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Seed That Began Orioles' Sale Planted at Ethel Kennedy's Home

December 11, 1988|RICHARD JUSTICE | The Washington Post

ATLANTA — Six months later, there would be a $70 million deal to purchase the Baltimore Orioles, but in that first week of June, it was casual conversation among friends.

The scene was a party at Ethel Kennedy's home in McLean, Va., and in the crowd were movers and shakers from the worlds of sports, entertainment and business. Sargent Shriver has written down the date--June 6.

It was the day he met Baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial. It was the day he met Eli Jacobs.

"My son Bobby and I were standing around talking and laughing," Shriver remembered. "I don't even know how it came up. We were talking to Stan about his restaurant, and somehow we got on the subject of buying the Orioles."

Shriver remembers his son pointing toward a man and saying, "You know, there's a guy right there that could buy it. That's Eli Jacobs, and he's a big baseball fan."

Bobby Shriver had already mentioned the idea to Jacobs, and a marathon that would string together college backgrounds, friendships and professional associations had begun with two New York venture capitalists sharing a love of baseball.

"Sounds like a helluva deal," Bobby Shriver remembers Jacobs saying.

The deal wouldn't be finished for another six months, but the kernel of an idea began to grow at that moment. About 80 hours of negotiations would follow, and when Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams died on Aug. 13, he apparently knew of the outline that had taken shape.

Last Wednesday, as former Oriole owner Jerold C. Hoffberger complained about never getting an opportunity to bid, it appears that Agnes Williams struck a deal of perfect symmetry, one that allows her late husband's hand-picked boss, Lawrence Lucchino, to remain in charge.

The Orioles say that notion makes a good story, and while Mrs. Williams and the Shrivers hold Lucchino in extremely high esteem, it was not what swung the deal.

Money swung it, and when the agreement was signed Monday, Jacobs, the Shrivers and Lucchino had agreed to pay $70 million for the Orioles--$17 million more than had ever been paid for a baseball team.

Nonetheless, Sargent Shriver said, "I'd like to think this would be the deal Ed would have favored."

Robert Flanagan, who did much of the negotiating for Mrs. Williams, said Wednesday that seven different groups were involved in the bidding, but it appears none of the other bidding ever got past the preliminary stage.

Hoffberger said he was never allowed to make an offer, and he said he spoke with two other parties who said the same thing. Another potential buyer, developer Mark Vogel, was eliminated because he owns three Maryland harness-racing tracks, which does not appeal to many baseball owners.

Flanagan refused to disclose any of the parties because "every group was promised anonymity." Flanagan stuck to that pledge, revealing only a few details of negotiations that were conducted in extreme secrecy.

He said Mrs. Williams decided to "test the market" shortly after a Montreal meeting of major league owners in September, and that even as the bids came in, "She reserved the right not to sell."

Only a few of the bidders are known. Of those, Hoffberger has the highest profile because he originally sold the Orioles to Williams for $12 million in 1979. Today, he was also the most angry, saying he'd spent several thousand dollars and hundreds of hours putting together a package.

He said what bothered him most is that he was never given an oportunity to put a bid on the table, adding, "Who knows? My bid may have been better than the other one. They never found out."

Hoffberger said he would continue to pursue the Orioles, especially if the sale is rejected by major league owners--"My offer is still on the table."

Hoffberger said he met three times with Flanagan. The first meeting was three weeks ago, and "I didn't know who my competition was. All I know is I'd ask Bob Flanagan, 'How am I doing?' He'd say, 'You're right on track, Jerry.' I was first told otherwise on the day I was told not to show up for a meeting.

"I told Flanagan I didn't think Ed would have acted this way."

As details of the various negotiations have leaked out, it appears Hoffberger may have been one of Williams' first choices -- at least according to Hoffberger.

"He called me one day last spring," Hoffberger said, "and that's when I knew he was serious. We sat down on the day of the first spring training game in Miami and discussed it. I don't know if we would have finished the deal because he got so ill."

That was long before the Shrivers and Jacobs got involved, and along the way, Williams held a couple of more detailed conversations with Hoffberger and also met with Vogel and USF&G.

It may never be known how serious those discussions were, but Vogel said in his case, they weren't serious at all.

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