It is not regrettable that the movement to restore major league baseball to Washington has now become a fray. Now returned to the battle is developer Ted Lerner, who has ringed the city with his giant shopping centers and, in any endeavor, is no mean presence.
Lerner, with his partner, Dr. Robert Schattner, has thrown in with three other real estate heavyweights, Oliver T. Carr Jr., James Clark and Robert Smith, in a laudable joint effort to end Washington's 14-year baseball famine. In sports argot, the credentials of that Gang of Five could be described as awesome. They could meet a payroll.
On the other side of the battle line is the redoubtable Jack Kent Cooke, the first to declare for a run at ownership of a Washington franchise, and unlikely to run from any opposition. It is a given that Cooke's competitive juices have been stirred, and with his resume', he is a worthy opponent.
Lerner has long wanted a team here in his hometown. But Cooke was in baseball as an AAA club owner long before he bought the Lakers, before he bought a hockey team, before he bought the Redskins, before he bought and sold the TelePrompTer cable TV service and before he bought the Chrysler Building. That was also before he bought a big spread in Upperville, Va., next to Paul Mellon's place and before he topped Mellon in Forbes' most recent listing of the richest men in America. He can be formidable.
So that is it: Cooke against The Group. All of which is a plus for Washington and its chances of getting a team. The Group has an edge, it appears, in its bid for an expansion franchise, thanks to its cogent move in bringing Bowie Kuhn to its side as adviser and negotiator with the National League owners, among whom he has friends. Cooke earlier turned down a proposal to bring Kuhn into his camp, a patent mistake.
At a meeting in New York on Thursday and Friday, the major leagues' planning committee will screen the 12 cities who want NL franchises. On merit, Washington should be awarded the first new franchise quickly, leaving the other cities to compete for the remaining one. Among other virtues, Washington is the eighth-leading television market in the country, and the club owners are now very sensitive, or should be, to the networks' stake in their business.
All year, the networks have been grumbling about low baseball ratings (down 15 percent) and threatening to cut back on the next TV package they'll offer the owners, who need heavier revenues to meet spiraling payrolls. Apparently, so much for the franchise bids of 34th-ranked Buffalo, 23rd-ranked Indianapolis and 15th-ranked Tampa-St. Petersburg. Because of its strong ownership potential, Denver, the 19th TV city, has been favored with Washington as a likely winner.
Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth has recommended certain guidelines, such as ownership and stadium conditions, to qualify cities seeking franchises. But when the owners decide to vote, the criteria will be their own.
Commissioners have no vote in these important fiscal matters, dealing with the owners' money. Ueberroth indicated the limitation of his powers when he said Thursday on the Phil Donahue show that both sides disregarded his wishes when he opposed the appointment of former president Richard M. Nixon as an arbitrator in the umpires' pay dispute.
If The Group wins the franchise, the long-range prospect is that Lerner will head the ownership. Carr, Clark and Smith are offering their financial backing to a franchise as a civic gesture, but Lerner and Schattner are motivated as well by a desire for active ownership. Lerner isn't one to take minority positions.
In addition to getting into the hunt for an expansion franchise, Cooke is leveling hard at bringing the San Francisco Giants to Washington from that distressed baseball city. The continued heavy losses of Bob Lurie and his partners provide them with an out if they choose to sell to Cooke, although Lurie said recently he still hoped to work something out to keep his team in the Bay Area.
San Francisco does not have the advantage of Pittsburgh, where the Pirates were saved for the city because the team was bought in good part by the two industrial giants, Westinghouse and U.S. Steel, to whom the Pirates' price of $22 million was petty cash. Nobody rich enough to buy the Giants has come forth in San Francisco.
If Cooke perceives that he could lose the popularity contest to the Kuhn-aided group in an expansion vote, he is ready to (choose your own metaphor) take steps, make an end run, perform a bypass operation. He would buy the Giants directly at whatever price. "What if I do lose a few million during the next few years?" he said recently.
Nobody can deny Cooke's right to move the Giants to Washington if he buys the team. The old major league fuds who used to think they had the power to stop a team from moving have been disabused by Al Davis. He won a court's $50 million judgment (the decision is under appeal) from National Football League owners who tried to stop his transfer of the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles. Even Ueberroth has been quoted as saying, "Relocation has become a possibility."
In the wonderful battle to bring the game back to Washington, The Group may have the popularity edge with the club owners, but Cooke is scarcely to be counted out. He wants the team badly, and he may even be the better bet. Long ago, he learned money can be an obedient servant.