Cooke persistent in getting his message across

December 13, 1993|By John Steadman

Phone messages had arrived with the rapidity of a machine gun. Call Jack Kent Cooke. Important. Call Jack Kent Cooke. Urgent. Call Jack Kent Cooke. Now. His call-back numbers had been left in the newspaper sports department, at home and even relayed by mutual friends.

We had committed the careless mistake of not being present when Jack Kent Cooke was calling. An immediate attempt to reach Cooke, late in the day, found him somewhere other than his office, in-town residence, country estate or limousine.

It was close to 6 p.m. Wouldn't it be better, out of consideration for the time of evening, to reach him later, providing appropriate pause for Cooke to enjoy the dinner hour. Before the call could be made, the telephone rang. Then a voice, strong as a fire gong and with the crystal clearness of new-drawn spring water, announced:

"This is Jack [pause] Kent [pause] Cooke.

"Where have you been, boy?" he wanted to know. "I've been trying to reach you all over."

Being called "boy" was flattering and, it should be noted, not demeaning. Additionally, it has been a longtime reference to reporters, like when men in authoritative roles had a story and would say "call in the newspaper boys."

So it was with Jack Kent Cooke, this astonishing character reposing on a dual pedestal of affluence and influence. His voice sounded as if it might have been borrowed from Rajah Raboid or even Moses. Cooke merely wanted to talk, cautioning that much of what he would say was "off the record."

That he introduced himself was redundant since we had met decades ago at the Los Angeles Coliseum. It was understandable he didn't remember the name or the face because sportswriters are easy to forget.

Cooke is a fascinating study. The wonder is his constant source of energy and drive. He's 81 going on 18. Cooke qualifies for any description of "most unforgettable character." He can be tyrannical, demonstrative and dictatorial, a throwback to another time frame, when those at the top of the power ladder always had their own way and played by any rules they so designed.

Cooke, on this occasion, stressed his elation about coming to Maryland. The owner of the Washington Redskins plans to bring his team to Laurel and build a stadium with his own money, which is a rare endeavor, indeed, in this era when sports entrepreneurs want the public to pay for their expensive venues of profit.

He will even go so far, in addition to spending $160 million to build the elaborate plant, to drop Washington from in front of the name Redskins.

"I'm dedicated to doing this [move to Laurel]," he said. "I've suffered for five years over a laissez-faire attitude in the District of Columbia and I haven't gotten anywhere."

Now, he wants to locate on the Laurel Race Course property, midway between Baltimore and Washington. There's some similarity to when he built the Fabulous Forum, an indoor sports palace near Los Angeles, which he positioned near another racetrack, Hollywood Park. No zoning legislation is needed at Laurel because it's already a sports facility.

Cooke survived the Great Depression selling encyclopedias door-to-door. Later he was in the soap business. This evolved to an involvement with newspapers (buying them, not selling them on street corners) and the purchase of radio stations across Canada. The man has an ear for music, a boundless vocabulary and a compunction for doing what others contended to be impossible.

When Cooke points toward an objective, it's similar to holding a starving elephant from a bail of hay. In the first sports enterprise he owned, the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League, he quickly set a record for a minor-league team's purchase of a player from a major-league club. Usually, it was the other way around -- the majors buying from the minors. Not with Cooke.

The individual in question was pitcher Lou Sleater, a Baltimore resident, whom Cooke bought for $25,000 from the Washington Senators. The sale price was never surpassed by a minor-league team when it bought from the majors.

So Cooke continues to charge on in his own quest for new goals. "God is the only one who intimidates me," and he says it so matter-of-factly you know it has to be true.

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