This week, in the quaint Hudson River town of Peekskill, N.Y. the New York Jets of the American Football League open training with 28 rookies who cost a total of $1.1 million to sign, the most money ever committed for new talent in one year by any pro football team. Among the rookies coming on strong are Cosmo Iacavazzi, Princeton's All-America fullback; Verlon Biggs, mammoth defensive end from Jackson State; Bob Schweickert, All-America back from VPI; Jim Harris, a gigantic lineman from Utah State; George Sauer, the dropout flanker from Texas; and, finally, to the blare of trumpets, a roar of welcome from the M-G-M lion and a thumping bong from J. Arthur Rank's gong, the two most publicized college quarterbacks in America: Joe Namath (see cover) of Alabama, everyone's darling in the pro football draft, and John Huarte of Notre Dame, the Heisman Trophy winner. Namath, who cost the Jets an estimated $400,000, and Huarte, who so far has refused to develop a complex despite signing for only about half as much, will do battle with Mike Taliaferro, a holdover from last season, for the job of No. 1 quarterback. A few years ago, when the Jets were the hapless Titans, most pro football fans could not have told you if the team even had a quarterback, much less his name. Now, thanks to the astute handling and fathomless bankroll of David (Sonny) Werblin, the president of the Jets, the competition for quarterback has achieved all the supercolossal proportions of the casting of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. And with good reason: Sonny Werblin wants a star. "I believe in the star system," he says. "It's the only thing that sells tickets. It's what you put on the stage or playing field that draws people."
As a result of the brouhaha aroused by the signing of Namath and Huarte, the Jets have sold the improbable number of 35,000 season tickets, as compared to only 11,000 at this time last year, and on this score alone Sonny Werblin has to rank as one of the most clever, fascinating and energetic operators to emerge in sports since Larry MacPhail showed up at Cincinnati's Crosley Field with the Kaiser's ashtray and the idea of night baseball.
No one knows better than Werblin the value of a star. For 30 years Werblin worked and schemed and planned and plotted for stars in relative anonymity for the Music Corporation of America, the biggest talent agency ever known to show business. Upon his retirement last January as a vice-president of MCA Inc. and president of MCA TV, a subsidiary, Werblin was hailed as "the world's greatest agent." Variety, in a eulogy headed "SONNY... JUST LIKE IN MONEY," noted that Werblin had helped shape broadcasting "perhaps more than anyone else" in America, and "if he was not broadcasting's greatest showman, he certainly qualified as its greatest promoter and salesman." On Madison Avenue and in Hollywood, Sonny is revered as the father of the "package deal," and among the programs he handled for MCA were Markham, Mike Hammer, Wagon Train, The Virginian, M Squad, Treasury Men in Action, Overland Trail, Twenty-One (gulp), Shotgun Slade, Johnny Staccato, Whispering Smith, The Deputy, My Three Sons, Laramie, Riverboat and Bachelor Father. Stars he personally handled for radio and TV included Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Jane Wyman, Wayne King, Ben Bernie, Abbott and Costello, Don Ameche, Ralph Edwards, Horace Heidt, Sammy Kaye, Alvino Rey, Eddie Fisher, Alfred Hitchcock, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Ken Murray, Robert Cummings, Henry Morgan, Eddie Albert, Eddie Bracken, the Nelsons (Ozzie, Harriet, Ricky and David), Harry James, Betty Grable, Burns and Allen, Polly Bergen, Nanette Fabray, Gene Kelly, Ernie Kovacs, Jack Carson, Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray, Gisele MacKenzie, Phil Silvers, Oscar Levant, Jack Paar and Jack Benny. It was Sonny who moved Benny from NBC to CBS, and it was none other than Sonny who moved Benny back again. Among the stars Sonny personally signed for MCA were Edgar Bergen, Shirley MacLaine, Victor Borge, Dolores Gray, Xavier Cugat, Freddy Martin, Dean Martin, George Gobel and Liberace ("he was different"). Sonny not only discovered Eddie Duchin but roomed with him for two and a half years and was best man at both of Duchin's weddings. Werblin and his wife, Leah Ray Hubbard, who once sang with Phil Harris' band, were members of Morton Downey's second wedding party. The Werblins have a way with weddings. Both were in attendance at the fabled nuptials in the Essex House uniting Abe Lyman to his vocalist, Rose Blaine. Lyman, a frenetic gin-rummy player, had to be summoned to the ceremony from the card table, where he was happily on a Schneider, and when the service was over he immediately headed back for a hand as the rabbi concluded in words that still ring in Werblin's ears, "Remember, everyone, it was made legal by Segal." Werblin informed Lyman that their old friend Phil Spitalny knew nothing about the marriage. Spitalny was up in Boston at the Metropolitan Theater with Evelyn and Her Magic Violin and the rest of his All-Girl Orchestra, and after Sonny got the call through he put Lyman on. "I got married today!" Lyman burbled. "Dot's goot," said Spitalny. "I just broke der house record. Here's der manager. He'll tell you all about it."
