Cooke is quite a man, and Laurel stadium is quite an idea

December 08, 1993|By John Steadman

It's Jack Kent Cooke's desire to minimize talking about the palace for football he intends to create midway between Baltimore and Washington. Obviously, he believes the idea sells itself and doesn't require any explanation.

This is an unusual posture for a billionaire sportsman who rarely rations his words and, upon expressing himself, does it with a distinctive flow of oratory -- backed up by intent that only a fool would challenge.

In an interview, almost all of which the Washington Redskins owner wanted off the record, there were few things he allowed open for discussion.

"No, the stadium will not have a dome," he said. "Just plain, everyday, wonderful grass. These artificial surfaces have been responsible for so many injuries."

Then he talked about mutual friends working on newspapers, since Cooke also owns the Los Angeles Daily News. He mentioned a long line of his favorite sportswriters, including Melvin Durslag, Jim Murray, Ira Berkow, Dave Kindred, Tom Callahan and others. Asked if he had any friends in Baltimore, a city he wants to see adopt the Redskins, he expressed regrets that he didn't.

"I know Jonathan Yardley [a Washington Post columnist] and I think the world of him," said Cooke. "Jonathan lives there. And I have the first editions of all the books Henry Mencken wrote. No, I didn't know him, but I visited his house."

This hardly qualifies Cooke as an authority on Baltimore, Glen Burnie, Guilford, Essex or Laurel. But he has $160 million of his own money to build a stadium, which sets him apart from the pseudo-spenders who want the public to erect playhouses for their teams.

One factor that drew Cooke's attention is an analysis of his season-ticket ledger. It shows 51.7 percent of Redskins fans live in Maryland, primarily Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Of the first 10,000 of 47,000 new applicants, all patiently waiting to buy tickets, which the Redskins have been compiling since 1963, the Maryland-resident figure tops out at 41 percent.

If Cooke builds the stadium, there's no way the state could deny assisting the project, regardless of what Gov. William Donald Schaefer is currently saying. It just couldn't stand there devoid of access. After all, the facility is to be paid for by Cooke. In turn, Anne Arundel County and the state would be the beneficiaries of jobs and tax revenues.

The economic thrust to the state is estimated at $1,948,883; to Anne Arundel County $6,460,278, which adds up to more than $8 million. This is just the beginning. It would accelerate yearly.

Although some skeptics doubt Cooke's sincerity, Rudie Schaffer, who was Cooke's first general manager in baseball, when he owned the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League, insists the man will not be denied once he points toward an objective.

"He'll make it happen," said Rudie, who also was the stabilizing force behind Bill Veeck when he operated the Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. Schaffer, speaking from his home in San Jose, Calif., added, "The imagination and vision of the man is second to none. Don't forget this: If he wants to do it, he will."

Told what Rudie Schaffer had said about him, Cooke was immensely pleased.

"Now isn't that a marvelous and generous testimonial," he commented. "That's exceedingly considerate of him. I was so upset when Rudie left me in Toronto to go back working with Bill Veeck. That's when Veeck bought the White Sox the first time."

Making a one-team market out of Baltimore/Washington has already happened. This is exactly what the Orioles have done with baseball. The man who changed the concept was the late Edward Bennett Williams, who betrayed his friendship with Cooke in an earlier deal. Now Cooke puts a different spiral on the ball while planning to open for business between the two cities.

The physical appearance of what the projected 78,600-seat Cooke plant might look like in Laurel must await architectural drawings but a firm has been engaged. Congresswoman Helen Bentley mentioned having seen a rendering. If Cooke is involved it will be a spectacular concept -- because it will carry his signature. What he develops is first-rate.

Jack Kent Cooke, after all this being said, is a personality beyond compare -- articulate, creative, erudite, bombastic, singular of purpose and, most times, unpredictable. A touch of genius goes with his distinctive eccentricities. Without trying, he's more colorful than the players he sends on the field.

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