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Misunderstood?
E.M. Swift
June 30, 1997
Is Jerry Reinsdorf the belligerent union buster he appeared to be during the baseball strike, the turncoat who signed Albert Belle to a $55 million contract to play for the White Sox, the lunatic who might break up the Bulls' dynasty, the malcontent who sued the NBA to protect his own TV revenues? Or is he simply misunderstood? Is he, in fact, one of the smartest owners in pro sports, a businessman whose teams are powerful and profitable and whose employees are deeply loyal?
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June 30, 1997

Misunderstood?

Is Jerry Reinsdorf the belligerent union buster he appeared to be during the baseball strike, the turncoat who signed Albert Belle to a $55 million contract to play for the White Sox, the lunatic who might break up the Bulls' dynasty, the malcontent who sued the NBA to protect his own TV revenues? Or is he simply misunderstood? Is he, in fact, one of the smartest owners in pro sports, a businessman whose teams are powerful and profitable and whose employees are deeply loyal?

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That act of loyalty wasn't an isolated instance. Reinsdorf still cannot talk about Berto, his assistant, without crying. In 1991 she checked into a hospital for routine elective surgery and died of internal bleeding when the operation was botched. She was 40, and she left behind a husband and a three-year-old daughter. "She started working for me when she was 23," Reinsdorf says, pausing to collect himself. "She was a rare human being. I hired a writer to do a book about her so her daughter would know what a remarkable woman she was. She influenced every decision I made. If I asked her to do something she didn't want to do, she'd just say no and would hold up her pinkie. 'Know what this is?' she'd ask. 'It's when you don't care enough to send your very best.' "

In the September 1995 trial of the wrongful-death suit that Berto's family brought against the hospital, Reinsdorf testified that he had promised his assistant 5% of his share of the Bulls, the White Sox and the United Center in the event he ever sold them—but he could never produce a written copy of the agreement. Asked during the trial what those assets were worth, Reinsdorf, under oath, said, "Somewhere over $2 billion. A little over $2 billion, I would say." Reinsdorf owns 10% of the Bulls and 12% of the White Sox, which means his share of a $2 billion sale would have come to $225 million. Berto's 5% would have been $11,250,000. The jury did not believe that Reinsdorf and Berto had had an agreement.

In a 1992 deposition Reinsdorf had estimated the value of the two teams as being between $300 million and $400 million. The United Center, of which he owns 6.5%, cost $200 million to build. So either the value of those three assets had soared more than 300% in three years, or Reinsdorf had grossly inflated their worth. "I was being aggressive," he now says. "I felt that was the top of the range at the time." At the end of the defense attorney's cross-examination, Reinsdorf confessed that he wanted to see the people punished who had taken someone away from him. The jury awarded the Berto family $17.3 million in damages. The Bulls practice facility, in Deerfield, Ill., is named after Berto.

It is such gestures that breed an extraordinary loyalty, even protectiveness, among Reinsdorf's employees. They are genuinely nonplussed that he isn't beloved. "The White Sox [charities] have given about $300,000 to help fund the Direct Instruction reading program to improve literacy in Chicago public schools in the past four years," says Christine Makowski, the head of the White Sox community relations department. "Jerry considers reading a survival skill, and he's told the mayor we want to be the corporate catalyst for this program. Then I go around with him and see him booed."

So what's the deal? "Owners have a bad name," says Eddie Einhorn, Reinsdorf's White Sox partner the past 17 years who served as the team's president from 1981 through '90 and is now the vice chairman. "It sounds like slavery: owners. Even when you win, there's always controversy, someone who needs to be signed. Phil Jackson has to be signed. Dennis Rodman has to be signed. Michael Jordan. It's always something. If you're an out-front owner, which Jerry is, you're going to get killed. He doesn't hide. He goes on the radio. He talks. He's constantly on the grill. It's bad enough with one sport. He does it for two. But if you're around the action, you're going to get burned. 'You've got to be around the action.' That's what his father used to say."

Max Reinsdorf was born and raised in Brooklyn, a first-generation Polish-American Jew who never finished high school. Jerry's father worked as a mechanic, drove a taxicab, drove an ice cream truck, fixed sewing machines and resold them, even worked for a while as a stagehand for MGM in Hollywood until he got homesick for Brooklyn and returned there. He worked six days a week to provide for his wife and three children. "In 1936, the year I was born, he was making $25 a week, but that was enough to live on," Jerry says. "Everyone loved my father. He was so nice that people took advantage of him. We were lower middle class. I slept in the hallway on a cot that rolled away during the day, and my younger brother and sister slept in my parents' room. My goal as a kid was to someday have my own room and to own a car—and I wanted to be able to take care of my parents."

Like nearly everyone else in Brooklyn, Jerry was a baseball fan. Dodgers centerfielder Duke Snider lived on the same street as the Reinsdorfs, and Jerry can remember playing stickball with his friends when the Duke would join in. But Pee Wee Reese—the Brooklyn captain, the scrappy leader—was Jerry's favorite ballplayer, the guy who first put his arm around Jackie Robinson, as a gesture to the other Dodgers and to the world. Reinsdorf was in the stands for Robinson's first game at Ebbets Field, a preseason exhibition against the New York Yankees. He arrived at 9:30 a.m., as was his custom, to get the best seat in general admission.

"I coasted through high school," Reinsdorf recalls. "I was 203rd in a class of 987. At graduation they gave out all these awards. My mother said, 'Couldn't you have won just one?' I told her, 'It all starts in college. No one remembers what you did in high school.' "

Reinsdorf had been accepted at George Washington University, and before he left Brooklyn, the family doctor, Lewis J. Wesley, offered him some friendly advice. "He told me not to be afraid to compete when I got to college, because if you could compete in Brooklyn, you could compete anywhere," Reinsdorf recalls. "The people at the top aren't so smart, he said, they're just not as dumb as the people at the bottom." Words to live by. Reinsdorf began applying his considerable intellect to his studies, finishing in the top 10% of his class.

Only one full scholarship to George Washington Law School was awarded to undergraduates, and Reinsdorf got it. But the dean of the law school told him that he had to give up his $135-a-month job managing the school's auditorium. Reinsdorf, who had married fellow student Martyl Rifkin in his senior year and wanted the extra dough, told the dean to keep his full scholarship and moved to Chicago, where he had a partial scholarship waiting for him at Northwestern Law School. The school eventually upped Reinsdorf's scholarship to a full one and lent him $300 to pay for surgery Martyl needed. It proved to be a wise investment. Reinsdorf is now a university trustee.

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