Eugene Klein, the combative and colorful former owner of the San Diego Chargers who never won a major event in sports until he turned to thoroughbred racing, died early Monday, apparently after suffering a heart attack at his Rancho Santa Fe home.
Klein, 69, a native New Yorker who made a fortune on the West Coast in diverse business ventures ranging from automobile sales and real estate to movie production and book publishing, was stricken at his home at 3:50 a.m. After paramedics were unable to revive him, Klein was taken by ambulance to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, where he was pronounced dead at 5:35 a.m., according to a hospital spokesman.
An autopsy will be performed on Klein, who suffered two previous heart attacks in the early 1980s.
"He made a great contribution to the league, not only in San Diego, but on the television committee, where he was a visionary," NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said of Klein at the 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 finally achieved the success that eluded him in professional football. From 1983 until 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 11 championships, seven Breeders' Cup races, a Preakness and a horse-of-the year title. 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 in 1988, when his horse Winning Colors won the Kentucky Derby by a neck, becoming only the third filly to capture the nation's premier racing 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, (and) only one of 50,000 foals can win the Kentucky Derby."
Wayne Lukas, the nation's top money-winning trainer and the man who guided Klein's racing dynasty, said Monday that few owners have matched Klein's success. 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 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 broodmares to win a lot of races."
In an interview last year, Klein said he decided to get out of racing because he no longer wanted to commit the energy and attention necessary to maintain the unprecedented success that he achieved in tandem with Lucas.
"I thought at first that I could scale back, not be quite so involved," Klein said in 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 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 Alex Spanos for a reported $40 million, did not become involved on a day-to-day basis with the club until 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 AFC Western Division championships from 1979-1981.
The final piece fell into place when Klein replaced Prothro with Don Coryell early in the 1978 season. Coryell, who gained immense popularity in San Diego while coaching at San Diego State, introduced the high-powered offense that became known as Air Coryell and made the Chargers one of the most exciting and successful teams in professional football in the late 1970s.
Klein's tenure also was 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.
Arguably Klein's greatest triumph during his years with the Chargers came, not on the field, but rather in a hotel conference room in Washington, D.C, in May, 1984, when San Diego defeated 12 other cities and was awarded the 1988 Super Bowl game.
If Klein's Chargers never achieved that goal--twice, the Chargers lost the AFC championship game, the final rung to the Super Bowl--his diligent preparations and savvy politicking ensured that at least San Diego would be in the spotlight as the host of America's biggest one-day sporting extravaganza.
In the voting among the 28 NFL owners, San Diego prevailed after a daylong struggle and more than a dozen ballots, overcoming obstacles that included concerns over the size of its stadium, the number of hotel rooms and general reluctance to return to Southern California for a second consecutive year after the 1987 game in Pasadena.
Despite a facade of public optimism, many members of San Diego's delegation were pessimistic about the city's chances, viewing the presentation as only the first of many that San Diego 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.
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 Raider owner Al Davis, charging that Davis 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 happened so often when their teams met on the field in a major game, Davis and the Raiders ultimately triumphed, as a judge reduced the award to $2 million and an appellate court later overturned the judgment altogether two years later.
Ironically, on Monday, Davis announced that the Raiders will return to Oakland by 1992.
Born Eugene Victor Klein on Jan. 29, 1921, in New York City, Klein displayed the drive and zeal that would be hallmarks of his business career as a teen-ager, 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 his $2,000 bank account 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 had an offer on the fourth that he turned down because he needed it to drive home. Later, Klein--whose early advertising slogan billed his cars as being "cheaper by the pound than hamburger"--became the distributor of Volvo automobiles throughout the West.
In 1961, Klein became the head of National Theaters and 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 lifestyle filled with mansions, fine cars--he once owned a Rolls Royce previously owned by Queen Elizabeth II--and a world-class art collection.
Active in many civic organizations, Klein was a member of the board of trustees of the University of San Diego and City of Hope, and served on the board of directors of 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, which he served on from 1982 to 1988.
Klein is survived by his wife, Joyce; a son, Michael, and a daughter, Randee.
Services for Klein will be held Wednesday at 2:30 at Temple Emanuel, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations be made to Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles or Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.
Times staff writer Bill Christine contributed to this story.