THE MAN TO SEE: EDWARD BENNETT WILLIAMS, ULTIMATE INSIDER, LEGENDARY TRIAL LAWYER. Evan Thomas. Simon & Schuster. 587 pages. $27.50. Edward Bennett Williams owned the Baltimore Orioles from 1979 until his death from cancer in August 1988. During that time, the hometown team won a world's championship, changed managers four times, sent a Hall of Famer into reluctant retirement and captured the national spotlight with a 21-game losing streak. For the writers who covered the Orioles during the 1980s, however, the games rarely were the most compelling part of the job. Generally, that was the volatile gentleman in the blue, shapeless suit -- Williams, of course. His mood changed about as often as the American League standings, and was as easy to predict. He could be gruff and unapproachable; the next invariably brought something new. No one knew precisely what, perhaps not even Williams. For days, he would ignore phone messages without apology or explanation. Finally, he would call with an invitation to Washington. The talks that followed always produced gems. Sitting in his office one summer day in 1985, Williams uttered a quote so colorful even he briefly denied it. He had a choice word for former manager Joe Altobelli. Actually, two: "cement head." Occasionally, there were suggestions that Williams' world extended beyond the owner's box at Memorial Stadium. One day in his office, he greeted a visitor at a receptionist's desk. Then he scooped up two messages. They read: Call Lauren Bacall and Call Muhammad Ali. In "The Man to See," Evan Thomas does not dwell on Williams' years as owner of the baseball team. The book has 587 pages, of which maybe 30 touch on the Orioles years. Instead, he explores the celebrated life that nearly was over when Williams bought the team. The book traces Williams' life back to a grim, if not impoverished, childhood in Hartford, Conn. His father worked in a department store and desired nothing more for his son. When the younger Williams accepted a scholarship to attend Holy Cross, his father asked why. Later, Williams won a more valuable scholarship -- to Georgetown Law School. His father cried at the news. The relationship never recovered. When his parents died, Williams was offered mementos from their double-decker home by family members. "Forget it," came the reply. Williams was building a different life in Washington, one far removed from Hartford and small ambitions it seemed to represent. He was intrigued by trial law and enjoyed the publicity a celebrated case could bring. By the early 1950s, the young lawyer almost exclusively was in the business of trying such cases. Sen. Joe McCarthy was one of the first clients to bring Williams to the national stage. McCarthy was a busy man in those days, saving the country from an imagined communist threat. Meanwhile, Williams was defending the senator against a variety of charges, including tax evasion. Williams did not like all his clients. But he "shared a genuine kinship" with McCarthy, Mr. Thomas writes: "The two Irish boyos shared a taste for gin and palaver, although Williams had great self-control and McCarthy had absolutely none." Over the next 35 years, Williams defended some clients who appeared sure losers, usually with good results. His satisfied customers included Jimmy Hoffa, Adam Clayton Powell, John Connolly and Hugh Hefner. The privilege did not come cheaply. Connolly, for instance, paid $400,000 to sit beside his lawyer. "The ideal client is a rich man who is scared," Williams liked to say, quoting a former colleague. Not all that Mr. Thomas has uncovered reflects well on Williams. Throughout, there are suggestions that Williams drank excessively, particularly in the early years. When he drank, Mr. Thomas writes, Williams was most vulnerable to the sin he considered "truly damnable" -- cheating on his wife. Mr. Thomas, an assistant managing editor of Newsweek, was so enterprising that he even located a cheatee -- who suggested that Williams never seemed particularly motivated by the task at hand. "He was not interested in sex. He thought it was something you had to do after taking a girl to dinner," the woman told the author. Mr. Thomas does not turn up much that will be new and of interest to Orioles fans. But he does alter many perceptions about the illness that eventually Williams. Publicly, Williams spoke of the cancer as a minor inconvenience that kept him out of work and left him with a few scars. Privately, it was much worse. By March 1984, the colon cancer discovered seven years earlier had spread to several organs, including both lungs. He called his law partners together to announce what he had never hinted at before -- that this might be the end. "I don't know if I am ever going to come back to the firm," he said before heading off to another round of surgery. Remarkably, he lived four more years. In a book filled with solid reporting, Mr. Thomas sadly but thoroughly explains how.