Mara, Wellington Timothy (“Duke”)
Mara, Wellington Timothy (“Duke”)
(b. 14 August 1916 in New York City; d. 25 October 2005 in Rye, New York), longtime co-owner of the New York Giants of the National Football League (NFL) whose willingness to forgo personal profits from the NFL’s lucrative television contracts in the 1960s in favor of sharing revenues on a league-wide basis greatly benefited small-market and big-market franchises alike.
Mara was the younger of two sons born to Timothy James Mara, a bookmaker (at a time when it was a legal occupation), and Lizette Barclay Mara, a homemaker. His father bought the New York “Football Giants” (so named to distinguish them from the National League baseball team, also called the Giants) franchise in 1925, when Mara was just nine years old. Mara, along with his brother, John (“Jack”), immediately became involved with the team, serving as ball boy during the team’s inaugural season. It was during this season that the Giants escaped dire financial straits when the Chicago Bears and their sensational halfback Red Grange, in a game against the Giants in December, drew a previously unimaginable crowd of over 70,000.
In 1930, when Wellington was just fourteen and Jack was twenty-two, their father turned over ownership of the Giants to his sons. Jack, a Fordham University School of Law graduate, handled the business end of things, and Wellington directed the football operations. One of the first decisions the younger Maras made was to hire Steve Owen as head coach in time for the 1931 season.
Without a contract and “just a handshake,” Owen continued to coach the Giants through 1953. After winning their first championship in 1927, the Giants remained an NFL power for decades. The team played in the NFL championship game from 1933 (the first year of an official playoff) to 1935—winning the famous “Sneakers Game” in 1934, when players changed from cleats to rubber-soled basketball shoes and literally ran away from the Chicago Bears in the second half to capture a 30-13 victory. The Giants again appeared in the 1938, 1939, 1941, 1944, and 1946 title games, though they won only in 1938.
Mara attended Loyola High School in Manhattan and graduated from Fordham University in 1937. While he was still a student, he proved to be an astute judge of football talent. The center and later Pro Football Hall of Fame member Mel Hein joined the team and played from 1931 to 1945, a record at the time. Alphonse (“Tuffy”) Lee-mans, an obscure halfback from George Washington University, was personally scouted and signed by Mara. The future Hall of Famer paid immediate dividends, leading the NFL in rushing as a rookie. He was a mainstay of the team from 1936 to 1943.
It was Mara’s football acumen that helped build the Giants’ powerhouse over the years. He drafted or recommended drafting Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote, Roosevelt Brown, Eddie Price, Al DeRogatis, Roosevelt (“Rosey”) Grier, Sam Huff, Jimmy Patton, Jack Stroud, Jim Katcavage, Ray Wietecha, and Joe Morrison. Through trades instigated by Mara, the Giants brought in even more stars—Erich Barnes, Charlie Conerly, Y. A. Tittle, Del Shofner, Andy Robustelli, Dick Lynch, and Dick Modzelewski. When the future Pro Football Hall of Famer Emlen Tunnell walked into the Giants’ offices in 1948 and asked for a tryout, Mara was receptive. Tunnell, who served long and well as a Giants assistant coach after his playing days (1948–1958), joined just a handful of African-American players in the NFL at the time.
After the 1953 season—the team finished 3–9–0 and had not been in a championship game since 1946—Mara had the unpleasant task of ending coach Owen’s long tenure with the Giants. The former Giants player Jim Lee Howell (1937–1942 and 1946–1948) was tapped by Mara as head coach for the 1954 season. The easygoing Howell had almost immediate success. The Giants won the 1956 NFL championship and moved to Yankee Stadium that season. On Howell’s staff in the 1950s were the offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi, a Fordham classmate of Mara’s, and the defensive coordinator Tom Landry, a former player for the Giants (1950–1955). Both men later became imminently successful NFL head coaches, winning many Super Bowls and enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The NFL’s flagship franchise was in what has been described as the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 sudden-death overtime NFL championship game against the Baltimore Colts, which the Giants lost, 23–17. The game was the first NFL title game televised coast to coast and raised national awareness of pro football. The Giants were also in the 1959 title game, but they again lost to the Colts, 31–16. Notwithstanding the losses, the Giants (and their individual players) became the darlings of advertising’s Madison Avenue agencies. Many players, even nonstarters, were featured in ad campaigns, and several became radio and television sportscasters—Rote, Gifford, Lynch, and Pat Summerall among them.
