It is hard to understand, today, just how much of a gut-punch this was. It is hard to understand how vilified Wellington Mara was in the moment, on the afternoon of Aug. 26, 1971, the day he declared he would take the New York Giants out of New York and plant the franchise’s flag in New Jersey.
We are 50 years along now. We have made plenty of trips back and forth across the George Washington Bridge, through the Lincoln Tunnel. We have mostly come to terms with the fact that “New York” is a state of mind when it comes to our football teams, not necessarily a strict geographic marker (though when the Giants are good, old tugs-of-war tend to surface in the planning of parades).
“What’s true now was true then,” John Mara says over the telephone. “The Meadowlands are a lot closer to Times Square than Yankee Stadium was, or the Polo Grounds.”
He laughs a quiet laugh, still tinged with a little bitterness.
“But it still didn’t matter. Not then. My father was a carpetbagger. He was a traitor. He was abandoning New York for selfish interests. It was all there in black and white.”
It was, in truth, a bold and brazen move, one that had been rumored for months. The Giants had always been second-tier renters in their Sunday homes — first to the baseball Giants at the Polo Grounds, later to the Yankees. Their early season schedule was always at the mercy of baseball postseason. And, of course, despite year after year of sellouts, they couldn’t maximize that revenue as long as they were tenants.
So even if, intellectually, it made perfect sense for the Giants to partner up with New Jersey once the Garden State decided to throw its hat in the sports-arena ring for good, it was jarring. The announcement wasn’t made in East Rutherford, after all, or in Newark, or in Trenton. No, the Giants gave their two-year notice at the Essex House on Central Park South. It was that symbolism that cauterized an already festering wound.
Well, that, and the sight of Mara and Sonny Werblin — who had spent years torturing the Giants when he ran the Jets, smiling brightly as new partners in this venture, alongside New Jersey Gov. Thomas Cahill. Werblin had moved on to become Chairman of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, and he took the job knowing he would woo both the Giants and the Yankees to the other side of the Hudson.
The Yankees listened.
The Giants jumped.
“What we’re building,” Cahill tried to explain, “is just another bridge between New York and New Jersey.”
Said Werblin: “Just think of the Hudson River as Manhattan’s Thirteenth Avenue. And then one block over, that’s where the Giants are going to play.”
Logically, it made sense. Financially? It was a no-brainer.
Still, the wounds were still fresh from the baseball Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers having fled for California just 14 years earlier. New York City was careening toward financial ruin, four years from bankruptcy. The city had already agreed to renovate Yankee Stadium, and the assumption was the Giants were part of the package.
The Giants had a better offer: a football-first stadium, 75,000 seats, not a bad view in the house, a concrete ocean of parking spots available, all less than 15 minutes from the Empire State Building.
“My father didn’t want to leave New York,” John Mara says. “Nobody wanted to leave New York. I can tell you me, my brothers, our family, it was very upsetting to leave New York. But it would have been foolish beyond belief to not do what my father did. The future of this team was in New Jersey. It seems obvious now, but it was pretty clear then, too.”
The now 66-year-old president of the Giants can easily remember being the 16-year-old scion of Wellington, who was about to endure one of the great media roastings ever. Howard Cosell dumped on Wellington daily. Dick Schaap, as respected a New York media voice as has ever been, took regular shots. Nobody was harsher than The Post’s Larry Merchant, who delivered a withering attack that, many years later, John would include in his tribute eulogizing his father.
“The Bronx,” Merchant wrote on Aug. 27, 1971, “is no longer fit for this son of a bookmaker. It rates second, now, to a swamp in Hackensack, N.J. Once more and with feeling: What else can you expect from an Irishman named Wellington?”
Wellington Mara never forgave Cosell, especially, because years later Cosell championed Al Davis’ various maneuvers with the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles to a failed move to Irwindale then back to L.A. and back to Oakland.
By then, of course, the Giants had settled into a place of prominence and prosperity in the Meadowlands, and Wellington was seen as a visionary and not a villain. The Giants maintained and grew their season-ticket base to legendary levels. They qualified for two of their Super Bowls in old Giants Stadium.
“We were barely profitable at Yankee Stadium,” John Mara says. “If there was a way for us to stay in New York, we would have. There wasn’t.”
He laughs. Not even the old-timers bend his ear any longer about location, location, location. He would understand if they did: He says the greatest days of his life were the Saturdays before game days at Yankee Stadium, when he’d walk on the field, when he’d sit in Mickey Mantle’s locker, when he’d take in the vast expanse of the great yard.
Funny thing: The Giants played in New York for 49 seasons, 1925-73, then wandered from the Yale Bowl to Shea Stadium for a couple of years. They have been residents of New Jersey, officially, since Oct. 10, 1976. When the “Jersey” Giants celebrate their 49th birthday, it will likely pass without fervor or fanfare. Turns out the Jersey swamps weren’t quite as far away as Chavez Ravine, or Candlestick Point.
“I think,” John Mara says, chuckling, “it all worked out OK. For everyone.”
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