It was a time when Peter G. Angelos was known as the "king of asbestos."
He was cast as a civic white knight, using the millions he had earned representing workers with asbestos-related illnesses to return the Baltimore Orioles to local ownership.
On Aug. 2, 1993, Angelos and his band of merry Marylanders bought the club at an auction in New York for $173 million - nearly $50 million more than had ever been paid for a baseball team.
"It's like another era, isn't it?" Angelos said in a recent interview in the conference room of his Charles Center law offices, which, interestingly enough, features a statue of Johnny Unitas and a LeRoy Neiman painting of the Three Tenors, but nothing that says baseball.
"It was another time, just a short period of 11 years [since buying the team]," Angelos said. "Many things have changed within that period - enormously, as well as the cost of sports franchises."
This year, the Los Angeles Dodgers were sold for $430 million in a deal that included Dodger Stadium and the team's spring training facility. In Baltimore, Steve Bisciotti paid $325 million to buy the half of the Ravens that he didn't already own.
Angelos was in a position to become a majority stakeholder after his success in the 1980s and '90s winning judgments or settlements for tens of thousands of litigants.
Born in Pittsburgh on July 4, 1929, Angelos came to Baltimore at 11, was elected to the City Council at 30 and ran unsuccessfully for mayor at 38.
He got his chance to own the Orioles because of the financial troubles of New Yorker Eli S. Jacobs, who bought the team from the estate of Edward Bennett Williams in December 1988 for $70 million.
Williams, a Washington lawyer, had purchased the team for $12 million in 1979 from brewery magnate - and Baltimorean - Jerold C. Hoffberger. Until the Orioles were promised a state-of-the-art - and built-with-state-money - new stadium, Williams would sign only one-year leases for the team to play at dowdy Memorial Stadium. Marylanders feared that he would move the Orioles to the nation's capital.
Even though Williams had signed a 15-year lease in May 1988 to play at what would become Oriole Park at Camden Yards, local ownership of what was then Baltimore's only major league team remained on the public's mind. (The Orioles' current lease will keep them at Camden Yards through 2021.)
"I became involved because I thought a local group should own the franchise, and I set out to put such a group together," Angelos said.
Jacobs disclosed that he was considering selling in a letter to then-baseball commissioner Fay Vincent in June 1991. A year later, Jacobs told some of his lenders that his investments weren't generating enough money to meet all his obligations. He needed time, he wrote in a letter, to sell assets and restructure his debt.
By December, Jacobs was in talks with William O. DeWitt Jr., a Cincinnati oil executive and a limited partner in the Texas Rangers, to sell the Orioles. DeWitt's baseball roots ran deep. His father owned the St. Louis Browns - who moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles in 1954 - in the 1940s and was president of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1960s.
The deal with DeWitt for $141.3 million was on track until March 1993, when seven banks filed petitions in a New York court to force Jacobs into bankruptcy.
The door was now open for Angelos, who until then had said he would defer to DeWitt.
"I was being discouraged by local people, who had good information, who said it was a done deal," Angelos said. "So for a while they put me off. But then I decided that I would attempt it anyway. I wouldn't accept the proposition that everything was finished."
Angelos' group of investors included almost anybody who was anybody with Maryland ties - and had a lot of money: Author Tom Clancy, comic book mogul Stephen A. Geppi, philanthropist Henry Knott Sr., producer and director Barry Levinson, broadcaster Jim McKay and tennis star Pam Shriver, who joined the group with a handshake over strawberries and cream during a break in her Wimbledon schedule.
"It was quite a group - it is quite a group," Angelos said.
"It really gives what we attempted to do and hopefully what we're striving to do - a lot of color. It gives you a little taste of what this area has produced - some really exceptional people."
The 'home team'
The competition to own the Orioles turned into an out-and-out bidding contest on June 22, in what was supposed to be a routine procedural hearing in a New York bankruptcy court.
George P. Stamas, then a partner with Baltimore law giant Piper & Marbury and the man who had helped Angelos assemble his ownership group, stood up and told Judge Cornelius Blackshear that he "represented the home team, and that the home team wanted to bid" on the Orioles.
The "home team" would offer $145 million, Stamas said in the hearing. After a 90-minute recess, DeWitt's attorney came back with a bid of $146.25 million. Angelos' group replied that it would pay $148.1 million.
The race was on, and Judge Blackshear set an Aug. 2 date for a final auction.
"I ran to a pay phone, called Peter, told him about our sort of initial success to try to open things up, and the judge walked by the pay phone and gave me [a] wink and nod, which I duly reported to Peter," Stamas said.
Angelos and DeWitt weren't the only interested parties. There was native Baltimorean and former pro football player Jean S. Fugett Jr., who was chairman of TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc.; and Jeffrey Loria, an art dealer and owner of a Triple-A minor league team.
Doug Jemal, whose family owned Nobody Beats the Wiz, a New Jersey-based electronics chain, had expressed interest, but withdrew before the auction, saying he believed the price would go too high.
The six weeks between the hearing and the auction saw alliance maneuvering that wouldn't have been out of place on Survivor.
Fugett, now a Baltimore-based attorney who works with retired football players for a nonprofit organization, said he had offers to join more than one of the groups.
