Peter Angelos Couldn’t Stay A Hero Forever
11:18 AM EDT on May 21, 2021
Welcome to Better Hate An Owner, a recurring feature in which we learn more about all those awful old people who get to hold the trophy first at championship ceremonies. Today’s entry is about Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
How much of his soul did he lose in making his money?
God only knows. Angelos’s 10-figure wealth came almost entirely on a contingency basis, representing people suffering from exposure to asbestos or smoking cigarettes. He didn't get one penny until somebody with bad lungs got two pennies.
Is he a fail-child?
No. Angelos grew up in a working-class family and earned his billions the old-fashioned way: through relentless exploitation of the infirm.
How much public financing has he sucked out of the community?
Lots! Angelos's team plays in a stadium built for $110 million (in early-1990s dollars) of public money. The Maryland Stadium Authority, a state-subsidized agency that owns the stadium, is responsible for upgrades.
The Epstein Degree: How many degrees removed from Jeffrey Epstein is he?
Two. Angelos played catch with Bill Clinton in the bowels of Camden Yards before the then-president threw out the first pitch at a 1996 Baltimore Orioles game, and Angelos got the Clinton Administration to green-light an Orioles trip to Cuba, the first American team allowed to play in the communist country in 40 years; Clinton was photographed on Epstein's infamous airplane, nicknamed the Lolita Express, in 2002, though Clinton said the jet jaunt was "a humanitarian mission to Africa."
What are his political affiliations?
Angelos has given millions over the years to mostly Democratic Party candidates. In October 2020, a report from ESPN and FiveThirtyEight said Angelos had given $2,082,770 to Democrats and related PACs, the third-most of U.S. professional sports team owners. The Baltimore Sun in 2010 called him "one of the largest Democratic political donors in the country." Roll Call reported in 2014 he’d given $300,000 to the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic Party Super PAC. Business Insider reported in 2016 that Angelos donated $270,000 in 2016 to Draft Joe Biden, making him the top donor to the so-called “super PAC” set up to encourage the then-vice president to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Angelos also employed Democratic Maryland legislators as lawyers at his firm.
Peter Angelos will be gone soon.
Angelos, the billionaire working-class hero who bought the Baltimore Orioles in 1993, is now 91 years old. He's been letting underlings run his baseball team, law firm, and horse racing operation for a while now amid non-specific but increasing reports of physical frailty. As a lawyer, he took on the biggest corporations in world-changing liability cases, and won. The legal fights made him wealthy enough to pay more for a baseball team than anybody had ever paid for any sports franchise. He strengthened his reputation as a champion for the little guy by going rogue during the 1994-95 baseball strike and singlehandedly crushing a push by other, equally well-heeled, MLB owners to use replacement players. The anti-scab stand got him credit for saving the soul of the national pastime, and for a time Angelos was hailed as a guy worthy of the reverence of not only baseball fans, but anybody who cared about what’s right.
Angelos's riches remain, but the goodwill and righteous huzzahs are long gone. He's despised locally and irrelevant nationally. On his watch the Orioles have gone from the team of Cal Ripken Jr. to the team of Chris Davis. Too much meddling and too much losing—as of this week the O’s in the Angelos era are an astonishing 301 games below .500 with 0 pennants—transformed the former hometown hero into a punching bag and a punchline. If Angelos's name comes up these days, most likely it's at or near the bottom of some sort of baseball owners ranking.
Late in life, he's even tarnished his pro-labor legacy in feuds with workers on the lowest rung of baseball's food chain. And he doesn't even win the big lawsuits anymore. His legal battles, particularly those against fellow owner Ted Lerner and the Washington Nationals over broadcasting deals, seem as petty as squabbles over $100 million can be.
It’s unclear how much, or even if, he'll be mourned in Baltimore beyond family and friends when he goes. Quite a fall.
But, good god, what a life!
For a guy whose name has for so long been synonymous with Baltimore, it's odd to find out that Peter Angelos wasn’t born "Peter Angelos" and wasn't born in Baltimore. Upon delivery in Pittsburgh on July 4, 1929, he was named George Angelos. According to family lore, when he was 10 years old and in the middle of a life-and-death bout with appendicitis, his mother made a deal with her god that if young George lived, she would change the child's name to honor St. Peter.
The boy survived, and Mom held up her end of the bargain, and shortly thereafter he moved to east Baltimore with the family as Peter Angelos. He would indeed grow up to be held in saintly regard in his second city. Angelos earned that status, and most of his money, legally representing blue-collar workers who'd been sickened or killed by asbestos. He has filed thousands of lawsuits—literally thousands—on their behalf, and has won more than a billion dollars in verdicts and settlements thus far from the manufacturers responsible for exposing them to the carcinogenic fibers. He had a second windfall as a lawyer taking on Big Tobacco in cigarette-related cancer cases.
ESPN once described him as “arguably the most successful ambulance chaser in the history of American jurisprudence." But however many folks were put off by the means by which Angelos got filthy rich, it is undeniable that his cause was just.
