Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Breaking Race Barriers: The life and Times of George V McLaughlin

He was New York police commissioner, banker and civil society leader. He also broke race barriers in police and baseball. A tribute to George V McLaughlin who died 50 years ago on December 7, 1967.

Around Christmas in 1925, when George Vincent McLaughlin was offered the post of New York police commissioner by mayor Jimmy Walker, he was not sure whether to accept. He had no police background, and as the Brooklyn Eagle, his borough’s newspaper, said his contacts with the police until then were limited to an occasional chat with the patrolman or the traffic cop.  

So he replied to the mayor, refusing to accept the post described by the New York Times as the most difficult in the city administration. But a few days later, on January 1, 1926, he was there at the steps of the City Hall as Walker announced the appointment of his new police commissioner.  The mayor said McLaughlin, who was 38 then, had agreed to accept the post, spurning offers he had from the private sector to take up the task of fighting crooks and maintaining order in the sprawling city of five million.

So what changed his mind? Reporters on police beat who raised this question never got a direct answer. “My daughter Kathleen wanted me to take it up,” he told Silas Bent of New  York Times. Most friends had advised him not to accept, no one had been successful in the position. It was a  swamp that could swallow even the toughest and why risk one’s career there? He was successful in his position as Banking Superintendent in New York state.

But little Kathleen was only two and a half years old and she thought her six-foot, 200-pound father could fight all the crooks in the city with his big hands. And that would be fun. But Jeanne, her sister who was six, was not sure and so said nothing. So was their mother Hazel K Sullivan, who worked in the banking department.

It appears the real force behind his decision was New York governor Alfred E Smith. McLaughlin, by this time, was very close to Smith and Walker had requested Smith to persuade him. Smith was a popular figure and had built up a formidable name as a reformer. He was first elected governor in 1918 and was responsible for a number of reforms that put the interests of common people at the center, in that Gilded Age. Smith came up from the working classes and he prided in his subaltern background. He had famously claimed he received his highest degrees from the university of Fulton, meaning the Fulton fish market where he once worked as an assistant. When Smith came to power, McLaughlin was a banking examiner, after working for years at Brooklyn’s North Side  Bank even as he studied during the night to get his degrees in law and accounting. Smith made him superintendent of banks, a position in which McLaughlin excelled. This took him closer to the governor, and soon he was in the governor’s inner circle. Another person in that Albany circle was Robert Moses. During the next 40 years, McLaughlin and Moses would work together in many projects that involved the city’s development.  

Many thought McLaughlin was a Tammany recruit and Smith’s man in the Walker administration. His name was first mentioned to Walker by a journalist, George Van Slyke, who used to know him at Albany. The New Yorker thought his appointment was a ploy to present a Tammany administration in respectable attire. In a profile on the new police chief, tilted Tammany in Modern Clothes, New Yorker’s Oliver Garrett described McLaughlin “honest, direct, forceful, but lacking finesse” and predicted he “will need all his guts” to survive in the new job.

But, it soon turned out, McLaughlin was his own man. The Mayor had assured him a free hand and Tammany, for the time being, kept itself aloof. The New York City in the 1920s was a burgeoning place: its boroughs were teeming with millions and every week thousands of migrants came to its shore, from every part of the world. It was a city of opportunities, for the good,the bad and the ugly. Crooks and bootleggers took over the streets at nightfall. Holdups and murders were aplenty. In those Prohibition days, speakeasies and gambling dens thrived with political backing and the police were corrupt.  

Corruption was all pervasive; it spread from the lowly patrolman to the highest levels of administration. Richard Enright, his predecessor who held office for eight years, faced continuous interference from the City Hall under John F Hylan. Many files were missing from the headquarters and among them the ones relating to collection of funds for police welfare activities from wealthy New Yorkers. It was found much of this amount had disappeared.

Police badges were available for those who could pay and that helped them flout the rules. The system of honorary police officers was used by the rich and powerful to don their cars with plaques announcing their position as honorary deputy commissioners. During the previous regime, there were many such dignitaries who enjoyed the privileges of a high ranking officer, with no responsibilities. McLaughlin cancelled all honorary positions and ordered return of the plaques to the department.  

The special squads set up to fight vices like gambling and enforce Volstead Act that prohibited sale of liquor was another issue. They were a force to themselves and answerable only to the commissioner. Some of them were corrupt and their antics notorious. He ordered the special squads disbanded and asked the men to report for duty at police stations.

