Philadelphia Eagles’ Schuylkill County Connection
The Philadelphia Eagles are having a GREAT season this year and most of us wish the team the best of luck in the January play-offs ( even though the Eagles are considered by many to be the successor team to the Franklin Yellow Jackets; that team caused the Pottsville Maroons to lose its title back in 1925 but that is for another blog).
Many of you may not know (or perhaps you knew at one time but now forgot), that a Shenandoah native at one time was the owner of the Eagles. Yep. From late 1963 to early 1969, the owner of the team was Jerry Wolman. His parents, Sol Wolman and Sadie Dessel Wolman resided at 316 West Center Street when he was born on February 13, 1927. His Orthodox Jewish family operated the Shenandoah Produce Company, selling fruits and vegetables to retailers. By 1940 the Wolmans relocated to 12 North Gilbert Street. Jerry attended J.W. Cooper High School but dropped out in his senior year to drive the produce truck as his father was ill. Family responsibilities had previously prohibited him from trying out for the Blue Devils football team. His football games were confined to the streets and sandlots of Shenandoah where he usually played end or tackle. His dream of being a football star remained just a dream as he unpacked bananas, lettuce, and crates of oranges in Shenandoah or assisted at a local paint store. When he was able, he would hitchhike to Philadelphia and watch the Eagles play at Shibe Park. His dream never left him. Shibe Park was the first home of the Philadelphia Athletics before the team moved to Kansas City. The Eagles played football there until moving to Franklin Field in the 1950s. Shibe Park later became known as Connie Mack Stadium.
Jerry enlisted in the merchant marines for 2 ½ years. In 1948 he married Anne Untenberger and operated a produce business. It was a financial struggle. By 1951 Jerry and Anne decided to “hit the road” and in their old car and little money. Their destination was unknown. Jerry later told reporters that they would go wherever the first hitchhiker they picked up was heading. The hitchhiker they picked up was headed to Washington, D.C. The Wolmans then made Washington their home. Jerry got a job in a wallpaper and paint store and took a chance on some vacant real estate with little or no money down. His gamble paid off and by the time Jerry was 36, he was worth $36 million as the owner of Wolman Construction Company.
In 1963 the Philadelphia Eagles were sold for $5 ½ million to a group headed by Jerry Wolman who had a 51% interest. The sale represented a return of $60,500 per share to the shareholders who paid $3,000 a share in 1948. The Shenandoah native had visions of transforming professional sports in Pennsylvania. He also purchased Connie Mack Stadium and then constructed the Spectrum which was home to the 76ers basketball team and the Flyers, the hockey team that he also owned.
Football fans had mixed emotions over his ownership. He angered many by signing Joe Kuharich to a 15 year contract as coach, whose only winning season with the Eagles was in 1966 when the team went 9-5. Die hard Eagle fans were so upset with Wolman’s coach that a plane circled one game with a banner reading, “Joe Must Go.” By the end of his ownership, Wolman’s Eagles had 30 wins, 51 losses and 3 ties. Many fans remembered that their team had been the NFL champion in 1960.
The meteoric rise of Jerry Wolman came to an abrupt end due a problematic construction project in Chicago that brought a financial catastrophe his way. By 1969 he was reported to have $72 million in debts owed to about 280 creditors. Bankruptcy was inevitable. Leonard Tose soon purchased his beloved Eagles for record-breaking $16,155,000 Tose fired Kuharick but Kuharick continued to get paid for the remainder of his lengthy contract.
In 2010, I had the pleasure of meeting Jerry Wolman (who I thought had a resemblance to TV host Soupy Sales) when he returned to Shenandoah and attended the Kielbosi Festival. When I introduced myself on North Main Street he immediately remembered my grandfather who had operated a local grocery store at 302 East Center Street. The down to earth former Eagles owner reminisced about delivering vegetables to the store by bicycle or by foot as a boy and how well he was treated by my grandparents. I was envious of and impressed by his ability to recall names, dates and events from the past. He was certainly a class act.
So with the Eagles on a roll despite the loss of Carson Wentz, lets keep Jerry’s dream alive…Fly Eagles Fly….