Mark Purdy: Peter Ueberroth is the most influential American sports figure of the last 50 years
Originally published by the San Jose Mercury News Nov. 8, 2011.
By Mark Purdy Mercury News Columnist
If you are a history geek — stand up and be proud! — then you are probably like me. You are fascinated by the “what ifs.”
What if Joe Montana had decided as a kid to play soccer instead of football? What if the Brooklyn Dodgers had never signed Jackie Robinson in 1945? What if the Warriors had not traded Wilt Chamberlain to Philadelphia in 1965?
Or what if, in 1956, San Jose State had not given athletic scholarships? Had that been the case, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games might have never happened — or could have been a huge flop. Because that means Peter Ueberroth, who went to college only because of his SJSU water polo scholarship, might never have left behind his Sunnyvale childhood to change the Olympic world as we know it.
The San Jose Sports Hall of Fame consists of 81 athletes, coaches and special contributors. (Full disclosure: I am a board member who votes for the inductees.) But when Ueberroth joins the group Wednesday night with four other worthy new members, he will do so with an entirely different qualification: The most influential American sports figure of the past 50 years.
And no, that statement is not an overreach.
Look at Ueberroth’s resume.
In successfully staging those 1984 L.A. Games, he also radically reoriented the Olympics into a new commercially sponsored model that is still followed today, for better or worse.
Then he became Major League Baseball commissioner and conducted the game’s first real drug crackdown (principally cocaine, in that era) while cutting deals to make more teams profitable — and coaxing the Chicago Cubs into installing lights at Wrigley Field.
After that, Ueberroth assembled a consortium to buy Pebble Beach back from foreign interests and polished up the property to a brighter sheen.
By my score card, that makes three significant contributions in three major areas of sports. What other person can match that?
And to think that Ueberroth came close to not even getting beyond Sunnyvale’s Fremont High, where he was a bright and athletic kid with no immense ambition.
“I didn’t take college prep courses and had no intention of going to college,” Ueberroth told me a few years ago, characterizing himself as a “C-minus student.”
But then fate intervened. Ueberroth’s high school football coach, Ken Stanger, was a San Jose State graduate and telephoned the water polo coach there to tout Ueberroth as a potential recruit, even though he’d never played the sport. After a brief tryout in which Ueberroth jumped in the pool and threw a water polo ball to various targets, he was offered a partial scholarship.
Ueberroth didn’t blow the opportunity. By his senior year, he led the Spartans in scoring. Meanwhile, a business professor named Scott Norwood persuaded Ueberroth that he had a future in commerce. This led to a postgraduation job with a charter airline … which led to Ueberroth founding a travel agency that he built into the second largest such business in America … which led to his Olympic gig.
During interviews over the years, however, Ueberroth has never failed to credit his San Jose State years as the springboard for his success. His fraternity brothers there recall how he grew from the curious freshman into the entrepreneurial senior — even as he kept breaking his nose during water polo matches.
“I remember he made money by taking Hertz cars back to Los Angeles and then driving others back to San Jose,” said Barry Swenson, the South Bay developer who was a classmate. “He always worked. He earned everything he’s ever gotten. I’ve never seen a guy work so hard in my life.”
Swenson was interviewed for the video presentation that will be used to introduce Ueberroth at the induction dinner, as was another of his longtime friends, Clint Eastwood. The actor/director is part of the Pebble Beach ownership group and also serves with Ueberroth on the Monterey Peninsula Foundation.
During Eastwood’s comments, he made an interesting point: Ueberroth’s best asset in all of his roles might have been his ability to adjust on the fly, skills he likely learned as a water polo player.
“He is a very creative guy,” Eastwood said. “A great problem solver. And because he is very creative, he’s always looking for the positive way to get things accomplished. He doesn’t give up easy. That’s how we have the Pebble Beach company. … He’d make a terrific film director because he’s got a good memory and a good eye for things, and he handles people well, which is the whole secret.”
And how about Ueberroth’s athletic skills today, say, as a golfer?
“He’s deceiving as a golfer,” Eastwood said. “He plays it down that he’s not a good player. But he can play. I don’t think he’s a sandbagger. He’s just one of those guys who’s a good competitor.”
It is possible, I suppose, that everything in Ueberroth’s life would have happened exactly the same way if he had decided never to take up San Jose State on that water polo scholarship. It is also possible that Joe Montana would have become USA’s greatest soccer player instead of a Super Bowl winner. But I know what I believe: The sports world is better off for the actual decisions that those two guys made.
Contact Mark Purdy at email@example.com or 408-920-