"Bowie Kuhn regards me the way Dwight Eisenhower regarded Earl Warren . . . as the greatest mistake of his life."
Edward Bennett Williams, the baseball owner, sat back and laughed, pleased at his oratory. Nearly two years ago, the 14 American League owners voted unanimously, in the shortest league meeting in history, to accept Williams, now 61, as owner of the Orioles. If they had it to do over again, well, who knows?
Williams, a partner in Washington's Williams and Connolly law firm, hardly ingratiated himself with baseball's establishment during last summer's player strike. While working behind the scenes for a settlement, he fretted, fumed and threatened "Vesuvian" (his word) explosions. He could barely contain his dismay at the lunacy that surrounded him, but mostly he did, trying to maintain leverage through discretion.
Now, months later, as he reflected quietly on his relationship with the Orioles and the baseball world, he picked at his tuna fish salad and grew grave. "We're talking about the deep economic problems that exist for what is described as the American pastime. We're taking a long, hard look at the future of baseball. I'm up about it, I really am."
His tone then changed as he grew incredulous. "What do you think it does to me when we get the following letter (from the commmissioner's office): 'We have received word that on an Oriole telecast of Aug. 30, one of the announcers said to the other in discussing the answer to a baseball trivia quiz, 'I'll bet you a necktie.' And the other replied, 'So long as it's only a $10 tie.' "
"We get a letter from the baseball establishment saying, 'We are trying to maximize the distance between baseball and gambling.' They sent it to (General Manager Hank) Peters and Peters calls me. I thought some nut stole the stationery from the commissioner's office."
During the strike, Eddie Chiles, the owner of the Texas Rangers and one of the American League dissidents, took to calling Williams "fearless leader." The first week of the strike, Chiles accompanied Williams and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner to Kuhn's office to press for a quick resolution. Williams was also one of the owners pushing for binding arbitration -- which the players said they would accept -- to end the strike.
"Edward Bennett Williams is a modern thinker," said Chiles. "He would modernize baseball if they allowed him to have an influential position. But there's a lot of folks who do not think baseball should be modernized. Then, again, it took a long time for a lot of 'em to build indoor plumbing . . . Some of 'em don't have it yet."
Some involved in the strike negotiations, including federal mediator Kenneth E. Moffett, credited Williams with breaking the stalemate by calling a strategic meeting of American League owners the week the strike ended. Especially after his role in the strike, some think Williams will be the next Walter O' Malley, a baseball power broker.
"I'm not gonna be Walter O'Malley, I'm gonna be myself," Williams said. "Up till now, I was an outlaw. I'd like to come down from the hills."
There may be a posse waiting: baseball's old guard does not like him much. Calvin Griffith, the owner of the Minnesota Twins, who is counted among the game's reactionaries, is one of them. Williams tells the story:
" 'Edward Bennett Williams is a crock . . . and you can quote me,' " Williams quoted Griffith as saying. "So in the Boston Globe they quoted him. I was in Martha's Vineyard and I get up and my kids are rolling on the floor, tears coming down their eyes. They said, 'Hey, Dad, did you see what the Globe said about you this morning?' "
There had been wide speculation about how Williams financed the purchase of the team and how he survived the strike. He reacts with annoyance, saying he paid off his loan on the team before the strike began (he purchased the Orioles for $12 million in 1979).
Still, the strike hurt the Orioles badly.
"We're taking it on the chin very hard for several reasons," he said. "We were very honest with the people. We expressed no sympathy with the strike or any of the issues. We felt they were not worth the strike. The city realized that we expressed no Pollyanna views of the split season, saying how good it is. At every stage, we were critical of the (owners') Player Relations Committee and the baseball establishment and how it comported itself before and after the strike. I guess because we were honest, fans felt . . . it is bad.
"Our attendance, which was holding at the 1980 level (before the strike) and projected to go up as we got into a pennant race, would have gone to 1.9 million," Williams said. "Now, I'm looking at a drop of at least 4,000 per game (a 25-30 percent drop).
"I just can't gauge how big it (the loss) is," he added. "At least $1 million and probably more."
The Orioles will draw only about 1 million of the projected 1.9 million fans they anticipated this year. Before the strike, the team was 130,000 ahead of last year's attendance, according to Robert Aylward, director of business affairs.
