Eugene Klein, the combative and colorful former owner of the San Diego Chargers who never won the big one in sports until he turned late in life to thoroughbred racing, died early Monday of a heart attack.
Klein, 69, a New York native who made a fortune on the West Coast in diverse business ventures ranging from car sales and real estate to movie production and book publishing, was stricken at his Rancho Santa Fe home at 3:50 a.m. After paramedics were unable to revive him, Klein was taken by ambulance to Scripps Memorial Hospital-La Jolla, where he was pronounced dead at 5:35 a.m., according to a hospital spokesman.
A preliminary autopsy showed that Klein, who suffered two heart attacks in the early 1980s, died of a heart attack, the spokesman added.
"He made a great contribution to the league, not only in San Diego but on the television committee, where he was a visionary," National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Monday from NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla. "He was a valuable and valued owner and he will be missed."
Though best known for his 18-year ownership of the Chargers, it was in horse racing that Klein achieved the success that eluded him in professional football. From 1983 until last November, when he auctioned off 114 of his horses for $29.6 million to devote more time to travel, Klein was a three-time winner of the Eclipse Award given to America's leading thoroughbred owner.
Flying blue-and-gold silks with a lightning bolt logo borrowed from the Chargers, Klein's horses won nine Eclipse Awards, seven Breeder's Cup titles and the Preakness. But the moment that Klein singled out as the most exciting in his nearly quarter century in sports came on the first Saturday in May, 1988, when Winning Colors won the Kentucky Derby by a neck, becoming only the third filly to capture that crown.
"I never won a Super Bowl, so I can't relate to it," Klein said. "But one of 28 teams is going to win the Super Bowl every year, but only one of 50,000 foals can win the Kentucky Derby and the odds are pretty big."
D. Wayne Lukas, the nation's top money-winning trainer and the man who guided Klein's North County stable, said Monday that few owners have matched Klein's record. In 6 1/2 years, Klein estimated that his horses won more than 300 races and $25 million.
"I don't think in the history of racing an owner ever had a six-year run like Gene did," said Lukas, who had talked with Klein on Sunday and planned to have lunch with him today. "He proved you don't have to belong to the Jockey Club or inherit a band of brood mares to win a lot of races."
In an interview last year, Klein said that he decided to get out of racing because he no longer wanted to commit the energy and attention necessary to maintain the success that he achieved with Lukas.
"I thought at first that I could scale back, not be quite so involved," Klein said last June. "But that's not my style. I found out I couldn't lighten my load and still be competitive in the sport the way I wanted to be."
An imposing 6-foot-5 man with a shock of white hair and a mustache, Klein became active in horse racing just as he was curtailing his career in professional football.
In 1966, Klein, then a multimillionaire Los Angeles businessman who headed National General Corp., a film and theater conglomerate, bought the Chargers from hotel magnate Barron Hilton for $10 million. But Klein, who in 1984 sold his interest in the Chargers to current owner Alex Spanos for a reported $40 million, became involved on a daily basis with the club only after a succession of losing seasons, capped by a dismal 2-11-1 record in 1973.
Over the next several seasons, the coaching and management team that Klein assembled--head coach Tommy Prothro, general manager Johnny Sanders and assistant general manager Tank Younger--put together the successful drafts that created the nucleus of teams that would win American Football Conference Western Division championships from 1979 to 1981.
"He was a treasured fan and a cooperative owner," Prothro said Monday from his home in Memphis, Tenn. "We didn't do a lot of winning in those (early) years. He was a financial man who was amazingly successful in everything he did, but you can't buy a championship in the National Football League. It certainly wasn't because he didn't try."
The final piece fell into place when Klein replaced Prothro with Don Coryell early in the 1978 season. Coryell, who had gained immense popularity locally while coaching at San Diego State University, introduced the high-powered offense that became known as Air Coryell and made the Chargers one of the most exciting, successful teams of the late 1970s.
Klein's tenure was also marked by several controversial salary disputes with top players, including quarterback Dan Fouts in 1977 and receiver John Jefferson and defensive end Fred Dean in 1981. Fouts sat out much of the year, but the others were traded--showing, some argued, that Klein the businessman did not retire when he became Klein the sportsman.
"A lot of people thought Gene was just hard-nosed and tough," Coryell said from Fiji, where he is on vacation. "But he was a very, very sensitive man with a strong feeling toward his friends. He was the best boss I ever had and a very, very positive influence on my life. He's just a real man."
