The thing is, of course, Cooke does have other teams—he will soon have more—and they will either cost him or make him a great deal of money. A lot depends on two things: whether the American public will take hockey to its heart and, having done that, will also find room for big-time soccer. How did Cooke get into this terrible/wonderful mess? It wasn't easy.
Almost 40 years ago he was tooting a clarinet and saxophone with his own band around Toronto—Oley Kent and his Orchestra—and occasionally he would croon, a la Rudy Vallee, through a megaphone. In the role of Oley Kent, Cooke was a dapper young man in wide lapels and a belt in the back. But poor. Then he took to selling encyclopedias from Canadian door to door—not good encyclopedias, but what do you expect for $39.50 a set? Still, he had vowed to become a rich man—and he wasn't even close. He began to sell soap for Colgate-Palmolive-Peet in 1936, and he says now, looking back on it, "I sold more soap than anybody in the history of the company." This may be the hidden key, for in a way Cooke has been selling soap ever since.
In November 1936, Cooke wangled a letter of introduction to Roy Thomson, publisher and broadcaster, now Lord Thomson of Fleet Street. Thomson looked into those teeth and was impressed. No newspaper jobs available, he said, but would Cooke like to manage a radio station, CJCS, in Stratford, Ontario? Cooke would, indeed.
"The sales manager at Colgate really bawled hell out of me when I told him I was quitting," Cooke says. "He told me I was crazy to walk out on a job like that. He wanted to know how much money I was going to make. And you know what? I couldn't tell him. That was one question I had forgotten to ask Thomson." It turned out to be $25 a week, but don't laugh out there in Hollywood. In six years he was a millionaire.
Cooke and Thomson cut a swath through the Canadian communications world that is still unparalleled. First they put CJCS in the black, then sold it. They bought more sick stations, healed them with shots of disc jockeys and lively programming and sold them. Cooke got the idea fast enough. Most of the properties sold for five times their original price, and he began putting his own money into them. (On one of the stations, same growly voice, was Lorne Greene.) When Cooke and Thomson formally dissolved their partnership in 1952, Cooke was Canada's big executive: 20 magazines, radio properties and the country's largest plastics outfit. He was worth, by conservative estimate, about $8 million.
But can a poor Toronto boy find happiness merely as a wealthy and respected publisher? No. So in 1951 he bought the Toronto Maple Leafs' baseball team when it was down and out. By 1952 he had the attendance up to a record 466,040 and Cooke was named Minor League Executive of the Year. No pretty head will stay unturned by such attention. The Leafs won four pennants in seven seasons, and Cooke had sold himself down the river to a life in sports.
Pockets full of money, he began casting around in the sporting world. In 1955 he tried to buy the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. They wanted too much money. That same year he bid $5.5 million for the Detroit Tigers. They sold for $5.8 million. In 1958 Cooke, Branch Rickey and friends tried to form the Continental Baseball League. They were shut out, but stirred up the alarm that led to major league expansion. Then in 1960 Cooke offered $4.5 million for the Washington Redskins. Shut out again. (Cooke already owned 25% of the club, which he bought from Harry Wismer for $350,000 cash. It was a good buy. The portion is now worth an estimated $4 million.)
But Americans were getting the idea. Cooke was ready to come and bring money. In 1960 he became a U.S. citizen through an unusual bill which sailed through Congress—skipping the usual five-year residency rule. (His sponsor, Representative Francis Walter of Pennsylvania, told a House Judiciary subcommittee, "In Canada, Cooke's energetic and aggressive espousal of the United States and its people is a matter of public record, and some minor criticism.") Settling down—as much as you can ever call him settled—in Los Angeles, Cooke then acquired his U.S. possessions: the Lakers, Kings and Zorros.
Now, at 54, sitting behind a 170-year-old antique English desk in a chain of offices in the Beverly Hilton, barking orders to a covey of secretaries on the intercom and wheeling teams and franchises (occasionally leaning back and plunking those $75 shoes on the desk), Cooke knows he did the right thing.
"My major business was to have been publishing," he says. "But something was lacking. It was sports. I had played hockey well as a boy. And baseball not so well. As a man, I felt a surge of creation in owning a baseball team. Perhaps it is an emanation of self. In any case, it is a very strong feeling. These are my family. They must succeed."