• U.S.

Modern Living: Man on the Cover: DEL WEBB

6 minute read

DEL WEBB, the hulking, slope-shouldered, long-striding 63-year-old who hates to be called Delbert, could not stand the life in one of his own Sun Cities for more than a few days—or a few hours. Though he has earned some unexpected gratitude for his retirement centers, he is better known for more rough-and-tumble activities as co-owner of the New York Yankees and as one of the largest single builders in the U.S.

The Journeyman. A restless barnstormer by trade and temperament, he was born in Fresno, Calif. His mother was the daughter of a German farmer, who built one of California’s first irrigation systems. His father was the son of an English evangelist, but most of Del Webb’s early exposure to religion came from his father’s three sisters. “Those old ladies were so religious they squeaked,” he says. “I had to go to Sunday school and church, and—goddammit—I wanted to play ball. They thought baseball was trafficking with the devil, so when I finally went off to play, I had to do it now and then under an assumed name.”

His father, a building contractor and amateur ballplayer, passed on to him the tools of his two trades—a carpenter’s saw and a fast ball. By the time he was ten, Del knew his way around a scaffolding or an infield with equal aplomb. “I can’t remember not being captain of the team,” he says. “When we chose sides for a pick-up game, I was always one of the guys who did the choosing.”

When he was 14, his father went bankrupt, and Del hit the road two years later. “I’ve been on the move ever since,” he says. “It gets in your blood and you can’t stop.” Weekdays he was a journeyman carpenter on construction jobs; weekends he played semiprofessional ball. Webb hit nails and nailed hitters all over the West, from Calgary down to the Mexican border, developing at the same time a taste for old bourbon and young ladies. During World War I, he worked in the Oakland shipyards; when it was over, he married his childhood sweetheart, Hazel Church. The marriage broke up in 1952, and last year Webb married pretty, brunette Toni Ince, 41, buyer for the Bullock’s-Wilshire department store in Los Angeles.

20 Bourbons a Day. Del Webb’s baseball days ended in 1925 with a crunch of cracked ribs and torn ligaments, sliding home from second on a short single, followed by a bout of typhoid fever that brought his weight down from 204 Ibs. to 99 Ibs. When he was on his feet again, he landed a job with a small contractor in Phoenix. One day, when he was working on the construction of a new grocery store, his paycheck bounced, and his employer disappeared. The grocer asked young Webb to take over the job, and the Del E. Webb Construction Co. was born. Its total assets: one cement mixer, ten wheelbarrows, 20 shovels and ten picks.

By 1935, this was a $3,000,000 business. With World War II, the Webb company moved into the big time, built most of the air stations and military installations in Arizona and Southern California. Among current projects, he is building with George A. Fuller Co. a $62 million Minuteman missile silo complex in Montana, and with Humble Oil Co. is working on an estimated $375-$500 million community, covering 15,000 acres southeast of Houston, which will house the employees of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s new center for manned spacecraft.

World War II also made another marked change in Webb’s life. He was laid up with something the Army diagnosed as flu, and a doctor was routinely taking his personal history. As Webb tells it: “When I told him I drank from ten to 20 bourbons a day, he damn near dropped his teeth. He said I ought to cut down, but I told him I’d damn well quit. And I did. Not another drop of whisky has passed my lips since that day. All that time I spent drinking, I could now spend working.”

Del Webb works even when he plays. The New York Yankees, which he bought with Dan Topping and Larry MacPhail for $2,800,000 in 1945 (he and Topping bought out MacPhail’s interest for $2,000,000 in 1947), serve him well as a developer of new business via free passes, casual meetings in the ballpark, and just plain publicity. The golf course is another fertile source of new contracts and big deals; Webb belongs to no less than 14 golf clubs around the country, shoots in the high 70s.

No Smoking. Supervising his diversified $75 million empire, in which he stepped up recently from president to board chairman in a move to make more room at the top.* Webb logs between 50,000 and 125,000 miles of flying a year. Last week he flew out to Los Angeles, talked to Long Beach officials about building their 1966 World’s Fair, then to Santa Monica, where his company is in charge of a $55 million redevelopment program. Then he was off to Manhattan for Old Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium. He has three fulltime hotel suites—in the Beverly Hilton (which he built), the Mountain Shadows Resort in Phoenix (which he also built), and Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria (which was built in 1930-31 when he wasn’t looking). In each of them, he keeps complete wardrobes, as well as caches of clothes in half a dozen other hotels across the country. All told, he owns 150 suits, 90 pairs of shoes (plus 52 pairs of golf shoes), numberless outsize shirts (17¾ neck, 37 sleeve), snarls of 58-in. ties (normal length is 52 in.) and “a helluva lot of hats.”

Webb is a nut about smoking (all his desks bear metal signs saying NO SMOKING, and he means it) and about standardization. Webb offices are run according to “The Blue Book,” which specifies even what kind of desk calendar pads are to be used and what kind of lettering must be on the door. One employee who drove a tan car when Webb wanted all company cars to be black found his sedan had been removed from the parking lot and repainted while he was at work. Webb is too busy to spend much time at his retirement cities. But he did manage to spare a day last week to talk with a group of medical researchers about the establishment of a research center for gerontology at Phoenix’s Sun City. “When I see what we’ve built,” he says, “it’s the most satisfying thing that’s ever happened to me. An old fellow came up to me once with tears in his eyes and thanked me for building Sun City. He said he was planning to spend the happiest 40 years of his life there.” The mere thought of staying put so long makes Delbert Eugene Webb profoundly uneasy.

* New president is 49-year-old LaVergne Jacobson, who signed on with Webb in 1938 as a $25-a-week timekeeper.

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