Sonny—"no one ever calls me David"—Werblin moves in ever-widening circles at ever-increasing speeds. "Every day is an anecdote with Sonny," says Joe Hirsch, a columnist for The Morning Telegraph and Daily Racing Form
, who is a member of Sonny's racing crowd. It was Sonny who recently lined up Bob Hope for an honorary degree from Monmouth College. (Sonny never handled Hope, but Hope says, "He's a genius.") It was Sonny who put Eleanor Holm into the Aquacade and introduced her to Billy Rose, whom she later married. Sonny is the only man in America who has sons named after the heads of both Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola. His oldest son, Hubbard Steele Werblin, is named for the late Alfred Steele, chairman of Pepsi, and his middle son, Robert, is named after Robert Woodruff, former chairman of Coke. Sonny personally fired David Susskind from MCA. Susskind once said he was fired for insubordination, but he refuses to talk about Sonny now. In turn, Sonny not only refuses to talk about Susskind, he refuses to talk to him. The only other person with whom Sonny is not on speaking terms is Frank Sinatra. Ironically, Sonny and Sinatra are the only two persons who call Toots Shor by the nickname Blub.
The Werblins maintain an apartment in Manhattan and a rambling home in Elberon on the Jersey shore. Their three cars have the license plates MCA, MCA-1 and MCA-2. Sonny usually drives MCA to the races at Monmouth Park 10 minutes away. He is a large stockholder and a director of the track. The Werblins own a racing stable, Elberon Farms, and Mrs. Werblin gives all the horses show-biz names. The best horse so far is Time Step, who has won $50,000 in allowance races. The most promising is a $50,000 colt bought privately at Keeneland last year named One Night Stand, by Sailor out of Olympia Gal. Sonny is a large stockholder and director of the New Jersey National Bank & Trust Company, which has nine branches. He is a trustee of Rutgers University, his alma mater, and of the Peekskill Military Academy, where the Jets train and from which son Hubbard was graduated last month. He also has real-estate interests.
In appearance, Werblin is stocky, bald and bushy-browed. He wears glasses. His manner is hearty but low-keyed. He is a conservative dresser who buys his suits off the rack. His only concessions to flash are gold cuff links and tiepins with a football motif. He is 55 but, in common with other hard-striving MCA executives, he looks 10 years older. Years ago, when he was a student at James Madison High School in Brooklyn, Sonny said his aim in life was to be a "grown-up boy," and he has adhered to that ambition. His enthusiasms are catching. Robert Sarnoff, chairman of the board of NBC, an old pal and a bonefishing companion in the Keys, says, "Sonny has the ability to widen the horizons of others. I never followed pro football closely but, leaving aside the interest NBC has in the AFL [ NBC has a five-year television contract with the AFL for $36 million], through my friendship with Sonny I've gotten to know something about football."
Sonny was born on St. Patrick's Day, and his favorite color is green. His Jet office has a green rug. Jet Stream, the team's house organ, which is given to such superlatives as JETS SIGN THE BEST, NAMATH, HUARTE LEAD THE PARADE, is printed in green ink. The team colors are green and white. When Sonny signed Namath he gave him a green Lincoln Continental.
Namath's magnetic quality, his "star" quality, impressed Werblin right away. "When Joe Namath walks into a room," says Sonny, "you know he's there. When any other high-priced rookie walks in, he's just a nice-looking young man. It's like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig or Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris." When Sonny actually signed Namath he said, "I don't know whether you'll play on our team or make a picture for Universal." If Namath had his way, he probably would do both. Away from the football field he comes across as a real ring-ding-a-ding finger-snapper, a girl ogler, a swingin' cat with dark good looks who sleeps till noon. His major interests are "girls and golf, girls and golf." Namath relishes the limelight and, for one reason or another, he always has been able to bask in it.
In high school in Beaver Falls, Pa., a steel-mill town of 16,240, Namath was celebrated as a star quarterback, a superb basketball guard, a crackerjack outfielder and a character. Once he drove a car up on the sidewalk because traffic was too slow. On another occasion, he climbed a 20-foot flagpole atop a three-story building to hoist a balloon celebrating a football victory. His old high school principal, upon hearing of his signing with the Jets, remarked, "I feel sorry for him. He will be racked up next fall like no one was ever racked up before."
Namath, whose parents are divorced, is "full-blooded Hungarian." He was the youngest son, and he shined shoes to help out. His first coach was his brother Bob, who had to forgo college to work in a mill. In high school Namath was such an outstanding baseball player that the Cubs offered him a $50,000 bonus, which he turned down to go to Alabama on a football scholarship. Namath had the pro scouts so excited over his passing ability that he was marked "blue chip" in scouting reports even as a sophomore. He still needs 15 semester hours for his degree, a major in industrial arts with a minor in physical education, and overall he has a C average. "It's damn hard to go through college in four years and graduate," he says. "I don't know many boys who graduate in four years." In January he plans to resume his studies in Tuscaloosa.