Asbestos, with its unique heat-resistant properties, had been in regular use in American industry since the late-1800s and was already being recognized as a carcinogen by the early 20th century. But until the 1970s, those made terminally ill by asbestos rarely got their day in court. That began to change as medical researchers found an undeniable link between asbestos and death; in July 1989 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency promulgated a regulation banning the "manufacture, importation, processing and distribution” of asbestos in the U.S. Asbestos industry lawyers sued the federal government and in 1991 successfully got the EPA regulation repealed.
Then along came Angelos to help turn the awful tide. The first big class-action asbestos trial opened in March 1992 in Baltimore. A reported 8,555 workers made claims against more than a dozen corporations that exposed their workers to asbestos. Angelos represented a whopping 90 percent of the plaintiffs.
He’d been building their case for years. No lawyer had a better background to prepare them for this litigation or give them the will to take on the uncaring giants of American industry than Angelos. He’d worked as a kid at his father’s tavern in Highlandtown, a heavily Greek and working-class section of Baltimore where the family also lived. That neighborhood and job gave him ties to workers at all sorts of nearby factories, like the Bethlehem Steel mill, and also the docks at the Port of Baltimore. He saw that those workplaces were superspreaders for asbestos-related respiratory diseases just by watching longtime customers and neighbors get sick.
He paid his own way to undergrad and law degrees at night school from the University of Baltimore, class of 1961. After a political career that began with him failing to win a state senate seat billed as a Democratic Party "insurgent" and a "Korean War veteran," and included a victory in a 1959 race for the Baltimore City council ("Show us you're really on your toes/By voting for Pete Angelos" was part of a poem written for his 1963 campaign), as well as a failed run for mayor of Baltimore in 1967, he focused his energies on building his eponymous law firm. He specialized at first on workers' compensation matters, and got gigs representing labor unions in town, including the United Steelworkers local.
But the biggest trial Angelos handled before the asbestos litigation was the so-called St. Valentine’s Day Massacre case in 1975, which grew out of the most famous race-fixing scandal in the equine-heavy state’s history. The whole thing should be a movie. Six jockeys were accused of pooling their money to place dozens of identical trifecta-box bets for a nine-horse race at Bowie Race Course on Feb. 14, 1975, then intentionally riding slow enough to finish out of the money. Longshot horses ridden by the three jockeys not in on the fix finished in the top three spots, just as the fixers planned. So the gang that didn’t ride straight had 38 winning trifecta tickets, worth a total of just over $35,000. But track officials got suspicious when friends of the jockeys attempted to cash the tickets, and launched an investigation. Several riders were arrested and indicted on conspiracy and fraud charges.
Angelos was a track guy: He owned racehorses before he owned a baseball team, and still has a racing operation, Marathon Farm in Sparks, Md. Angelos defended the jockeys in the Massacre trial, all of whom were convicted and sentenced to jail time. Eric Walsh, tabbed as the riders’ ringleader, asserted his innocence after the trial, then killed himself rather than go to prison. Angelos never got over Walsh's death, or accepted the jury’s verdict. “We couldn’t overcome the betting evidence,” Angelos told me in 2000. “But that doesn’t mean they were guilty.”
The asbestos trial, however, was way more in Angelos’s wheelhouse than the racing case. He was on the attack this time, not defending. And his adversaries were the ones who had to overcome the evidence.
As early as the 1970s, he began gearing his practice toward a war with the asbestos industry. He built up his client stable by financing chest X-rays and other medical tests for factory workers to determine if they were showing damage from asbestos exposure. Those who found injuries were signed on as clients on a contingency basis, meaning they didn’t have to pay Angelos anything while he fought their fight.
But what a fight he gave.
"These products have caused a reign of disease and death that has been visited upon an unsuspecting public," Angelos said during opening remarks to the jury on March 10, 1992. "We'll prove to you that these companies found profit more important than the protection of consumers from disease."
And so he did. At trial all the manufacturers, a who's who of capitalism including GAF Corp., Owens- Corning Fiberglass Corp., and W.R. Grace & Co., either settled with Angelos before a verdict was rendered or were found liable by jurors for the plaintiffs' injuries.
Asked his reaction to the verdicts, Angelos told the Baltimore Sun he felt "vindicated" for investing so many years and dollars in the case. "I finally got the SOBs," he said.
"The jury by its verdict has served notice on all manufacturers that American working men and women have a right to know of the hazards that confront them in the workplace," he told the Associated Press. "Those that fail to do so will be held accountable."
Total damages recovered by his clients from the myriad defendants in that class-action suit were estimated at more than a billion dollars. Angelos had no partners in his firm. He has never said how much he personally profited from the case. But a report in the Washington Post said by the “early 1990s” he had taken in “several hundred million dollars” in contingency fees.
Blue-collar Baltimoreans didn't mind that he got paid well for taking up their fight. Don Irvine, former president of Local 2610 of the steelworkers union, told Bloomberg News that his constituency was ravaged by asbestos-related ailments and overmatched in their fight for justice by latter-day steel barons before Angelos stepped in. To them, the lawyer was simply heroic.
