SI Vault
John Underwood
February 06, 1967
Saul Silberman, owner of Tropical Park, has been battling with politicians, racing commissions and newspapermen all his life. Only the horses he bets on defeat him
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February 06, 1967

One Tough Little Guy

Saul Silberman, owner of Tropical Park, has been battling with politicians, racing commissions and newspapermen all his life. Only the horses he bets on defeat him

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Saul was the seventh of 10 little Silbermans and barely 15 years old when he got out of high school. This was in Baltimore, where his father manufactured women's clothing and got a name for himself settling neighborhood problems out of court. "I'm not exaggerating," says Saul. "When my father died he had a police escort, a funeral so big you'd think he was President of the United States." Nathan Silberman was an Orthodox Jew. His wife Sophia claimed to be a descendant of 80 rabbis. She dreamed of little Saul in a white robe and a tallis (prayer shawl) and a skullcap. Her argument was they already had an engineer, doctor and lawyer among the sons, what else was there? She schemed and Saul wound up at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, which is part of the Reform branch of Judaism. "My father's friends couldn't believe it. 'How can you put up with this, Saul going to the Reform branch?' The Orthodox Jews hated the Reform Jews. My father just shrugged. 'This way he'll at least be half a Jew. The other way he's nothing.' "

Saul did not feel the call. The only thing he remembers about rabbinical school was a card game. "We didn't have a dorm and I was renting from this widow woman, a very devout Catholic. She looked 90 to me, but she was probably about 50. It was Christmas Eve. Her son, sort of a wayward kid, appeared on the scene, and she was the happiest woman on earth. That night four of us sat down to play cards. We played 500. Don't ask me what 500 is because I can't remember, but it was sort of the forerunner of bridge. The son had gotten into the theatrical business and he was successful, you could see it all over him. Anyway, we're playing cards, it got to be late, 12 or one o'clock, and the mother was talking about going to bed. Somehow she knew the boy hadn't been to Mass in a long time, and out of the blue she says to him, 'Do me a favor. I want you to go to Mass in the morning.' He didn't want to go to Mass any more than the man in the moon. So he says, 'If Saul will go to Mass I'll go.' She turns to me, and I said, 'Sure, I'll go.' It was a 4 o'clock Mass and he didn't think I was going to any 4 o'clock Mass and we just kept playing. But at 4 o'clock I had him with me, kneeling right down beside him on those little benches. You a Catholic? You know what I mean. After that I was the star boarder. And that's what I remember about rabbinical school."

After his second year Saul was summoned to the school office. "The secretary said he was disappointed in me. I only had an average grade of 96. I know that sounds like boasting, but I had been taught by a very famous rabbi. I was supposed to get 100. 'We think you're not interested,' he said. It rankled me."

That summer Saul went to work for a real-estate company in Baltimore and sold a $100,000 life-insurance policy to a big you-know-what, a man 6 feet 3 and head of a banking firm, and realized a $900 commission. He sold some more. He began playing the stock market. He got to be known as the Boy Speculator. "In those days it was easy to walk into a broker's office, put up $300, say, for 10 shares of stock that might be $100 a share, leaving $700 owed, then sell before you had to pay interest. You sold something you didn't have, hoping the market would go down and you could buy it back. The idea was to buy long and sell short. I was what you call a short seller. One day President Wilson made a peace feeler, and the market went down and I made a killing, proportionately speaking. There were rumors that Bernard Baruch made a killing because he was adviser to Wilson. To him a killing might mean three million. To me it was $10,000, overnight." Saul did not go back to rabbinical school.

The Boy Speculator began law studies at the University of Maryland, then enlisted in the Army and went to France to help subdue the Kaiser as an interpreter for the 39th Engineers. His reaction to Army life was instinctive. "I hated to be told what to do. I always wanted to know why. My nickname got to be 'Pourquoi.' " Saul says he was too young at the time to realize the full potential of a French-speaking American soldier in wartime France.

He came back a corporal and joined his cousin in the real-estate business, selling small houses $1 down, $10 a week. One day at Havre de Grace he got a tip on a horse named Lounger from a lawyer they had worked with. "Lounger was supposed to be a fast-track horse, but I got word he was great in the mud. It was muddy that day and the horse opened at 2 to 1 and steadily went up to 5 to 1, and I kept betting him. Most I had ever bet was 10, 20 dollars tops. This time I bet $200, and Lounger won, and I was taken. I thought I really knew something about horses."

Saul had made his first fortune building houses when the market busted him in 1930. He went to work appraising for the HOLC, and got up to 20 houses a week, which meant $100, and those days you could live on $100 a week. Then he went with the FHA as a field representative. "I'm not boasting but I got more people to take loans from the FHA than anybody. It was new then, just getting off the ground." Saul was rolling again. He borrowed $565,000 to build a 180-unit apartment complex, came up $100,000 short and, dipping into his reserve of hutzpah, went back to his creditors and suggested the only way they could get their money back was to sit tight and trust him. They did. He arranged another loan, finished the buildings and soon the money began to pour in.

There was a pretty young secretary in the HOLC office in those days. Her name was Lillian, and Saul pestered her for dates. He drove by her house in the morning, and if she had already taken the bus he would drive along behind the bus, honking his horn, until she finally got off. He sneaked a kiss at her desk one day, on the right cheek, figuring she couldn't angle much of a reply from that side. Lillian fooled him. "I was left-handed. I popped him good." Eventually she surrendered. They have been married 29 years.

With his building partner Ralph DeChiaro, Saul bought Randall Park in Cleveland in 1950, "only because it was good business, good speculation, that's all. I looked at it from the standpoint if it didn't make money the land was still worth it." Things began to happen at Randall. A sportswriter called up to find out what was all that hammering out there. "If you want to know come and see for yourself," Saul replied. A lot of people did. The daily handle went from $128,000 to almost $500,000. "My baby," Saul called Randall.

One day he got a call from Dan Sherby, who, with Mickey McBride and a couple of others, owned the Cleveland Browns. "I was in Florida. Dan said, 'Saul, Mickey and I want you to buy the Browns.' I knew Mickey McBride was a very rich man. Getting money for the Browns didn't mean a thing. He didn't have to stick anybody. I said, 'Dan, is it worth the money?' He said yeah. I said, 'I'll take it.' I never saw a statement. Never saw a statement of Tropical Park, either. It didn't matter. Instinctively I knew these things. I don't care what the other fellow does. I know what I can do. The Browns weren't what they are today. They were drawing 25-30 thousand people, and it rained or snowed every Sunday. TV rights went for $150,000, now they get a million. It didn't mean a thing. The racetrack meant more. I figured if I lost $100,000 it would be worth more to the track in publicity.

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