Peter Angelos’ hometown loyalty should not be forgotten

BALTIMORE – Peter Angelos goes to his grave, at 94, as the most vilified guy in town. The man who owned the Baltimore Orioles for three decades should have been a hero around here, but he couldn’t get out of his own way. But some of the obits are so relentlessly harsh that you have to note: he didn’t kill anybody, he just owned a baseball team and committed errors.

That’s where the obits are focusing. They’re calling him a meddler. He thought he knew the intricacies of baseball, the critics are saying, but he should have stuck to courtrooms and left the business of ballgames to the professionals.

In summing up a man’s entire life, they’re glossing over the millions he gave to charities, and the millions he won in court for victims of asbestos poisoning. They seem to gloss over the essential fact that he kept the Orioles from leaving town when Baltimore was at its most vulnerable.

Much of this is forgotten as his former team prepares to open its 2024 season and Baltimore simultaneously lays Angelos to rest. There’s an immaculate sense of timing here, as Angelos departs with his old team full of fresh optimism under brand new ownership, leaving behind too many summers of futility and frustration.

But Angelos’ heart was in the right place, even when his judgment was flawed. He came off of the blue-collar streets of Southeast Baltimore, where he learned toughness, and it suited him legally but not at the ballpark.

“I was a Highlandtowner,” he told me one time. “That tells it all. We stuck up for our rights. We might have provoked a few unfortunate fights, but we didn’t pick on anybody.”

When he purchased the Orioles three decades ago, he had to win a bidding war to do it. The bidding went far beyond what he’d anticipated. It wasn’t so much earlier that Jerry Hoffberger had sold the Orioles for $12 million. As ownership changed over the years, the team’s value went up, but nothing like anyone had anticipated. Angelos had to hold off deep-pocket competitors until the final bill came to $173 million in 1993.

(Three decades later, the price went up ten-fold for new owner David Rubenstein.)

What made Angelos’ purchase an act of civic nobility is that the Colts had recently fled Baltimore for Indianapolis, and another Orioles owner, Edward Bennett Williams, left threats about moving the O’s to Washington.

“I wasn’t going to let the Orioles leave Baltimore,” Angelos told me once. “I didn’t care how high the bidding went, I knew I would go higher. I mean, I was thinking, ‘When is this SOB gonna give it up?’ But, until then, I wasn’t leaving.”

That was a gesture of hometown loyalty and affection on his part. Can we please make that a larger part of the narrative as Angelos takes his leave?

Once, he and Jack Kent Cooke had a real good skirmish. Cooke already owned the Washington pro football team, and now he was threatening to buy a baseball team and move it to Maryland to compete with the Orioles.

“The hell you will,” Angelos told Cooke.

“I know more about you than you think,” Cooke said.

“Then you must be very impressed,” Angelos said.

He saw the future. He knew that Washington would eventually get baseball and Baltimore’s attendance would suffer. Major league execs said it wouldn’t happen. They lied.

Angelos got plenty of criticism through the years for his front-office meddling. He got some more for his unwillingness to pay big bucks at a time when money has taken on such suffocating importance in professional sports.

He seemed not to care about the carping. He seemed to dig in his heels, the tough kid from Highlandtown saying, Gimme your best shot, I can take it.

But I remember a night at the warehouse at Oriole Park, and the great newspaper sports columnist, John Steadman, was speaking to a packed room about a new book of his. John (Steady) only had a few months of his own life left at that point.

And he started talking about Angelos, and his love of Baltimore. I was standing near them both, and I looked at Angelos as Steady called him “the most misunderstood man in town.” Tears ran down Angelos’ cheeks, and he sobbed audibly.

One night I sat with him and one of his minority partners, the author Tom Clancy. They spent much of the game trying to impress each other. They were big men, they each implied, involved in politics, involved in government, involved in the business of a world larger than baseball.

They were each Baltimore guys who sprung from working-class backgrounds. Their talk that night sounded as if they were still trying to convince themselves that they’d really come so far.

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