Signed in May 1971, the bill establishing the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority stipulated that a major league franchise in either baseball or football had to be secured before the bond issue could be sold. Because of league rules protecting territorial rights in both sports, that meant that the Authority would have to lure one or more of the existing New York teams. The Yankees and the Giants, tenants in the then sadly deteriorating Yankee Stadium, seemed the likeliest candidates. But how to go about getting them? What was needed was someone who could pull off a really big package deal, someone who could persuade, entice....
Enter Werblin. "I accepted the position," he says, "because I feel that if a man can afford to perform a public service in his lifetime, he should, and because it gave me an opportunity to combine the three things I enjoy most—football, horse racing and entertainment." To avoid any conflict of interests, he sold his stock in Monmouth Park and became chairman of the Sports Authority in June 1971. Two months later the Giants announced that they had signed a 30-year lease with the Meadowlands.
"Selfish, callous and ungrateful!" wailed New York City Mayor John Lindsay. To keep the restless Yankees from following the Giants, Lindsay quickly proposed, and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller quickly authorized, the city to spend $24 million to buy and refurbish Yankee Stadium. In equally quick succession three New Jersey thoroughbred tracks—Monmouth Park, Garden State and Atlantic City—sued on grounds that the Meadowlands legislation was unconstitutional. Powerful environmentalist groups like the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club weighed in with their objections.
Convinced that he had the Giants because Yankee Stadium could never be made suitable for football ("They'd have done better to spend the money on the parking lot at Aqueduct"), Werblin made his peace with the environmentalists, who wound up more or less appeased by plans for turning 130 acres of the complex into an environmental study center and providing such safeguards as systems for the control of water and air quality.
In the spring of 1973, after borrowing $51 million from a consortium of New Jersey banks to start construction, Werblin and Adrian Foley, a prominent Newark attorney and the Sports Authority's financial chief, put on a hard-sell promotion for their bond issue for a group from 150 Wall Street financial houses. Afterward, Foley recalls, "They were tugging at our lapels, begging us not to leave them out." So far, so good. But nastier problems were ahead.
In March, with hopes high and all systems go, the Sports Authority announced its $262 million bond issue. That was on a Wednesday. That night, at Governor Rockefeller's behest, a 92-page bill was put together that called for major changes in New York's racing laws, all of which greatly enhanced the competitive position of the state's tracks. Passed by the legislature on Friday and signed by Rockefeller on Saturday, the bill hit the Meadowlands like a tidal wave. "Within two weeks," says Foley, "the financial houses supporting our bond began dropping like flies." At the suggestion of Dillon Read & Co., underwriters of the project, the issue had to be withdrawn for lack of buyers.
"It was a brilliant ploy," says Foley, "and was indicative of Rockefeller's single-minded determination to stop us. So there we were, owing $51 million and with no visible means of support. The bankers were looking at us cross-eyed and everybody considered us stone-cold dead."
Clearly it was time for Werblin to go into his act again. At the Saratoga races in August he met a friend from Hornblower & Weeks-Hemphill Noyes, the large Wall Street investment firm, and after a little friendly enticing, Hornblower & Weeks, in tandem with Merrill Lynch & Co., agreed to underwrite a second Meadowlands bond. Hiked to more than $280 million because of inflation, the issue was to be launched in October.
"So what happens?" says Foley, still incredulous. "The day we announce the issue, Rocky takes a helicopter ride over New York and then trots out Bus Mosbacher [then chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board] to reveal plans for a new $275 million sports complex—a racetrack, stadium, the whole deal—to be built on a platform over the railway yards in Sunnyside, Queens. It was a complete hoax! They never had a feasibility study, never had a plan—nothing! But with that, we went down the drain again."
Werblin heard of Rockefeller's latest gambit on the car radio while en route to a Rutgers football game. "I was absolutely frustrated," he recalls. "There was no phone in the car and it was the hottest September ever." During half-time Werblin passed out in the press box and was rushed to the hospital. "I still don't know if it was a heart attack or heat exhaustion or both," he says. "All I know is that I was damn tense."