And that was what the city needed. The city police had around 14,000 men on its rolls but there was an acute shortage of patrolmen on the streets. Within five months of taking charge, McLaughlin increased the number of patrolmen on duty by 1600 men cutting down on staff “deployed in numerous soft berths and clerical positions,” the NYT reported.   

The staff morale was low. Merit was ignored and racial prejudices rampant. Promotions were at the whim of top officials whose arms were twisted by politicians. McLaughlin made the system more open making himself accessible to his staff. The day New York Times reporter James Young went to  see him at work, his first visitor was an officer called Ryan who was denied his promotion for long. McLaughlin told him, “I am proud of you, Ryan. That was a fine piece of work in Brooklyn. I liked the way you tackled those fellows...And from today, you are a third grade detective, Ryan. And good luck to you.”

Samuel Battle was a young man from Harlem, the first black person to be appointed to the New York police in 1911. His promotion had been held up. McLaughlin promoted him as sergeant in 1926, soon after he took charge. McLaughlin, announcing his promotion, told Battle that he had received anonymous letters against him but “I thought they belonged to the waste bin.”  

There were many such officers who found their work recognised and promotions granted during McLaughlin’s time. Among them was Lewis Joseph Valentine, an officer who served as police commissioner during mayor LaGuardia’s term in office.  

McLaughlin was meticulous and punctual. He reached his office at 240 Centre Street, before nine and received visitors; sorted out grievances and complaints before moving onto his other duties. He tried to be with his men, when tough actions were called for. He was courteous, and matter of fact. He never brooked interference in his work. That was a complete break from past practices, when politicians minted money with a hand in the city administration’s every posting, transfer and promotion.

He refused to entertain politicians who came seeking favors. Such toughness caused tension and unpleasant encounters. One such incident involved mayor Walker and a Lower East Side politician Edward Ahearn. Eddie’s problem was simple and genuine: Shopkeepers in Yiddish neighbourhoods had trouble with the city’s Blue law that insisted shops remain shut on Sundays. But most Jews kept their shops closed on Saturday and remained active on Sunday. If a patrolman came, they could be handled with a bribe or some influence peddling. But when McLaughlin came, this did not work and shoppers complained to Eddie Ahearn, Democratic leader in the locality and a Tammany man. Eddie went to meet the mayor to complain.

But Walker would not listen. He said McLaughlin was not taking orders from the City Hall and there was nothing he could do to help Eddie. Exasperated, Eddie asked why did he remain mayor then. Walker, eager to shift the blame on Al Smith, said, “Look, Al Smith put McLaughlin here. Let Al Smith pull him out.”

The story is that raging with anger, Eddie rose from the chair, spat on the mayor’s face in contempt, and stormed out, inaugurating a period of bitterness and cold war between the two that lasted many years.

McLaughlin had an eye for numbers and at the end  of his first year he came up with statistics about the crime situation in the city, claiming good progress. He gave a report to the mayor in February 1927 which said: During the past year, the assault and robbery cases, “the class of crime most feared by society,” were fewer by 20.9 percent compared to the previous year. The number of burglaries was the lowest in the past ten years, showing a reduction of 18 percent. There was a decrease of 15 per cent in grand larceny and six percent in homicides.  But his achievements towards the last quarter of the year were striking: there was as much as 40 per cent drop in serious crimes showing the growing effectiveness of his methods.  

His achievements were praised all round but his methods resented by men in power who were used to a pliable police force. In enforcing the law, McLaughlin was uncompromising and that put him in conflict with some Tammany bigwigs. Among them was Brooklyn Democratic leader and alderman Peter J McGuinness.

Pete was a colorful politician in Brooklyn, known as as the king of Greenpoint. Like Al Smith, he had working class origins and came up in public life through hard work. He was a prominent alderman and was responsible for many improvements in public amenities. Once he came up with a bill that sought to ban women smoking in public places. In the prohibition era  New York, politicians and policemen were the keepers of public morality, and once news about the new bill became known, cops started rounding up women having a leisurely smoke, though the bill had never been made into a law.

Pete was the man who ran the Democratic club at Greenpoint and it was rumored to be a place for gambling. McLaughlin’s special team barged into the club one evening, arrested Pete and a few others and seized a big amount of money.

