Del Webb “Constructs” A Good Life: His Baseball and Sun City Adventures
Few in the construction industry have such a rags-to-riches story as Delbert “Del” Eugene Webb. A few years before the Great Depression, he arrived in Phoenix with not much more than carpentry skills and a strong work ethic. Yet, when he died in 1974, the Del Webb Construction Company was a household name.
But Webb did much more than just construction; he created a new housing sector. He’s most known for creating Sun City, located outside Phoenix, the first major development marketed for active retirees in the nation. Webb also transformed the game of baseball, not as a player hoping to make the major leagues but rather as co-owner of its most successful franchise, the New York Yankees. So how did this successful businessman manage to have such an impact on both construction and leisure? It’s a tale of one talented, driven man and his two grand passions.
Sun City residents lounge in the street.
Webb was born in 1899 into a construction family in Fresno, California. His mother, Henrietta, came from a wealthy family. His father, Ernest Webb, was a road builder, president of the San Joaquin Rock and Gravel Company, farmer, rancher, and baseball fan.
His son shared his father’s love of America’s Great National Pastime. “By the time he was 13, a beanpole of a kid weighing 130 pounds and standing 6 feet 3 inches, he was considered one of the best first basemen around Fresno, and if he was lucky, sometimes got as much as $2.50 a game by playing on a pick-up, semipro team," reported Sports Illustrated about Webb in 1960.
The Webb family’s fortune went south during the construction of Fresno's first skyscraper, the Griffith-MacKenzie Building, in 1914. According to the 1991 book, Del Webb: A Man, A Company by Margaret Finnerty, an unscrupulous subcontractor on the project left Ernest Webb close to ruin. The event influenced his son to quit high school after his freshman year to become a carpenter’s apprentice.
A skilled craftsman, Webb worked for companies that fielded a baseball team to allow him to play semiprofessional games. As a result, Webb's earnings as a pitcher and infielder sometimes exceeded his carpenter’s paycheck. But in 1928, Webb contracted typhoid fever, which effectively ended his Major League dream. After recovering, Webb and his wife of nine years, Hazel Church, moved to Phoenix, lured by his father’s contacts in the aggregate industry.
That’s when Webb’s moved up to the major league in the construction industry. After minor projects, Webb’s big break came after he had worked on the Westward Ho Hotel. The hotel’s contractor wanted a carpenter on call at the grand opening, but they had to wear a dark suit. Fortunately, Webb had one in his wardrobe. That evening, he met A.J. Bayless, who owned Bayless markets. Mr. Bayless mentioned that he had issues with a superintendent who was building one of his stores.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jan/Feb 2022 issue, Vol. 11, No. 1.