Despite losing Lombardi to the Green Bay Packers (in 1959) and Landry to the fledgling Dallas Cowboys (in 1960), the Giants experienced continued success in the 1960s. With their roster of star players, the Giants were perennial participants in postseason games. Following their back-to-back 1958 and 1959 title game appearances, the team also played in the 1961, 1962, and 1963 NFL championship games, but all ended in losses. Howell retired as coach after the 1960 season and was replaced by the longtime Giants assistant coach Allie Sherman. Sherman had some initial success but could not resist the temptation to remake the Giants in his own image. Faced with retirements, the new coach also opted to trade key members of what could only be described as a dynasty. One of the fans’ favorites, the linebacker Huff, was traded, as was the stalwart defensive tackle Modzelewski. Jack Mara passed away in 1965, and his son Tim became co-owner of the team with his uncle.
Off the playing field, the impact of the 1958 sudden-death game and the potential of extensive television coverage were not lost on the astute Mara. With New York City still the media capital of the nation and perhaps the world, Mara saw firsthand how teaming up with the broadcast networks could enhance pro football in general and his family business in particular. When Pete Rozelle succeeded Bert Bell as NFL commissioner in 1960, he and Mara became fast friends. Rozelle was media savvy and sensed that the marriage of pro football with television was one that might have been “made in heaven.” While other sports, especially baseball, seemed boring when televised, the “controlled violence” of NFL football was brought into America’s living rooms and dens in a truly exciting fashion.
Rozelle negotiated the high-end television contracts, but it was Mara’s sense of fair play and loyalty that reaped great benefits for all NFL teams. Located in the center of media activity and with a winning franchise, Mara could easily and selfishly have opted to demand a higher percentage of the television contract’s revenue than, for example, the Packers of Green Bay, Wisconsin (population 84,637). Under an old contract, the Columbia Broadcasting System paid the Giants $175,000 annually, while the Packers received $35,000. Instead, Mara advanced the theory that all fourteen NFL teams should share equally. At the time of Mara’s death, the Packers president Bob Harlan said, “Without Wellington’s influence, the Packers would either have been out of business today, or totally uncompetitive.”
Beginning in the mid-1960s and continuing into the mid-1980s, the Giants rarely won more games than they lost and often lost many more than they won. Even a 1976 move to a new stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey (the Giants’ first home of their own), did not help them on the field. Several coaches were at the helm during these decades of futility. In 1984 the Giants elevated Bill Parcells to the post of head coach. During his tenure, Super Bowl victories followed the 1986 and 1990 seasons.
Through his long ownership of the Giants, Mara was often the voice of reason, an elder statesman who was respected and listened to. He was one of the last of the old guard—an owner who spent nearly a lifetime with the family business. He was a throwback to owners such as George Halas of the Chicago Bears and Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers—people whose main interest was the family franchise, compared with many of today’s NFL’s owners, corporate executives who have come to the NFL after great financial success in other ventures. Mara was first and foremost a “football man,” and the enterprise that is the NFL today greatly benefited from his love of the game. NFL folklore has it that from 1941 to 1969 the official NFL football was called “the Duke” in honor of Mara. At the start of the 2006 season, the ball was again named “the Duke” in tribute to Mara.
Mara married Ann Mumm in 1954. The couple had eleven children, one of whom, John, succeeded his father as team president in 2003. During the 1980s tension existed between Wellington Mara and his nephew Tim. With each owning 50 percent of the team, a solution seemed to be for one to sell his share. In 1991 Tim sold to Preston Robert (“Bob”) Tisch. Ironically, Tisch died (of an inoperable brain tumor) within weeks of Mara himself, whose death was attributed to cancer of the lymph nodes. Thousands attended Mara’s funeral at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. He is buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York. A devout Roman Catholic, Mara—like his father, a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee (1997)—was eulogized succinctly and accurately by Edward Cardinal Egan, who said, “Wellington Mara was a Giant in every best sense of the word.”
Information on Mara is in Don Smith, New York Giants (1960); Barry Gottehrer, The Giants of New York: The History of Professional Football’s Most Fabulous Dynasty (1963); and Gerald Eskenazi, There Were Giants in Those Days (1976). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Boston Globe (both 26 Oct. 2005).