“A LITTLE BIT OF DIGNITY AND CLASS”
It all began with “Mr. D.,” though in the fall of 1978 few in the nine Bay Area counties used such terms of endearment when identifying Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., the hapless owner of their favorite football team. Nor was he yet referred to with the more hip “Eddie D.,” or even the double- edged “Junior.” Instead, it was “that rich kid whose daddy bought him a football team” or “that mafioso dipstick who destroyed the Niners” or, for short, “that asshole.” Every fan within two hours’ drive of San Francisco knew who you meant. DeBartolo had joined the NFL in the spring of 1977 as its youngest franchise owner, hoping to become a man of stature in the sports world, bringing honor on his family while realizing his own deeply held aspirations for belonging, triumph, and acclaim. So far, however, Eddie— barely thirty- two years old, short, pudgy, and in charge for the first time in his life—was a complete flop. And he finally figured out late that fall that he had to do something radical to reverse the situation before it was too late. The most personally trying element in Eddie D.’s dilemma was his fear of disappointing his father, Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., the original “Mr. D.,” who was described by his son as close enough to him to be “like my brother.” DeBartolo Sr., now sixty- nine, was the architect of the family fortune. Born in the impoverished “Hollow” neighborhood in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1909, three months after the death of his natural father, Anthony Paonessa, “Senior” had taken the family name of his stepfather—an immigrant who neither read nor wrote English—and followed him into the concrete contracting business. Then, at the insistence of his mother, Senior worked his way through engineering school at the University of Notre Dame during the Depression by laboring all night at construction sites. He rejoined his stepfather’s Youngstown contracting business until the Second World War, when he was drafted into the Army Corps of Engineers for the duration. Senior returned from the war with an officer’s commission and a $1,500 nest egg reportedly won in military crap games, which he used to capitalize the Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation shortly after his first child and only son was born.
DeBartolo Sr. threw his new enterprise into the still-infant shopping center business and developed some of the first malls at a time when there were fewer than a dozen in the entire United States. Eventually his company built the largest enclosed shopping mall ever, as well as hundreds of similar properties in more than a dozen states, ranking as the nation’s largest shopping center developer by the time the 1970s began. He also acquired several banks, numerous hotels, three horse racing tracks, the Pittsburgh franchise in the National Hockey League, and some seventy other subsidiary enterprises, all headquartered in Youngstown.
By the time Eddie fell on his face out in San Francisco, the privately held DeBartolo family business was worth at least $400 million and Edward Sr. would soon be listed in the Forbes 400 directory of the wealthiest Americans. He was also suspected of Mafia connections, largely because he was a rich Italian contractor from Youngstown. Eddie’s father dismissed the innuendo with great annoyance. “This kind of talk is the curse of anyone successful whose name ends in an i or an o,” he complained. “I got where I am by working my ass off every day of my life. I could have turned to certain characters in this town. I’m not saying I don’t know them. But I solved my own problems.”
Edward Sr. was the archetypal patriarch—almost as short as his son but thin, quiet, dignified, and always dressed in a dark suit. One friend who had known him for forty years said he had seen Eddie’s father only twice without a tie, both times when he was wearing swimming trunks. In public he kept his tongue but in private was known to swear like a teamster. Such was the original Mr. D.’s stature around Youngstown that a thief who stole his briefcase returned it untouched as soon as he discovered who owned it. In more than forty years of working, Senior had never taken a vacation, and if he wasn’t traveling he was always home for dinner at the end of his customary fourteen- hour shift. He started his day at five- thirty over a Styrofoam cup full of coffee, usually with Eddie. Senior’s idea of a good time was to watch three televisions side by side, tuned to three different football games. His corporation’s two- story brick headquarters in suburban Youngstown was just down the road from his enormous house and from his son’s of similar size. When Senior traveled, he used one of the corporation’s three Learjets— flying more than five hundred hours a year—and was surrounded by a small swarm of aides charged with executing the decisions he made on the spot. Upon his return, his son greeted him with a kiss.
