Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Philly's First Pro Basketball Owner

The man who brought NBA basketball was a far cry from the Wall Streeters who now run Philadelphia's NBA team.

Philly's First Pro Basketball Owner

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 Now that a group of Wall Street dilettantes has purchased the 76ers, it seems like a good time to look back at the long-forgotten Philadelphia plebian who was the first owner of the city’s first NBA team.

 When in 1946 the Philadelphia Warriors became charter members of the Basketball Association of America – soon to be renamed the National Basketball Association – the man who owned and operated them was a hustling little sports promoter from Manayunk named Pete Tyrrell.

 Born in Philadelphia in 1896, Tyrrell was the son of an rowhouse-dwelling, English-born barber. He graduated from now-defunct St. John’s High in Manayunk before taking a job as a stenographer for the Girard Trust bank. He later worked as a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad clerk, a typewriter repairman and a sportswriter for the Manayunk Review.

 It was in sports that he found his calling. By the time he was 23, Tyrrell was promoting various boxing events in his hometown. Because staid Philadelphians found the sport unseemly and limited the length of fights to six rounds, Tyrrell opened a ramshackle 3,000-seat arena on carnival grounds in West Manayunk, the present-day Belmont Hills. There on the opposite banks of the Schuylkill, he could host 10-, 12- and 15-rounders.

 Tyrrell also did some promotion in New York before returning here permanently in 1921 to work with Max “Boo-Boo” Hoff. It was Hoff, a notorious, bootlegger, gangster and boxing power, who in 1926 secured the first Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney fight for Philadelphia. By then the city’s rigid boxing restrictions had been eased.

 In 1929, Tyrell went to work for the nine-year-old Philadelphia Ice Palace and Auditorium – later the Arena, The building adjacent to the Franford El stop at 46th and Market was then the largest indoor-sporting facility in the city. But when it went bankrupt during the Depression, he was appointed its receiver and general manager. It was in that capacity in 1946 that Tyrell and ten other other arena operators – including Walter Brown in Boston and Ned Irish in New York -- created the BAA.

  The Warriors, with star Joe Fulks, won the first BAA championship in the 1946-47 season. In 1952, Tyrell sold the club for $25,000 to a group headed by its GM/coach, Eddie Gottlieb. Tyrell continued as the Arena’s GM until 1965,

  At the Arena, Tyrrell also organized ice shows with Olympic champion Sonja Henie; boxing matches that included a welterweight championship bout between Sugar Ray Robinson and Kid Gavilan; rodeos with Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers; a swimming competition between Johnny Weismuller and Buster Crabbe, by then Hollywood stars; NHL and AHL hockey, plus various roller derbies, track meets, bicycle races, concerts and dance marathons.

 He died in 1973, by which time the Warriors had been relocated to San Francisco, replaced here after a year without pro basketball by the Syracuse Nationals franchise, immediately renamed the 76ers,

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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About this blog
Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is covering his eighth Olympic Games and has yet to win a medal in anything except caffeine consumption. He has also been the beat writer for the Phillies, Eagles and Penn State football.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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