Joe Hamper, vice president for finance, estimates that strike insurance "probably compensated for something like 400,000 admissions." At an average ticket price of $4.80, that represented $1,920,000 in compensation. But, with an expected 1981 attendance of 1.9 million, it also represents a projected loss of $2.4 million in revenues that never materialized.
The current series with the Yankees, one the Orioles had hoped would be a sellout, is typical of this frustrating season at the gate. Last year, when the teams played for the final time in Baltimore from Aug. 14-18, the five-game series set a major league attendance record of 249,605. This year, the final series became moot when the Orioles were eliminated from the second-half pennant race Wednesday. The three games against the Yankees probably will draw no more than 90,000.
Although there are many who believe that baseball killed the fatted calf this summer, Williams is not among them. "They (fans) just got turned off," he said. "I'm sure they'll come back. The thing about Baltimore fans is that they demand a winner. I knew that before I got involved. But they'll be back next year with the same enthusiasm."
Attendance is especially critical for the Orioles because the team does not generate television and radio income that the big-market teams in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago receive. The Yankees, Williams points out, get $5 million for local TV rights, the Orioles $1 million.
But the television contract he inherited has only one year remaining. The key for the Orioles is combining the Baltimore and Washington markets.
According to the September issue of Broadcast magazine, Washington is ranked eighth among the major television markets and Baltimore 20th. But, as Williams says, "Together it would be fourth (with 2,328,700 households) behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. We have to hope we can get Washington acceptance for the Orioles."
Williams said one of the reasons he likes baseball as much as he does is "I instinctively enjoy games where I can assess accountability. I instinctively like the capitalistic system better than the socialist system."
That does not mean he has not abandoned his conviction that revenue-sharing -- sports socialism -- "is a must" for baseball. "Without it, baseball will be in big trouble," he says.
"It's very hard to compete with (Gene) Autry, (George) Steinbrenner and (Jerry) Reinsdorf," he added, referring to the owners of the Angels, Yankees and White Sox, respectively. "The big-market people will fight to the death revenue-sharing. And I suspect Boston will too, because although it doesn't fit in with the big markets, it's got New England . . . But the large-market people don't have the votes."
On this subject, Griffith agrees. "I have to give him credit for a couple of things he said. He said, 'Now remember, George (Steinbrenner), there are more little guys than big guys here. We have to start thinking about revenue-sharing.' He's so right about that, the other things I said about him, I'm sorry for."
It is clear that Williams, once so much bound up with the Redskins, is now immersed in the Orioles and baseball. That's because this time it's his money and he only has so much time to give to sports, he said. Oh yes, he added, his role with the Redskins, as he likes to put it, is "introducing Jack Kent Cooke at the team's welcome home luncheon."
Williams still owns 50 shares in the Redskins (14.3 percent) and has the first option to buy Cooke's 300 shares. Would he buy them if he had the chance? "The future is hard to predict," he said.
And on his baseball past, there are no regrets.
"I think I've been right in the positions I've taken (since coming into baseball)," Williams said. "There isn't one I'd retreat on -- the strike, the economics of baseball, the things we've done inside the organization: signing Hank Peters to a long-term contract, keeping the organization intact. But I think now, we have to improve on all aspects: the farm system, the promotion and the major league roster."
What about plans for a new stadium in downtown Baltimore, near the Camden Industrial Park? "We talk about a stadium all the time with the Greater Baltimore Committee," Williams said. "They've shown us spots but the parking is horrible . . . We haven't made any progress on it."
Williams reiterated there would be no (dreaded) move to Washington. "I promised Baltimore would always have baseball and I always keep my promises."
As for playing 13 games in Washington, as his stadium lease allows, Williams says, "It's not a serious possibility," and is out of the question for 1982.
That is an immense relief to the people of Baltimore, who have regarded Williams with some suspicion since he bought the team. But, he says, "They have learned to trust me. I think I have a very good relationship over there now because of our experience together."
That is a far cry from the indignant Baltimore woman, who declared when Williams purchased the team that she would rather someone from Arabia bought the Orioles than someone from Washington, D.C.
"That's because she knew I wouldn't move the team to Arabia," Williams said.