Not surprisingly, Junior grew up wanting to be Senior more than he wanted to be anybody else. The expectations Eddie put on himself with that identification were “brutal,” he would later admit. “It almost broke up my marriage before I realized I can’t fill those big shoes. I can’t be Edward DeBartolo Sr. and I don’t have to be. I have to carry on a tradition, not an identity, and I’ll do that in a different way. He’s helped me by letting me handle things my own way, to be my own man.” During the fall of 1978, however, that evolution was still very much in process.
According to Eddie, his greatest gift from his father was “the common man’s touch,” largely passed on during his childhood in Youngstown. Halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, the DeBartolos’ hometown had once hosted a legion of steel mills, fabricators, and blast furnaces, many of which were empty and rusting by the time Eddie got into the football business. And football was also part of his Youngstown inheritance. No region in America was more wedded to the game than the industrial Midwest and, rich or not, the DeBartolo scion was anything but an exception. He played on the junior varsity squad during his freshman year at Youngstown’s Cardinal Mooney High School, but, still an inch and a half and several pounds short of his adult five feet seven and a half inches and 160 pounds, he was doomed as a player. Junior swallowed his disappointment and settled for making a lot of working- class buddies from the team who became regulars at the DeBartolo mansion for games of pool. Because he wanted to be just one of the guys, Eddie D.’s only distinguishing feature as a teenager was his sartorial flair. “Eddie came up the easy way,” one of the Mooney High School faculty remembered, “but, other than his clothes, he never showed it.” Even when he was an adult, one of Eddie’s closest friends was a foundry worker from his JV days.
After Cardinal Mooney, Junior followed his father’s footsteps to Notre Dame but Senior still kept track of him, using a contact in the football program to give him updates on how his son was doing. After graduating with a degree in business, Eddie was moved into the corporation and shuffled through assignments to learn all the company’s functions. At each stop, other corporation executives were tasked with reporting to his father about the son. When on assignment in Dayton, Eddie reprised his Youngstown days and began hanging out with a group of players from the University of Dayton football team. He married his high school sweetheart along the way, fathered three daughters, and had just been named the family corporation’s executive in charge of sports operations when the DeBartolos began pursuing the possibility of purchasing the Forty Niners early in 1977. The year before, they had made an unsuccessful $16 million bid in the auction to secure rights to the NFL expansion franchise in Tampa, Florida, a state where DeBartolo Corp. had numerous business interests.
By then, Eddie had begun the process of becoming his “own man,” and, though often imitative of Senior down to the smallest details, Eddie’s “own man” was also anything but a carbon copy. For starters, Junior was every inch the party animal that Senior was not. One acquaintance who enjoyed Eddie’s typical restaurant hospitality recalled, “There was just bottle after bottle. I finally had to stop drinking because I couldn’t function, but Eddie and his buddies just kept going.” The younger DeBartolo also had a serious attachment to gambling, especially at the tables in Las Vegas, where he would soon establish a reputation as a high roller. Dressed to the nines in very expensive Italian suits, Edward DeBartolo Jr. “loved life,” one Forty Niners employee explained, “and loved living it.” When traveling for pleasure, he usually brought along an entourage of his Youngstown buddies and was rarely seen without his bodyguard, Leo, a very large man with a bump under his armpit where he kept his pistol.
“Eddie may not have been a gangster,” one San Franciscan remembered, “but he sure looked like one when he rolled into town.”
Eddie D.’s welcome also might have been far warmer had he bought some other team. Of all the region’s professional sports enterprises, the San Francisco Forty Niners were closest to its collective heart. The team was conceived during World War II by Tony Morabito, owner of a local trucking company, and eventually became northern California’s very first major league franchise, a historic recognition of the West Coast’s status more than a decade before any other sport followed suit. Morabito had gone to the National Football League, asking the twenty- year- old association to expand and add San Francisco to its schedule. When the NFL declined, Morabito affiliated his franchise with the upstart All- America Football Conference organized in 1944 to compete with the NFL, and the Forty Niners began play in 1946, the year Eddie DeBartolo was born. When the two football leagues made peace in 1950, the Morabito franchise was one of three former AAFC teams to survive and merge into the more established league. By that time Tony’s brother Vic had joined him as a partner. When the two Morabitos died, their NFL ownership passed to their widows, who were assisted in running the team through the sixties and into the seventies by a family friend. Along the way, the Niners won more than half of their games more often than not. “The operation always had elegance,” one local columnist observed. “They weren’t the meanest team . . . and they have never won a conference championship and never gone to the Super Bowl. But they had a special kind of style.”
