Baltimore Sun's 2018 Business and Civic Hall of Fame honoree: Ronald M. Shapiro
Jun 07, 2018 | 6:15 PM
Most Baltimoreans probably know Ronald M. Shapiro as a superstar sports agent — the guy who not only represented Cal Ripken Jr. but about 80 percent of the Orioles’ last World Series-winning team roster. But that was actually his fourth or fifth career, and by no means his last. Indeed, Mr. Shapiro’s career is remarkable for the sheer number of ways he has contributed to Baltimore, dating from the moment he first arrived here after law school.
He was clerking for federal District Judge Frank Kaufman when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and he and one of his fellow clerks, Larry Gibson, were consumed like many people at the time with the need to find a productive way to react to that tragedy. The two entered private practice at different firms in Baltimore and almost immediately started working together on cases to enforce then then-new federal Fair Housing Act. Advocates would get reports of houses or apartments that were being advertised for sale or rent to whites but not blacks. They sent testers — white men and women — to inquire about them, and their findings would become the basis of suits Messrs. Shapiro and Gibson filed, almost always successfully. The pair also got involved in politics, helping Parren Mitchell in his first campaigns for Congress and eventually serving as manager (Mr. Gibson) and treasurer (Mr. Shapiro) for Kurt Schmoke’s campaigns.
Meanwhile, Mr. Shapiro was busy forming his own law firm, teaching law, first at the University of Baltimore and then at the University of Maryland, and creating a bar review course for recent law school graduates. In the mid-’70s, he became Maryland Securities Commissioner, working on fraud cases, phony tax shelters and the like. It was actually that experience, plus his political and civil rights work, that got him into what was then the brand-new profession of the sports agent.
He was back at his law firm in 1976 hoping for some clients to walk through the door when he got a phone call from Orioles owner Jerold Hoffberger, who had a proposition he couldn’t refuse: “How’d you like to save our legend?” He was referring to Brooks Robinson, who had gotten tangled up in some bad investments at the time. Hoffberger knew Mr. Shapiro because he had helped his nephew with legal troubles when he tried to cross over into Canada during the Vietnam War, and he had heard about his work in securities law. Mr. Shapiro helped Mr. Robinson, and Mr. Robinson introduced him to other players who needed some financial help. What they really wanted, Mr. Shapiro realized, was an agent.
“When I got into it, I told my then-inlaws, and they said, ‘You’re going to lose your reputation. You’re going to be deemed a shark. The pinstripes are going to fall off your suit,’” Mr. Shaprio says. “I said to myself, I don’t have to do it that way.”
And he didn’t. One of the most famous stories about Mr. Shaprio’s success as a sports agent is the way he wooed a young hotshot named Cal Ripken Jr. At the time, Mr. Ripken was being wined and dined in fancy restaurants from here to South Beach by agents looking to sign him. Mr. Shapiro, by contrast, invited him to what Mr. Ripken recalls as an extremely plain conference room in his extremely plain office for a tuna sandwich on a paper plate.
“It was immediately more about the substance of the advice,” Mr. Ripken says. “I don’t think it was a strategy. It was just who he was.”
Pioneers in health care, business, finance the law and philanthropy make up the 2018 class of The Sun's Business and Civic Hall of Fame.
It proved to be indicative of his entire approach to negotiating on his players’ behalf. He didn’t content himself with the superficial, he was out to understand what was really important to his clients, what was important to their teams, and where they could find common ground. He was an excellent listener who talked to his clients about what kind of lives they wanted to live, where they wanted to raise their families and how they could control their destinies, Mr. Ripken says.
That experience led to his fifth or sixth career, depending on how you count, the Shapiro Negotiations Institute, a firm that conducts training on how to succeed in negotiations and build relationships at the same time. He’s written books on negotiations (most famously, “The Power of Nice”), and he has become deeply involved with organizations that seek to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts in places like South Africa, Northern Ireland and the Middle East.
Brendan Tuohey, co-founder and executive director of PeacePlayers International, which seeks to use sports to create a more peaceful world, says Mr. Shapiro lent not only his connections in the five years he chaired the organization’s board but also his values.