It was a sensational raid, and Tammany Hall, which had kept out of police affairs until then, decided to step in. A team of Tammany leaders went to meet mayor Walker. It was never disclosed what transpired, but on March 29, 1927, McLaughlin announced  his resignation, after 15 months at the helm of New York police department. He said he was leaving to take up an offer at Mackay’s cable company. He handed over charge to his successor Joseph A  Warren, a  law partner and friend of Walker, a few days later.  

Warren lasted only eight months, as the mayor asked him to quit following the sharp spike in crime rates in his first three months itself in comparison to the time McLaughlin was in charge. In fact, NYT was being prescient when it wrote: “George V McLaughlin, in the opinion of many close observers, has practically remade the police department during the year and three months he has been in  office and has made a record for efficiency in administration that his successor will find it hard to equal.”  

Four years later, following allegations of corruption against Walker administration, governor F D Roosevelt ordered an inquiry, and former judge Samuel Seabury was made the Hofstadter commission’s counsel. Seabury was a stern and brilliant lawyer from a family of generations of brilliant jurists. When reporters asked Walker about the Seabury enquiries, the mayor  quipped, “Life is full of Seaburies...” At the end of the Hofstadter inquiry, Walker was forced to quit and board a ship to Europe, for a vacation that lasted years, in order to avoid the long arm of law catching up with him.

McLaughlin was one of the witnesses who testified at the inquiry. Asked about his relations with the mayor, the former police chief said, “If non interference was the best way of cooperation,” he had received it in full from Walker. He aso revealed the raid on McGuinness’ Greenpoint club was not an accident--he said he had told the Brooklyn Democratic leader John McCooey about what went on behind the closed doors there. His warning was relayed to the club, but McGuinness ignored it. Then there was no option but to go on with a raid, which he did.

It was in this atmosphere of rampant corruption revealed by the Hofstadter inquiry that the 1933 mayor elections were held. The Depression was at its peak, 25 per cent of the working people unemployed. The reform movement was strong and its political arm, the Fusion party, was led by judge Seabury. In their search for a strong and credible candidate, McLaughlin was a choice, but he refused. Robert Moses was another, but Seabury was opposed to him and that led them to settle on F H LaGuardia, who always wanted the ticket.

The Democratic candidate was Tammany’s nominee John O’Brien, and it was thought it would be a straight fight. But then a third candidate appeared,  Joseph V McKee. McKee was put up by a new entity called Recovery party and one of its leaders was McLaughlin, who served as chairman of the campaign committee. McKee’s last minute entry was interpreted as a strategic move by President Roosevelt. But in the end, LaGuardia won and McKee came second.

Again in 1936, McLaughlin was in the headlines, as a Democratic heavyweight who ‘took a walk’ to the rival camp. FDR was seeking reelection and Al Smith, who had become so bitter with the President, decided to support his Republican rival Alf Landon, governor of Kansas. In Brooklyn McLaughlin was one of the Smith loyalists who followed him to the Republican camp with disastrous results. In this race, FDR returned to power with a landslide victory. Ever since, McLaughlin kept himself away from active party politics.             

In business and social life, he remained a leading figure. He had left Mackays in less than a year, and moved back to banking in 1930. For the next two decades he was president of Brooklyn Trust Company, a prominent Brooklyn bank. The Brooklyn Trust was in charge of the finances of Brooklyn Dodgers, a great team with great players and a great fan following. Among its fans  was Ernest Hemingway. Red Barber, veteran commentator who used to broadcast Dodgers and New York Yankee games, remembered how the writer used to hang around the team. He wrote in NYT in a memoir: “I was around Hemingway casually in 1941 when Larry MacPhail took the Brooklyn Dodgers to Havana for spring training... He was fascinated by all those mighty men of muscles, the ballplayers. He used to leave his finca and hang around the Dodgers in the lobby of the National Hotel. Then he took some of them to shoot pigeons. Several times he had some of them at his finca.”  

The Dodgers were legendary, but their finances were in a mess. The team was deeply in red, its telephone lines at the 215 Montague Street headquarters had been cut and the two families that held its shares the Ebbets and McKeevers were squabbling and the Ebbets Field, where its games were played, was in ruins. There was urgent need to get things under control. McLaughlin was not only the man who controlled the purse strings, he was also trustee for the families that owned the team. He led the negotiations that persuaded Larry MacPhail, who used to run Cincinnati Reds, to take over the Dodgers as general manager. Larry came with plans for the revival of the team’s fortunes, the only hitch being lack of money.  

