The secret was out. There was joy in Birdland.

That January night, they were toasting Bohs at Pickles Pub. They were flooding the internet with dancing, champagne-popping, confetti-raining memes. Larry Wiczulis ran out in the dark to blow his old boat horn outside Camden Yards in celebration.

The Angelos family was selling the Orioles. Or, to many fans, setting them free.

Years of bleak, losing seasons had soured fans on owner Peter Angelos. They blamed Peter’s meddling and, later, his son John’s penny pinching. Not even the thrill of last year’s 101 wins had erased the bad taste. When it comes to public opinion, few sports team owners fell so, so far.

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In more ways than one, there will never be another Peter G. Angelos. The irascible, 5-foot-6 courtroom brawler built a fortune taking on big asbestos manufacturers. He championed the little guy and later infuriated him. He died Saturday at 94 years old.

His political campaigns are a memory. His famed law firm is to be sold. His commercial real estate is being parceled off. The sale of the Orioles ends his family’s reign. That’s how Peter Angelos wanted it, after all. He took no partners, shared no power. His kingdom ends with him.

What’s left is a legacy of contradictions. How to understand a man who got a hero’s welcome after buying the O’s and also inspired 1,000 or so fans to walk out of a game in protest? Or, how to unpack a figure who’s been crowned Marylander of the Year and baseball’s worst owner?

There are 30 years to weigh and measure — of fights he picked and deals he strong-armed, also of overwhelming acts of generosity to people who worked for him. Peter Angelos didn’t punch down, but he sure swung up (ask former baseball Commissioner Bud Selig). With all the did-he-really-say-that spectacle of his heyday, it’s easy to overlook the Hollywood drama of his rise.

Baltimore’s wounds were still raw from the loss of the Colts when, in August 1993, the Orioles were to be sold to the highest bidder in a Manhattan courtroom. In rides Peter Angelos.

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Sixty-four years old then, he’s known as a brash, gloves-off union lawyer. The son of Greek immigrants, raised in Highlandtown, he came up in the family tavern, tending bar for steelworkers and longshoremen from the waterfront. The unions turned to him when workers developed lung disease and cancer from asbestos in the mills. With a modest law firm, Peter Angelos was in over his head.

He hired 40 more lawyers and went to war for more than a decade against the asbestos manufacturers. They labeled him an opportunist motivated by the whiff of a payday, accusing him of wheeling a portable X-ray machine into union meetings to sign up clients. (Peter Angelos denied ever doing so.) He spurned their settlement offers, one after another, marching right into the nation’s biggest-ever asbestos trial: 8,600 workers vs. a dozen or so manufacturers. When he won, his firm’s take was estimated at $330 million.

Back to that sweltering day in Manhattan. Peter Angelos had partnered with a Cincinnati investment banker and assembled as investors a band of Baltimore characters. There was techno-thriller writer Tom Clancy, tennis star Pam Shriver, filmmaker Barry Levinson and his streetwise muse “Boogie,” the retail king, among others. Levinson himself couldn’t have dreamt the script.

The newspapers delighted in the picture of this colorful crew joining the polished ranks of baseball bigwigs, such as Texas Rangers co-owner George W. Bush.

Then came another slugfest, 16 rounds of bidding, before Angelos & Co. beat a New York art dealer. The Orioles were back in local hands for the first time in 14 years. It was all so Baltimore, and the city loved him for it. Dorothy had set free the munchkins of Oz.

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“Ding dong the witch is dead,” Baltimore Sun columnist Ken Rosenthal wrote.

The price was $173 million, a staggering sum, and more money than anyone had ever paid for a professional sports team in America.

“This brings back control of the club to Marylanders, but to be candid, I didn’t think the price would go so high,” Peter Angelos told The Sun.

Rafael Palmeiro’s five-year, $30 million deal with the Orioles was one of the team’s first big splashes under Peter Angelos. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

If the Orioles’ new owner had buyer’s remorse, he didn’t show it. The team made an immediate splash by signing pitcher Sid Fernandez and luring first baseman Rafael Palmeiro with a five-year $30 million contract. In his first year, Angelos jumped payroll by about one-third. He seemed to delight in the role of hometown hero. He was in the newspapers every day, saying all the right things.