"When we needed him, he was always there," Irvine said. "Some people felt the lawyers got more than they deserved. But the way most of us saw it, if it hadn't been for Pete, we wouldn't have gotten a thing."
The litigation’s losers yapped when Angelos’s name started surfacing almost immediately as a potential buyer for the Baltimore Orioles, whose ownership was going through tough financial times. Ed Houff, an attorney who had defended three asbestos manufacturers in the class-action suit, railed to the Baltimore Sun in June 1993 that the local barrister’s suddenly staggering wealth was prima facie evidence that tort reform was necessary.
"I think you have to question the usefulness and the propriety of the contingency fee system when it generates in one case that kind of fees that will enable someone to buy the Orioles," Houff said.
Asbestos never stopped killing workers: Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, told me recently that 40,000 Americans still die each year from diseases caused by exposure to it. And so victims kept coming Angelos’s way in the years after his huge class-action win. Quicker than the courts could hear their cases, even. He pulled some stunts to get his clients their day in court. In 1996, he decided the best way to accomplish that would be for Maryland to add more judges and task them to handle the backload of asbestos cases. According to a report in the Washington Post, he used his clout in the statehouse to get a bill introduced calling for the funding of an extra panel of judges. Angelos was known to exploit the rules that allowed Maryland lawmakers to have outside employment: The state senator who sponsored and drew up the legislation calling for more asbestos barristers just happened to be employed by Angelos’s law firm. And when that legislation was stalling, Angelos brought the Free State's favorite son, Cal Ripken Jr., to the statehouse to schmooze the lawmakers. He got four new judges added to the bench.
That still wasn't enough: In 2017, Forbes reported that Angelos had 17,000 pending lawsuits filed against the asbestos industry.
Angelos wasn’t done going after bad-lung money after his big payday. Class-action lawsuits against the tobacco industry started sweeping the country by the mid-1990s. Angelos used his newfound clout—after the asbestos trial he was considered the top donor to Maryland’s Democratic Party and described by the Baltimore Sun as “perhaps the most powerful man in the state”—to get a deal with Maryland lawmakers to handle the whole state’s portion of the pending class-action litigation. The state agreed to give Angelos 25 percent of all damages he recovered from Big Tobacco. But as things turned out, Maryland’s case was never heard, as the tobacco interests decided instead to settle the cases on a national basis to avoid trials in every state. Maryland got a reported payout of $4.5 billion from the settlement based strictly on its population. The state then told Angelos that because the case was settled without him, the compensation deal was invalid. Angelos wanted his quarter share, and sued the state to get the percentage he’d agreed to, or more than $1 billion.
He ultimately settled all his claims against the state in 2002 by taking a mere $150 million from Maryland’s settlement with the tobacco industry.
Angelos never conceded that he didn’t deserve a billion-dollar payday from the tobacco case. Instead, he claimed he was punished by the state’s power brokers for being too blue-collar and not enough blue-blood. "You know what's wrong? A poor guy made some money, and they can't stand that,” he told the Baltimore Sun.
Angelos soon gave the locals another reason to regard him as, well, a latter-day Saint Peter by declaring he'd use the asbestos proceeds to try to buy the Orioles. The town was stung by the loss of the Baltimore Bullets to the Washington, D.C., market in 1973, and then crushed by the Baltimore Colts’ move to Indianapolis in 1984. Baltimore was the only city in America to have baseball as its only big league sport. And fans had spent the previous decade fretting that the only top-tier sports franchise left would leave.
Angelos was a Baltimore guy, and went after the O's at a time when only a Baltimore guy could calm their fears.
The men who'd inspired those very legitimate worries were the out-of-towners who'd owned the team before Angelos: Edward Bennett Williams and Eli Jacobs.
Williams was a powerhouse attorney who had bought the Orioles in 1979 for $12 million. Williams was certainly a man-about-town—but in D.C., not Baltimore.
“[Williams] was the quintessential Washington guy, like Peter Angelos is the quintessential Baltimore guy,” Dave Kindred, who wrote about the Orioles in the Williams era as a columnist for the Washington Post, told me in 2005.
Williams, like Angelos, was very connected politically in his hometown, having served as treasurer to the Democratic National Committee from 1974 to 1977. He made his name defending scoundrels including Jimmy Hoffa and Sam Giancana in the 1960s. He parlayed a gig as George Preston Marshall’s personal attorney into becoming the managing partner of the Washington Redskins, the team Marshall founded and the premier sports franchise in D.C. Williams had already tried but failed to buy the financially weak San Diego Padres a few years earlier specifically to move that team to the Nation’s Capital. So the baseball void in Washington remained when he acquired the O's.
The night he bought the team, Williams held his celebration dinner in D.C., not Baltimore. Williams occasionally told the Baltimore media that relocation wasn't in his plans, but he usually added a caveat that low attendance at home games could change that. And lots of Williams’s early moves as owner made fans question just how anchored he was to Baltimore, and hinted the O’s could indeed follow the bygone Bullets down I-95.
