The Lawyer Who Courted A Ballclub An Excerpt From A Just Published Biography Of Edward Bennett Williams

December 08, 1991|By Evan Thomas

Edward Bennett Williams's greatest sporting ambition was to own a major league baseball team. The boy who had sold "ice colds and red hots" for the minor league Hartford Senators wanted to own the big league Washington Senators. He had bought into the football Redskins only after he failed to win a baseball franchise in Washington in 1961. In 1972, he had tried again to get a team in Washington but failed in an attempt to move the San Diego Padres. Undaunted, he kept searching for weak franchises that might want to move to the nation's capital.

Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn was also interested in bringing baseball back to Washington. In the mid-1970s, the commissioner began to eye the Baltimore Orioles, who won on the field but lost at the gate. Even though the team had had the most successful record in baseball over the previous decade, the Orioles had never drawn more than 1.2 million fans in a season. The Los Angeles Dodgers, by contrast, regularly drew over 3 million. Financially strapped, Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger was looking for a buyer. In the summer of 1978, Kuhn urged William Simon, the former treasury secretary, to enter the bidding. Simon said he wanted a partner. The baseball commissioner suggested he try Ed Williams.

A proud and cantankerous man, Hoffberger was wary of the carpetbaggers who wanted to buy his team. He rightly suspected that Simon and Williams wanted to move the Orioles out of Baltimore and down the road to Washington. A civic booster for his home city, Hoffberger began fishing for local buyers. After months of on-again, off-again negotiations, Simon lost patience. In February 1979, he denounced Hoffberger to the Baltimore Sun. "I've never seen such duplicity in my life," he said. "It's like dealing with the Scarlet Pimpernel." The deal was off.

Williams, who often observed that "nothing is often a good thing to do and always a brilliant thing to say," quietly watched through the spring and early summer of 1979 while a group of local businessmen tried and failed to come up with the $12 million. Then, without fanfare, he approached Hoffberger with his own offer -- $11.8 million. He carefully stroked the Orioles owner, telling him that he was essential to the franchise, that he was the soul of Baltimore while Williams was a mere outsider. He offered to give Hoffberger the title of president of the team if he sold ownership to Williams. In July 1979, Hoffberger agreed. Williams became a major league owner. Hoffberger became a figurehead whom Williams eventually eased out.

Williams was rich, but not as rich as most baseball owners. He was able to put up $500,000 in cash, but the rest of the $11.8 million was borrowed, mostly by leveraging his real estate holdings.

"Take me out to the ball game," sang the waiters in Joe and Mo's, a Washington restaurant, when Williams arrived there for dinner the night the deal was announced. The waiters, like nearly everyone else in the capital, assumed that the Baltimore Orioles would soon become the Washington Orioles. Resentful of their powerful neighbors forty-five miles away on I-95, insecure about losing their status as a "major league city," Baltimoreans were downcast about the sale. "Baltimore to Williams: The Orioles Belong to Us" headlined the Sunday News American. A Baltimore columnist caustically described the new owner as "a smooth professional from the high-powered D.C. martini set." Williams was apprehensive as he went to his first press $l conference in Baltimore on August 2. As usual, he had carefully rehearsed his answers. He would stay in Baltimore, he announced -- so long as the team was well supported by the fans.

The newspapers did not believe him. They continued to report that a move to Washington was imminent. When the Washington Post quoted "sources close to Williams" as saying the new owner would move the Orioles to Washington within three years, Williams blasted the story as "the nadir of irresponsible journalism . . . totally and absolutely without foundation." Williams's denials damped down the press speculation. And to save the team, the fans responded by turning out in record numbers. When a sell-out was announced at a late-season series against the Red Sox, the crowd roared and turned to look up at Williams's box in the second deck behind home plate. The new owner waved and gave a thumbs-up signal.

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