Since the middle of the manic 20s Madison Square Garden has been the premier sports palace of America. Boxing, hockey and basketball, six-day bike races, horse, dog and ice shows, the circus and rodeo have for 30 years drawn throngs, sometimes in evening dress, to seamy, down-at-heels Eighth Avenue. There the Garden imposes its dingy brick and ornate concrete front on the block between 49th and 50th streets. Its setting is a drab jungle of saloons, pawnshops, tenements, cheap hotels and strip-tease costumiers. The Garden has prestige enough to permeate this ragout with its own strong flavor. The bars run to names like The Neutral Corner and Mickey Walker's Tavern. The bookstores sell not only sex-perfumed paperbacks but books on how to box.
The setting was chosen because desirable New York real estate is expensive and the Garden, though on the fringes of Hell's Kitchen, is within easy reach of Times Square and Broadway.
For all that the Garden lives in a sleazy neighborhood, it has enjoyed a dignity comparable to that of the big house in a poor section of town. Its original backers were known as "the 600 millionaires"—an exaggeration—and its directors have been men of probity and position. They earned their reputations and fortunes for the most part outside of sport but enjoyed association with it.
The average sports fan never has known or cared much about the corporate structure of the Garden or the backgrounds of the men who have run it. Most of its 15 directors had names found more readily on the financial than the sports pages. Yet last week their names leaped onto the front page: six of the 15 resigned.
Ordinarily, the business activities of these six men fail to attract Page One headlines. What made the news bannerworthy this time was the added element of James D. Norris, whose name has become increasingly important in sports and, in recent years, in Garden affairs. The Norris family has owned Garden stock for more than 15 years, but recently Jim Norris has been picking it up in ever larger amounts. With Arthur M. Wirtz, his Chicago partner, he now controls some 60%.
Although the Garden is revered by millions, to Jim Norris it is only a part of his boxing-hockey octopus centering around the International Boxing Club, of which he is president, and the three National Hockey League teams owned by Norris interests. In such an organization the Garden is becoming a tarnished link in a long chain. It has assumed the aspect of a mere part of the Norris family empire, which includes such sports arenas as the Detroit Olympia and the Chicago Stadium.
Norris, though a multimillionaire and equipped by money standards to fit into the Garden's corporate structure, is a strange departure from the old Garden ruling class. His interest in sport was nurtured by his father, a passionate hockey fan, then roiled by association with thugs to whom sport is a commodity to be adulterated for profit. From the days of his youth 48-year-old Jim Norris has been the buddy pal of thieves and killers, gamblers and fixers. He began this association with the scum of the Chicago underworld and extended his range to the garbage of New York and Miami.
Obviously, such people, though they hang around the Garden on fight nights, are not likely to know Garden directors. But they know Jim Norris.
The reasons the resigning directors gave for their action were either none or various. Bernard F. Gimbel, a fine amateur boxer in his youth, has a lifelong interest in sports. Chairman of the Garden board for 10 years, Gimbel courteously referred to a long, pleasant relationship with Norris. The department store owner said he had been thinking for years about cutting down "outside" activities.
Sidney J. Weinberg, the investment banker, made it clear, however, that Norris' control was not to his liking.