He put prominent Washingtonians on the Orioles board, including Calvin Hill, a Yale grad and former running back for Washington’s NFL team. He installed Larry Lucchino, a partner at Williams' D.C.-based law firm, as president of the baseball team.
Williams got the team from Jerold Hoffberger, owner of National Bohemian Beer ("Natty Boh" to generations of worshipful locals). Hoffberger, a lifelong denizen of Charm City, had peeved fans by removing “Baltimore” from away jerseys in 1973. The move to go with just-plain "Orioles" on the shirts, coming so soon after D.C. lost the Washington Senators to Texas, was seen as an attempt by Hoffberger to capture fans from the suddenly team-less Nation's Capital. But Williams not only wasn’t going to put "Baltimore" back, he decided to further blur the lines about what city the O’s actually represented.
Before Williams arrived, for example, Orioles radio broadcasts were available only on Baltimore stations. But within a few years, O’s games were heard on more than 50 stations in states all around the mid-Atlantic, including WTOP, a clear-channel AM station in D.C. Williams refused to sign a lease longer than one year while the team was at Memorial Stadium.
Williams also opened up a team store at Farragut Square in downtown D.C., the first such store outside Baltimore. And he conspicuously called the new retail outlet the Orioles Baseball Store, not the Baltimore Orioles Baseball Store. And when the Seattle Mariners were on the verge of leaving their hometown in 1987 and D.C. was rumored as a landing spot, the Washington Post reported that Williams lobbied other Major League Baseball owners to prevent that team from moving to D.C. Williams was clearly keeping his geographical options open.
Jay Emmett, a movie-studio executive who helped Williams promote his baseball team (at the same time Williams was helping Emmett stay out of jail following federal indictments on bribery and racketeering charges), told me in a 2005 interview how leaving the city’s name out was all part of a plan to de-Baltimoreize the team. He wouldn’t admit that the end goal was relocation to D.C., however.
“Clearly, our aim was to make it a regional team, and we did,” Emmett told me. “We can’t have ‘Baltimore’ on the uniforms or the press guide.”
The Post’s Kindred theorized that under Williams, the team simply got too good for him to follow through on his relocation plan. He bought the team in August of 1979, and within mere months the O’s were in the World Series, losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games.
“I think he just got caught in the World Series,” Kindred told me, “and then he couldn’t move.”
Then they won the 1983 World Series over the Philadelphia Phillies. During that championship season, the Wall Street Journal wondered in a headline: “Are the Baltimore Orioles the Best Team in Baseball, or Just the Best Run?"
Williams ultimately leveraged Marylanders’ fear of losing the only big league team in town into a 1987 sweetheart deal from state legislators to build the Orioles a new home, a $110 million, publicly funded stadium in the Camden Yards section of south Baltimore—the portion of the city closest to and most accessible from Washington, D.C.
Williams never lived long enough to see Oriole Park open, however. He died in 1988 of colon cancer. Williams’ estate then sold the team for $70 million to another group of outsiders, led by Eli Jacobs, a New York financier. Lucchino and Sargent Shriver, a D.C.-based Kennedy in-law, were also in Jacobs’s group, whose plan to buy the team was reportedly spawned during a party at Hickory Hill, the Kennedy family's estate outside D.C.
The O’s had begun turning into a losing team on the field as Williams’s health deteriorated, and that slide continued when Jacobs took over. Even with the beloved new stadium, mistrust of out-of-towners never waned under the new, New York-based proprietors. Unrest fired up all over again when the Baltimore Sun reported that Jacobs was fiscally unfit. Jacobs declared bankruptcy in the spring of 1993, alleging debt totaling more than $300 million. He immediately tried to sell off his greatest asset, the baseball team, agreeing in March to a deal to turn the Orioles over to William DeWitt Jr., an investment banker from Cincinnati, for $141.3 million.
But that agreement with DeWitt fell through when creditors successfully petitioned the bankruptcy court to order Jacobs to instead put the team up for auction. Angelos, who was not a creditor in the bankruptcy case, would tell Sports Illustrated years later that he had covertly helped sabotage DeWitt's pact with Jacobs to buy the team by cold-calling creditors and saying he would pay more than DeWitt would.
Angelos, flush with his asbestos case winnings, was ready to bid high. He told the Baltimore Sun and others that he felt it was his civic obligation to spend whatever it took to prevent DeWitt from taking over the only pro sports team left in town.
"It seems to me we can manage to control our Major League Baseball club," Angelos said. "While Bill DeWitt obviously is a fine gentleman and so on, it seems to me Cincinnati probably can better use his help than Baltimore."
Just as Williams had packed the board of directors with D.C. luminaries, Angelos pumped up his bid's Baltimore bona fides by forming a cabal made up of Charm City celebrities—including Diner director Barry Levinson, Wide World of Sports emcee and horseman Jim McKay, tennis player Pam Shriver, and one-man spy thriller factory Tom Clancy.
