Leonard Tose lives alone in his million-dollar home, alone with memories of how wonderful it all was at one time.
Two large rooms on the first floor are empty. There is no furniture or carpets and there is nothing on the walls. Nothing. The rooms are bare and echoes can be heard as Tose paces across the wooden floors. Most of the furniture that remains is on the top floor, where Tose sleeps. “When my wife moved out I told her, ‘Take anything you want.’ And she did.” But the house is a reminder to him of how he used to live, and of the good times.
At one time Tose, the 78-year-old former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, had it all -- money, status, fame -- but he was living in the fast lane and traveling at the speed of light. The crash was inevitable.
Tose lost millions of dollars gambling at Atlantic City casinos. He says he still doesn’t know how many millions, but now he is nearly broke.
“I like to live the good life, there’s no doubt about that,” Tose said. “I still like to live nice, but now it’s a struggle. This has taken a lot of pride and dignity out of me.”
Looking around his nearly barren home, he said, “It’s very hard to go into the huddle and find nobody needs you.
“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better,” he said, borrowing a line from the late comedian, Joe E. Lewis, with whom Tose identifies. “This country is based on winners. If you’re a loser, nobody wants to know you.”
Tose always lived high. As the owner of the Eagles for 16 years, he was a member of that exclusive millionaires club of 28 NFL owners. He also was head of a very lucrative family trucking firm. He and his fourth wife had matching Rolls Royces and lived in his large two-story home in this affluent Philadelphia suburb.
Then it all came apart.
Tose is a compulsive gambler and an alcoholic. The combination has led to his personal ruin. His financial downfall hasn’t reached bottom yet. Like the commercial for the battery, it just keeps going and going ...
Thanks to mounting debts mainly because of his incredible gambling, he had to sell the Eagles in 1985 and he lost the trucking business. And last year, his fourth wife left him.
He had friends in the NFL -- Art Rooney, owner of the Steelers; George Halas, owner and coach of the Bears; Paul Brown, longtime Browns and original Bengals coach, and Vince Lombardi, coach of the Packers. They are all dead now. “I miss those guys,” Tose said wistfully. “They were stand-up guys.”
“It’s lonely,” Tose said. “I watch the games. I root for the Eagles. Sometimes I go to dinner with Dick Vermeil ... I fast on Yom Kippur.”
It is estimated that Tose lost $14 million at the Sands Casino in Atlantic City, but he says his losses go far beyond that.
“Fourteen million? Oh, it was more than that,” Tose said. “I think it was more than 20 (million) at Resorts. Fourteen was the number at the Sands. I don’t even know the total number for sure ... I didn’t want to know about the losses. I had serious blackouts. I never knew how much I lost. There were times when I lost a couple of hundred thousand and don’t remember ever being in the casino. There were times when I would get up in the morning, and nobody ever wanted to tell me what I lost. My wife didn’t want to tell me. She knew I wouldn’t like it ... I didn’t know whether I lost $50,000 or $500,000. Stupid!”
The worst part, Tose said, is that he can’t really remember the excitement of gambling. But gamblers at the Sands and Resorts remember Tose. He would attract a crowd whenever he played his favorite game of blackjack.
Playing recklessly, he would play seven hands at a time, at $10,000 a hand, sometimes doubling it to $20,000. Blackjack dealers said they saw him lose as much as $100,000 on one deal of the cards.
He was the sort of high roller who, although he had the potential winning hand of two queens for a total of 20 in the game of 21, would split them into two new $5,000 hands.
Tose often bet on credit, signing one marker after another. According to casino records of one night of frenzy, Tose signed a marker for $25,000 at 12:45 a.m., and at 12:53 he signed for another $25,000. At 1 a.m., he borrowed $50,000 more and three minutes later, he borrowed another $50,000. At 1:31, he borrowed another $35,000 and $50,000 more at 1:35.
He switched tables and borrowed another $50,000 at 3:07. At 3:30, he signed for another $100,000. Before the night -- actually morning -- was over, he lost $400,000 in markers -- not counting his own money.
In early ’83, the NFL was concerned about rumors that one of its owners was in deep debt from gambling.
Then-commissioner Pete Rozelle tried to talk to Tose about the gambling and suggested that potentially bad publicity about it could be embarrassing to him personally and to the Eagles. The league has the same rule for owners as it does for players -- don’t do anything that would bring discredit to the NFL.
