A Matter of Territory

Fifty years ago, the baseball shoe was on the other foot. The Washington Senators ruled the Baltimore-Washington area, and they had to be romanced and remunerated to agree to allow the St. Louis Browns to become the Baltimore Orioles.

Now, Washington is seeking to acquire the Montreal Expos, and it is the Orioles who need to be persuaded, though Major League Baseball says the Orioles hold no territorial right to prevent the transfer of a franchise to the nation's capital or its Northern Virginia suburbs.

Welcome to the bipolar baseball history of the Mid-Atlantic region, where the love-hate relationship between Baltimore and Washington has complicated the effort to find a new home for an Expos franchise that has been in limbo since baseball's central management assumed ownership of the team a couple of years ago.

The group that brought the Browns to Baltimore overcame the objections of the Senators by working out a huge broadcast deal with Senators owner Clark Griffith. The two clubs coexisted until the Senators moved to Minnesota after the 1960 season and were immediately replaced by an expansion franchise, which also moved out of town - becoming the Texas Rangers - after the 1971 season.

The Orioles have spent the past 32 years trying to establish themselves as a regional team, but the Washington area has never given up hope of reclaiming its own baseball identity - even if that identity was never all that impressive.

The baseball relationship between the two cities always was a bit strange, even before it became strained. The Orioles quickly put down roots in the 1950s and grew into a baseball powerhouse that would win its first world championship in 1966 and run off a string of 18 consecutive winning seasons from 1968 to 1985.

The Senators finished ahead of the Orioles in just the first season (1954) that they coexisted, and it soon became apparent that there would be no major baseball rivalry, despite the geographic proximity of Baltimore and Washington.

"I don't think it was ever a big rivalry," said Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, who arrived in the major leagues just a couple of years after the Browns moved to Baltimore. "It certainly wasn't the Red Sox and Yankees. They didn't have the talent. We beat them up pretty good all the years I remember."

In fact, the Orioles dominated both Senators franchises, compiling an 89-65 record against the original club and a 135-61 record against the expansion team.

"They were separate," said radio personality and local baseball historian Phil Wood. "Rivalries require there to be some degree of competition. The Orioles were always better than the Senators.

"The expansion team that came in 1961, it always had bad ownership and could never compete for players. I don't think the Senators ever looked upon the Orioles as real rivals."

Current Orioles ownership views the possible return of baseball to the nation's capital as a threat to the team's economic security, but that wasn't a major issue when the Senators gave their blessing to the move that put the struggling Browns franchise in their back yard.

The Senators struck a sweeter sponsorship deal with the beer company owned by prospective Orioles co-owner Jerry Hoffberger. They also were guaranteed a cash payment of $300,000 for the territorial concession, but Griffith apparently considered the arrival of the Browns as a potential plus for his team.

"A lot of people believe they [the Orioles] bought the Senators' vote with beer sponsorship," Wood said. "I think Griffith thought at the time that because both the Browns and the Senators were terrible, it would be a rivalry."

Happy with minors

It was a different time, and Baltimore and Washington were much different places than they are now. Baltimore was largely content to be the home of the International League Orioles during the first half of the 20th century. There was no appreciable civic resentment toward Washington for holding a monopoly on major league baseball in the region.

"We loved the O's," said longtime Baltimore broadcaster Vince Bagli, who grew up in Northeast Baltimore. "They won the pennant in 1944 and won the Little World Series. That was one of the biggest thrills I ever had in sports.

"People were pretty content, kind of laid-back and happy with the [minor league] Orioles. You didn't have the TV and other things then. You weren't really aware of the politics of sports."

Bagli, 76 and retired, grew up with split loyalties, because he was also a big fan of major league baseball and the Senators were the only game in town, even if it was the other big town in the region.

"My favorite team was the Senators," he said, "because we didn't have major league baseball."

The arrival of the Orioles and the concurrent rise of the Baltimore Colts allowed Baltimore to forge its own sports identity in the 1950s. By the '60s, the Senators and the Redskins were the ones pining for respectability. The Colts had superstar quarterback Johnny Unitas. The Orioles had Robinson, who was quickly becoming a legend at third base, and the team would soon evolve into one of the strongest franchises in baseball.

It really wasn't until the 1980s that it became a tale of two sports cities. The sudden departure of the Colts in 1984 created a civic paranoia that quickly attached itself to the Orioles, who had been purchased by prominent Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams in 1979.

There already had been speculation that Williams would move the Orioles out of Memorial Stadium and closer to Washington. Hoffberger had taken "Baltimore" off the club's road jerseys soon after the second Senators franchise headed to Texas, a move that was widely viewed as an attempt to cast the team as a more regional entity. It was only logical to Orioles fans that Williams would go a step farther and relocate.

