Jacobs gets hit, runs to lawyer, makes an error


September 12, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

That $36 million bean ball Eli Jacobs fired at Warfield's magazine the other day was more than a lawsuit. It was a shrill warning cry to anybody else who wishes to examine the owner of the Baltimore Orioles: Back off, or you might get hurt.

Filing a crippling lawsuit against a pipsqueak magazine is one thing. Routinely sending intimidating letters is a variation on a theme. Here are a few variations:

* When the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on Jacobs four months ago -- a piece similar in theme and tone to the Warfield's piece -- the paper got an angry letter from Jacobs that Journal employees have been ordered not to discuss.

* When Jacobs learned that Eric Garland, author of the Warfield's piece, was to appear on WCAO radio's Stan the Fan sports talk show last month, Jacobs had his attorney, William J. Murphy, fire off a letter to WCAO's general manager, Roy Deutschman, warning of potentially dire legal consequences if Garland appeared. Garland appeared anyway.

* Garland originally intended his story for Washington's Regardie's magazine but wrote a variation of the piece for Warfield's. When it ran, Jacobs had his attorney send a letter to Regardie's warning the magazine not to run any similar piece. Regardie's has heeded the warning.

"We're not in the business of backing down from anybody," Regardie's Editor Brian Kelly said yesterday, "but every time somebody sneezes in Eli Jacobs' vicinity, they get threatened."

Jacobs claims to be worth roughly $500 million. Warfield's estimated otherwise. In a cover story called "Squeeze Play: Eli Jacobs and His Debt-Ridden Empire," the magazine examined some of Jacobs' vast financial holdings and suggested that his offer to sell the Orioles might be based on a cash crunch from troubles in some of Jacobs' other holdings.

Immediately, attorney Murphy fired off an 11-page, single-spaced letter demanding a prominently displayed retraction and apology. Warfield's gasped and said no, but, in an unprecedented move, Warfield's attorney Theodore Sherbow offered Jacobs two full pages of the magazine in which to state his own case.

Jacobs said no. Instead, he filed suit and sent warning letters to Regardie's and WCAO.

That's not just a legal action, it's a kind of generalized intimidation. Jacobs knows that merely defending itself in court could be crushing to Warfield's, a twice-monthly Baltimore business publication with a paid circulation of about 3,000 and gross income last year of roughly $650,000.

Is Jacobs serious? Certainly not about getting $36 million. But then, the suit is puzzling at any price.

This is a man who majors in contradictions. He calls himself a private man but buys a major league baseball team and invites George Bush and the queen of England to watch games with him.

He says he'll listen to offers to sell the team but refuses to take phone calls from a legitimate buyer and will not take reporters' questions about any deals.

He does not want his finances examined but must understand that as a result of his legal action, Warfield's will demand he open all of hisfinancial records.

Warfield's attorney Sherbow said yesterday, "When a major league baseball club is put up for sale by the owner only two years after he purchased it and just after a hundred million dollar-plus stadium has been constructed for the team at no expense to it, it would seem reasonable to wonder why."

That, said Sherbow, is the simple essence of the Warfield's piece. As a public figure, Jacobs must know he's open to analysis. He refused to talk to writer Eric Garland. Instead, his public relations person offered what the lawsuit calls a "knowledgeable source" for Garland to interview while warning Garland of "serious risks with respect to accuracy and reliability."

Now, having filed suit, his attorney, William Murphy, would say yesterday only: "I'm not going to comment on the lawsuit or any tactical matters. The suit speaks for itself."

Yesterday, Sherbow said, "You can't keep people from wondering [whether Jacobs has financial troubles]. After all, Jacobs is an important public person. He entertains the president and Cabinet officers as well as the queen of England.

"He's written about in the national press. He's involved in substantial financial dealings that are national and international in scope. . . . [The complaints listed] in the lawsuit about Garland's article were fair comments about a public figure concerning matters of public concern."

Jacobs' suit claims the Warfield's piece disparages his "creditworthiness . . . his reputation in the financial community and his ability to carry on his trade or profession."

The Orioles owner swims professionally in shark-infested waters. Those who sniff blood tend to come in for the kill. It is understandable that Jacobs would be sensitive to such problems but not so understandable for him to blame this on Warfield's.

If he thought the magazine was going to say he had troubles -- and, in fact, he knew that was Eric Garland's contention -- then he should have talked with Garland ahead of time and shown him the error of his ways. It's too late in the game to claim he's a private figure who wants to be left alone.

And if the story isn't in error -- well, that's not Warfield's problem. It's strictly Eli Jacobs'.

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