A source within the league said, “Toward the end of his tenure as owner of the Eagles, Leonard Tose became a real embarrassment to the league, not only for his personal conduct. Rozelle and the other 27 owners had to file a federal lawsuit to prevent him from moving the Eagles from Philadelphia to Phoenix.”
However, one longtime NFL team owner was more sympathetic. “Leonard Tose was a good man for the NFL,” said Art Modell, owner of the Browns. “He tried to be a major contributor to the welfare of the league. I was sorry to see him get out. He is a good, decent man, with a heart as big as he is. He took good care of his players and his executives and of people who were in trouble. It’s a side of him that nobody knows. He is one of the most compassionate and caring human beings I have ever known. What happened to him is just heartbreaking.”
Tose said he never let his gambling problems affect his Eagles ownership. In an interview with Newsday, Tose insisted, “I never bet on NFL games. You have enough trouble worrying about the game on the field and gambling in the casinos. I wouldn’t risk the franchise. They never accused me of betting on the game. The NFL has more FBI guys than the FBI.”
Tose and his partners paid $16 million for the Eagles in 1969, then the highest price ever paid for a sports franchise. Eventually, Tose bought out his partners. He was known as a flamboyant owner, always skirting on the edge of financial collapse, but enjoying playing the part of NFL owner. He saw his team go to the Super Bowl in 1981, where the Eagles lost to the Raiders.
The Sands casino filed suit in January 1991 to recover $1.23 million in gambling debts. A month later, Tose filed a countersuit to try to keep the casino from collecting, claiming that the casino plied him with drinks, knowing he was a compulsive gambler and alcoholic.
The key issue against the Sands was this: Did the casino let Tose get so drunk that he was no longer responsible when he gambled away hundreds of thousands of dollars?
So far, the courts have sided with the casino. Tose lost the suit and recently lost an appeal, but said he will appeal further. He said he also intends to pursue his lawsuit against the Resorts casino to recover $5 million he claims he lost there while drunk. No date has been set for that suit.
The casino’s defense was that Tose was a poor blackjack player who often overextended himself by playing seven hands simultaneously. No one from the casino ever saw Tose playing while obviously intoxicated, casino officials said.
If Tose wins either suit, it would have far-reaching effects on the casino industry. Since 1989, federal courts have allowed gamblers with similar circumstances to sue, but none has won, although there have been several out-of-court settlements.
For Tose, one thing was certain: The casinos did everything possible to accommodate him. When playing blackjack at the casino, Tose had his own cocktail waitress who made sure his personally monogrammed glass was always full, and he had his own private table and private dealer.
He said the casino also arranged for a plane to fly him to the 1981 Super Bowl, in which the Eagles played, and for a Rolls Royce with a chauffeur to take him home when he couldn’t use his own Rolls.
His trial involving the Sands had many contradictory witnesses. Some described Tose as cool and sober, but a poor gambler. Others said he often was obviously drunk when gambling.
Former Sands cocktail waitress Maryanne Smeraski testified that she was under orders to keep Tose’s glass of Scotch and Perrier filled at all times. She said Tose was obviously drunk when she served him the drinks in his monogrammed glass.
Asked if she could stop serving drunk high rollers, she said, “Not if I wanted to work at any of the casinos.”
Tose’s former wife, Julia, testified, “This man was Mr. Atlantic City. He could have done anything he wanted in that casino. No one ever stopped Leonard. He was God.”
She said Tose tried to choke her on Aug. 1, 1985, when she tried to stop him from gambling. Tose lost $600,000 that day. “He was absolutely intoxicated. It was obvious to everyone around him.”
Her account was supported by Joanne Heim, a former Sands blackjack dealer. She said that when Julia tried to stop Tose from gambling, “He didn’t want her to bother him” and she saw him put his hands around Julia’s throat.
Heim also said Tose gambled away hundreds of thousands of dollars while drunk.
Another friend, Martin Krimsky, said he saw Tose lose between $700,000 and $1 million in one night at the Sands. In his affidavit, Krimsky said he was so upset that he ran to the men’s room and got sick.
In 1985, amid his gambling and drinking problems, Tose sold the team to Norman Braman for about $60 million.
Now it appears he may lose his home through an auction because the property has a $1.2 million debt on it and is in the hands of the Resolution Trust Corporation.