Larry went to meet McLaughlin at his bank’s headquarters at Brooklyn Heights. McLaughlin conducted his business affairs from its second story office and his social affairs from room 40 at Hotel Bossert. Harold Harris of Brooklyn Eagle wrote about this private gathering as the most exclusive luncheon club in the borough. “Nothing is ever written about this place where banker George V McLaughlin, known to his intimates as George the Fifth, rules over a table of political hierarchy, ” he wrote.

Larry laid out his plans and asked McLaughlin for $ 200,000. The year was 1937, a time when the economy was still reeling under the effects of Depression, and the team owed the bank $700,000. Besides, the Ebbets and McKeever heirs owed money to the bank as they had taken loans against the shares as collateral. Sinking more money into the team was not a sober proposition, but as a leading citizen of Brooklyn, McLaughlin could not let the team go under. He took the plunge.

Larry did wonders with the Dodgers, turning it around in a short while. When he left in 1942 to fight the war, the team’s finances were in better shape, part of its debts cleared, and it had a deposit of $150,000 in the bank. When Dodgers won the pennant there was much excitement in the borough, MacPhail hailed for his brilliant achievements. But one enthusiast wrote to the Brooklyn Eagle that “little mention is made of the one man who, perhaps more than any other, deserves the kudos for bringing the pennant to Brooklyn. I refer to George V McLaughlin, banker extraordinary...” the writer said, pointing out that it was McLaughlin who spotted the one guy [MacPhail] that Brooklyn needed and then let him dip into the till to his heart’s content. “Where will you to find a banker who would have the good sense, as well as the civic consciousness” to do so, he asked.  

Then came Branch Rickey to lead the Dodgers. The war was raging all over the world, but Rickey knew it would end sooner or later. When it ended the boys would be back home and they would look forward to good entertainment. It called for scouting for good players and he wanted to look afield for new talent. He thought the racial barriers must be broken to bring in great players kept out of the national league. Bringing in black players who until then played in the Negro league would also bring in the large number of black youngsters to the stadium and that would mean a great new source of revenue.  

But breaking the color barrier was not easy. Here again it was McLaughlin who gave him sober advice and encouragement. This is how Jimmy Breslin in his biography of Branch Rickey describes the moment when Rickey broached his idea with McLaughlin: “McLaughlin had an old style of reasoning that came from years in police stations and bank negotiations. ‘If you want to do this to get a beat on the other teams and make some money, then let’s do it’, he told Rickey. ‘But if you want to do this for some social change, forget it. We want to win and make money... If this doesn’t work for money, you’re sunk.”

McLaughlin knew how enormously important was this decision. It meant taking on the brick walls of racial prejudices. It would bring in a huge backlash. But then, he was a businessman to the core and he reasoned there was no argument that would succeed like a solid business argument. He was not prejudiced on racial lines and had proved his willingness to honor merit twenty years earlier when he promoted Samuel Battle. Now he did the same thing standing behind Branch Rickey as he made history signing up Jackie Robinson for the Dodgers.

That was in 1947.Ten years later, Brooklyn lost Dodgers when Walter O’Malley took the team to Los Angeles. It was McLaughlin who had made O’Malley part of the triumvirate he had installed to run the club when the heirs of the old owners sold out. The others who held shares were Branch Rickey and John L Smith, president of the Pfizer company. After the death of Smith, differences between Rickey and O’Malley came to a head and finally O’Malley took over the team buying out Rickey’s shares.

O’Malley, son of an old friend of McLaughlin’s in Bronx, was a protege of the banker from the days he was hired to look after the foreclosure business of the bank in the 30s. Later, McLaughlin put him in charge of the Dodgers’ finances. It was from here O’Malley made his way up to the ownership of the franchise.

O'Malley wanted a new ballpark, as he felt the Ebbets Fields was no longer sufficient to hold the rising number of spectators or park their cars. “Ebbets Fields was built in the trolley car era.There are no trolleys to speak of today but there are automobiles and ..parkways,” he wrote to McLaughlin and park commissioner Robert Moses in 1953, asking for a new ballpark to be built at Fort Greene were slums had been cleared for new developments.

Moses refused point blank. He wrote back: “...our slum clearance committee cannot be be used to encourage speculation in baseball enterprises. You are, of course, the best judge as to whether in fact a new Dodger stadium would be anything but a white elephant...” O'Malley made an appeal to McLaughlin, Moses’ long time colleague, but he could do nothing to help.    

