Someday, when John Galbreath is about 126 years old and suddenly finds himself with no more skyscrapers to build, no towns to move, no great stallions to smuggle out of Europe and no critical problems with which to confront baseball's owners, he will die, and the next day's papers will contain the sort of extravagant praise that truly larger-than-life men seldom have a chance to read about themselves. But none of the eulogies will approach the tacit eloquence of the road sign outside Mount Sterling, Ohio. It says HOME OF JOHN W. GALBREATH, and it doesn't explain, presuming that if you don't know who Galbreath is you don't know where you are anyway.
Actually, there is much unknown about Galbreath, even in Ohio's Madison and Pickaway counties, because this earnest little giant has hustled in unobtrusive, almost diffident ways his considerable wonders to perform, ever since he threw his 116 pounds into action as Mount Sterling High School's fullback, about the time Dorais and Rockne were showing the world an easier way than three yards and a cloud of dust. There is no way the nonachieving bulk of a society can really understand the superachiever like Galbreath, a man who regularly changes the faces of large cities with strokes of his pen, yet who strives as unceasingly and mightily for success as he did when he was waiting on tables to make tuition at Ohio University, 50 years and many millions of dollars ago.
There is, however, this clue to the essence of John Galbreath: he is a fan. A sucker fan, the worst and the best kind. Only a fan could have loved the dreary kind of Pittsburgh Pirates who began nibbling at Galbreath's bankroll in 1946 and had gobbled up $1,900,000 after 12 years. It would take several generations of Chateaugays to bring back the fortune he has invested in horse racing. And Galbreath's patronage of Ohio State, "helping" the university to attract such talent as Vic Janowicz and Jerry Lucas, can never avail him anything but a box on the 50-yard line and the right to sing Fight the Team as loudly as the most wide-eyed sophomore.
More significantly, however, John Wilmer Galbreath is a fan of the free-enterprise system, an all-season sport in which he can be a participant, a star—a superstar. If Darby Dan Farm, with its Ohio bluegrass, and the Pirates, even without Galbreath's pet, Danny Murtaugh, are his toys, so is the whole open market. To young John Galbreath, counting his money as he left the Athens, Ohio campus in 1920, real estate was going to be an adventure, an arena in which he could match his wits and his powers of persuasion against any man's. Like most young men, Galbreath believed he could win the game within the rules. Unlike most elderly men, Galbreath today can look back on a 50-year record that bears out his early belief. His hungry-eagle mien would frighten some men away from a poker table, but if they gave a Lady Byng trophy for sportsmanship in the big league of real estate, Galbreath would have retired it years ago. If Galbreath has any detractors, either in sport or business, they are as hard to find as atheists in the Vatican.
Galbreath is a multimillionaire, and the ruling heads of horse racing and baseball capitalize repeatedly on his capacity as a getter-of-things-done—planning of the "super" track at Aqueduct, resolution of baseball's expansion crisis of 1960, modernization of the Saratoga racing plant, refinement of baseball's pension plan in 1957, re-creation of Belmont Park and the search for a successor to Ford Frick are all projects of which Galbreath took charge, officially and otherwise. He is certainly not the wealthiest man in America, nor the most powerful. He is, however, one of the few very rich, very powerful men who can sing impassioned praises of free economy without sounding like the keynoter at a political fund-raising dinner. He speaks often of the pride and glory of private ownership, as many successful men do, yet he can make the case for success without embarrassing an audience of failures. He can because, insofar as the concept of enlightened self-interest can be epitomized, it is the story of John Galbreath's life.
It would enhance the Horatio Alger (an award he won in 1960) aspect of the story to say it began in Galbreath's birthplace, Derby, Ohio, when he started selling horseradish at age 10. But, Galbreath says, "All the kids did that. We just dug up the roots and grated them. My father had a farm kind of farm, the small kind you don't see much anymore. We didn't have much, so we all had to work. But we weren't poor. We had enough." Not enough to send a son through college, but young John had a sideline to his dishwashing and table-waiting at Ohio U. "I had a darkroom set up in the basement," he says. "I used to go around to the schools and take pictures of the kids and sell them to the parents."
The money Galbreath counted after graduation came to a bit more than $100, and he knew what he had to do with it. "You couldn't sell real estate in 1920 without a car," he says, "so I used it as a down payment on a Model T. The balance was $700. By the time I made the first $100 payment, after three months, the full price was down to $600. Three months later it was $500. After six months I owed a balance the same as a new car was worth." Galbreath had misjudged Henry Ford's capacity to mass-produce the horseless carriage. There would be a few times when he would overestimate the viability of the capitalist system, but never again would he underestimate it. He and his Model T plunged into the wonders of Ohio real estate with a how-long-has-this-been-going-on fervor, and free enterprise went to work for John Galbreath forevermore.
"Yes, I suppose I do have just about everything I want," Galbreath said recently, guiding his Lincoln convertible skillfully over the winding road of 3,900-acre Darby Dan Farm, a few miles from his birthplace. "But that's not all there is to success. Success is what a man thinks it is."
In his three-score-and-eight (a figure barely credible to a "young" man after dogging the 120-steps-per-minute pace of Darby Dan's squire through an all-day tour of two farms), Galbreath has never taken an alcoholic beverage orally. He inhaled a little, however, on Oct. 13, 1960, the day he became The Man Who Has Everything. Shortly before 4 o'clock that afternoon Yogi Berra loped forlornly toward the left-field wall of Forbes Field and became a spectator as Bill Mazeroski's home run sailed over the trees to end one of the most implausible World Series in history. After 14 years of Dino Restelli and Clem Koshorek and Ron Necciai and accounts payable for the annual seine haul of bonus boys who couldn't even look like baseball players, John Galbreath had a world champion. Hugging Manager Murtaugh in the champagne haze of the clubhouse as the Pirates showered each other in baseball's most orgiastic ritual of the past decade, Galbreath could have counted a number of other assets.
In shining splendor at 150 East 42nd Street in Manhattan towered his Socony Mobil building, 42 stories and $43 million of what FORTUNE termed "one of the most skillfully executed deals in real estate history"; negotiated, built and owned by the Galbreath Corporation, only one of many projects but standing symbolically as the centerpiece of an empire that was grossing more than $75 million annually and would soon approach $100 million.