Courtly and colorful, Cooke found success on his own terms

April 07, 1997|By John Steadman

Most everything this ostentatious man with three names wanted he got money, fame and an empire. Jack Kent Cooke was a genius. Erratic at times. An eccentric. He was the momentous personification of the American success story. No, make that the Canadian success story, the land of his birth, but he renounced his citizenship to take up residence in the United States because he wanted a new land to conquer -- and did.

Cooke died at age 84 yesterday from heart failure and no doubt was surprised, because he frequently qualified his mortality by saying "if I die." The height of earthly presumptuousness. He was old but not a fool. Self-centered yet charming. Demanding and, when he wanted to be, magnanimous.

There was an inherent regal presence to the man, and it wasn't difficult to gather the impression he was looking down on the rest of the world as merely populated by a collection of commoners. It would be a gross exaggeration to attempt to describe him as a man of the people. But the vision and imagination of Cooke lifted him to another league when it came to intellectual evaluation and personal motivation.

He started off during the Great Depression knocking on doors in Ontario selling encyclopedias. He had his own dance band and then went into the remote bush country to talk to woodsmen and miners about the entertainment available to them if they only owned a radio. He sold those, too. This segued into buying some financially distressed broadcast stations that were actually sending out the signal to the customers he had earlier convinced to buy the radio receivers.

If Cooke suffered a defeat, he dealt with it as a temporary condition and went on to his next objective. What he usually coveted, be it a successful football team, enormous wealth or a pretty woman to squire and to marry, was all a part of his fulfilled agenda. He achieved so much in diversified attainment, such as owning the Washington Redskins, the Chrysler Building in New York and the Los Angeles Daily News, that it's difficult to isolate any one achievement.

When he did lose, he regarded it as an upset, something totally out of his control, akin to the Earth falling off its axis. Case in point: Cooke's failing endeavor to "adopt" Baltimore as something of a twin home for the team he owned, the Redskins. He made a pass at serving as a two-city franchise, but came away empty. Buying the football soul of Baltimore was something even he couldn't maneuver.

Cooke, although never actually outlining what he had in mind, was an also-ran in that race. A rarity for him. The thoroughbred horses he owned at Elmendorf Farm might finish out of the money, but not the high chief of the Redskins. Another unusual setback, with a Baltimore connection, was after he helped Edward Bennett Williams in his purchase of the Orioles, when the team was bought from Jerry Hoffberger. It was his belief he would come in as a partner, but, from his perspective, was thrown a curveball. A double-cross that he never forgot.

His all-time sports hero, he'd tell you, was Ty Cobb, the cantankerous and obsessed Hall of Fame outfielder, which may give insight into Cooke. There was an old world elegance to him, a sparkling gentility. He dressed with a flair, associated with those he believed worthy of his company, had an extensive vocabulary that could lose many of his listeners, except columnist George Will, and when he wanted to take a ride in the country, would say, "let's go motoring."

Jack Kent first got involved in sports in 1951, when he bought the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League and subsequently set a record for how much a minor-league club owner paid for a major-league player. The pitcher in question, Lou Sleater, a Baltimore product, was bought from the Washington Senators for $25,000, an unheard-of amount for a minor-league club to pay to a major-league entity -- then or now.

Cooke was never afraid to spend his own money for sports pleasures, and that indeed qualified him as a sportsman. It's a reference that has become passe. But stop to consider that he built the first privately funded arena in the country, the Forum near Los Angeles, where the two teams he owned, the L.A. Lakers and L.A. Kings, played and the audience included, like himself, the rich and famous.

Now, at the time of his death, he was erecting a 78,600-seat stadium near Landover, but Cooke, typically, called the address site Raljon in honor of two sons, Ralph, who died in 1995, and John, who is executive vice president of the team. He merely, without any authority, arbitrarily put the name on the Maryland map to the surprise of Maryland officials.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.