When Walter O’Malley announced his plans to take Dodgers to the west coast, McLaughlin made a last ditch effort to keep the franchise in the city. He addressed a press conference at Waldorf-Astoria, with a plan drawn up after consultations with Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey. It accepted the need for a new ballpark, and he thought the ideal spot would be Flushing Meadows in Queens. This could be built at public expense, and he expected to persuade either Dodgers or Giants, who were also negotiating a move to the other coast, to remain in the city. In case it fails, he proposed a a new team in which the players would have a share of the profits and the team would be run by a non profit corporation. Mayor Robert Wagner was in favour of it, parks commissioner Moses was supportive and New York Times wrote that this appears to be the only way for the city keep its franchise. But in a few weeks both the Giants and Dodgers had left the city.  

The departure of Dodgers was an acutely felt personal loss for most Brooklynites. For McLaughlin it was a deeply felt loss. For three decades, he had run the team, his opinion was vital in any decision that counted in its affairs. He had brought in O'Malley to the board as his personal choice and helped him with money to purchase his initial shares in the team. O'Malley was close to him, and often described as his adopted son taking care of his personal affairs and driving him home in those evenings he imbibed prodigious amounts of the spirits at the numerous dinner parties he had to attend. He could never forgive O'Malley for what he did and never spoke to him in later years.

McLaughlin's decades long association with Robert Moses was another matter that received much public attention. Robert Caro, in his biography of Moses, The Power Broker, has said McLaughlin as vice chairman of Triborough Bridge Authority played second fiddle to him, allowing him to run the authority as a personal fiefdom. He hints it was business interests that motivated McLaughlin who had stakes in the Equitable Life Assurance Society which had dealings with the authority.

But this does not seem to be fair criticism. McLaughlin was generally supportive of the decisions Moses made, and many of them controversial, but he had very little choice. Moses always had the power of public opinion on his side. Even President Roosevelt had to beat a retreat when he made an attempt to remove Moses from the authority in 1936. Secondly, McLaughlin was enthusiastic about the kind of public works that changed the face of New York. But still, he firmly opposed the move Moses made to shift $ 6 million of authority money to the loss-making New York World Fair in 1963. He resigned from the fair committee and issued a public statement denouncing Moses.

Two years later his term at the authority came to an end, after 31 years serving under various administrations. He was already 78. He had left his career at banking industry over a decade earlier retiring as chairman of Manufacturers Trust Company, with which his Brooklyn Trust Company had merged in 1950. But he continued on its board, and was associated with a large number of business concerns and social and charitable organisations. Among them were Fordham and St John's universities, Equitable Life Assurance Society and Consolidated Edison Company.

McLaughlin was a public person all his life. He never minced his words nor retracted from his positions. During the Depression, he called for changes in the way banks and businesses operated, in the New Deal days he opposed profligate spending and when the war broke out, he was a leading figure in civilian efforts to face the difficulties. He cared for the youth who went to fight in the war and ensured every Brooklyn boy who came back home did receive a great welcome and a ticket at Ebbets Fields where the Dodgers played. He loved sports and instituted the McLaughlin trophy for basketball. As a banker he was president of the New York Bankers Association for one term and helped formulate its policies in the difficult years of Depression and bank collapses.

He loved good food and good drinks and was a towering presence in any gathering, that earned him the epithet George the Fifth among friends. He loved to play handball and was known to be a skillful player even in his old days. In fact on the day of his death, December 7, 1967, he had enjoyed a round of the game and after lunch with his friends at the Athletic Club, had come home at 610, Park Avenue, when he had an heart attack. He rang up his daughter Kay Jeffords living three blocks away and told her about it, adding “this seems to be the last”, according to a family member. Half an hour later when she arrived, he was already dead. He was 80.

A requiem mass service was held at the St Vincent Ferrer Church, Lexington Avenue, the next day and his body was laid to rest at the Gates of Heaven Cemetery, Westchester, with the NYPD band playing the farewell tune to its old chief.

Image courtesy: Police commissioner McLaughlin with officer Ryan, New York Times, 7 February, 1926.

(This story is dedicated to Elizabeth D. Jeffords who has spent 13 years in India, trying to improve the lives of scores of children, through education and empowerment. She first told me about George V.McLaughlin, her grandfather.)