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Only one major-league franchise has a retail outlet in downtown D.C. It ain’t the Nationals.
It’s the Baltimore Orioles. But there weren’t any customers in the Orioles Baseball Store at Farragut Square last Thursday afternoon.
“You just missed them,” a woman behind the counter told me.
Since no patrons—none—came through the door during my 15-or-so-minute stay, I assumed she was being sarcastic. I’ll never know for sure, though, because as soon as I identified myself as a reporter, I was told by another staffer, in very professional and pleasant tones, that nobody’s allowed to talk to the media. A “gag order” was put in by team honchos back in Baltimore, he says, “as soon as the Nationals thing happened.”
This was exactly the noncrowd I’d expected. And not just because across town the Nationals were in the sixth inning of a businessmen’s-special day game with the Pirates.
I’d just figured that the demand for anything O’s-related, from tickets to the sort of tchotchkes (B.J. Surhoff jerseys and Sammy Sosa bobbleheads) that fill the shelves at the store, had taken a plunge in this market ever since, well, the Nationals thing happened. And that it had fallen further with every Chad Cordero save.
Last August, a crowd estimated by the team at 4,000 people came to Farragut Square for the annual FanFest, a meet-and-greet with players, coaches, and free hot dogs held outside the store. That was the largest turnout in the two decades the team has held the event in D.C.
“I don’t think we’re scheduling a FanFest this year,” Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka tells me.
As we near the All-Star break of our first year as a National League town, the marquee of the Orioles Baseball Store exudes the quaintness of a Kerry– Edwards bumper sticker. The battle for the hearts and minds of Washington baseball fans sure seems over. The Orioles have lost.
But, the record should show, this wasn’t Peter Angelos’ war. At least not initially. Angelos wasn’t the guy, for example, who planted a store for another town’s baseball team smack in D.C.’s business district. And it wasn’t Angelos who transformed the Orioles from basically a Baltimore-only operation into a regional enterprise.
Angelos also wasn’t the guy responsible for taking the O’s away from their stadium in the heart of Baltimore and moving them into a publicly financed stadium on the south side of downtown, meaning easy access for Washington-area fans. And Angelos can’t be blamed for taking “Baltimore” off the team’s away jerseys or expanding the Orioles’ television and radio penetration into this market or instigating so many of the other commercial incursions that for so long killed Washington’s chances of landing a team of its own.
No, the real sabotage took place years before Angelos took over the O’s and before any sports fan had even heard of him. As much as folks around here demonize the Baron of Baltimore for our decadeslong baseball drought, the real saboteur was one of our own: Edward Bennett Williams.
Williams announced his purchase of the Orioles for $11.8 million (talk about quaint!) in August 1979. At the time, Williams was a controlling partner in the Washington Redskins. He was also known as one of the best trial lawyers in the business, having successfully defended high-profile scoundrels such as Jimmy Hoffa and Robert Vesco. And he was plugged in politically, having declined an invitation from Gerald Ford to run the CIA.
Williams had acquired his share of the Redskins in the mid-’60s, while handling the legal affairs of Skins founder George Preston Marshall, and had run the team during the last years of Marshall’s life. Williams stayed in charge of the football operation even after the Marshall estate sold the majority of its stock to Jack Kent Cooke, who lived on the West Coast. But Cooke moved back to D.C. in 1979, so Williams went looking for a new sports team to caretake.
The O’s were struggling at the gate when Williams came in. Speculation was that Williams intended to move the team to his hometown, which had been without baseball since the Senators left in 1971. But the relocation never took place, perhaps because the 1979 Orioles screwed up his plans by making the World Series.
“My working theory was always that he’d bought the team to move it to Washington, and I wrote that,” recalls Dave Kindred, then a columnist for the Washington Post. “He was the quintessential Washington guy, like Peter Angelos is the quintessential Baltimore guy. I remember he always made a big deal about how difficult it was to get from D.C. to Baltimore. But he took great offense—he was very good at taking great offense—at me and told me he had bought the team but had no intention of moving it. I think he just got caught in the World Series, and then he couldn’t move.”
(Kindred’s intuition about Williams’ plans were validated by comments made by Tony Williams, his son, in The Man to See, a biography of the O’s owner by Evan Thomas. “Dad did intend to move at first,” the son told Thomas.)
Once the move was taken off the table, Williams instead made Washington an Orioles market. He probably learned about regional domination from Marshall, who made the Redskins not only Washington’s team but the South’s team, as well. Williams’ methods lacked the nefarious attributes of Marshall’s plan—the Redskins, after all, were the last NFL team to integrate, because the owner decided black players would harm the squad’s appeal among Southerners. (The original lyrics to the chorus of “Hail to the Redskins,” the fight song written by Marshall’s wife, were “Fight for old Dixie,” not “Fight for old D.C.”)
But like Marshall, Williams set up a broadcasting network with a reach far outside the team’s home city. (It was radio broadcasts that caused a young Steve Spurrier of Johnson City, Tenn., to grow up a Redskins fan.) When Williams took over, Orioles radio broadcasts were accessible only to those in Baltimore, but by the mid-’80s, O’s games could be heard on more than 50 stations in six states and the
District, including WTOP, the blowtorch AM station.
He added prominent Washingtonians—including Yale grad and
former Redskin Calvin Hill—to the Orioles board to shore up the team’s D.C. power-brokering position. With the team promoting group-sales packages to fans in the sister city, trips to Orioles games on the beer bus quickly became a part of the social fabric of young Washington.
And, in 1983, Williams opened up the Orioles Baseball Store at
Farragut Square—not the Baltimore Orioles Baseball Store; the team’s marketing department under Williams purged references to its hometown. It was the team’s first retail point outside of Baltimore. (The team subsequently opened a store in York, Pa.)
“Clearly, our aim was to make it a regional team, and we did,” says Jay Emmett, a movie-studio executive whom Williams brought in as a promotional consultant. “We can’t have ‘Baltimore’ on the uniforms or the press guide. It’s the Orioles! We had a radio presence, a TV presence, and stores with appearances by players. Everybody was so fearful in Baltimore: Here he was buying the team to move it to Washington. Well, we did the next best thing.”
Emmett estimates that within five years of Williams’ purchase, 25 percent of Orioles attendance came from the D.C. area. And
capturing that market allowed Williams several advantages beyond just the hundreds of thousands of additional tickets sold each year. The team’s popularity outside Baltimore was among the hammers Williams swung while coaxing legislators in Annapolis to pony up hundreds of millions of state dollars for a stadium. He refused to sign more than a one-year lease on Memorial Stadium until the Camden Yards deal went through in 1987.
Williams also used the clout that went with running one of the most popular franchises in the major leagues to keep others away from D.C. In 1987, when the Seattle Mariners were rumored to be leaving their home, Washington was among the possible relocation sites. A Post report at the time quoted a league source as saying, “Williams’ influence is so great that no American League move here would even be attempted.”
Maybe Angelos, still six years away from owning the Orioles, was paying attention.
Williams ran the team until he died, in August 1988. Memorial
services were held in Baltimore and Washington. His estate sold the
Orioles for $70 million.—Dave McKenna
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.