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Book excerpt: Former Eagles owner Leonard Tose loved that he had money, and he couldn’t stop spending it

A new book looks at Leo Carlin's half-century with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Leonard Tose owned the Eagles during the 1970s and part of the 1980s.
Leonard Tose owned the Eagles during the 1970s and part of the 1980s.Read more

This excerpt from Chapter 6 of “A Bird’s-Eye View: My Mostly Wonderful, Always Unforgettable Half-Century with the Philadelphia Eagles,” by Leo Carlin with Paul Domowitch, is reprinted with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, visit the Triumph Books website.

Leonard [Tose] had a reputation as being a kind and generous person, which, in many ways, he was. But people don’t remember the other side of him, which I had the misfortune of seeing up close and personal.

One day – I can’t remember which year it was – we were talking about an upcoming game. Until he hired Dick Vermeil in 1976, the Eagles were pretty bad under Leonard’s stewardship. I mentioned offhandedly that our fans deserved a win, that it was time for them to taste some success.

He looked at me and replied, “Fuck the fans. I deserve it a lot more than they do.”

Another time, after we moved into the Vet, I got a call from the mayor at the time, Frank Rizzo. He wanted some tickets. I ran it by Leonard, who said, “Get them for him. Take the seats away from anyone you have to, but get those seats and give them to Frank.”

I still remember the guy whose seats we took screaming about his loyalty to the team and saying he couldn’t believe we could be so cruel. He was absolutely 100 percent correct. But Leonard didn’t care. I always hated hurting fans, anyway. I don’t pretend that I was always able to help them, but I always tried.

Many times, when I had to say no back then, I was covering for the ownership. It’s been said that Leonard never had a partner who didn’t end up suing him. That might be true.

The first one I remember was a guy named John Connelly, who was part of the syndicate headed by Tose that bought the team from the bankrupt Jerry Wolman. Shortly after the sale, the two had a falling out. The papers were full of alleged broken promises by Leonard. Litigation followed. It was one of dozens of lawsuits Leonard was involved in over the years. Most of his original partners in the sale eventually ended up selling their shares and getting out because of him.

The chopper

Leonard loved letting people know how rich and powerful he was. He had a helicopter, and he was obsessed with it. He would take it to the office every day from his home in Radnor. There was a tiny grass area right outside the stadium offices. It wasn’t very big, but Leonard decided it was plenty big enough for his helicopter to land. Convenience was Leonard’s middle name.

He would take the helicopter to training camp, where somebody would have to pick him up in a golf cart that had a fringe canopy that protected him from the sun. What a sight. The players used to laugh their asses off. His arrival at training camp was always a distraction. The quarterback would be calling signals, and then he would be drowned out by the sound of Leonard’s helicopter.

Leonard took it to the shore and many other places. The chopper supposedly was co-owned by one of the team’s minority partners, Herb Barness. I guess Herb saw the inside of it a few times but damn few. It was Leonard’s baby. It ended up being one of many things that caused a rift between Leonard and Barness. Barness, who owned 29 percent of the team, offered Tose $21.5 million for the Eagles in 1977 but was turned down. Shortly after that, Barness sold his stake in the team.

Leonard was always looking for ways to flaunt his wealth, even as he was losing much of it down at the casinos in Atlantic City. And he was very, very good at it – flaunting his wealth, I mean, not gambling. He sucked at gambling.

Once, when the team was out in California, he threw a party on a yacht. He had rented a yacht, but when he found out John Wayne had a yacht nearby, he sent his errand people to find the Duke and ask him if he could use his yacht for the party instead. He got it, but hardly anyone at the party realized whose yacht it was, and he ended up spending twice as much to rent the Duke’s yacht as the original yacht.

I remember going to a league event once. I can’t remember if it was a Super Bowl or an owners meeting or what it was. Anyway, the league threw this huge party. Kay and I were there with a big group of Eagles people that included Leonard.

The food, which was magnificent, was served buffet style. Each table had a waiter to get drinks for people, but everybody went up to the buffet to get their own food. That included the commissioner and every other NFL owner at the party. Well, Leonard thought he was different. At one point, he turned to the waiter and said, “Aren’t you going to serve us?” When the waiter told him he was just there to get the drinks, Leonard abruptly stood up and told the entire entourage, “OK, let’s go. We’re leaving,” and stormed out of the place. The buffet was good enough for the Rooneys and the Maras and Pete Rozelle and other NFL royalty, but not for Leonard.