At a live auction held in New York city, Angelos secured the Orioles with a bid of $173 million. That was nearly $70 million more than any baseball team had ever sold for, and at the time was the largest price ever paid for a professional sports team, breaking the previous record of $140 million that Jerry Jones shelled out for the Dallas Cowboys and Cowboys Stadium in 1989. Angelos, whose record bid didn't get him the state-owned Oriole Park at Camden Yards, emphasized that no amount was too high if it would make the hometown fans happy.
“If [bidding] had gone to $200 million, I would’ve gone to $201 million," Angelos told author Thom Loverro. “There was no way I was coming back to Baltimore without a baseball team. “
"We didn't come here to let this thing be purchased by some out-of-towner," Angelos told Sports Illustrated.
The locals were ecstatic.
"His acquisition of the team puts to rest any fears about the team moving," Baltimore City Councilman Joe DiBlasi said after the auction.
"He did it because of civic pride," Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer said on auction day. "He did it because he wanted local ownership."
Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Littwin said that with the hometown clique, the Orioles now had a "dream team of owners."
Angelos, unlike most folks after they acquire a profoundly beloved sports franchise, didn't promise a championship. In an interview on auction day, he conceded that winning a World Series "should be the goal for every team."
"But that is not the sole consideration," he told the Baltimore Sun. "If one can keep a team in contention through the season, one has given the fans what they deserve."
All these years later, we know Angelos didn't deliver even on those low expectations.
Angelos also told the paper that he would be too busy lawyering “on behalf of people killed or hurt by defective heart valves” to meddle with operations of a baseball team. Instead, he would “leave baseball decisions ... to baseball people.”
He never lived up to his pledge to stay the heck out of the way, either.
Barring something soon and miraculous, history will likely show that the highlight of Angelos's run as an MLB owner came very soon after he took over the O's. In the summer of 1994, before he’d even owned the team for a complete season, Angelos found himself in what was for him a very comfortable position: in the middle of an ugly labor dispute.
The previous collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the union had expired at the end of 1993. The owners immediately insisted that the next pact have a salary cap, based on 50 percent of revenues. A New York Times report said that heading into the 1994 season, 21 of the 28 MLB clubs were already over the salary cap called for in the owners' proposal. The MLB Players Association, the players union, called for a walkout in August 1994, when all teams still had around 45 regular season games left to play. Both sides played hardball once the strike started. And for the first time since 1904, no World Series was played.
Negotiations went nowhere in the winter, either. When prospects for starting the 1995 season on time started looking bleak, the strike was suddenly seen by federal lawmakers as a national crisis. President Bill Clinton appointed a federal arbitrator in hopes of bringing the national pastime back. Clinton set a date in early February that if the owners and players hadn’t come together by then, the federal mediator would draw up the rules. Still, neither side budged. Many owners began moaning that they were not going to let another year be wasted, and trotted out the nuclear option: the use of replacement players.
The proposal to open the 1995 season with strike-breaking players was put to a vote. It came out 26-2 in favor of fielding scab squads. The two votes against were from the Toronto Blue Jays and the Orioles.
The Blue Jays' vote, however, was pro forma, since provincial law in Ontario, Canada, stated "a business cannot bring in replacement workers to replace union workers who are legally on strike." Angelos was the only owner opposing on his own free will. He likewise stood alone in refusing to sign what was supposed to be a unified public statement from owners pinning all the blame for the abandonment of the 1994 postseason on the players union.
“The labor movement is responsible for everything good in America,” Angelos told the Baltimore Sun when asked why he wouldn’t help his fellow owners crush the players union.
Angelos had other motivations for not wanting to play with replacements: Cal Ripken Jr. had played in 2,009 consecutive games when the strike commenced. Had MLB resumed play with scabs, Ripken’s streak would have ended short of Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 games. That was the bluest-collar record in all of sports. Ripken, who hadn't missed a day's work in 12 years, was already the biggest draw in all of baseball, and the franchise’s golden goose. (When play resumed in 1995, Ripken indeed kept the turnstiles at Camden Yards turning with his chase for immortality.)
But other owners didn't give a rip about Ripken or the record as the strike went on. They threatened Angelos with a fine of $250,000 per game if he didn't field a replacement team. He thought his adversaries would get the commissioner to invoke Rule 6.5 of the American League Constitution, which allowed for penalties such as fines and suspensions for any owner found guilty of conduct “not in the best interests of baseball." Angelos believed if the owners could get him out of the way, they'd play the 1995 season with an Orioles scab team.
But if anybody was going to pull a power play in Baltimore, it was Angelos. In late March 1995, the Maryland legislature passed Senate Bill 719, which outlawed the use of any publicly funded stadium in the state to host games using strikebreaking players. Camden Yards was a publicly funded venue. The Washington Times reported that the sponsors of the emergency baseball legislation were State Sen. John Pica (D) and State Sen. Norman Stone (D). When not representing Baltimore in the statehouse, both lawmakers moonlighted on the staff of Angelos’s law firm.
