NFL owners live in a fishbowl these days, just as their players and coaches do. When the Colts’ Jim Irsay runs into addiction problems or the Browns’ Jimmy Haslam has the FBI descend on his company, they’re major stories, endlessly discussed by fans and media alike.
It wasn’t always thus. In the early days, when the league and its owners were more below the radar, a team could be sold to somebody who’d spent 13 months in federal prison for bootlegging . . . and nobody would say a word.
William V. Dwyer was the somebody’s name. In 1930 he brought a dormant franchise that he turned into the Brooklyn Dodgers (who played their games at Ebbets Field, home of the baseball Dodgers). This is the same Big Bill Dwyer who’d been dubbed the “King of the Bootleggers” during Prohibition and presided over a huge illegal empire. How huge? Time magazine summed up his operation this way:
William V. Dwyer manufactured liquor in the U.S. He imported liquor from Canada, Cuba, Europe. He owned trucks, speedboats, 20 ships of foreign registry. He employed 800 men, a few women. He bribed Prohibition agents, put some of his own men into the Coast Guard service. In two-and-a-half years preceding January 1926, he had done a liquor business of some $50 million. Manhattan was the center of his activities.
From July 1927 to August 1928, Dwyer’s home was the U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta. By this time he was already involved in pro sports as the owner of the NHL’s New York Americans. When he was paroled, he added the Dodgers to his portfolio and also got more heavily involved in horse racing, building Tropical Park Race Track outside Miami.
“Big Bill was a promoter on a vast scale,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1949. . . .
He also owned limitless quantities of alcohol and if, during the turbulent ’20s, you imbibed whisky that didn’t burn a hole in your esophagus, chances are it was Dwyer’s. At any rate, he obtained control of the idle borough franchise and brought in John Depler, a former Illinois captain, as coach.
He also brought in a vast array of talent — Father Lumpkin, Stumpy Thomason, Ollie Samson, Jack McBride from the Giants, Tex Thomas, Indian Yablock, and later [Hall of Fame quarterback] Benny Friedman and Jack Grossman. . . .
[The Dodgers’] average attendance was 17,000, but they drew as many as 28,000 one day. But Big Bill began to feel the Depression in 1933 and sold out to Chris Cagle and Shipwreck Kelly [for a reported price of “more than $25,000”].
(Cagle and Kelly were still active players — the last, in fact, to own an NFL team.)
After that, it only got worse for Dwyer. His financial difficulties forced the NHL to take over his Americans franchise in 1936, and three years later the U.S. government won a $3.7 million judgment against him for unpaid taxes. When he died in 1946, though, he was still living in an exclusive neighborhood in Rockaway Beach, so the tax suit couldn’t have totally cleaned him out.
Nowadays, of course, Dwyer wouldn’t survive the NFL’s vetting process. But in 1930, when the league was desperate for owners with deep pockets — deep enough to bankroll a team in a big market — Big Bill’s bootlegging past could be winked at.
Besides, public opinion toward such activities was a little different in those years. As actor George Raft, who walked in Dwyer’s world for a time, reminisced in his autobiography:
I knew that Owney Madden, Larry Fay, Big Bill Dwyer, Waxey Gordon and others were powerful in New York. They all wore expensive clothes, drove custom-built cars and lived in kingly suits.
To me, a Hell’s Kitchen kid with no education and no special talent, the Prohibition gangsters were no criminals. They were big men, the only heroes available in my crowded, violent little sidewalk world. When they patted me on the back and said, “Georgie, you’re an O.K. guy,” it was like an orphan getting the nod from John D. Rockefeller.