The Crime Family Who Infiltrated Professional Sports Ownership

“…But goddamnit, the exciting part is what can be done with a non-publicly owned company,”

Eddie Debartolo, The Pharoah of Youngstown. The geographical outline of Ed Sr.’s life story gives yuge Marty Scorsese “Casino” vibes. As Lefty Rosenthal’s (based on De Niro’s character) duty was to control the day-to-day casino operations under the guise of the Chicago Outfit, Ed had organized crime ties of his own ranging from Tampa to Vegas, and Cleveland to Pittsburgh. Debartolo Sr. repeatedly vied for ownership of the Chicago White Sox, but was turned down due to his connection to known bookmakers, mafia figures and gamblers, alike. He even made the DOJ’s organized crime principle subjects list after being linked to some of the biggest names the American Mafia history; Tampa Boss Santo Trafficante, La Cosa Nostra part-founder Meyer Lansky, and New Orleans Godfather Carlos Marcello— all of whom suspected of orchestrating the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. Something of the new Rockefeller of Cleveland, he became the wealthiest man in Ohio. He owned three prominent racetracks, four Holiday Inn’s, and had access to a $100k line of credit at Caesar’s Palace. No big deal.

Here’s how it started:

In 1909 Ed Debartolo Sr. was born in Youngstown, Ohio. Debartolo Sr.’s folks immigrated from Bari, Italy to Youngstown, a city pretty well recognized for its flourishing steel industry in the 19th and (early) 20th century, as well as the pervasive mob tomfoolery between the Cleveland and Pittsburgh factions. Along with a rising stock market, steel prices would reach an all time high and steel jobs reached a record of 340,498 at the start of World War II. As a quick study, he learned how to read and write for his step-father and their business early on, and eventually landed at the University of Notre Dame where he studied civil engineering. He parlayed his knowledge by serving in the Army Corps of Engineers in 1937, where he met his wife, Marie Patricia Montani and created the Debartolo Corportartion. Together they had two children; Denise and Ed Jr.

Once the war ended, the family business would transition into being one of the country’s top construction company’s, reaping hefty financial benefits as American families began relocating to the burbs. This meant a timely increase in convenience store shopping demand with the Debartolo Corporation among the first to put plaza’s and shopping malls in suburban communities.

According to a Federal dossier, Debartolo Sr. was close to the Carrabia brothers from the Cleveland Family, and at one point called on Charlie Carrabia (aka The Crab) and his two brothers for protection when he was being extorted by other Cleveland mobsters. They were fire-bombing his shopping centers on several occasions in the 50s, so Eddie Sr. decided the best insurance policy was his the security of his underworld buddies. It wouldn’t be long before the local news reported the death of Irish gangster, Danny Greene, in a car bomb set off remotely by Ronnie Carrabia. Thick as thieves, the Carrabia’s and Debartolo took regular trips to the Tropicana Casino in Las Vegas and proceeded to gamble large sums of money each time they’d visit. I imagine money was no longer an issue, as the family owned one-tenth of all mall space in the US at the time.

He’s publicly known in the sports world as the former owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins (1977-1991) and the San Francisco 49ers (1977-present). After winning the Stanley Cup, he sold the NHL franchise in 1991 to assist the Debartolo Corporation in the aftermath of the 1987 real estate market crash. In 1977, he bought the 49ers for $18 million and handed the NFL franchise to his son, Ed Jr.

“I try to run the 49ers like a family rather than a business. I view the players and myself, really, basically as a partnership. Our goal was to win the Super Bowl every year, and we had to do that together.” — Ed Jr.

They won 5 super bowls and had the most wins of any football team within a decade. The Debartolo family success continued when their Corporation became one of the largest public real estate businesses in the US, amassing control over 2 billion square feet in real estate space across the country.

In a recent update, The Associated Press reported that President Trump would pardon Ed Jr. on February 18, 2020 after pleading guilty in a 1998 federal bribery case for failing to report a felony where he paid $400k to former Louisiana Governor, Edwin Edwards, in exchange for a riverboat gambling license. Ed Jr. was locked up just four years after the family patriarch died from pneumonia in 1994, and the NFL would suspend team control, thus delegating the controlling interest to his sister, Denise, and her husband, John York.

Eddie Jr. was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016, and on the day of his pardon, former 49ers wide receiver, Jerry Rice, told press at the White House after speaking with President Trump, “I think with Eddie and what he’s accomplished, what he’s done on and off the football field, a lot of charity work. . . We talked about just being great. You know, trying to be the greatest of all time. I take my hat off to Donald Trump and what he did.”

Hell of a quote, Jer’.

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