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How to die with $60 million worth of the Chargers

Late restaurateur and U-T publisher who boosted taxpayer subsidy ended up owning shares of team

George Pernicano
George Pernicano

With this week's death of Chargers minority owner George Pernicano at 98, his heirs may be looking at a $60 million payout from his 3 percent interest in the team, according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation by a Union-Tribune sports writer.

For San Diego voters, Pernicano may serve as a reminder of the money to be made by those who have managed one way or the other to grab even a small piece of the National Football League, arguably America's most exclusive and prosperous private club.

Pernicano's passing comes in the midst of a big-money campaign by Stockton's super-rich Spanos family — owners of 96 percent of the team — to boost their multibillion-dollar net worth further into the stratosphere with a subsidized stadium and meeting venue, capping a financial history that ranks among the most byzantine in the National Football League.

Richard Nixon, the mob, and the Copley Press each play more than bit parts in the lucrative tale of intrigue and subsidies that began with spending a major chunk of San Diego tax money to lure the Chargers to San Diego from Los Angeles back in 1961.

That was the year after Nixon — who called San Diego his "lucky city" due to the outsized influence on the electorate of Jim Copley's Union and Tribune — lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy.

For public consumption, the star of the San Diego show was quarterback Jack Kemp, who signed as a free agent with the then–Los Angeles Chargers in 1960, leading the team to that year’s Western Division Championship of the American Football League.

Kemp was to become a Republican member of congress and vice presidential candidate under the tutelage of his political mentor, ex-Union editor and Nixon operative Herb Klein, who featured Kemp's conservative columns on the Union's editorial pages.

Video:

1959 TV show with Pernicano as guest

Behind the scenes, the Chargers 1961 move to San Diego was reputedly engineered by Klein and publisher Copley, fronted by Union sports editor Jack Murphy, and allied with local business boosters, including Pernicano, a San Diego restaurant owner with a flair for publicity who made a national television appearance in November 1959 regarding the length of his mustache.

"Casa di Baffi translates, 'Home of the Handlebar,' in reference to a formidable Sicilian tonsorial effect worn by co-owner, George Pernicano," noted Westways Magazine in a 1968 review of Pernicano's Hillcrest eatery. "The Pernicano family has restaurants all over the southern part of the state."

The plan by Copley, Pernicano and their associates to snag the Chargers for San Diego, according to Dan Fulop's 2012 biography of local sports booster Bob Breitbard, depended heavily on use of the Copley Press, and "necessitated several strategies, including a public relations effort, promotional work, political convincing, and a touch of journalistic baiting on Jack Murphy's part.”

Wrote Fulop: “As early as December 21, Murphy broke the news publicly that San Diego wanted the Chargers. He also told San Diego that the unappreciated 'Los Angeles Charger franchise is San Diego's for the asking.'"

In reality, there was a high six-figure catch for taxpayers.

Wrote retired Union editor Richard Pourade in City of the Dream, commissioned by Jim Copley's widow Helen in 1977: "Barron Hilton, son of the Hilton hotel magnate, was interested in moving his professional football team, the Los Angeles Chargers of the new American Football League, to San Diego,"

Noted Pourade, "The only difficulty was the seating capacity of Balboa Stadium, which generally had been used for high-school athletics. The City Council resolved that by agreeing to spend $700,000 to renovate the stadium and add a second tier to raise its capacity from 23,000 to 30,000. Two Councilmen, Ross Tharpe and William Hartley cast 'no' votes only because the contractual agreement also gave the Chargers a year's free use of the stadium."

To overcome critics of the then-sizable taxpayer giveaway, wrote Fulop: "Murphy sweetened the plan, reminding officials of the AFL's lucrative television contract, which meant increased exposure for San Diego, which in turn would attract greater numbers of tourists."

The favorable city-council vote came January 25, 1961. Within two years, Pernicano, who "helped Jack Murphy and other prominent San Diegans convince Barron Hilton, the owner of the Los Angeles Chargers, to bring the team to San Diego in 1961," according to the Chargers website, had acquired an interest in the team, joining U-T publisher Jim Copley as a minority owner.