By 1975, however, it was common knowledge that the widows wanted to sell their 90 percent interest in the heretofore quaint local institution. The first potential buyer was Wayne Valley, an East Bay businessman who had been a limited partner in the Oakland Raiders NFL team until he had a falling out with the franchise’s managing general partner, Al Davis. Davis now considered Valley an enemy and wanted no part of competing with him across the bay, so Al persuaded one of the Morabitos’ minor partners to invoke his right of first refusal to derail Valley’s bid. Davis was also worried that the Morabitos’ asking price of $12 million was too low and would depress the value of all NFL franchises. By the end of 1976, Valley had been thwarted, the minor Forty Niners’ partner had failed to come up with a legitimate offer, and the Tampa auction had set the asking price for NFL franchises at more than $16 million, so the Niners were back on the market. The Morabitos, recognizing the lay of the land, dispatched their attorney to Davis to ask his assistance in finding a bona fide buyer, a service for which he would eventually receive a finder’s fee.
At the same time, the DeBartolos continued to pursue their interest in acquiring an NFL franchise and were approached by league insider Joe Thomas. Thomas had been fired as general manager of the Baltimore Colts shortly before he contacted Senior in Youngstown. He had been raised just a few miles away and the two Ohioans had met ten years earlier at a college all- star game and stayed in touch. By 1977, he was considered, in Eddie’s words, a DeBartolo “family friend.” Thomas told DeBartolo Sr. that the Forty Niners were on the block and offered to pursue them on Senior’s behalf. Senior responded that he was interested, but only if Thomas would commit to actually running the club after he bought it. The DeBartolos signed Thomas to be their franchise’s general manager before even beginning negotiations to purchase the Niners. Because of NFL rules prohibiting ownership by corporations or new owners who had financial interests in other professional sports, the DeBartolos quickly learned that NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle was going to insist the family insulate any NFL franchise it bought from the rest of its corporate holdings. The answer to that obstacle was to officially make Eddie the sole owner when the time came, rather than the corporation or his father. Senior also liked that approach because it would give his boy an exclusive niche, as well as a business to run on his own.
Nonetheless, Senior handled most of the negotiations, conducted through the intermediaries, Joe Thomas and Al Davis. By the last week of February 1977, after ten days of Learjet commuting between Youngstown and the Bay Area, the deal was almost done. The price was set at $17 million for a 90 percent controlling interest and Senior and Eddie flew to Oakland to sign the papers. The DeBartolos, however, arrived at Davis’s office to find that the price had suddenly been raised by half a million dollars. At that point, Senior balked.
No, he told Davis, preparing to turn around and leave. “I don’t do business that way.” The price was supposed to have been set.
Davis urged him to stay, roll with the situation, and make the deal. It was a great opportunity, he argued. The extra half million meant nothing. In a year, they would double their money.
Eddie spoke up as well. He had looked into the NFL’s projected growth and agreed with Davis wholeheartedly. “Do it, Dad,” he implored. “Do it.” After only a little hesitation, Senior did.
In early April 1977, Edward DeBartolo Jr. was introduced as the new owner of the San Francisco Forty Niners at a press conference in the Venetian Room of the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill—arguably the city’s swankest hostelry—for which the reporters had received three- color embossed invitations, complete with RSVP cards. Eddie and his father were staying in adjoining suites upstairs. Senior watched from the back of the supper club while his son held forth to all of the region’s assembled media at the Venetian Room’s podium, with Joe Thomas seated nearby.
It was not a pleasant experience for Eddie, then just thirty years old. Accustomed to deference, he felt insulted when he had to field harsh questions about his plans for the franchise, and he became noticeably pissed off. The hostile swarm of reporters was more than he could endure without complaint. Soon he was butting heads all over the room. “The more he talked,” a witness later recalled, “the more people he alienated.”
Finally, when asked what he thought he could bring to his new property that it didn’t already have, Eddie snapped, “A little bit of dignity and class.” Afterward, one of the television reporters conducted an informal straw poll about the erstwhile Mr. D. among the attending media. Half were already convinced he was a full- fledged jerk and the other half were still undecided.