Gov. Parris Glendening (D), whose political campaigns were the beneficiary of large donations from Angelos, quickly signed the bill into law. While Angelos was lobbying the statehouse, the players union had asked for and received an injunction in federal court that would prevent owners from fielding teams of scabs. When the owners' attempt to get a stay of the injunction failed, the owners' plan to use replacement players was completely dead. Members of the players union agreed to get back on the field once negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement were restarted. The strike was over. The owners eventually accepted a new collective bargaining agreement with no salary cap.
Angelos, by siding with the players in the fight against all other owners, had once again slain a giant foe.
His anti-scab stance was received wonderfully across the country. Sports Illustrated noted that for being a lone wolf, Angelos "was lionized as a man of unshakable conviction."
The Denver alternative weekly Westword called Angelos "Baseball's Last Good Man." A Los Angeles Times story had Orioles fan Mike Beczkeowski saying that because of the owner's derring-do during the strike, the team from Baltimore had suddenly become “become America’s team.”
“The Orioles represent defiance vs. greed, good vs. evil," Beczkeowski said. "You ask me, and we’ve got a genuine hero, representing all of the little people."
Baltimore Sun columnist John Steadman, himself a local institution, also wrote in 1995 of Angelos's super-samaritan status. “He didn't perceive himself in the role of a ‘folk hero’ but that's precisely what has happened. The multitudes are cheering him as a national baseball hero, even though he can't swing a bat or throw a ball. Other owners should know that nobody likes him but the people.”
The multitudes, especially in Baltimore, didn't cheer for him for much longer.
Perhaps Angelos discovered there wasn’t actually enough carnage from artificial heart parts to keep him busy. Or maybe the adulation his “Baltimore first!” agenda and righteous anti-scab stance brought him went to his head. He sure didn’t follow through on that vow that he'd adopt a laissez-faire ownership style. Angelos’s interventions in baseball matters came early and often, and never endeared him to his team's fans or employees.
Turnover is but one sign of the turmoil that Angelos brought to the O's: In the first 2.5 years of his owning the team, according to a 1996 Sports Illustrated report, 66 members of the 90-person staff had left the front office, including five general managers or assistant GMs. The most damaging personnel move Angelos made during his early days with the team came when he fired Frank Robinson, a famously tough Orioles legend who according to an SI report "choked back tears" at the press conference announcing he'd been let go by the newbie owner.
Angelos also humiliated manager Johnny Oates, another former Orioles player, personally ordering the skipper to play Leo Gomez over Chris Sabo at third base. Oates did as he was told by the boss, but Angelos trashed him to the media anyway. Angelos wrote Oates an apology for the insults, but made things worse by misspelling the manager's name in the letter. Then word got out that Angelos was recruiting Tony La Russa to manage the club while Oates was still on the job. Angelos fired Oates because of the news leak, saying the termination was at that point a mercy killing.
Angelos kept inserting himself in ways that hurt the product. Some of his greatest swings and misses:
In 1996, Angelos drove out play-by-play announcer Jon Miller, who Orioles fans of a certain vintage still insist was the greatest radio guy in baseball history. Miller had been on the job for 14 seasons, and had called in that time many of the greatest moments in Orioles history: among them Ripken’s streak record game, Eddie Murray’s 500th home run, and the O's 1983 World Series championship over the Philadelphia Phillies. (Here's Miller's call of the final out of Game 5 on the road in Philadelphia to end the series: "The cheering you hear is from Oriole fans. Everybody else is in muted silence. The pitch! Line drive! Ripken catches it at shortstop! And the Orioles are champions of the world!")
The Baltimore Sun said Angelos drummed out Miller because, in the words of the owner, he didn’t “bleed black and orange,” meaning he wasn’t enough of a homer on the air to keep his job.
The Baltimore Sun's Littwin wrote a column that summed up the bewilderment and anger of the fan base: “Peter Angelos has fired Jon Miller. There, I've written it. I still don't believe it. I might as well have written that the Bulls fired Jordan, the Stones fired Jagger, the Vatican dumped the pope. Just so you know, this is the territory Angelos has entered.”
In 1997, while the whole town was still peeved about Miller’s disappearance, Angelos ran manager Davey Johnson out of town. Johnson was beloved in Baltimore for decades, having played second base for World Series-winning O’s teams in 1966 and 1970. At the time he parted with Angelos, Johnson had the highest career win percentage of all active MLB managers. The O’s had reached the ALCS in both of Johnson’s years as manager, and had 98 wins in 1997, which brought the team its first AL East crown in 14 years.
Angelos ascribed the divorce with Johnson to the manager's treatment of players. The owner didn't like that Johnson fined star free agent acquisition Roberto Alomar for insubordination, or that he once got the team plane to take off without Ripken when the shortstop and franchise meal ticket got to the airport late.
