and Huarte. They are heroes to him. And brains, believe me, he has one helluva mind. He has handled the sports game like show business, getting it to the public. He knows the value of publicity." Vice-President Taft Schreiber of MCA says, "Sonny is the great judge of talent. I don't really care what the talent may be for. He can spot talent in any area. He has a nose for greatness."
In 1963, Werblin's first year of ownership, the Jets lost $700,000. Last year they lost $648,000. This year the Jets expect to make money. "The NFL owners try to perpetuate the idea that they are the richer, older league," says Werblin. "The NFL couldn't buy shoe polish from most of the owners in the AFL. Over there you have a bunch of jaded old guys who have been making a million a year on a gross of less than $3 million and with no capital investment. The whole attitude of the National League is that they found it, it's theirs and no one else can get in it. They talk about us as a 'young' league—I think the National League attitude is immature. They won't talk to us. But heads of rival industries and companies, if honorable and decent men, talk to one another.
"I think a lot of this stuff about the National League being so far superior is a lot of bunk. I would say this—and this is a cold professional analysis, not my own—there are four teams in our league that can beat any team in their league. The answer to the scoffing is that the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings are about the same age as our league, and the Vikings may be the best team in the NFL. Buffalo has the best four front men in either league. Tom Sestak is probably as good a football player as there is in the country. We cut Johnny Contoulis. and he played for the Giants the same season. In building this ball club I didn't want to feast on anything that had the air of expediency. It would have been very easy for me to hire a lot of ex-Giants. But I said to Weeb [Ewbank, the coach], 'Let's build a new organization.' Actually, I have not been terribly interested in what the Giants do. I liken the New York franchise in the AFL to the Yankees in the 1920s."
All Sonny needs is a Babe Ruth, a star. "What do I want?" he asks. "The best football team in America. Without being jingoistic, the city deserves it—and I want it."