L.A.'s Hilton, son of Hilton Hotels founder Conrad Hilton, was the most connected of the group. The Hilton family had long been associated with members of the underworld, including California lawyer Sidney Korshak, the infamous Mafia go-between who in the early 1980s was accused by the New Jersey gaming commission of being a "fixer for organized crime," noted a June 26, 1991, New York Times dispatch.

In 1984 Hilton and Hilton Hotels finally cut their ties to Korshak and "purged themselves of any questionable associations," before finally getting their New Jersey casino license in June 1991.

By then, Hilton was long out of the Chargers, having sold a controlling 40 percent interest in August 1966 to a group headed by L.A. car salesman and theater mogul Gene Klein.

In addition, John DeLorean, who would later create the eponymous sports car that brought him to ruin, bought out San Diego grocery chain owner John Mabee's 20 percent. The deal was said to be worth $10 million in all, an NFL record for the time.

U-T owner Jim Copley and Pernicano each retained their 5 percent interests in the team, according to an August 26, 1966, UPI wire story. Stockton apartment baron Alex Spanos would acquire control in 1984 for about $80 million. After subsequent buyouts, he and family members currently own 96 percent, with the Pernicano estate retaining 3 percent, and retired broadcaster Bill Fox with 1 percent, according to published reports.

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George Pernicano
George Pernicano

With this week's death of Chargers minority owner George Pernicano at 98, his heirs may be looking at a $60 million payout from his 3 percent interest in the team, according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation by a Union-Tribune sports writer.

For San Diego voters, Pernicano may serve as a reminder of the money to be made by those who have managed one way or the other to grab even a small piece of the National Football League, arguably America's most exclusive and prosperous private club.

Pernicano's passing comes in the midst of a big-money campaign by Stockton's super-rich Spanos family — owners of 96 percent of the team — to boost their multibillion-dollar net worth further into the stratosphere with a subsidized stadium and meeting venue, capping a financial history that ranks among the most byzantine in the National Football League.

Richard Nixon, the mob, and the Copley Press each play more than bit parts in the lucrative tale of intrigue and subsidies that began with spending a major chunk of San Diego tax money to lure the Chargers to San Diego from Los Angeles back in 1961.

That was the year after Nixon — who called San Diego his "lucky city" due to the outsized influence on the electorate of Jim Copley's Union and Tribune — lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy.

For public consumption, the star of the San Diego show was quarterback Jack Kemp, who signed as a free agent with the then–Los Angeles Chargers in 1960, leading the team to that year’s Western Division Championship of the American Football League.

Kemp was to become a Republican member of congress and vice presidential candidate under the tutelage of his political mentor, ex-Union editor and Nixon operative Herb Klein, who featured Kemp's conservative columns on the Union's editorial pages.

Video:

1959 TV show with Pernicano as guest

Behind the scenes, the Chargers 1961 move to San Diego was reputedly engineered by Klein and publisher Copley, fronted by Union sports editor Jack Murphy, and allied with local business boosters, including Pernicano, a San Diego restaurant owner with a flair for publicity who made a national television appearance in November 1959 regarding the length of his mustache.

"Casa di Baffi translates, 'Home of the Handlebar,' in reference to a formidable Sicilian tonsorial effect worn by co-owner, George Pernicano," noted Westways Magazine in a 1968 review of Pernicano's Hillcrest eatery. "The Pernicano family has restaurants all over the southern part of the state."

The plan by Copley, Pernicano and their associates to snag the Chargers for San Diego, according to Dan Fulop's 2012 biography of local sports booster Bob Breitbard, depended heavily on use of the Copley Press, and "necessitated several strategies, including a public relations effort, promotional work, political convincing, and a touch of journalistic baiting on Jack Murphy's part.”

Wrote Fulop: “As early as December 21, Murphy broke the news publicly that San Diego wanted the Chargers. He also told San Diego that the unappreciated 'Los Angeles Charger franchise is San Diego's for the asking.'"