Fans, however, accused Angelos of getting rid of Johnson simply because he was unhappy that the manager had become more popular than the owner. On the very same day that Johnson resigned citing his treatment by Angelos, he was named 1997 AL Manager of the Year.
The O’s wouldn’t have another winning season for the next 15 years. As of last weekend, the win-loss record from 1994 through May 20, 2021, was 1,972-2,273, with just one playoff series win in the 23 years since Angelos bullied Johnson out of town.
By the time Angelos let Mike Mussina walk to the New York Yankees after the 2000 season, the same people who'd hailed him as heroic only a few seasons earlier couldn't stand him. Angelos committed a cardinal sin for an owner: He made it clear that the departure was over money and that the team had no intention of paying the fan favorite what he was asking. Mussina went on to make the Hall of Fame. Angelos's name has been mud among the fans ever since.
Angelos's once-robust reputation as a champion of the little guy has taken some hits since the turn of the century. In the early 2000s, workers at the bottom rung of the baseball eco-system came to Angelos asking for help in their fight for justice and fair pay. But unlike in the asbestos and tobacco matters, the workers needing a champion this time around couldn't offer Angelos the potential for a huge financial payout. And he not only turned his back, he gave them the middle finger.
The first concerned the cleaning crew at Oriole Park. In 1994, not long after Angelos bought the team, Baltimore lawmakers instituted a “living wage” law that required employers working on a city contract to pay workers an hourly minimum rate higher than the federal minimum wage. Yet contractors working with the Maryland Stadium Commission, the state-funded agency which owned Oriole Park, were not covered by the law. So there was no legal requirement that stadium workers at Camden Yards get paid at the enhanced rate.
The clean-up crew for Orioles games was among those screwed out of the living wage. This was a group that organizers billed as largely made up of members of Baltimore’s homeless population. The stadium workers founded an independent union in 2002 called the United Workers Association (UWA), and began calling attention to the pay inequities and other hardships they faced on the job. James Riddick, a member of the cleanup crew, told me at the time that any worker caught taking a bathroom break was docked two hours' pay. UWA also started lobbying the team to get the living wage that other contract laborers in the city were getting. They wrote letters to Angelos referencing his pro-worker reputation—this was a guy, after all, who once said, "The labor movement is responsible for everything good in America!"—and asking him to help make things right. The quickest way to solve the problem, the letters said, was for the Orioles to pay the difference between the $6 an hour the contractors were then paying the cleanup crew, and the living wage in Baltimore, which at the time was set at $8.85. According to UAW’s calculations included in the letter, that would cost the team an extra $880 per game, or $71,280 for an entire season.
Peter Sabonis, a Maryland attorney who helped organize the UWA and wrote the letters to Angelos, said the owner ignored the group until he found out that UWA planned a demonstration outside Camden Yards during the 2004 season. The group had scheduled a march on what the team marketed as “AFL-CIO Night” in hopes of calling out the allegedly pro-worker owner for not protecting laborers at the stadium. Sabonis said the rally talk got Angelos's attention.
“The office phone rings, and the voice on the other end says, ‘This is Peter Angelos. I got your letter, and I’ll do it!’” Sabonis told me in 2005. “I just wanted to clarify what he’ll do, so I said, ‘Sir, you’ll bring the workers’ wages up to the living wage?’ And he says, ‘Yes! I’ll do it! I’m for the worker!’ Then he gave me a long lecture on how he’s been for labor all his life and he’s been for the working man all his life.”
In exchange, UWA agreed to call off its demonstration. Todd Cherkis, a UWA organizer at the time and still, recalls that his side honored its agreement and canceled the event. Angelos reneged on his bargain with the homeless.
“He wouldn’t talk to us after that,” said Sabonis.
Like Angelos, UWA brass liked a good fight. So the Baltimore group rented vans and headed to Pittsburgh to hold a demonstration at baseball’s 2006 All-Star Game. Their plan to annoy Angelos worked out better than they could have ever dreamed.
“We didn’t know if Peter Angelos was going to be there,” Cherkis tells me. “We’re marching through the streets of Pittsburgh, and we go by this hotel where some owners were staying, and there he was on the street, Peter Angelos! I did a double take. I got on the bullhorn and talked about the promise he made but didn’t live up to. He stopped, turned around, stared at us, and gave us the finger. Then he walked inside the hotel. Peter Angelos’s reaction to us, just giving us the finger, was to me like a nail in the coffin for any thought that he ever meant well or would ever do anything to help the workers. It was like, this guy is shameless, he will not live up to what he said. It was quite a moment.”
In 2007, with the Orioles cleanup crew still being refused a living wage and Angelos standing on the sidelines, a dozen UAW members and sympathizers went on a hunger strike. Fear of a Bobby Sands situation got other power people who'd been ignoring the workers' pleas to do the right thing. The governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, publicly declared he was in favor of a living wage for workers at Camden Yards. The Stadium Authority quickly voted to repeal the exemption given to stadium contractors.
“If Peter Angelos did anything to make that happen,” Sabonis now says, “we never heard about it.”
