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THE WEBB OF MYSTERY
Joe David Brown
February 29, 1960
He is the very silent partner in the Yankee firm, but Del Webb has a history as colorful as any of his ballplayers. In fact, he played so hard he had to quit for good
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February 29, 1960

The Webb Of Mystery

He is the very silent partner in the Yankee firm, but Del Webb has a history as colorful as any of his ballplayers. In fact, he played so hard he had to quit for good

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When a man is half owner of the fabulous Yankees, hobnobs with the top people in both Washington and Hollywood, controls one of the nation's biggest construction companies, heads or sits on the board of 43 corporations, has a partnership or major interest in 31 companies, belongs to 14 clubs and has so much money that he almost never has to touch the dreary stuff, it puts one's teeth slightly on edge to call him unknown. Yet it's an abashing fact that an overwhelming number of people still have never heard of Del E. Webb or, if they have, find his name only vaguely familiar and disembodied.

Nobody is more indifferent to this phenomenon than Del Webb himself. A quiet, unassuming, impressively well-preserved and well-integrated gentleman of 60 who claims Phoenix, Arizona as home and lists his occupation as contractor, Webb feels that publicity doesn't matter much either one way or the other. He prefers to duck it if he can. When his manifold interests do thrust him into the limelight, however, he tries to follow the advice given the beleaguered maidens in the old Chinese fable and submit gracefully. More times than not it works, and Webb not only finds himself relaxed but actually enjoying himself. In rapid-fire order not long ago, for instance, he was the honored guest at a reception given by the city fathers of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he is building a 14-story office building; the co-host of the annual Old Timers Game at Yankee Stadium in New York; and then a player and honored guest at another old-timers' game at a ball park in Modesto, California which is named in his honor.

At least several times a month, Webb usually finds himself making a speech somewhere. He is no orator, having a monotonous and somewhat tedious delivery but, happily, this is partly offset by his sincerity. He stands 6 foot 4 inches tall, looks as lean as a range rider at 200 pounds, and when he is at his best he exudes the same sort of level-eyed, laconic western charm, somehow suggestive of sagebrush and wide-open spaces, that catapulted Gary Cooper to movie fame. "Let Del shake a man's hand once," said an associate, "and he will go around claiming Del as a friend for the rest of his life."

Nobody can deny that Webb is a thoroughly likable man. "Del just looks like...well, dammit, Del looks like a man you can trust," is the way a friend put it. Observing Webb's horn-rimmed glasses and neat appearance, one columnist said he looked like the president of the Civic Betterment League. A reporter said he looked like a junior college chemistry professor. Others have described him as looking like a banker, an insurance adjuster and a veteran airline pilot. A West Coast newspaperman probably came closest to the mark when he said, "Del reminds you of someone from your home town."

Webb is not a convivial man. He used to drink, but he quit overnight 17 years ago when he came down with an unexplained fever. Up until then he had been known to take as many as 20 hookers of bourbon a day. He has never drunk tea, coffee or carbonated beverages. He abhors tobacco smoke and usually posts a neat "No Smoking" sign in any room he occupies for long. Visitors looking for Webb's office in his Phoenix or Los Angeles headquarters are sometimes told: "Go down the hall until you see a bunch of cigarette butts outside a door—that's his office." Webb's offices in both Phoenix and Los Angeles are furnished identically right down to the carpet on the floor and the rack of souvenir World Series bats in a corner. By Webb's orders, all building plans, equipment and supplies are kept in the same place in both headquarters, an idea Webb borrowed after seeing how standardization added to the efficiency of chain grocery stores he had constructed.

Personally, Webb is not as well organized as this might indicate. Like most busy men, he creates a mild chaos when left on his own. He frequently is the despair of his two secretaries because he mislays papers and loses tickets, cancels plane reservations without letting them know and sometimes forgets to advise them of his plans. He also forgets to carry keys to his own offices and on two occasions while working late at night has been locked in and had to break his way out. But when it comes to business, Webb is almost fearsomely well organized and attentive to detail. This is fortunate, because his interests are so varied and so far-flung, his corporate structures so numerous and interlocking, that even he probably could not sit down and rattle them off. When asked how much he is worth, Webb smiles and shrugs, "I don't know. There's no way of telling." The only positive way he could tell would be to sell everything at once. In this unlikely event, Webb's associates estimate, roughly, that he might wind up with $30 million to $35 million.

To keep tabs on his empire, Webb requires every corporation and company in which he has a stake, every foreman of every construction project being handled by his company to file a daily report. These reports come from the Yankees and from a toy shop, from ranches and oil wells, from farms and drilling companies, hotels and motels, restaurants, investment companies, a brewery, a box factory, shopping centers, housing developments and even a playhouse. The reports give a breakdown of sales or attendance, report progress or accidents on construction projects. They even give the temperature and general weather conditions.

Webb sifts the reports carefully. "I may go broke someday," he said recently, "but if I do I'll know why. And that's not a joke. There have been many businesses which have gone broke, and it was weeks or months before anybody realized it. But aside from that, daily reports are a good thing in three other respects. In the first place, if people think the boss is taking an interest, they will, too. In the second place, it helps the employee on the scene get a clear idea of what's going on, too. And the third good reason for a daily report is that it furnishes a permanent record; it gives the accounting department something to refer back to if necessary."

IT'S ONLY MONEY

Money, as such, no longer interests Webb. For example, after deciding to join Larry MacPhail and Dan Topping in buying the Yankees back in 1945, he telephoned his financial manager from New York, "I've decided to join the deal for the Yankees. Where can I get some money?"

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