In reality, there was a high six-figure catch for taxpayers.

Wrote retired Union editor Richard Pourade in City of the Dream, commissioned by Jim Copley's widow Helen in 1977: "Barron Hilton, son of the Hilton hotel magnate, was interested in moving his professional football team, the Los Angeles Chargers of the new American Football League, to San Diego,"

Noted Pourade, "The only difficulty was the seating capacity of Balboa Stadium, which generally had been used for high-school athletics. The City Council resolved that by agreeing to spend $700,000 to renovate the stadium and add a second tier to raise its capacity from 23,000 to 30,000. Two Councilmen, Ross Tharpe and William Hartley cast 'no' votes only because the contractual agreement also gave the Chargers a year's free use of the stadium."

To overcome critics of the then-sizable taxpayer giveaway, wrote Fulop: "Murphy sweetened the plan, reminding officials of the AFL's lucrative television contract, which meant increased exposure for San Diego, which in turn would attract greater numbers of tourists."

The favorable city-council vote came January 25, 1961. Within two years, Pernicano, who "helped Jack Murphy and other prominent San Diegans convince Barron Hilton, the owner of the Los Angeles Chargers, to bring the team to San Diego in 1961," according to the Chargers website, had acquired an interest in the team, joining U-T publisher Jim Copley as a minority owner.

L.A.'s Hilton, son of Hilton Hotels founder Conrad Hilton, was the most connected of the group. The Hilton family had long been associated with members of the underworld, including California lawyer Sidney Korshak, the infamous Mafia go-between who in the early 1980s was accused by the New Jersey gaming commission of being a "fixer for organized crime," noted a June 26, 1991, New York Times dispatch.

In 1984 Hilton and Hilton Hotels finally cut their ties to Korshak and "purged themselves of any questionable associations," before finally getting their New Jersey casino license in June 1991.

By then, Hilton was long out of the Chargers, having sold a controlling 40 percent interest in August 1966 to a group headed by L.A. car salesman and theater mogul Gene Klein.

In addition, John DeLorean, who would later create the eponymous sports car that brought him to ruin, bought out San Diego grocery chain owner John Mabee's 20 percent. The deal was said to be worth $10 million in all, an NFL record for the time.

U-T owner Jim Copley and Pernicano each retained their 5 percent interests in the team, according to an August 26, 1966, UPI wire story. Stockton apartment baron Alex Spanos would acquire control in 1984 for about $80 million. After subsequent buyouts, he and family members currently own 96 percent, with the Pernicano estate retaining 3 percent, and retired broadcaster Bill Fox with 1 percent, according to published reports.

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Comments
8

Hopefully this will expedite the sale of the empty eyesore restaurant property in Hillcrest.

Oct. 8, 2016

So did the property sell? The Reader had a story about how a hotel was probably going to take over the spot: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/20...

Maybe they had to wait until the old man passed on?

Oct. 10, 2016

No, the family didn't have to wait to sell it.

Oct. 10, 2016

It would make a perfect shelter for the homeless and all their stolen shopping carts. I assume there's a bathroom?

Oct. 8, 2016

We may now understand why the next Pernicano generation lacked interest in keeping those Hillcrest restaurants open after the old guy gave up. And it might also explain why he (and apparently they) just let them sit there, in the prime location, and fade and decay. They were rich by having that small share of the team, and could afford to wait, and wait, and wait. Is the waiting over? Some egotist will probably want to buy that share, and the Soanos gang might even be willing to pay up big to get more of the pie.

Oct. 8, 2016

"Spanos" misspelled above.

Oct. 8, 2016

A while back it looked like a hotel might be coming there. But that plan fizzled, after weeks of hype. [http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/20...] Building a major project in Hillcrest can be a precarious task for developers. That's partly why we're instead seeing more new apartments/condos under construction in North Park, Bankers Hill and downtown.

Oct. 9, 2016

I m sure the Spanos clan are working on a way for San Diego taxpayers to foot the bill.

Oct. 9, 2016

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