CHICAGO (MCT) - To hockey fans, William Wirtz will be remembered as "Dollar Bill," the tight-fisted owner of the Chicago Blackhawks who kept home games off TV and let some of the team's biggest stars skate out of town.
To friends, Wirtz was a generous, principled and fiercely loyal man who built on the financial empire put together by his father and maintained a desire to win matching that of the biggest Blackhawks booster.
A throwback to an era when family ownership of professional sports franchises was the norm, Wirtz, 77, died of cancer on Wednesday at Evanston Hospital, according to the Blackhawks organization.
A barrel-chested, craggy-faced man who boxed in his youth and told tales of a barroom brawl with Rocky Marciano, Wirtz was politically and socially well-connected and unabashed in using his family's clout and money to advance the Wirtz Corp. interests.
The Wirtz fortune, estimated at more than $550 million, is rooted in real estate, including several Lake Shore Drive highrises and a share of the United Center, which replaced the family-owned Chicago Stadium. Beyond that, Wirtz oversaw a range of interests from banking to booze. The company is headquartered in the American Furniture Mart building at 680 Lake Shore Drive, which the family owned until 1979.
While he could be stubborn and combative, Wirtz was famously loyal to his employees-Blackhawks senior vice president Bob Pulford has been with the team for 30 years, and former general manager Tommy Ivan was part of the team's hierarchy for 45 years.
"He was a man of great principle and he could be very firm in wanting you to live up to those principles," said White Sox and Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who teamed with Wirtz to build the United Center in the mid-1990s.
Wirtz's late father Arthur bought the Blackhawks in 1954, and Wirtz has been president of the team since 1966. The Wirtzes have no plans to sell the team, Mr. Wirtz's son Rocky said. He said a succession plan is in place but declined to provide details.
Wirtz's death brought little sympathy from many Blackhawks fans, but business leaders and politicians who worked with him paid tribute.
"He comes from a great family," said Mayor Richard Daley, who has known Wirtz "almost all my life."
" They have a great history in sports and a great history in real estate, a very successful family over many years, and I extend my condolences to the family."
"Illinois has lost a true sports and business icon," Gov. Rod Blagojevich said in a statement. "The legacy of Bill Wirtz will live on through the numerous businesses he built, charities he funded and the thousands of Illinois residents he employed."
"Bill was a good businessman, a good friend, and someone who cared deeply about Illinois and especially Chicago," said former Gov. Jim Edgar.
Wirtz was born on Oct. 5, 1929, and grew up in Chicago and on the family farm near Mundelein. He trained as a boxer and once sparred with Rocky Graziano at a Madison Street gym.
While at Brown University, he became involved in a barroom brawl with Rocky Marciano, resulting in two days in jail and the biggest welt he ever had in his life. "He thought his head was going to explode," his son said.
Wirtz graduated from Brown University in 1950, and the same year married the former Joan Roney. He dabbled briefly in outside jobs before joining the family business run by his father.
Arthur Wirtz, a Chicago policeman's son, amassed a fortune in real estate that included stadiums and convention centers in several cities. With his partner, trader James Norris, Arthur Wirtz cut many deals during the Depression for rock bottom prices. They picked up Chicago Stadium on West Madison Street in 1935 for $300,000. It had been built seven years earlier at a cost of $7 million.
Ice shows starring skaters like Sonja Henie were put together to fill the arenas, which also hosted political conventions and boxing matches.
In the late 1940s, Arthur Wirtz and Norris formed the International Boxing Club. The IBC produced nationally televised fights and promoted almost all championship matches in the early 1950s before a federal court determined it to be a monopoly and broke it up.
Bill Wirtz took a larger role with the company beginning in the 1960s, taking it into horse-breeding and harness racing. In 1999, he famously put together a high-priced cast of more than a dozen lobbyists, including former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson and former Illinois Senate president Philip Rock, to push for a law that would make it difficult for alcohol manufacturers to leave Judge & Dolph, a Wirtz-owned liquor distributorship.
"He understood politics. He understood how the legislative process works," said Thompson,a frequent guest aboard the Wirtz family's 123-foot yacht, "Blackhawk." "The legislative process works by hiring people who have relationships that they in turn have sustained for a long time."
The law passed, but was struck down by a federal judge in 2002.
Arthur Wirtz died in 1983 at 82. The same year, Wirtz's wife Joan died at 55. He married his present wife, Alice, four years later. An unpretentious man, he lived in the same Winnetka home for 51 years and always drove his own cars, most of which he kept for at least 10 years, his son said.
Under Wirtz's guidance, Chicago Blackhawks Charities was established in 1993, Since that time it has donated more than $7.5 million to causes including the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
Wirtz was also generous in quieter ways. "He did so many nice things for people that he didn't want anyone to know about," Reinsdorf said.
Reinsdorf said he called Wirtz earlier this year when the father of a Chicago Bulls employee was hospitalized downtown and the man's wife needed a place to say. Wirtz quickly offered the family's corporate apartment, at no charge.
Having virtually grown up in the old Stadium, Wirtz always said it was difficult for him to tear down the building for the modern, more lucrative United Center. But he was proud that the new stadium was financed with private funds rather than taxpayer dollars.
He never wavered from his belief that televising home games was an affront to season-ticket holders.
"Bill Wirtz truly believed that it was unfair to the season ticket holders to give away the home games on TV for free," Reinsdorf said.
The lack of televised home games and Wirtz's willingness to let stars like Bobby Hull, Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios sign lucrative contracts with other teams won him the enmity of a fan base that has steadily dwindled in recent years.
"He loved the Blackhawks," Reinsdorf said. "It killed him that the Blackhawks were bad the last couple of years. It bothered him that the fans didn't think he was trying to win."
Wirtz rarely complained, although Rocky Wirtz said the derogatory nicknames and criticism did hurt his father over time.
"He had a pretty thick skin, he understood it," Rocky Wirtz said. "He knew that came with the territory."
Wirtz is survived by his wife, Alice, two sons, Rocky and Peter; three daughters, Gail, Karey and Alyson; and seven grandchildren.
Visitation is set for 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30, at Donnellan Family Funeral Home, 10045 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Services will be at 10 a.m. Monday Oct. 1, at Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 East Chestnut Street, at Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL. 60611.
Gary Washburn contributed to this report
c) 2007, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.