Skip to Content

Peter Angelos Was The Ultimate Team Owner

Attorney Peter Angelos talks about his law practice and his hopes about buying the Orioles.
Bo Rader/Sporting News via Getty Images

Longtime Baltimore Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos died on Saturday, March 23.

Before he was a nightmare sports owner, Peter Angelos was a dream sports owner. His buying of the Baltimore Orioles in 1993 was nothing short of an act of deliverance for the city and the fans. It came a decade past the 1983 World Series, the final championship in the Orioles' generation-long reign as the best-run franchise in sports. In the years between, on the field, the team had plummeted to the 0–21 start of 1988, risen back to almost win the division the next year, and sagged again. Off the field, ownership had passed from the just-out-of-town hands of Washington, D.C. big shot Edward Bennett Williams to the wholly out-of-town hands of the New York financier Eli Jacobs, whose plans and aims for the team seemed arbitrary and mysterious, right up to the point he lost control of the franchise in bankruptcy. 

At that low point, to the rescue came Peter Angelos, 100 percent Baltimorean and certifiably rich. Even his fortune was better than other people's fortunes: a huge pile of millions taken as the attorney's share of the billion-dollar mountain he won for workers whose lungs were destroyed by asbestos. He was the little guy who'd made good by fighting for the little guy. Now he was going to use that money to turn his hometown Orioles into perennial contenders again. 

And it worked! The Orioles, who'd been fitful and tentative in the free-agent era, went out and signed Rafael Palmeiro. Also Sid Fernandez and Chris Sabo, but spending bad money is part of spending money. The sellout crowds who'd started showing up for the new, era-defining stadium in 1992 kept coming. When the owners pulled the plug on the 1994 season, the Orioles were in second place. 

Then, as the other owners made plans to open the 1995 season with replacement players, Angelos refused. Running out a scab team went against his principles as a labor lawyer; it also would have ruined Cal Ripken Jr.'s consecutive-games streak. Here, it seemed, was an owner who understood he was the steward of a public trust. 

Nothing was too good for the public. The lockout ended, with no scab games played, and the Orioles signed Kevin Brown and Jesse Orosco. They made midseason trades to pick up the heavy contracts of Scott Erickson and Bobby Bonilla. When the result was a middling 71–73 season, the wallet just opened wider: Roberto Alomar, B.J. Surhoff, Randy Myers, and David Wells, with Davey Johnson to manage them all—Orioles second-base legend Davey Johnson, world-champion Mets manager Davey Johnson, the perfect embodiment of a return to old-fashioned winning by new means. They claimed the American League wild-card berth, beat a powerhouse Cleveland team, and—


In the aftermath, there was one strange and ominous event: Jon Miller, the team's beloved radio announcer—a superstar at the peak of his craft—found himself without a contract offer for the upcoming season. As the offseason dragged on, and other opportunities were running low, he accepted an offer to become the voice of the team he'd rooted for as a child, the San Francisco Giants. Angelos then put out the word that Miller had been scheming to go home to California all along, and had never wanted to stay with the Orioles. (Miller would keep his home in Maryland for years after taking the job on the West Coast.)

The team kept going, though, picking up Jimmy Key from the world-champion Yankees and adding Eric Davis and winning the division wire-to-wire in 1997, before Cleveland returned the favor from the year before and ruined the season in the ALCS, on an 11th inning homer to break a scoreless tie. A tough way to go, but after two playoff runs in a row, with marquee players in a sold-out ballpark, who couldn't be a little philosophical about it all?

Peter Angelos, it turned out, couldn't be philosophical about it all. He forced Johnson to resign as manager, ostensibly not for coming up short in the playoffs, but after a public feud about Johnson's having fined Alomar $10,500 for skipping an exhibition game and directed the money to a charity run by his own wife. If you squinted, this could have been about ethics and principles and even labor rights; what it felt like, though, was the owner cutting his big-name manager down to size. 

