When it comes to baseball in Baltimore there’s nothing like a family disagreement to arouse the natives. But the one the Orioles are currently going through has the appearance of a full-blown Hatfield and McCoy feud in comparison to the little dustup that took place almost half a century ago.
But the one that started in the mid-1970s, which set in motion the chain of events ultimately leading to the current squabble, very likely had a more lasting effect than the one involving the debate within the Angelos family regarding control of the franchise.
The difference between the two is that possible relocation was merely implied when the Hoffberger family was looking for potential buyers, whereas it was expressly mentioned in the lawsuit recently filed by Louis Angelos against his brother John and mother Georgia.
If there was/is a common denominator here, it’s an easy one to determine: Neither family, with long histories of community involvement, would want any association with a move that would involve the Orioles leaving Baltimore.
Before getting into the saga developing around current control of the Orioles, it’s both interesting and educational to take a step back in time and look at the makeup of the franchise’s original ownership. When the American League forced Bill Veeck out as a condition of the team’s move from St. Louis to Baltimore, a local group headed by Clarence Miles bought controlling interest in the franchise for $2.475 million.
The original ownership partnership included Jerry Hoffberger, James Keelty, Zanvyl Krieger and Joseph A.W. Iglehart, the largest single investor who became Chairman of the Board when Miles stepped down in November 1955. By 1960 the Orioles had become contenders, but two years before they won their first World Series championship, a surprising development set in motion a chain of events that would drastically change Major League Baseball’s landscape, especially in the American League.
In an unusual move, the Columbia Broadcast System bought an 80 percent share of the New York Yankees from Dan Topping and Del Webb for $11.2 million. The venture of a major media company buying into the most storied franchise in sports history was a bold move that raised a lot of questions — not the least of which eventually caused the Orioles to lose their majority shareholder.
MLB, then and now, had a rule about owning even a percentage of more than one team. Iglehart, who was not involved in the purchase of the Yankees, was on CBS’ Board of Directors, and thus deemed a part-owner of the team, was given the ultimatum of selling his stock in either the team or the network.
More heavily invested in CBS, Iglehart sold his 64,000 shares in the Orioles (for $1.6 million) to the National Brewing Company, owned by the Hoffberger family, making Jerry Hoffberger president of both the club and the brewery, and putting that chain of events in full speed.
It took CBS nine years to discover there was no business like sports business and got out. When it did, it also found out it wasn’t a very good investor. They found a buyer for the Yankees for $10 million — which amounted to a 10 percent discount for the new managing general partner, whose initial investment was said to be $168,000.
That’s when the MLB would said hello to George Steinbrenner. It’s also the last time any team was ever sold for a loss, proving CBS much better at reporting the news than making it.
By the time Steinbrenner headed the group that took over the Yankees in 1973, the Orioles were a huge success on the field, but a disappointment at the box office. No doubt influenced by what the purchase price indicated was a declining value in baseball’s most storied franchise, rumors circulated about a possible sale of the Orioles, with an asking price of $12 million.
Though Hoffberger was perceived to want to maintain control of the club, there was belief that the family wanted to divest. The National Brewing Company was sold to Carling’s in 1975, right at the height of discussions between the club and Bill Simon, former United States Secretary of the Treasury, who had enlisted famed attorney Edward Bennett Williams as his chief negotiator.
It wasn’t until Simon dropped out that EBW, with all of the pertinent information at hand, including knowledge that the asking price included $2 million in liquid assets, stepped up as the most serious “bidder.” It was 1979, the Orioles were in the midst of a pennant run and on pace to break the attendance record of a little more than 1.2 million, set in 1966.
With a Memorial Stadium lease that permitted as many as 13 games to be played in Washington, and The News American featuring a “Bye Bye Birdies” headline the day after the sale, the natives were decidedly anxious — and supportive.
The deal Williams eventually made included a clause that said the price would be raised or lowered depending on whether the team made money in 1979. While the Orioles raced to the American League pennant, 1.681 million somewhat paranoid fans set a new attendance record and the team showed a profit in the neighborhood of $1.25 million, meaning the EBW’s bottom line price came in under $9 million, a little less than what CBS got for the Yankees, but at least a significant jump from the original $2.475 million investment made by the original group 15 years earlier.
Fast forward 10 years (to 1989), with still no local buyers on board, Eli Jacobs bought the Orioles from the Williams estate for $70 million, but the vetting process proved to be a failure when he was forced into bankruptcy four years later (1993). Jacobs had an agreement to sell the club to a group headed by Bill DeWitt and Larry Lucchino (team president under EBW) for $143 million.
But this time, 40 years after the original group funded the team’s move from St. Louis, and 20 years after the Orioles initially going on the market, a local bidder appeared on the scene. That’s when Peter Angelos forced the sale to auction, and upped the ante to $173 million (to the $30 million relief of Jacobs’ creditors).
The rest, as they say, is history. Well, almost history. It’s been almost 30 years since the Orioles were last sold. The first time they were on the market, they stayed there for six years with no local takers and at least one seemingly serious threat of relocation.
With the team valued at $1.375B (as in billion), it will not take six years to make a deal the next time it goes on market (still TBD). Neither will it lack for substantial local bidders. That should stifle any relocation talk, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
I wouldn’t count on it either.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credits: Mitch Stringer/PressBox and Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles