Observing from the sidelines, while one of his best friends is caught in the cross-fire of a controversy he didn't instigate, causes Art Modell to go on the offense. He doesn't believe Al Lerner, like himself a poor kid from Brooklyn, who came up the hard way to become one of America's most respected business leaders, deserves to have his integrity impugned.
Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns and frequent visitor to Baltimore, is aware that Lerner has been anointed by Gov.
William Donald Schaefer to lead Baltimore's effort to gain a National Football League expansion franchise. The development has been in all the newspapers.
The relationship between Lerner and Modell is such that they are friends and business partners. "He has been enormously successful," says Modell. "His word is good. He has been my friend and associate. He's a partner in the Cleveland Stadium Corp. and the Browns. We once owned radio stations together."
Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, heading one of two groups also pursuing an NFL team, charged that Lerner, as a former chairman of the board of Maryland National Bank, had access to his financial records. The implication by Weinglass is
that Lerner used this to his advantage when he filed for the Baltimore ownership. Modell takes strong exception to any such allegation.
"I don't think Weinglass should have run that ad [meaning a full-page advertisement in The Sun and The Evening Sun on Nov. 17]. I was appalled. Al wouldn't need to have information on Weinglass' finances to determine any action he was interested in taking. Consider the immense position of respect Lerner enjoys. Weinglass was almost incoherent."
Modell says he was talking from experience, as a friend and associate of Lerner's dating back almost 20 years. It doesn't seem likely that Lerner, despite Weinglass' accusations, would be even remotely interested in how another ownership was structured, since it already had been scrutinized and approved by the NFL's financial analysts.
With diverse holdings in business and banking, Lerner is rated by Forbes magazine as one of America's 400 richest citizens with an estimated net worth of $700 million. That isn't bad for a boy who came from a Brooklyn neighborhood, served in the Marines and started off working for a salary of $75 as a furniture salesman in Baltimore.
Weinglass, in his denouncement of Lerner, makes it sound as if the man who now lives in Cleveland was born rich. Not so. The same with Modell, who came from a similar background and made it on his own. Modell's family was in such difficulty he had to drop out of school in the eighth grade to take a job in a shipyard and attended classes at night to gain a high school diploma.
"I know Al Lerner would be a good owner," continued Modell. "I don't expect that if he got a franchise he would be involved in the daily operation. In my opinion, he'd hire the right people and let them run it. You can probably count on one hand the number of owners in the league who are totally active with their clubs.
"There's Wellington Mara in New York, Dan Rooney in Pittsburgh, Al Davis and his 25 percent of ownership with the Raiders and maybe Pat Bowlen in Denver. A lot of the current owners aren't like the old days when football was their main livelihood. With many of them it's another interest or kind of a hobby."
Modell said he didn't know and wouldn't predict if Baltimore, with or without Lerner, will gain an expansion club when the league's owners meet Nov. 30 in Chicago. And he wouldn't attempt to estimate how much importance Lerner's presence will mean since it's not his prerogative to make such a judgment.
But about Al Lerner, the individual? Modell doesn't have to think twice about his character, business abilities and impeccable reputation. "He's some class," is the way Art prefers to phrase it when it comes to offering a capsule evaluation of how Lerner carries himself.
As a 5 percent owner of the Browns, Lerner usually accompanies Modell on trips with the Browns, but never projects himself into team policies or any kind of politics. He has been almost a silent partner, showing total loyalty and respect to Modell. The man is rarely quoted or photographed.
He's described as a private person, with high values of integrity, who has many friends in Cleveland and Baltimore. Al Lerner offers the kind of potential in a football ownership that Baltimore, a city that deserves the best, never had before.