Hoffberger's death hits home

Former O's mourn loss of owner who treated players like family

April 11, 1999|By Kent Baker and Roch Kubatko | Kent Baker and Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Former Orioles yesterday painted a portrait of Jerry Hoffberger as a compassionate and caring man who impressed them as a friend who thoroughly enjoyed his ownership of the club.

Hoffberger, who led the Orioles to their greatest heights during a 14-year stewardship from 1965 to '79, died Friday night at age 80.

"He truly cared about the players," said former catcher Andy Etchebarren, now the manager of the Single-A Frederick Keys. "He'd come in and ask about you, whether you had any problems with the family or kids that he could help you with. He was a wonderful man and owner and I felt very close to him."

Former pitcher Dick Hall said: "He was a gentleman in every respect of the word in the way he handled everything. He enjoyed the ballclub immensely and loved being the owner."

Said Don Buford, assistant director of player development: "A gentleman who will be sorely missed. He was an owner who made you feel like family."

Hoffberger, the patriarch of the National Brewing Company, took over the Orioles a year before their first world championship in 1966 and established a regime renowned for its excellence, continuity and internal camaraderie.

The policy was to hire qualified people on the field and in the front office, and then to let them do their jobs without undue interference from the top.

"We had a lot of young kids, 20 to 23 years old, when he got the club," said Etchebarren. "So, it was easy for him to become a father figure. He just went out of his way for us. Hearing about his death hurts. I'm shocked."

Etchebarren remembers the "big tent party" Hoffberger would have for the club at his estate. "All the wives and kids went, and it was great."

Hall said: "He was what you figure owners used to be like. He was interested in everyone. He didn't spend much time in the clubhouse, but when you saw him there you knew he wasn't sticking his nose in, only being nice to the players."

Said Buford: "Jerry would always be there to give you a big hug. There was never pressure to win because he was an owner. He wasn't around a lot, just every so often, especially if we were getting near the playoffs. He just enjoyed being with the guys."

Hall works for the accounting firm that handled much of Hoffberger's business and knows that the owner "never took any money out personally. When he owned the team, we might draw a million, so there wasn't a lot of income. I know that he really didn't want to sell [for $12 million to Edward Bennett Williams in 1979], but was talked into it."

Hoffberger tried to repurchase the Orioles from the estate of Williams after Williams' death in 1988, but the club was sold to Eli Jacobs instead.

Etchebarren said Hoffberger was immensely affected when the players first went on strike in 1972.

"I know that really hurt him, that his Baltimore Orioles were striking with all the other teams," he said. "I think he believed that everybody was going to strike except his team."

Orioles manager Ray Miller had talked this spring about the joy he received each time he saw Hoffberger sitting near the visitors' dugout in Jupiter, Fla. His presence assured that the Orioles would score a lot of runs, explaining in part why Miller always scanned the seats before games there.

But there was much more to their relationship, as evidenced by Miller's words after Friday's game upon learning that Hoffberger had died that night in Baltimore.

"I talked to him every day he was here," Miller said. "He was one of the finest people I ever worked for in my life. I'd look across the field here and he was always smiling and looking over. He was a great person, a great man. I got about 10 hugs from him this spring."

The Orioles appeared in five World Series -- winning twice -- with Hoffberger in charge. Miller served as minor-league pitching instructor during four of those seasons before joining the major-league staff in '78.

"When he was an owner, once a homestand he'd come through the clubhouse before a game," Miller said. "It didn't matter what happened the day before, he'd come through before a game, and before he left the clubhouse he'd make contact with everybody and make sure everything was OK -- if your wife was happy or your housing was good or if you had everything you needed for your kids. He really, truly cared about the people who worked for him. He'll be sorely missed, certainly by me."

Owner Peter Angelos issued a statement that read: "The passing of Jerry Hoffberger creates a great void in the city of Baltimore. He was truly a gentleman and a great humanitarian. His competitive spirit and love of the game established the Orioles as a part of the fabric of Baltimore and its region.

"As a Baltimorean he helped create the Orioles mystique that lives on today. Above all else, he was a wonderful human being and he will be sorely missed."

Pub Date: 4/11/99

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