Though time and a bitter feud have obscured his significant role in the sporting history of a city where he nearly lost his fortune and reputation, Jerry Wolman was back at the center of Philadelphia power Thursday.
The onetime Eagles owner and Spectrum developer launched his biography, Jerry Wolman: The World's Richest Man, cowritten by Richard and Joseph Bockol, at an afternoon reception in City Hall.
Wolman, 83, wrote the book now, he said, because as his grandchildren grew older they grew more curious about his life. In it, he explains such long-standing local mysteries as who really built the South Philadelphia arena, who lured the Flyers to town, and why he gave Eagles coach Joe Kuharich a 15-year contract.
According to the Shenandoah, Pa., native, he, with some noteworthy help, was responsible for all of that.
"I'm 83 years old. I don't have any grudges," Wolman said in a telephone interview before the reception. "But the truth is, I was solely responsible for building the Spectrum and, along with Bill Putnam, who really had the idea, for bringing the Flyers to town."
Ed Snider, the chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, eventually took over both the team and the building, and, as a recent HBO documentary on the Flyers' Broad Street Bullies suggests, has long contended that he was responsible for both.
Wolman wasn't a hockey fan, but when approached by Putnam with the idea of getting a team here, he said he thought the city ought to have a franchise in all the pro sports leagues. He then persuaded a somewhat skeptical NHL board of governors to award the expansion team to Philadelphia and not Baltimore by promising to construct a state-of-the-art arena before the Flyers' 1967 debut.
As for the controversial Kuharich contract, which touched off the "Joe Must Go" furor that engulfed the unsuccessful and unpopular Eagles coach in his final seasons, Wolman did it out of loyalty.
"I really liked the guy and I was loyal to him," said Wolman. "I knew his coaching days were probably over, but I wanted him to stay with the team. He knew that in a year or so I was going to move him upstairs."
But when construction problems surfaced in Wolman's enormous John Hancock Center project in Chicago, his $100 million financial empire began to collapse. Banks called in loans. He was forced to sell everything, including his interest in the Spectrum and, eventually, the Eagles.
"I tried to hang onto the Eagles as long as I could," he said. "But by that time there was so much pressure I just wasn't able to."
Wolman was the son of a coal-region grocer. He worked in a Washington paint store until he got involved in real estate. By the mid-'60s he had amassed a fortune in excess of $100 million, and though he was in his 30s, was being hailed as the boy wonder of finance.
He has remained an enormous fan of this city's sports teams.
"I rooted like hell for the Flyers," he said of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs.
As for the rather grand setting for his book launching, Wolman said he was looking for a place with a lot of local flavor and thought immediately of the grand old building at Broad and Market Streets.