Lerner carrying ball gives city better shot at crossing goal line

John Steadman

November 16, 1993|By John Steadman

With a heavy-duty ball carrier named Al Lerner now leading the way, the Baltimore expansion effort gathers a new dimension of interest and impact. His presence doesn't guarantee a nod from the National Football League, but it most emphatically improves the chances.

Lerner, who deals in a straightforward manner, devoid of con, would be a one-man owner and will not have partners. This is an ideal arrangement because the league, the state and city governments have only to deal directly with Lerner, which makes for a smoother business operation.

This is not to say he won't have an advisory committee comprising Baltimore representatives.

But all the decisions will originate with Lerner, providing he's able to get the team.

As a 5 percent owner of the Cleveland Browns, he has an identity within the NFL. For the last 14 years, he has been a co-owner of Maryland's largest residential real estate company, known as Town and Country, which owns and manages 11,000 apartments and thereby holds a roof over a large percentage of citizens.

It's not as if Lerner is a stranger in the community. His name was one of the first mentioned as a possible owner of a Baltimore football team. That was five years ago.

Then Lerner pulled back when other applicants came to the fore. His renewed interest didn't manifest itself until after the Maryland Stadium Authority reviewed its options and decided a different game plan was needed following the league meeting in Chicago on Oct. 26.

Baltimore couldn't change its financial presentation, which was generally applauded, but it wanted a different leader. An invitation was extended and Lerner was receptive.

If Baltimore was going back on Nov. 30 for a final decision on expansion, it wanted to come in with a revised lineup, led by Lerner. He was asked to head the effort.

Previous bids by groups headed by Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass and Malcolm Glazer made it to the NFL scrimmage line, but weren't moving the ball in their own behalf or that of Baltimore. They tried and, for that, have the community's gratitude, but in no way are they to be portrayed as martyrs.

The rules were spelled out for owners, the same as they were for the 10 cities that originally submitted applications. There can only be two winners. With one decided, Charlotte, N.C., the next choice is among Baltimore, St. Louis, Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla. Lerner lifts Baltimore. How high remains to be seen.

It was obvious the status quo wasn't creating much of an impression so, holding to this contention, the governor and stadium authority turned to Lerner to give them a new look.

Going back with the same players wasn't going to work. That's why Baltimore can consider itself fortunate it attracted a candidate who is known to the league, has the monetary qualifications and possesses an impeccable reputation.

Lerner graduated from Brooklyn (N.Y) Technical High School, Columbia University (class of 1955) and was a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps.

His first job was with the Ethan Allen furniture stores and he lived for a time in Baltimore before going to Ohio and involving himself in real estate.

While living in Shaker Heights, a Cleveland suburb, he was a neighbor of Art Modell, owner of the Browns. Modell and Lerner go to games together. When the Browns play on the road, they use Lerner's private plane for transportation.

The story is told that Lerner was invited to join a prestigious social club in Cleveland, which had never admitted a Jewish member.

When interviewed, he asked if his grandfather and father before him, in earlier eras, would have been acceptable since they were Jews. He was given a negative answer, so Al Lerner said he wasn't interested in being in the club.

Lerner has never sought media exposure, which is commendable. It tells Baltimore he's not interested in making a lot of noise or self-aggrandizement.

Ernie Accorsi, a stadium authority player, knew Lerner during his seven seasons in Cleveland as the Browns general manager and he expresses respect and praise for his abilities.

"He's tough when he has to be, is a highly decent man and will not try to avoid responsibility," Accorsi said. "I believe he'd be an outstanding owner. You only need look at his record in business and banking to realize the extraordinary things he has achieved."

Alfred Lerner brings Baltimore the type owner it didn't have before. He knows the league and its owners know him, which is a relationship that will provide impetus to the Baltimore franchise effort.

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