Angelos, then and now, a character


THREE-HUNDRED pound Solomon Liss erupted from his chair in the ornate chambers of Baltimore City Hall and mocked his brand-new colleague on the City Council, a "small, dapper" man, according to news accounts of the day. It was May 22, 1959.

"I am quite a sizable dragon and would like to admonish the new councilman he is too small to be a St. George and to accomplish my demise. I expect to be here after he's gone," Liss sniffed at Peter G. Angelos, a 29-year-old law student.

"Yes," Mr. Angelos replied to Liss in his first meeting, "[you] will be here after I have gone gone to higher [office]."

Eager to fight

Some 40 years before Peter G. Angelos, multi-millionaire baseball team owner, came off as ruthless, headstrong and too eager to pick a fight, driving events that led to the recent resignation of manager-of-the-year Davey Johnson from the Orioles, he was known to Baltimoreans as Peter G. Angelos, a fresh-faced City Council member who could be ruthless, headstrong and eager to fight.

Mr. Angelos ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat in 1958. Undeterred, he came back in 1959 to win a Third District seat on the City Council. He served until 1963, then lost badly in a bid for council president to Thomas J. D'Alesandro III.

He toyed with running again for the state Senate and Congress, then decided to run for mayor in 1967. He lost again to Mr. D'Alesandro, or "young Tommy" as he was known to city voters who had elected his father and namesake as mayor and congressman in the '40s and '50s.

Over the next generation, Peter Angelos remained largely out of the public eye, amassing a fortune from lawsuits on behalf of steel and shipyard workers harmed by exposure to asbestos. He led a group to buy the Orioles in 1993 and has been in the headlines ever since.

Returning to the record of his brief, but fiery, political career is akin to reviewing the contents of a Baltimore bicentennial time capsule before it is buried for future generations. It offers an illuminating window on Peter Angelos, then and now.

The man has never minced words. When he ran against Mr. D'Alesandro for mayor, he called him "the biggest do-nothing City Council president this city has ever experienced." He accused his opponent of giving payola to "every boss and bosslet" in Baltimore.

Even in an era when the political language was more raw and colorful than the blow-dried campaigns of today, Mr. Angelos had a peacock's flourish and the pugnacity of a bantam rooster.

One political analyst described Councilman Angelos as "excellent on the attack but lacks staying power on important issues." A Sun editorial compared his relentlessness to a "dull needle stuck in a worn record."

"He was a rough diamond," recalls former mayor and governor William Donald Schaefer, who served with Mr. Angelos on the council. "He didn't have a lot of money, but he was very, very smart and very cocky."

Welfare reformist

Long before anyone knew of "welfare reform," Mr. Angelos wanted to require work of able-bodied recipients. He ferociously pursued the ouster of the city's well-respected welfare director, Esther Lazarus, because he judged her as ineffectual, but he came to regret his own venomous attack. "I know it did me a lot of harm politically, but more than that it gave people the wrong impression of my concerns," he said years later.

Society would eventually see the wisdom of Mr. Angelos' positions on an array of subjects, from his legislation to do away with segregated public restrooms to greater fiscal accountability government. His musings about reading instruction back then resonate as clearly as if lifted from today's newspaper, save for the dated slang:

"Slum youngsters lack a sense of auditory discrimination essential to reading," he said in 1967. "Slum youngsters have not had the experience of having adults correct pronunciation."

Some of his actions also dealt with the Orioles he would later come to own. He demanded an investigation of the city parks board after it rejected the team's petition to allow beer advertisements on the scoreboard at Memorial Stadium.

He argued that the deal with Hamm's Brewing Co. to underwrite a $308,000 scoreboard -- 1/15th the cost of the one at Camden Yards -- was "generous and advantageous." Other brewers in town were putting heavy pressure on the parks board to scuttle the deal.

A photo of Mr. Angelos in The Sun when he ran for mayor is an uncanny likeness of the man today, considering the elapse of 30 years: the thick, slicked-back hair, perpetual rings beneath deep-set eyes, a broad nose that he once told an interviewer could be molded various ways -- the product of boyhood scuffles growing up in Pittsburgh and Baltimore's Highlandtown after the Depression.

Old pols

After Mr. Angelos left politics, Mr. Schaefer said he did not "hear from him, I didn't see him, we completely lost touch" for 20 years. The men got reacquainted several years ago when Mr. Angelos called the then-governor to say he wanted to help Baltimore get a National Football League franchise to replace the long-lost Colts.

"He's getting a bad deal right now," Mr. Schaefer said, "Davey Johnson didn't put up the money. Angelos put up the money. People are forgetting that."

Mr. D'Alesandro, now retired from politics and law, echoes those sentiments. Though he could never understand why his boyhood friend once opposed him for mayor ("I've asked him why 1,000 times"), he defends Mr. Angelos with a passion.

"One of the things people are overlooking is he cemented this team in Baltimore by his purchase and then he's thrown all this money in to make it a viable product. The success of the Orioles at Camden Yards was a key factor in the arrival of the football team."

Peter Angelos would no doubt welcome the support from such revered names in city history. The man's hunger for outside approval, however, has always been outweighed by his compulsion to challenge perceived dragons.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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