"Under certain terms," he said.
But those terms called for TLC Beatrice to be a minority partner with no control.
"We had never made an investment where we were a minority partner," Fugett said.
"Also, there was a symbolic aspect, although when you're doing business you don't really do symbol. We did have an economic franchise because we were African-American. And because of how successful we were, that it would have been a very negative if we would go into a bad business deal. And any business deal on the level we were playing, with that kind of money, you don't go in as a passive investor."
Stamas said he first met DeWitt at a reception during the festivities for the 1993 All-Star Game in Baltimore.
"We had one of these, 'let the best man win,' type of things," said Stamas, now a senior partner in the Washington-based law firm of Kirkland & Ellis.
The two groups had no formal meetings about joining forces, he said, "but there were sort of little signs being passed back and forth. I do recall spreading the word around for Peter that when they were ready to talk, we were interested.
"And we made it very clear from the very beginning that we were going to go the distance, no matter what it took. We were certainly hoping that on the courthouse steps, so to speak, that we would reach an agreement with them. But we weren't at all sure it was going to happen."
Left out of the pre-auction maneuvering was the New York art dealer, Loria.
"We just didn't give him a lot of credence," Stamas said. "He hadn't really approached us. His name hadn't surfaced. He hadn't tried to reach out. No one knew him. I knew some people who used him as an art dealer, but that was about it.
"I actually did get a confirmation that he was kind of for real from some very close friends who were not part of our group, but very prominent Washingtonians who actually used him. But Peter and I never made much of it."
Angelos and Stamas spent the morning of the auction, Aug. 2, forging an alliance with DeWitt and his group in DeWitt's suite at the St. Regis Hotel, at 55th Street and 5th Avenue.
"The DeWitt people called us and asked us to come over to their hotel," Stamas said. "We thought that was a good sign."
Angelos said he wasn't sure why, after coming so close to owning the Orioles on his own, DeWitt finally decided to join him.
"I guess the fact that I said simply that I intended to see that the team was owned by a local group, and I was hoping we wouldn't get into a bidding contest because I intended to achieve the goal that I was discussing," he said.
DeWitt, now the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, did not return numerous phone calls seeking comment.
The members of the newly formed alliance hustled to the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan for what was scheduled to be a 2 p.m. auction.
"We all went arm in arm to the courtroom and announced to the judge that we had reached a deal," Stamas said. "We sort of looked at each other and congratulated one another. Then the judge looked over his glasses ... and reminded me that there might be other bidders in the room.
"That took us by surprise. And we found ourselves at that moment in a bidding war with Jeffrey Loria."
The one thing that worried Angelos, Stamas and DeWitt was that Judge Blackshear would not look kindly on their alliance.
The object of a bankruptcy auction is to get the utmost for creditors. A merger of two competing groups could be seen as something that would suppress the ultimate price.
But if Judge Blackshear had any thoughts of objecting, Loria quickly gave him reason not to.
"Loria's lawyer announced very dramatically and emphatically that they didn't care what amalgamations had occurred, they were going to walk out with the ownership of the team," Angelos said.
After more meetings between lawyers to hammer out details of the Angelos-DeWitt alliance, the proceedings began at 3:10 p.m. with the judge going over the ground rules. Poised for action were three sets of bidders: The "home team," Loria and Fugett.
"It sort of reminded me of the Scopes trial," Stamas said. "It felt like it was 120 degrees in a courtroom that was packed wall-to-wall with potential bidders, autograph seekers, the curious."
The bidding begins
Finally, the auction started at 4:15 p.m., and Stamas opened the bidding for the Baltimore group at $151.25 million. Fugett passed, as he would in each of the subsequent rounds. Loria topped Angelos' bid by $100,000 - the smallest increase permitted.
Stamas went to $153 million, Loria to $153.1 million.
That pattern continued through each of the first eight rounds - Stamas raising to the next million-dollar mark, Loria to the next $100,000 - until the bidding reached $160 million. Then, Loria began to increase his bids by $1 million.
Angelos said that, even though he thought $160 million would win the team, he didn't get nervous.
"But I was wondering what the final number would be," he said.
He still had a way to go before he'd get there.
With both sides upping the ante by $1 million with each bid, the price reached $168 million in the 12th round.
In the 13th round, Stamas and Angelos went to $170 million. Loria passed.
Angelos' group declared itself the winner - but Judge Blackshear didn't.
Fugett's attorney asked for a recess, which the judge granted.
"I never made a bid that day because I couldn't get to the amount that Pete Angelos could," Fugett said. "And the only bid that really counts is the last one."
Loria came back from the recess and offered $171 million. Stamas went to $172 million. Loria to $173 million.
In the 16th round, Stamas offered $174 million.
Loria's attorney hesitated.
"After what seemed like forever, I think it was Jeffrey Loria himself who said, 'Congratulations Mr. Angelos, congratulations Mr. Stamas, you have yourselves a baseball team,'" Stamas said. "I don't think I'll ever forget those words."
In 45 minutes, their price had gone from an opening bid of $151.25 million to $173 million, deducting a $1 million credit for legal work done by the DeWitt-Angelos groups in drafting the sales contract.
At Loria's declaration, the courtroom erupted in applause.