Arnold A. "Arnie" Heft, Bullets owner, NBA referee, dies

Noted turfman had a varied career working as a minor league Orioles pitcher, NBA referee and co-owner of the Baltimore Bullets

  • Arnold A. Heft (former Baltimore Bullets owner, former Baltimore Orioles player) gets a kiss from jockey Forest Boyce after winning the $150,000 Maryland Million Classic during Jim McKay Maryland Million Day at Laurel Park in 2013.
Arnold A. Heft (former Baltimore Bullets owner, former Baltimore… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
March 21, 2014|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Arnold A. "Arnie" Heft, a minor league Orioles pitcher during the 1930s who later was an NBA referee, co-owner of the Baltimore Bullets, noted horse owner and real estate entrepreneur, died in his sleep of unknown causes March 12 at Sunrise at Fox Hill Senior Living Facility in Bethesda.

The former Chevy Chase resident was 94.

"Never in the 10 years that I worked for him did I ever feel like I was working for him," said Tim Keefe, Mr. Heft's horse trainer. "He never put pressure on me, even though he loved to win."

"Arnie was a very friendly guy who was drawn to people, and they were drawn to him. He stood 5-7 and had a 10-foot-tall heart," said Richard Hoffberger, who had been president for 27 years of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "The things he loved in life were his family, friends and his horses."

The son of Harry and Rose Heft, Russian immigrants who owned and operated a kosher butcher shop in Washington, Arnold Abraham Heft was born on Lombard Street in Baltimore and moved to Washington with his family in 1925.

He was a 1937 graduate of Central High School and attended Washington & Lee University.

The 135-pound left-hander was an 18-year-old pitcher and only a few months out of high school when the then-International League Orioles called him up from their Class D farm team in Thomasville, Ga.

In a 1989 interview in The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Heft recalled a game against the Newark Bears. He entered the game at the top of the seventh inning, after the Orioles' lead had quickly been cut to 8-7, with two on and two out.

Taking the mound at old Oriole Park, he found himself facing Charlie "King Kong" Keller.

"Back then, he had tremendous power to all fields, especially left-center," Mr. Heft said. "Anyway, I have Keller down in the count a ball and two strikes. My catcher, Roy Spencer, was an old big-leaguer who was one of my boyhood idols when he played for the Washington Senators. He puts down a '1' for a fastball.

"I give him my best hard one, and the next thing I see is the ball disappearing over the scoreboard in center field. In fact, it may still be going."

The Orioles' general manager approached Mr. Heft and fumed, " 'Kid, you'll never make it until you can throw the curve over in the situation.' Was I going to argue that an 18-year-old kid can't shake off his idol?" said Mr. Heft.

Mr. Heft continued his baseball career and won 22 games pitching for Owensboro, Ky., in the D League in 1941. He ended his career in 1942 pitching for the Eastern League's Scranton team.

After serving with the Navy during World War II, Mr. Heft went to work as a referee for the Basketball Association of America, which became the National Basketball Association in 1949. He retired from officiating in 1961.

From 1964 to 1968, he co-owned the Baltimore Bullets with Abe Pollin, to whom he later sold his interest along with a third partner, Earl Foreman, for $1.8 million. He had also been a part owner of the Capital Centre in Landover with Mr. Pollin, who died in 2009.

For years, Mr. Heft owned and operated Heft Construction Co., which built apartment houses in the Washington metropolitan area, and Arnold Heft Real Estate.

By the late 1980s, when he had sold his last apartment building, the Versailles Plaza, and was semiretired, Mr. Heft was looking for something to do. He was persuaded by Washington attorney Henry Contee Bowie "Hal" Clagett, the noted Maryland horseman, to invest in a horse named Alden's Igloo.

"We started with a $30,000 investment and watched it grow," Mr. Heft said in the 1989 interview. "The best thing about horses is that they don't ask to renegotiate."

Mr. Heft and his wife had a string of stakes winners that included Pulverizing, Baldski's Choice, He Is Risen, and Eighttofasttocatch.

Red's Roundtable was named for close friend Red Auerbach, the NBA Hall of Fame coach and Boston Celtics executive, who lived in Washington and with whom he lunched weekly.

"A lot of his horses were named after people and things that mattered to him," said Mr. Hoffberger. "He was always looking for ways to honor his friends."

Mr. Heft, who used a wheelchair in recent years, enjoyed going to the track to see his horses run.

Last year, he was in the winner's circle at Laurel Park when Eighttofasttocatch won the $15,000 Maryland Million Classic. It was his third win of the fall classic.

"Racing has been great for me. It's keeping me going right now," Mr. Heft, who owned the winning horse with his wife, told The Sun.

"He'd call me every morning between 8 a.m. and 8:15 a.m., and before he asked me anything about his horses, would ask about my wife and kids, and then his horses," said Mr. Keefe.

"He was a great guy, and he listened to me. When he interviewed me, he said, 'I'll be boisterous, but I don't want you to ever run a horse unless it's in the horse's best interest,'" said Mr. Keefe. "That's why he was a great owner."

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