"My feeling at the time was that was what he was going to do," said Robinson, who had retired as a player in 1977 but remained a huge presence in the organization as a broadcaster. "It upset me. Nobody in Baltimore could come up with $10 million to buy the team. Nobody wanted to put the money up.

"I really thought Edward Bennett Williams was looking at Washington. He had a vision that he could piggyback Virginia and down to the Carolinas. But things started to happen."

Those things included a World Series appearance in 1979 and the club's last world title in 1983. Memorial Stadium attendance, which had always been adequate but never spectacular, began to increase, and the departure of the Colts helped push public sentiment toward the eventual construction of Camden Yards.

"Edward Bennett Williams' acquisition of the team was loudly trumpeted and widely misunderstood," said former Orioles president Larry Lucchino, who was Williams' right-hand man throughout the nine years he owned the franchise. "In Baltimore, it meant the instant relocation of the team, and since Ed was the quintessential Washingtonian, even people in Washington expected relocation.

"I know that because I drove back to Washington with him that day [the sale was announced] and we went to dinner in Washington. The waiters were so certain that the team would relocate that they sang 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' to us while we had our steak dinner."

There is no question Williams wanted to make the Orioles a regional franchise, and it was not a coincidence that the new ballpark was placed on the Washington side of Baltimore, but Lucchino said Williams did not have his heart set on moving the Orioles to the nation's capital when he purchased the team.

"Williams tried to make it clear over the next several years that he would keep the team in Baltimore as long as it was supported in Baltimore," said Lucchino, now president of the Boston Red Sox.

"He always said he had enough money to buy a baseball team, but he did not have enough money to subsidize one. Gradually, the team was supported quite well, and Williams and I and everyone connected [with ownership] developed a real affection for Baltimore."

Perhaps the Orioles might have migrated south if not for the way the team recaptured the heart of the city in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Passion developed

"It was a confluence of events," said former local radio talk show host Stan Charles. "The Orioles' on-field success had largely been taken for granted - I can remember being able to buy tickets for a 1971 World Series game the day of the game - but in 1979 they began to play at an extremely high level again and had a cast of players that the town fell in love with. Baltimore gained a passion for baseball that hit its apex when the Colts moved.

"I think EBW may have thought he'd move the team, but I think his hands were tied."

Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell said Williams figured out early on that relocating the Orioles would be a bad idea.

"That may have been the plan for about six months," Boswell said, "but I think real fast he understood what that team meant to Baltimore."

The construction of Oriole Park, opened under the next owner, Eli Jacobs, committed the Orioles to stay in Baltimore for the foreseeable future. That left Washington to seek an expansion franchise or lure an existing team to relocate in the nation's capital or its Northern Virginia suburbs.

That's when the friction began to build. Peter Angelos, who purchased the Orioles in 1993, made no secret of his opposition to a second team in the region. He commissioned an economic study in May 1996 that said about 25 percent of the club's attendance came from the greater Washington area, hoping to convince his fellow owners that the arrival of another franchise would relegate his team to small-market status.

Prospective ownership groups in Washington and Northern Virginia dispute those numbers, but there is little doubt there would be a significant impact on Orioles ticket and broadcast revenues. The question is whether there would be enough of a negative impact to justify denying Washington its own team.

Twice, Washington-area bids were passed over as Major League Baseball expanded in 1993 and 1998. Businessman William Collins' Northern Virginia partnership and a competing downtown group subsequently focused on acquiring the Montreal Expos, who are being operated by Major League Baseball and will play a portion of their home schedule in Puerto Rico this season for the second time.

Though Major League Baseball is considering several possible permanent homes for the Expos, there remains the perception that the only reason they have not already landed in Washington is because of the strong opposition of the Orioles. That perception was fueled by a Washington media campaign to shame the Orioles into withdrawing their objection.

Boswell called last year on Washington fans to boycott the Orioles, but the impact of his column was hard to gauge, with overall attendance in steady decline over a string of six losing seasons.

Boswell recently rescinded his call for a boycott after the Orioles signed several top-name free agents to upgrade the offense, but he seems certain Washington baseball fans harbor strong resentment toward Orioles ownership for inhibiting the effort to land the Expos.

"If the Orioles hadn't blocked us, we'd have had a team years ago. Everybody in baseball understands that," Boswell said. "I think the last five years, it has gotten to the point of being ridiculous. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, you could have questioned whether the area could support a team, but it has gotten to be a joke.

"That said, we do like the O's."

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