Joe L. Allbritton, the wealthy banker and businessman who hopes to bring a baseball team to Washington, long has had a reputation as a man who can turn anything he touches to silver, if not gold.

Allbritton already was a multi-millionaire when he came to Washington from Houston in 1974 to buy the faltering Evening Star communications empire that included the Washington Star and WMAL television. He sold the newspaper to Time Inc. in 1978. It failed in 1981.

Allbritton kept the television station, now called WJLA, and has made it the centerpiece of his privately held broadcast company, estimated to be worth more than $150 million.

The year the Star failed, Allbritton waged a bitter, successful campaign to gain control of Riggs National Bank, the city's biggest and most prestigious financial institution. Riggs also was a sputtering giant. Its profits were declining, its problem loans were surging.

Allbritton purged the bank's top executives and took direct control of the management of Riggs. Today its problem loans are small and its profits are growing.

Now, Allbritton is trying to organize a number of wealthy Washingtonians to back a baseball franchise for the city and, to that end, has sent out a letter seeking investors, each of whom would put up $2 million. He has invited those interested to meet Tuesday at a downtown hotel. Associates emphasize that he does not want to run the team.

Allbritton got a taste of running a sports franchise nearly two decades ago when the Hofheinz family got into financial trouble in Houston. Among other things, the Hofheinz interests included the Houston Astrodome. Allbritton was the Hofheinz banker and, to protect the bank's interest, took over as chairman of the Astrodome for about a year.

The diminutive Allbritton -- he's 5 feet 4 -- spins about as many yarns as Will Rogers. But he won't talk about his wealth.

Except for his bank holdings -- which include three smaller banks in Texas -- Allbritton's assets are controlled by a privately held company, Perpetual Corp. Allbritton, 60, is chairman, president and sole shareholder in Perpetual.

Perpetual makes no public statements about its revenues or its profits. Allbritton is equally mum.

His personal wealth has been estimated by Forbes magazine to be in excess of $400 million. On paper, his 41 percent ownership of the stock in Riggs is worth about $130 million.

Allbritton, a D'Lo, Miss., native, had made his first million by age 33. Stories about his successes as a real estate entrepreneur in Houston are legend. But a close associate said Allbritton's real start in business came with an investment in a small Houston savings and loan in the late 1950s. Allbritton sold his interest in the S&L and, by the late 1960s, had acquired control of two Houston banks.

With those early banking and real estate holdings he began to amass his fortune.

Perpetual Corp. owns extensive real estate assets here and abroad. Allbritton Communications Co., one of Perpetual's principal assets, owns five newspapers and five TV stations, including WJLA-TV (Channel 7) and WSET in Lynchburg. Both Perpetual and Allbritton Comunications are headquartered in Washington.