“If fans thought this was going to be a repeat of the previous ownership, in that dollars would be more important than the team being put on the field, I thought it was important to dispel that quickly,” he told The Washington Post.

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Inside Camden Yards, however, the front office was adjusting with discomfort. The previous owner, New York financier Eli Jacobs, had been a remote figure, setting the budget — however shoestring to fans — but allowing the club autonomy. Now, everybody knew who called the shots. Peter Angelos had opinions about players and roster decisions. Within two months, his general manager was ready to resign, The Sun reported. And eyebrows raised when The Sun reported that Angelos’ two sons had their father’s ear on roster moves, though they were still in law school.

Opening day, Peter Angelos played the happy host to a sellout crowd. He threw a first pitch. The Orioles climbed to second in the division behind the Yankees before a players’ strike cut the season short.

Baseball’s owners wanted to hire replacements — retired players, college students, amateurs — for the next season. Angelos balked.

“The product the Orioles deliver to the fans is Major League Baseball, not minor league baseball, not a pickup team or a scrub team,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

The ensuing brawl would become one of his defining moments. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and the other owners — among them, kings of pizza franchises and movie-rental chains — wanted a unified front for negotiations with the players. Only, Angelos went rogue. He did it oh so publicly, too.

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In Angelos’ “war” with Selig — his word — he offered a loud, singular appraisal of the commissioner’s methods: “amateurish, ineffective and doomed to failure,” he told the Los Angeles Times. And this oft-repeated remark, “Watching him [Selig] is like watching a person put his hand in a buzz saw. You want to shout, `You’re splattering blood all over the rest of us!’”

(Selig declined an interview for this article.)

Former baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who often came under fire from Orioles owner Peter Angelos, shakes hands with the O’s Cal Ripken Jr. during an on-field ceremony to mark the last game of Ripken’s career. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The owners threatened Angelos with fines and sanctions for willfully violating a league order. During spring training, teams refused to play the Orioles. Angelos only dug in. He had reasons beyond principle. An Orioles shortstop by the name of Cal Ripken Jr. was closing in on Lou Gehrig’s record of most consecutive games played.

“Peter was misconstrued by so many of the other owners as a labor lawyer and that’s why Peter was siding with the union. That was not correct,” said Joe Foss, Orioles vice chairman and chief operating officer at the time. “He felt strongly that the fans of baseball would be paying major league prices for minor league players, and he did not feel that was right.”

Baseball’s owners overwhelmingly approved replacement players. The Orioles voted no.

“There are players who’ve flat out told me they’d take less money to play for Peter because of the stands he took,” Palmeiro told Sports Illustrated.

The owners, however, were less charmed.

“Peter was almost treated like he had leprosy,” Foss said. “We would go to the subsequent meetings, and the other owners wouldn’t talk to Peter.”

Baseball resumed and the Orioles flopped, with a 71-73 record despite a payroll near the top of the league. “Baseball’s biggest underachievers,” The Washington Post wrote. General manager Roland Hemond resigned, and manager Phil Regan was fired.

Angelos moved on to his third manager in three years. At least 66 members of the 90-person front office had left since he bought the team, Sports Illustrated reported. When a new general manger wanted to trade veterans Bobby Bonilla and David Wells for younger players, Angelos vetoed the deal. He was proven right. The team went 88-74 in 1996 to make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.

“That emboldened him to play a bigger role in who comes and goes,” said Peter Schmuck, who covered the Orioles for The Sun.

The Orioles won 98 games the next year. They set a franchise attendance record of 3.7 million. Angelos was spending big on stars such as B.J. Surhoff and Roberto Alomar. The out-of-town sportswriters grumbled that Baltimore was buying its way to a pennant.

By the end of 1997, Angelos’ relationship with manager Davey Johnson had reached a breaking point. Johnson resigned hours before being named American League Manager of the Year. In letters to The Sun, fans were divided, some blaming Angelos for running off a winning manager and others crediting Angelos for spending big to get this far. These were heady years for O’s fans. The Orioles spent more money than the Yankees in 1998 to set a baseball payroll record, honest.