Arguably Klein's greatest triumph with the Chargers came not on the field but in a hotel conference room in Washington in May, 1984, when San Diego defeated 12 other cities competing to host the 1988 Super Bowl.
If Klein's Chargers never achieved that goal--twice, the Chargers lost the American Football Conference championship game, the final rung to the Super Bowl--his diligent preparations and savvy politicking ensured that San Diego would be in the spotlight at least as the site of America's biggest one-day sports extravaganza.
In voting among the 28 NFL owners, San Diego prevailed after a daylong struggle and more than a dozen ballots, overcoming concerns over the size of its stadium, the number of hotel rooms and general reluctance to return to Southern California after the 1987 Super Bowl was awarded to Pasadena.
Despite a facade of public optimism, many members of the San Diego delegation were pessimistic about the city's chances, viewing their presentation as only the first of many that they would have to make to ultimately be awarded a Super Bowl. Afterward, most attributed the city's success to Klein's shrewd behind-the-scenes lobbying, in which he called in markers for his past favors to other owners--notably, his role in securing a $2-billion television contract for the NFL in 1982.
"What took place was a miracle, and as with most miracles, something made it happen," said then-Mayor Roger Hedgecock, who attended the meeting. "That something was Gene Klein."
Another of Klein's major football-related battles also occurred away from the field.
While testifying in May, 1981, in a landmark antitrust case stemming from the then-Oakland Raiders' desire to move to Los Angeles, Klein suffered a heart attack on the witness stand. Later, Klein blamed the heart attack on the stress caused by the suit and sued Raiders owner Al Davis, charging that Davis had maliciously singled him out as a defendant in the antitrust suit.
In 1987, a San Diego Superior Court jury awarded Klein $10 million. But, as had happened often when their teams met in a major game, Davis and the Raiders ultimately triumphed, as a judge reduced the award to $2 million and an appellate court overturned the judgment two years later.
Ironically, on Monday, Davis announced that the Raiders would return to Oakland by 1992.
"The world of sports will miss Gene greatly," Chargers' owner Spanos said in a statement Monday. "He was highly successful in all his endeavors and well-respected in the National Football League."
Born Eugene Victor Klein on Jan. 29, 1921, in New York City, Klein displayed as a teen-ager the drive and zeal that would be hallmarks of his business career, selling encyclopedias door-to-door during the Depression.
An electrical engineering major at New York University when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Klein enlisted in the Air Force the next day and, by war's end, had became a captain.
When he was discharged on the West Coast in 1946, he used $2,000 in savings to rent a dirt lot in the San Fernando Valley and hung out a used-car sign, Gene Klein Motors. On his first day, Klein sold three of the four old cars on the lot--and turned down an offer on the fourth because he needed it to drive home. Later, Klein--who sold his used cars on television as Cowboy Gene, saying they were "cheaper by the pound than hamburger"--became the Volvo distributor throughout the West.
In 1961, Klein became the head of National Theaters & Television Inc., and over the next 12 years built the $40-million firm, which was renamed National General, into a $1.1-billion conglomerate with investments in movie production, real estate, savings and loans, book publishing, vending, merchandising and insurance. By the time he left to devote full time to the Chargers, his personal fortune was estimated at $40 million.
His wealth allowed Klein to indulge in a life style filled with mansions, fine cars--he once owned a Rolls-Royce previously owned by Queen Elizabeth II--and a world-class art collection. Many of the paintings and modern sculptures in his collection, which includes works by Alexander Calder, Joan Miro and Henry Moore, are displayed at his 52-acre North County estate, El Rancho Del Rayo.
Active in many civic organizations, Klein served on the boards of the University of San Diego, City of Hope and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He also was active in the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Hall of Champions, the Mental Health Assn., the American Cancer Society and the National Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Two years ago, he donated $5 million to the Scripps Memorial Hospitals Foundation, on whose board he served from 1982 to 1988.
Klein is survived by his wife, Joyce; a son, Michael, and a daughter, Randee.
Services are scheduled Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center or Scripps Memorial Hospital-La Jolla.
Times staff writer Bill Christine contributed to this story.
IN THE NFL--Klein was remembered by his former fellow owners as a pioneer of the move into big-money television contracts.