legend of Orioles baseball. Lucchino did everything he could do to save baseball for the city and nurture the franchise to this point in its rich – but not-ever-profitable-until-he-came-along – history.
Lucchino came into the franchise in 1979 as the No. 1 man for owner Edward Bennett Williams, who purchased the team from longtime beer man Jerold Hoffberger for $12 million. Williams, often referred to as EBW, also had held a minority interest in the Washington Redskins and was considered the quintessential Washington power attorney, with friends throughout the converging worlds of government and law. Lucchino, who worked at Williams’ firm, learned the business of sports law serving both the Orioles and Redskins and helped EBW complete the transaction on Aug. 2, 1979.
Every Orioles fan alive remembers the magical summer of 1979 – the summer of the birth of “Oriole Magic” and “The Roar From 34,” an upper deck right field section at Memorial Stadium that birthed super fan “Wild” Bill Hagy, who led super cheers. Beer poured. Eddie Murray hit home runs. Mike Flanagan and Jim Palmer led the pitching staff. Earl Weaver reigned.
The Orioles were in the midst of a World Series run and the two “Washington men” had allowed the sale to remain quiet until after the season so that the ever-present Hoffberger could have one last run in the sun and a chance to win another World Championship. The Birds lost a heartbreaking Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Fall Classic. But Williams felt so strongly about Hoffberger that he named him president of the team for the next five years as part of the deal. Meanwhile, Lucchino learned the business of baseball in the 1980s in Baltimore, and Williams put him in charge of finding a new stadium for the Orioles. This was unprecedented heavy lifting, especially after the city and state failed to deliver a facility for the Colts, who snuck out of town in March 1984 with a greedy owner who wanted a better stadium and a better revenue stream.
The Baltimore Orioles were a tough business in 1979. Even when it was going well on the field, trying to match million-dollar offers with the likes of the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers was impossible.
Hoffberger begrudgingly sold the team to Williams because he couldn’t figure out a way to make money off of owning the Baltimore Orioles after many years. He could never even break even over two decades and with the advent of free agency in the 1970s, the small market Orioles were finding it hard to compete in keeping players even amidst the success of a farm system that was the envy of the sport. The vaunted “Oriole Way” looked better in the standings than it did in the accountant’s office.
Williams came to provincial Baltimore as the “Washington, D.C. owner.” He was forever rumored to be moving the Orioles to Washington – a narrative he fought hard to refute even in light of the Bullets heading to the nation’s capital in 1973 and the Colts departure for Indianapolis. In fact, on the summer day in 1979 when he bought the team and returned to Washington, D.C. for dinner with Lucchino, a waiter stood at their table and sang “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” somehow believing that it was EBW’s destiny to move the Orioles to R.F.K. Stadium.
It was very complicated, the relationship Baltimore and Washington had over the years with baseball.
The Washington Senators had existed since 1901 when the St. Louis Browns came to Baltimore in 1954 in a group led by Hoffberger and his friend Clarence Miles. The new group, renaming the team “Orioles,” paid Senators owner Clark Griffith a $300,000 payment and bought a lucrative beer sponsorship for the Washington club. The two clubs, just 38 miles apart, would both play in the American League.
Over the next two decades, baseball in the nation’s capital was a dud on the field and at the turnstile. In 1960, Griffith took a better deal to move the Senators to Minneapolis and Major League Baseball replaced the team with an expansion franchise to ward off threats of losing their precious anti-trust exemption in D.C. Two sets of owners continued to bleed money for a decade before Bob Short moved the team to Arlington, Texas in 1971.
Meanwhile, the Orioles flourished on the field but never in gate receipts during the glory era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Orioles dominated both Senators franchises, compiling an 89-65 record against the first group and a 135-61 record against the expansion team. There was never a “rivalry” per se, because the Senators were perennial doormats, doomed early in the season and vanquished into