david a. 'sonny' werblin
David Abraham Werblin, one of the major forces in the development of the Meadowlands Sports Complex, was born on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1910, in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a founder of a successful paper bag company; his mother was the one who would eventually give him the nickname Sonny, by which he was known throughout his career. Werblin played football at Erasmus Hall and James Madison high schools and graduated from Rutgers University in 1931 with a degree in history.
A year after his graduation from college, and following a stint as a copy boy at The New York Times, Werblin joined the huge talent agency, Music Corporation of America (MCA). He worked his way up to the presidency of both MCA, Inc. and MCA TV. The latter company became extremely successful in producing its own shows and in providing the talent for its own productions and those of others. These include the affectionately remembered Wagon Train, My Three Sons, Bachelor Father, The Virginian and the Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan shows. Among the numerous movie, music and television stars represented by Werblin were Jack Benny, Alfred Hitchcock, Guy Lombardo, Eddie Duchin, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Carson, Ronald Reagan and Jack Paar. He remained at MCA until 1965.
In 1963 Werblin and partners purchased the bankrupt American Football League (AFL) Titans of New York. Werblin, who was the president and chief executive officer of the franchise, changed the team’s name to the Jets. His greatest coup was the 1965 signing of University of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath for a reported $400,000. The subsequent success of the Jets and Namath was considered by many to be one of the primary factors leading to the National Football League’s merger with the AFL.
In 1971 Werblin was appointed CEO of the newly created New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority by Governor William Cahill and was reappointed in 1975 by Governor Brendan T. Byrne. During his tenure, he oversaw the construction of the Meadowlands Racetrack, which would eventually host both Thoroughbred and Standardbred meets; the over 76,000-seat Giants Stadium, home to football and soccer events; and The Meadowlands Arena, renowned for a variety of sports and entertainment programming. The project was a risky one considering the complex was to be built on inhospitable marshland. Funding was difficult to come by, but Werblin had the courage to raise over $300 million through a bond issue that many financial wizards would advise against. The issue carried a very high tax-free interest rate because of the presumed risks; however, those sage enough to buy and hold the bonds were rewarded with the return of their investment at maturity, plus a high return in-between. Werblin was the guiding light behind the Meadowlands Racetrack and, upon the advice of Delvin Miller, opted to make it a one-mile oval – a fortuitous decision for the sport of harness racing.
Werblin left The Meadowlands Complex in 1977 to become president of Madison Square Garden Corporation, where he directed the destinies of the Knicks basketball team, the Rangers hockey team and the Thoroughbred racetrack, Arlington Park, where he initiated the Arlington Million – America’s first million dollar race. In addition, he was responsible for the thousands of attractions held at the Garden. Through his efforts, Roosevelt Raceway enjoyed several more years of harness racing before its closing. Relinquishing active control of the Garden in 1984, Werblin remained with the MSG Corporation as a consultant for the duration of his life.
Werblin at one time or another owned a share of Monmouth Park and was a director and secretary of the Monmouth Park Jockey Club. He owned and bred Thoroughbreds at his Elberon Farm in Rumson, New Jersey. His most successful champions were the 1968 Two-Year-Old Female Horse of the Year, Process Shot, and the 1969 Two-Year-Old Male Horse of the Year, Silent Screen, who held the lead in the stretch of the 1970 Kentucky Derby but faltered and finished fifth. Werblin stated that brief moment was his greatest thrill in sports.
Werblin was a major fundraiser for his alma mater, Rutgers University, and was involved in the upgrading of its athletic teams. The school’s Sonny Werblin Recreation Center, built on its Busch Campus in Piscataway, New Jersey, is the main venue for the university’s volleyball and water-sports competitions and contains its weight-training facilities. He was also president of an entertainment and investment corporation (Raritan Enterprises Inc.) and was a director of the New Jersey National Bank and Trust Co. of Trenton, New Jersey.
In 1970 Werblin was named “Sportsman of the Year” by the New Jersey Sportswriters Association and in 1976 was nominated by the Advertising Club of New Jersey as “Citizen of the Year.” In 1978 he was made an Honorary USHWAn. The following year he received the William R. Haughton Good Guy Award, and ten years later, in 1989, he was presented with the USHWA President’s Award.
David A. “Sonny” Werblin passed away on November 21, 1991, several days after the death of a son, Hubbard. His wife, Leah Ray, a former singer with the Tommy Dorsey and Phil Harris bands, died in 1999. He was survived by sons Thomas (wife Patricia) and Robert, and two grandchildren, Matthew and Dawn.