James H. Warsaw dies at 61; entrepreneur helped advance sports as a business

James Warsaw was president of Irvine-based Sports Specialties Corp. from 1981 until 1993, when he and his brother Robert sold the business to Nike for $78 million.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

James H. Warsaw, a Newport Beach entrepreneur who helped change the perception of sports from games with bats and balls to a business of dollars and cents, has died. He was 61.

Warsaw died Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications from infections, his brother Robert said Saturday. He also suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

In 1994, with $250,000 in seed money from Warsaw, the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business created the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. It was the first endowed sports marketing program in the nation to be associated with the business college of a major U.S. public university. The center trains sports executives and other industry professionals, offering undergraduate courses as well as being integrated into the master’s of business administration program.

Warsaw, who attended the university in the 1960s before leaving school to join his family’s successful sports merchandising business, was a hands-on mentor who offered real-world experience to students.

“He was a trailblazer in this area, knowing and believing that sports was a business and had to be treated as a business, and consequently, we had to educate young people who wanted to be in the business,” said David M. Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, where Warsaw served on the advisory board.

“Realizing the need to truly prepare these young people for a career in sports was a major part of his legacy,” he added.

It was the family business, Irvine-based Sports Specialties Corp., that made the academic endeavor possible. Warsaw and his brother sold the firm to sportswear giant Nike for $78 million in 1993.

Their father, David, started the company in Chicago in 1928, after designing an ashtray in the shape of Wrigley Field and persuading the Cubs’ owners to let him sell the trinket in the ballpark -- and pay royalties to the Wrigley family. Only 16 at the time, the elder Warsaw branched out to sell other official sports team souvenirs, including baseball caps, helmets, bats, balls and bobble-head dolls. After World War II, he moved his firm to California.

James H. Warsaw was born Oct. 16, 1947, in Los Angeles and grew up in Beverly Hills. He and Robert joined the family business in 1969.

By the early 1970s, Sports Specialties had become an industry leader specializing in authentic sports caps bearing the logos of professional and college teams. The company negotiated licenses with the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and the NCAA as well as international baseball organizations. It sold Pro brand caps made with high-quality materials, most often wool, in specific sizes (as opposed to having an adjustable band at the back) and featured emblems sewn on rather than glued.

Warsaw, who served as company president from 1981 to 1993, concentrated on marketing, and Robert, as chairman, oversaw production and distribution.

Soon after selling the company to Nike, Warsaw was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He began raising money for research to find a cure for the progressive neurological brain disorder that affects the body’s movement.

In 2006, he finally earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon, having completed the remaining business courses he had left unfinished nearly 40 years earlier.

In addition to his brother Robert, Warsaw is survived by his wife, Ellyne; three sons, Bryan, Kyle and Zakary; his mother, Anne; another brother, Zeke; and a sister, Wendy Ruby.

The funeral will be held at 12:30 p.m. today at Temple Bat Yahm, 1011 Camelback St., Newport Beach, followed by a graveside service at Pacific View Memorial Park, 3500 Pacific View Drive, Corona del Mar.

Instead of flowers, contributions may be made in Warsaw’s name to the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, 1208 University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403, or the James H. Warsaw Foundation for Parkinson’s Research or the Cure Parkinson’s Program, both at 6033 W. Century Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA 90045.