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How an ailing Edward Bennett Williams saved a stadium

Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams (left) and then-MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn

The state money to build Oriole Park at Camden Yards was secured with public testimony in Annapolis from a man who had undergone chemotherapy for colon cancer that very morning in Boston.

Many questions had been raised about Edward Bennett Williams’ integrity and commitment to keeping the Orioles in Baltimore after Williams bought the team from Jerry Hoffberger for $12.3 million in 1979. But on March 4, 1987, before the Senate Finance Committee, the seasoned trial attorney assuaged legislators’ fears, and, many say, sealed the deal for a new stadium.

No one had cleared the date for Williams’ appearance with the owner, so after his chemo session, he took a private plane from Boston to Baltimore, and headed to the State House.

“I believe that I hold that franchise in trust for the city of Baltimore and I don’t break my word,” Williams testified. “All I’ve ever asked is to break even, and I’m here forever. I have never taken one dollar out of the Baltimore Orioles.”

Legislators, who weren’t told of Williams’ condition, grilled him throughout the afternoon on the plan to build a baseball stadium and a football stadium in downtown Baltimore, saying the costs were too high for both.

“It might be cheaper for the state to buy 15,000 season tickets,” Julian L. “Jack” Lapides, then a senator whose district included Memorial Stadium, said during the testimony.

Comments like that drew loud applause, but the legislation passed.

And it was Williams’ testimony that made the difference, said Herbert J. Belgrad, then the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

“As a result of that, he began the movement and there was a lot of effort by a lot of people after that testimony,” Belgrad said. “He turned around the possibility or probability of the passage of the bills.”

Lapides agreed.

“I think he was smooth and he sort of dazzled most of the committee members,” Lapides said this week. “That’s what I think sort of helped it push through.”

Williams also told the committee that without a new facility that included club seats and luxury suites, Baltimore might not be able to regain a professional football team after losing the Colts in 1984.

“I believe the NFL owners are riddled with guilt over that and want to make reparations,” Williams said. “But they will not do it at Memorial Stadium. I hope and pray that you will see the way to make it economically feasible for the state.”

This milestone initiated the process necessary to acquire the site, relocate businesses, make financing arrangements and construct the baseball stadium. But before any designs could be drawn, or any businesses moved and demolished, the stadium authority needed to ensure that a team would be there to play when the stadium opened.

Authority officials worked with Williams and his attorney, Lawrence Lucchino, to agree to a lease before Opening Day in 1988. But despite the frequent meetings, the sides couldn’t agree, and then Easter and Passover interrupted negotiations shortly before the season started.

The Orioles went on the road and lost the first 21 games of the season, the worst start to a season for a Major League Baseball team at that time. It was then that Williams decided to move forward on lease negotiations and have a “Memorandum of Understanding” before the team came back to Baltimore.

“It was very heated negotiating,” said Alison L. Asti, then the stadium authority’s general counsel and now a judge in Anne Arundel County. Asti was given the responsibility of studying every stadium lease in the country and had to analyze each rent formula used to determine what was fair and average for Camden Yards’ rent formula.

The sides resumed negotiations at Williams’ office in Washington, D.C., on May 2, with the owner appearing more ill after having lost a significant amount of weight. Before the meeting began, Williams put on his suit jacket, but it slipped off his shoulders because of the weight loss, Belgrad said.

Williams still acted as mediator between Lucchino and the stadium authority’s counsel, Asti and Gene Feinblatt. After getting through the first point of the memorandum, Williams announced that he was heading to Baltimore for the Orioles’ game and expected the group to come up with an agreement before game time so it could be announced to the public.

After hours of battling through the second point of the lease, both sides realized it was getting close to game time, Belgrad said. The sides rushed to the train station and got through the last part of the lease, written on a club car menu.

After arriving in Baltimore, Belgrad briefed Williams and then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer on the agreement, but Schaefer refused to allow a public announcement before the game because he wanted an actual written agreement for a long-term lease that was signed by Williams. But Williams coaxed Schaefer to make the announcement, and “Fantastic Fans Day” at Memorial Stadium was marked with the announcement of the Orioles’ agreement to a 15-year lease — which later became a 30-year lease — with the stadium authority.

Because the state’s Board of Public Works had to approve the agreement by May 5, the Orioles and the stadium authority rushed to finalize the 20-page document and sign it. State troopers took the memorandum of understanding to Williams’ home at 2 a.m. after the game, after taking it to Belgrad’s home after midnight.

Williams died three months later, at age 68.

One comment

  1. And the Orioles were never the same after his death.