SURPRISE, Ariz. — Earlier today I mentioned the Sun City and Sun City West retirement communities which dominate northwestern Maricopa County. Their building and expansion is what led to Surprise, where the Rangers and Royals train, becoming what it is. And what it is is a boomtown, which has grown some 300% in population since the 2000 census. And grew at about that rate in the 90s too. It’s insane how this once sleepy part of the desert became what it has become as quickly as it has become.
The man responsible for this growth is Del Webb. Webb was a developer who truly made his bones with World War II contracts, most infamously the contracts to build the internment camps which imprisoned Japanese-Americans during the war because of some combination of fear, hatred and racial paranoia. A few years later he started building the communities which came to house retired people. He died in the 1970s, but his name is still big here. I crossed Del Webb boulevard on the way to the ballpark this morning. One of the prominent ads on the scoreboard here at Surprise Stadium is for the Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center. “A Del Webb Community” is still written on the signs for Sun City, Sun City West and Sun City Grand.
Webb’s baseball connection is far greater than his being the builder of a part of town that would later house some spring training facilities. He, along with Dan Topping and, at first, Larry MacPhail, was the owner of the New York Yankees from the mid-1940s until he sold the club to CBS in the mid-60s. Topping was more of the public face, but Webb was the money man and, really, the man in charge.
Webb’s reign as Yankees owner is mostly known for the utter boatload of championships his teams won during the late DiMaggio, Berra and Mantle years, but as this New Yorker profile of him from a few years back makes clear, he was infamous in any number of ways as well. Or should have been at least.
Webb’s company built several casinos, including the Flamingo for Bugsy Siegel, with whom he was friendly. He was part owner of The Mint casino in Glitter Gulch. If a player palled around with gamblers, mobsters and had business interests in a casino they’d be banned for life (just ask another person I wrote about this morning). Webb was OK, though. When commissioner Happy Chandler went on record saying that he was against Webb’s interests, Webb got the owners together and ousted Chandler. Ford Frick was far more pliable.
Frick’s pliability was made all the more clear when he didn’t do anything to stop Arnold Johnson — one of Webb’s business partners — from buying the Athletics. Anyone familiar with the history of the two clubs’ trades throughout the 1950s in which the Yankees treated the A’s as their defacto farm club realizes that Frick wasn’t exactly keen on stopping a man who could have him fired from engaging in conflicts of interest. Heck, Webb’s construction company helped renovate the A’s and, later, the Dodgers’ ballparks. His company built Angels’ Stadium from the ground up.
I didn’t know much of any of this until I started Googling a few minutes ago, but now I know it. And now I sit here at the ballpark in Surprise, Arizona on a fine March afternoon, thinking about Del Webb, morally questionable fortunes, conflicts of interest, power plays and how, if you have the right friends, no one will much care about any of that. And, indeed, it will make you an unequivocal success. And I am reminded, once again that, no matter what the numbers say, baseball is the most American sport and, truly, the national pastime.