Vultures have been circling above Camden Yards for a while now.
The Baltimore Sun reported this fall that “potential bidders” were “lining up” to buy the team. Lucchino told the paper that he’d been approached by investors wanting to snatch the O’s from Angelos. Neither Angelos nor his representatives had ever hinted that he plans to get rid of the club, let alone that he's fielding offers. He had said in the past that he intended to bequeath the team to John Angelos and Louis Angelos, his children, when he dies. He cited the mess left behind when NFL owner Jack Kent Cooke, a longtime Angelos nemesis who’d quashed his 1995 effort to buy the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Baltimore to replace the Colts, died without naming anybody to take over the Washington team. "I would leave the Orioles to my two sons," Angelos told the Washington Post in 1998. "I don't want to fault Jack Kent Cooke up there, but it'd have been nice if he'd have done the same for John Cooke."
But fears about losing the O's are nevertheless gripping yet another generation of Baltimore sports fans.
The city is going through all sorts of hard times, with its crime rate, joblessness and corrupt leadership becoming national stories. And along with yesteryear’s thefts of the Bullets and Colts, the very losses that initially inspired Angelos to acquire the local baseball team regardless of the cost, there have been very real worries that the Preakness, the Triple Crown horse race which has been run in Baltimore since 1873, will also flee the troubled town.
Angelos stopped being a regular at the stadium and stopped talking to the press. Word got out in November 2020 that MLB owners had quietly passed a resolution recognizing John Angelos as the “control person” for the Orioles. That means the kid, not the owner himself, now gets contacted first when somebody at headquarters wants to deal with the franchise. (Louis Angelos, meanwhile, is now managing his father's law firm.) There are no indications that Peter Angelos is pulling any strings behind the scenes, either.
MLB's edict making John Angelos the point person became public mere weeks after his dad suffered a humiliating and costly defeat in a venue where he once enjoyed big and enriching victories: the federal courtroom. Angelos has been feuding with and litigating against Ted Lerner, the multi-billionaire developer and owner of the Washington Nationals, as aggressively as he once did the asbestos industry. As revenge for Jack Kent Cooke’s keeping football out of Baltimore, Angelos worked overtime preventing MLB from putting a baseball team in DC, a city he loved to hate. The Washington Post tabbed Angelos in 2004 as "the man who stands between Washington and Major League Baseball." To get Angelos to loosen his territorial claims so the Montreal Expos could move to the Nation’s Capital, MLB was goaded into making Lerner’s team put its games on the Angelos-owned Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) and share broadcast revenues. The ad hoc and adversarial broadcast partners began suing each other over that deal pretty much right off the bat, and cases filed by Angelos and Lerner over that original deal are still in court.
The big verdicts are no longer going Angelos's way. Late last year a New York appeals court upheld a decision by MLB arbitrators that Angelos had reneged on his broadcast pact with Lerner and that MASN therefore owed the Nationals $100 million. Next to watching Lerner's Nats win a World Series in 2019, the costly loss in his long-running broadcasting feud might go down as the most humiliating defeat of Angelos's baseball tenure. The network announced massive cuts in staff and in Nationals and Orioles programming shortly after the ruling. Yet Angelos, a guy who used to never pass up a chance to utter words of contempt for D.C. and its residents, made no statement after the court’s verdict.
Lots of relocation rumors center on John Angelos having a home in Nashville (a “gaudy” mansion, according to the Nashville Scene), and how the owner's son has been using the team to cozy up to country music industry types in recent years. Music City advocates have been hunting for a major league baseball franchise for some time, and the Orioles are seen as their likeliest quarry. The median household income in Nashville is $59,828, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest stats, or about 18 percent higher than Baltimore’s.
In November, as the buzz about possible changes in ownership and/or location were as loud as they been in decades, O’s general manager Mike Elias, not Peter Angelos, released a statement saying that the team isn’t planning to leave Baltimore. The Orioles' lease at Camden Yards was set to expire in 2021 before the Maryland Stadium Authority announced in February that the pact had been extended, but only through 2023. And so the murmurs continue. And Angelos, the one guy who might be able to put the locals at ease, is nowhere to be seen or heard. In March, the Washington Post ran a story mulling his Houdini act and repeating the assertion that Angelos has been "in poor health" for years. No specifics about exactly what ails Angelos were mentioned. But the Baltimore Sun added another layer of ominousness with a report that the recent crop of prospective buyers believe that federal tax laws “could create a favorable sale opportunity for his heirs.”
If the end of Angelos's run as an owner indeed comes soon, he would leave the Orioles with as uncertain a future off the field as when he arrived. Yet despite all the awfulness the franchise has endured on his watch and the absentee ownership of recent years, the latest Forbes survey put the Orioles' value at $1.4 billion. So whether his original motivation for buying the baseball team was altruistic or not, as with his asbestos crusades, it sure seems like Angelos ultimately got more out than he put in.
The Orioles declined a request to interview Angelos for this story.
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