Kay and I decided to stay. Somebody in Leonard’s entourage turned to me and said, “Well, Leo, I hope I get to eat tonight.” The good news was that Kay and I suddenly had an entire table to ourselves. What a feast for a couple of North Philly kids.

I remember one time not long after Leonard bought the Eagles, the team was playing really poorly, which happened a lot back then. He decided to go down to the locker room and give them a pep talk before practice one day. During his talk, Leonard told them they should consider him their “father away from home.” He said if they needed anything, like a father, he would take care of them.

Right after the meeting, one of our linebackers, Bill Hobbs, went up to Leonard and said, “Hey, Dad, I’m going out tonight. Can I borrow the car?” Well, after practice ended, there was a chauffeur-driven limousine waiting outside the stadium for Hobbs and a bunch of his buddies.

Not only that, but their “father” picked up their entire tab that night. Unfortunately, it didn’t help them play any better.

There are countless legendary stories about Leonard’s spending. When he finally had to sell the Eagles in 1985, he was 70 years old. He lived 18 more years before dying in 2003 at the age of 88, but he spent many of those final 18 years penniless. Though he sold the team for $65 million, most of the proceeds went to banks and casinos and other people he owed money to. He would’ve lost the team much sooner were it not for the league. The NFL didn’t want to see any team go under; it makes for really bad publicity. So it did everything it could to help Leonard. But every penny he got, he squandered.

At one point Detroit Lions owner William Ford came to his rescue with a huge loan to keep the banks at bay. As the team’s business manager at the time, I had tried very hard to control expenses, but it was an uphill battle with Leonard. And when he got the new loan via Ford, I lost control. He was like a kid on Christmas morning.

Former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski offered to help Leonard once by hosting a benefit that would’ve raised potentially a million dollars for Leonard. To which Leonard replied, “C’mon, Ron, I need real money.”

Even when he was broke, a million dollars was nothing to him. At one point, he even privately pawned his Super Bowl ring.

Part of Leonard’s deal with Norman Braman when he sold the Eagles to him was that he receive 25 Super Bowl tickets each year. Leonard, of course, would scalp them for a very high price. He just couldn’t stop spending. Sure, the gambling didn’t help, but his exorbitant spending was as big a reason for his downfall as the gambling and drinking. Leonard would’ve spent his final years homeless if not for Dick Vermeil. Dick constantly gave him money, though it never was enough for Leonard.

Dick’s generosity to his former boss went well into the high six figures, but Leonard managed to squander all of it.

Playground landing

I’ll never forget the time Leonard took me to the Jersey Shore in his helicopter. Kay and the kids were already down there on vacation. I was about to drive down and meet them when Leonard told me he was headed down there too and would give me a ride. It wasn’t a request; he basically ordered me to get in the helicopter.

The problem was he was going to Atlantic City and I was going to Sea Isle, which are about 30 miles apart. The pilot dropped him off in AC, where he had a limo waiting to take him to his house, where one of his many women was waiting for him. He hopped out without a word, got into the limo, and took off. Meanwhile, I was still in the helicopter with the pilot.

The pilot flew that thing like he was fresh out of Vietnam, which, as it turned out, he was. We had a great view of the whitecaps of the ocean.

He headed for Sea Isle but had no idea where he was going to land. He was asking me what to do, like I did this every day. There’s a saying -- prior planning prevents poor performance. The pilot kept asking me for suggestions on where to land. We couldn’t land on the beach with all that sand. So where did we end up picking? Would you believe a playground?

That’s right, a playground. I’m guessing that probably violated a few aeronautical rules, not to mention a few Sea Isle town ordinances.

There were kids on rides, and a bunch of guys were playing softball. As we got closer to the ground, nobody was moving because they were in disbelief. They obviously were thinking, Surely he’s not going to put it down on a playground, right? Wrong.

As we got closer to the ground, it dawned on everybody that this was not a drill. Bats, balls, and gloves went flying everywhere as we touched down. The pilot said, “We used to do this in 'Nam.” To which I replied, “Except we’re not in 'Nam. We’re in fucking Sea Isle.”

I got out of there in a big hurry. But it wasn’t like you couldn’t tell whose helicopter it was. It was painted kelly green with a green helmet and green wings on it. Rules were not made for Leonard. Good thing there weren’t iPhones back then. That landing would’ve gone viral, and I would’ve been permanently banned from setting foot in Sea Isle.