MarketInsight | The Wolfsons
The Wolfson family moved to Jacksonville from St. Louis just before World War I began in Europe. Samuel Wolfson was four, younger brother Louis, just one year old. They were the sons of a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania. The father, Morris David Wolfson, was in the scrap metal business. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Trash was very profitable for the Wolfsons.
Sam and Louis followed their father into the junk business. They made their first big score in a deal with department store magnate J.C. Penney. The great depression had stopped construction at Penney Farms out near Starke. Sam and Louis bought a pile of plumbing fixtures from Penney for $275. They would later resell them for more than $100,000.
Sam Wolfson is best remembered for his forays into baseball. In 1953, Wolfson bought the local baseball team, the Jacksonville Tars. Sam affiliated the club with the Milwaukee Braves, who had just moved from Boston, and moved the newly minted Jacksonville Braves into the venerable South Atlantic League. The son of a Jewish immigrant then made the momentous decision to integrate the Deep South’s “Sally League.”
Three black players joined the club. One of those players, 18-year-old second-baseman Hank Aaron, led the league in just about everything. Ironically, the field was integrated, but the stands were not. Many white fans booed, released black cats onto the field, and wore mops on their heads. Out in the colored section in the left field bleachers, it was a different story. Fans whooped and hollered like “they had won the World Series.” So many African-Americans showed up at one road game that the bleachers collapsed.
Louis Wolfson made his first million at the age of 28. He was known, in some circles, as the “Wizard of Wall Street.” One of Wolfson’s companies built the USS Kitty Hawk, another financed Mel Brook’s film “The Producers.” In 1967, Louis was convicted of stock fraud and sent to jail for nine months. For the rest of his life, Wolfson would vehemently complain that the charges were politically motivated.
In 1957, having made his point and already suffering from the ill health that would take his life at 54, Sam Wolfson sold the Braves to a group of investors led by Hall-of-Famer Bill Terry. The former NY Giant great retired here after his baseball career and bought a Buick dealership. Bill Terry Buick was an iconic Westside landmark for decades.
Later in life, Louis took a fancy to racehorses. He had a big horse farm out near Ocala called Harbor View. He raised thoroughbreds. One of his horses, Affirmed, won the Triple Crown in 1978, finishing first in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. Until recently, Affirmed was the last horse to win all three races.
In 1946 Morris Wolfson, the scrap dealer, wrote a letter to his sons announcing his intention to found a children’s hospital in Jacksonville and endow it with $500,000 (roughly $6.5 million in today’s dollars.) “Pops” passed away before his vision could be realized, but his sons fulfilled his wishes and in 1951, they broke ground. Wolfson Children’s Hospital opened in 1955 as a place for all children to be admitted and treated without regard to creed, religion, race, or financial position. That original mission remains today.
Scott A. Grant is a local author, historian, columnist, and speaker. He is president of Standfast Asset Management in Ponte Vedra Beach. He welcomes your comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.