(Today, the Yankees outspend the Orioles almost 4 to 1.)

The arms race with George Steinbrenner and the Yankees turned to the surly slugger Albert Belle. The Orioles signed Belle to a 5-year, $65 million contract. Angelos pushed the deal through over protests from the front office, according to news reports. Belle became the highest-paid player in Orioles history — only to have two disappointing seasons and retire with a bad hip. The bust would echo through the franchise for years.

“Peter then got even more cautious on the long-term player contracts,” said Foss, the Orioles executive.

In March 1999, the Orioles flew to Havana for the historic exhibition game against Cuba’s all-stars. Angelos, a top Democratic Party donor, had urged the U.S. government to allow the game despite an embargo against Cuba.

The Cubans did not allow American journalists, but Schmuck said Peter Angelos invited him under the guise of “special assistant.” Schmuck remembers a revealing scene while they waited in a lounge. Angelos was handing $50 or $100 to the women hospitality workers. It was an enormous tip in the little communist country. Some of the women began to cry.

“It’s partly Peter — he is the big man; he is the guy. But, at the same time, you could realize this wasn’t a show,” Schmuck said.

Back home, the team’s long, sad slump was underway. By early 2001, fans endured three straight losing seasons, and the summer ahead looked grim. No longer did Camden Yards sell out. And the rosy picture of a committed, homegrown owner with an open wallet had dulled into the cartoon of a tyrant who ran off players and fired executives over petty grievances.

Orioles executive Syd Thrift famously bemoaned the club’s attempt to sign free agents: “It’s like we have Confederate money; it’s no good.”

General manager Pat Gillick lasted three years; Frank Wren, one year. Sports Illustrated printed a caricature of Angelos, grinning, choking an Oriole bird. Tom Verducci wrote in the magazine, “No man ever spent so much money to lose so many games.”

Angelos dismissed his critics a week later in The Sun.

“We all need a whipping boy now and then,” he said.

Sports Illustrated published a story about Peter Angelos with the headline "BIRDBRAINED" in the February 12, 2001 edition.
Sports Illustrated published a story about Peter Angelos with the headline "BIRDBRAINED" in the Feb. 12, 2001, edition. (Sports Illustrated)

Worse yet, the club was bracing for baseball’s plan to move the Montreal Expos within 40 miles of Camden Yards. The new Washington Nationals would steal O’s fans; some 30% of season-ticket holders came from the D.C. area, Angelos warned the league. Observers expected baseball to ward off his lawsuit by paying the Orioles millions. Negotiations went on for months behind closed doors.

Alan Rifkin, outside counsel for the Orioles, remembers league President Robert DuPuy coming to Baltimore with the latest lump-sum offer. How much?

“I’m not going to disclose that,” Rifkin said.

“Peter very politely turned to Mr. DuPuy and said, ‘Bob, I’m not going to take this.’” Rifkin said. “DuPuy looked at him like he had six eyes.”

DuPuy declined to comment for this article. Rifkin was stunned.

He remembers Peter Angelos saying, “If I take that payment, it will be to me as if I just sold out the city and sold out the club. We don’t need a one-time payment. I need a sustainable revenue stream.”

Negotiations between the Orioles and Major League Baseball would lead to the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. The network has rights to broadcast Orioles and Nationals games. And the Orioles are guaranteed at least two-thirds of the revenue in perpetuity.

The agreement was announced in March 2005. A decade had passed since the players’ strike and Angelos’ war on Selig. Now, he thanked the commissioner. Selig was gracious, too.

“I also want to commend my friend, Peter Angelos. He was relentless in his desire to preserve and protect the Baltimore Orioles franchise now, and for future generations,” the commissioner said in a news release.

The deal gave O’s fans something to cheer at least. The club went 74-88 in 2005 for an eighth straight losing season. While the Yankees’ payroll had soared past $200 million, the Orioles’ had barely budged. The 2006 season was just as dismal, and in September an estimated 1,000 fans walked out of Camden Yards in protest. WNST-AM owner and familiar Angelos critic Nestor Aparicio led the walkout, with fans shouting “Sell the team!” and “Peter must go!” according to news reports.

There came Facebook groups, “O’s fans Peter Angelos has to GO,” and protest songs, “Let go of them O’s, Mr. Angelos …”

“He bought the team to be a hero and didn’t know how to play the role,” Aparicio said. “All he ever did in his whole life was fight with people. That’s all he knew how to do.”

The fan criticism stung, Peter Angelos admitted to reporters. He was seen less often around the ballpark. He declined more interviews. When some Orioles executives suggested a wholesale rebuild, Angelos refused. Baltimore lost more than 90 games in each of the next five years through 2011.

“It would have been easy for Peter to tank the team when that first became fashionable,” Rifkin said. “As he said many times, if fans are going to buy tickets and spend their hard-earned dollars, I want to at least have an entertaining product on the field.”

Rifkin has come to understand the whims of fans while counseling team owners from Angelos to football’s Jack Kent Cooke.

“I say to them all the time, please understand that you are now going to be judged by your win-loss record,” he said.

The Orioles had slogged through 14 losing seasons before manager Buck Showalter reversed the misfortune in 2012. Buoyed by young hitters, the improbable Orioles surprised baseball to win 93 games and make the playoffs. They hit the second-most home runs in the league. Orioles magic was back. And, after a season-ending loss to the Yankees, there was Peter Angelos, hardly ever seen now, in the clubhouse to shake hands and console players.

First baseman Chris Davis signed a $161 million contract with Peter Angelos and the Orioles that became an albatross for the team. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Ahead of the 2016 season, Angelos awarded the team’s star home run hitter, Chris Davis, the richest contract in Orioles history. Davis went from twice leading the league in home runs to 54 at-bats without a hit. It was a slump of historic proportions, a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare: the $161 million home run king who could not hit. Fans booed him at the plate. For the club, it was disaster. With deferred compensation, the Orioles were stuck paying him through 2037. Angelos had been burned, again.

“They began to concede that they were a small-market team, and they were not going to be a giant-payroll team,” Schmuck said.

Peter Angelos, 88, suffered a heart attack in October 2017 and had emergency surgery. His health worsened and he became disabled within a year, according to court records. He never returned to work. Questions swirled around the club. Who was in charge?

John Angelos, his oldest son, took control, bringing a new chapter for the family. John would be credited with accomplishing something his father could not: staying out of the way.

A new front office, led by general manager Mike Elias, who famously helped lift the losing Houston Astros to a World Series, rebuilt the Orioles from a team that lost 108 games in 2019 to a club that won 101 games last year to make the playoffs. The fans, thrilled again, filled Section 86 to be drenched in the “bird bath.”

Meanwhile, John Angelos blundered into one public relations mess after another. (He declined an interview for this article.) John and brother Louis Angelos sued each other over their ailing father’s empire, causing a bitter, monthslong legal fight.

John reneged on an offer to open the Orioles’ financial books, then alarmed fans by telling The New York Times that he could not afford to keep Baltimore’s best young players without dramatically raising prices. Further, he snubbed state leaders by leaving them in the dark, they said — until that evening in January when the news exploded across the internet.

The Angelos family was selling the O’s.

Larry Wiczulis ran out of the liquor store that he owns near the stadium to do something, well, anything. He went to Camden Yards, threw up a handful of confetti poppers and blew his boat horn — a one-man celebration.

Later, by phone, he listed his grievances: the oppressive management of Peter Angelos, the warning from John Angelos about raising prices or losing players, the club’s 14 losing seasons, a generation of lost fans.

“Don’t get me wrong. I could say a lot of good things about Peter Angelos, too,” he quickly added.

Indeed, Baltimore feels conflicted about the end of the Angelos era.

Peter Angelos rescued the Orioles and pinned them squirming under his thumb. He was a little Caesar who had to get his way, and a kindly boss who flew employees to cancer treatment. He was the profiteer who squeezed the state for a $30,000-an-hour fee in the Big Tobacco settlement, and a philanthropist who donated money to keep open the city pools. He came up in an eastside bar and ended up in a downtown office tower. He was Dorothy and the Wicked Witch.

His legacy? Let the fans choose their side.

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