Jerry Hoffberger, community builder

April 15, 1999|By Michael Olesker

I FIND MYSELF going to too doggone many of these," Chuck Thompson said the other day. He meant the funerals of those once anticipated to live forever. He sat in the big sanctuary at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, and he meant Cal Ripken Sr., thought to be too tough to give in to death, and he meant Mark Belanger, born to turn the treacherous ground ball into the inning-ending double play forever, and now it was Jerry Hoffberger who had gotten away.

Thompson, the voice of the Orioles for four decades, the voice of the Colts for three decades, was Hoffberger's employee for much of that time because it was Hoffberger's beer, National Boh, that sponsored so many of the broadcasts.

"We first sat down in 1955," Thompson said softly. "It wasn't much of a conversation. He stuck out his hand and said, 'Kid, we got a deal.' And, for 23 years, that was it. We never had a contract. It was just a handshake, which was good enough."

The [See Olesker, 4b] world turns, and the rules change. Once, a handshake settled it for those of good will. Now, batteries of lawyers and accountants must intercede. Once, Hoffberger bought his baseball team for a few million, and then sold it for $12 million, and in a span of about 15 summers in between, they won pennants and division titles and world championships.

Now the right fielder alone makes more in a season than the entire team once sold for. The payroll reaches $80 million, and the cost to Peter Angelos and partners when they bought the club was $170 million, and now the team loses six of its first eight after the dismal and depressing season of '98.

"In Jerry Hoffberger's time, everything was different," said C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County executive, as he walked from the funeral service. "You took the No. 36 bus, you got out at 33rd Street, and you bought bleacher tickets for 50 cents. You were 11 years old, and you could afford to see a baseball game, and it built loyalties for the rest of your life."

Now Chuck Thompson lifted his left hand and held up a wrist watch. On it was the commercial visage of another generation: Mr. Boh, the mustachioed National Beer mascot. Jerry Hoffberger sold beer, but in the process gave his hometown, and his home state, a sense of self: The Land of Pleasant Living.

And while we're about it/

We're proud to say/

It's brewed on the shores

Of the Chesapeake Bay.

It was an advertising jingle that felt like a community hug. Hoffberger was a man of great bear hugs. He hugged people, and crushed them against the glasses that dangled from his neck, and he hugged entire institutions. He threw huge money at hospitals and schools, and fretted over the city's decline when he saw its earliest signals.

"The first time I met him was years ago," Allan Charles was saying after Monday's service. Charles is a partner in the advertising firm of Trahan, Burden & Charles, which created Orioles commercials for many seasons. But he was a young fellow working for W.B. Doner & Co. when Hoffberger showed up for a brainstorming session about pulling the city out of its tailspin.

"What do we do to change the city's image?" Hoffberger asked.

"Change its name," Charles deadpanned.

Hoffberger laughed out loud. At his funeral service, everybody remembered funny stories, which are the residue of a life well-lived.

"You can't see it out there," said Rabbi Rex Perlmeter to those assembled at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, where Hoffberger once served as president and where large amounts of his money went. "But there's a slot up here, where you can slip notes through. It was put here so they could give him the Orioles scores during the High Holidays."

Some of his old Orioles were there Monday: Jim Palmer and Don Buford, Tippy Martinez and Ray Miller and Elrod Hendricks.

"He was the most loving and caring person I ever met," said Hendricks. "He was a father figure to us all. Jerry Hoffberger never met a stranger."

Hendricks' ties to the Orioles, as player and coach, go back about three decades. That's extraordinary in any field, but it's a reminder that the Orioles of Hoffberger's time, a time with different rules, to be sure, had a sense of stability that built loyalties.

Summer upon summer, you knew those guys: Weaver ranting from the dugout. Boog at first and then the kid Murray when it was time; Belanger at short and Brooksie forever at third; and Frank and Blair and then Singleton and Bumbry in the outfield for so many summers and, up on their little hill, Palmer and McNally and Cuellar.

This summer, there are 13 new names on the Orioles roster. Peter Angelos has been handed a different rule book than Jerry Hoffberger, but everybody works with the hand they're dealt.

Jerry Hoffberger played his with warmth, with a wide embrace, with a sense of holding things together.

"God, what he did for this community," Sen. Paul Sarbanes said as he walked from the farewell service. "If he was into something, you knew it would move. You build a community on people like Jerry Hoffberger."

Pub Date: 04/15/99

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