More than that, even, it felt like gratuitous churn. "I've been in the league eight years and this is my fifth or sixth manager," the team's homegrown ace, Mike Mussina, told the press. "It's difficult when there is that much changeover." In Johnson's place Angelos promoted Ray Miller, a proven success as the pitching coach who'd already washed out as a major-league manager once before. The team went 79–83; general manager Pat Gillick resigned; Alomar left for Cleveland, to be replaced by Delino DeShields; Palmeiro went to Texas, swapping places with Will Clark—a year older than Palmeiro, and nearly four million dollars cheaper on their new contracts.  

Not that Angelos was reluctant to spend—not yet—or afraid to make a big gesture. To fill the new holes in the lineup, he signed Albert Belle, and that spring he sent the team on a diplomatic mission to play exhibition baseball in Havana. Fidel Castro showed up on the field. I was in the traveling press corps, and one of the Cubans asked me if the Orioles were a top team. I pictured the beet-red, balding Clark, sitting at a restaurant table earlier on the trip, looking like a middle-aged farmer. I told the Cuban that they might be, but I wasn't sure. 

They were not. They went 78–84. Angelos fired his single-season general manager, Frank Wren, and not-exactly-replaced him by giving Syd Thrift, the ancient executive who'd been in charge of the minor leagues, the title of vice president of baseball operations. The chaos was seeping into the structure of the org chart. Ray Miller gave way to Mike Hargrove. Belle's hip began breaking down. 

Albert Belle's hip was nobody's fault (he still hit .282/.342/.474 on one leg in 2000), but the press and Belle despised each other, and so it became a morality tale. Peter Angelos, the erratic and tyrannical owner, had lavished money on a bad person and was being punished for it. 

Meanwhile, Mussina—31 years old, with a record of 147–81, the centerpiece of Baltimore's rotation since age 22—was coming up on the end of his contract. He was reportedly comfortable in Baltimore; he liked being a three-hour drive from his home in Montoursville, Penn. Incredibly, Angelos found a way to turn this into a power struggle, and specifically into a replay of the Jon Miller episode. The Orioles kept their ace dangling and delayed a new contract until the New York Yankees offered one of their own, promising the self-styled small-town boy that Montoursville was an easy drive from the lights of the big city, too. When the Yankees won out, Angelos tried to blame Mussina for leaving. No one even pretended to believe him. 

In less than a decade, Peter Angelos had built a winner and then destroyed it utterly. No self-respecting star wanted to play for his Orioles. "It's like we have Confederate money; it's no good," Thrift would famously say at the winter meetings; meanwhile, the minor leagues, Thrift's responsibility before taking over the whole organization, were almost unbelievably empty of talent. Attendance slid from its peak at 3.7 million in 1997 down below 2 million and kept going. Cal Ripken Jr. retired. The names on the jerseys kept changing; the names and the job titles in the front office kept changing; the team kept losing. 

There would be 14 consecutive losing seasons before the team turned it around, under Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter, and then crashed again, launching into a multi-year program of enforced cheapness and deliberate badness. Miserable as that was, it couldn't exactly be blamed on Peter Angelos, who died on March 23 at the age of 94—somewhere along the line, he had slipped into dementia, and was fully debilitated as his family fought each other in court for control of the team.

That grim final act suggested a new interpretation of what had gone before it—maybe there had been more behind the petty and destructive feuds, the impulsive decisions, than a simple defect of character. Still, Peter Angelos was always a pugnacious soul. He got his fortune and reputation by being contrary and egotistical enough to think he could take on huge corporations and win. He was never built to fade into the background of other people's success. In sports ownership as in everything, an individual rich person's goals may sometimes, for a while, line up with the public interest. But always, in the end, they're in it for themselves. That's why they're rich.

Correction (1:04 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that the Orioles claimed the first-ever American League wild-card berth in 1996; the wild card debuted the previous year, 1995, and went to the Yankees.

If you liked this blog, please share it! Your referrals help Defector reach new readers, and those new readers always get a few free blogs before encountering our paywall.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter