RELENTLESS DRIVE TO WIN : Late Edward Bennett Williams May Be Best Known as a Mover and Shaker of the Washington Redskins
Although Edward Bennett Williams spent much of the final nine years of his life owning and operating the Baltimore Orioles, his real legacy in sports may be a 25-year involvement with a team much closer to the hearts and minds of Washingtonians.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Williams was responsible for pushing the Redskins out of their long period of somnolence and laying the groundwork for what may now be the best organization in the National Football League.
It was Williams who convinced former Redskins owner George Preston Marshall to integrate the NFL’s last all-white franchise. Marshall eventually agreed, and that led to the acquisition of receiver Bobby Mitchell in 1962. The tandem of Mitchell and quarterback Norm Snead gave the Redskins an offensive threat that, for the first time, made every game exciting, if not winnable.
It was Williams who talked Vince Lombardi out of retirement and Williams who hired George Allen, the coach who took the Redskins to their first Super Bowl.
Finally, in one of his last major acts before owner Jack Kent Cooke regained control of the team, it was Williams who hired Bobby Beathard, the architect of three Super Bowl teams.
Williams’ death last Saturday at 68 of cancer left a huge hole in the Washington sports scene. From his friendship with athletes such as Joe DiMaggio and Sugar Ray Leonard to his presidency of the Redskins and ownership of the Orioles, he was proud of his involvement in sports, proud of being part of an endeavor in which, like the law, each day’s winners and losers were clearly defined.
A few months before his death, Williams, looking drawn and frail, spent a sunny, warm afternoon seated near the dugout at Miami Stadium alternating asking about this or that Orioles prospect and reflecting on his life in sports, law and politics.
“I was president of the Redskins when they won the Super Bowl in 1983 (although Cooke was running the show by this time),” he said, “and I was owner of the Orioles when they won the World Series that year. I don’t think anyone has ever won a Super Bowl and World Series in the same season.”
He clearly enjoyed reliving the moment. His first love remained the law, but apparently in athletes and games, he saw the same intense desire to succeed and win that drove him in his own life.
In 1979, a few weeks after he’d purchased the Orioles and at a time when he was fighting to remain Redskins president (when NFL rules forbade cross-ownership), Williams was asked why he loved sports so much. In many ways, the equation did not fit, not for a man who was one of the country’s most famous trial lawyers, a confidant of presidents, and in a city that appreciates power, the insider’s insider.
He could have had any number of jobs, including the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency, so why did he take so much pleasure in the Earl Weavers and the games little boys play?
“I love contest-living,” he said. “My life in the law has been contest-living. It’s a life in which every effort ends up a victory or a defeat. It’s a difficult way to live, but it is a very exciting way.”
He seemed to love it because his competitive fires didn’t simply burn, they raged, occasionally out of control. Ask anyone who watched him storm out of his box at Memorial Stadium because he couldn’t stomach another Orioles loss. Ask anyone who saw his Vesuvian temper ignite when the Redskins weren’t allowed a last-second field-goal attempt in a 1979 loss at Dallas.
He was not a man of patience, and his lack of it often made him an unpopular figure in the Orioles offices. He cut conversations off in mid-sentence, his telephone conversations did not include the words “hello” or “goodbye” and he did not much tolerate people he did not respect.
His friends say he liked people who were not only competitive, but those with intellect. He surely admired Weaver because Weaver was one of the few Orioles employees who argued with Williams and had counterpoints for all Williams’ suggestions.
“Get Fatso out of here,” Williams once snapped at Orioles general manager Hank Peters when overweight third baseman Floyd Rayford had looked bad at the plate one night.
He thought Peters so incapable of pulling the trigger on trades that he came up with a term for indecision--"hanking around.”
He nicknamed Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm “Loopy,” because Schramm “always looked for the loophole in one of his rule changes,” Schramm said. “He wanted to just pass something and move on. Others of us were more deliberate.”
In the same way, Williams greatly admired Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth even as he came to dislike Ueberroth’s predecessor, Bowie Kuhn.
“Ueberroth makes decisions,” Williams once said. “I like that. Bowie would have the executive committee on the phone once a week because he was afraid to make a decision. Ueberroth just makes the decision himself and moves ahead. Things get done.”
Soon after Williams fired Peters and hired Roland Hemond this winter, he was asked if he was impressed with Hemond’s work on trades.
“A lot of dribbling but no shots,” he said, biting the words off.
But his friends and enemies say his temper and impatience were a result of his desire to win and to excel. He never asked anyone to work harder than he worked himself, and along the way, a lot of people came to admire him.
Milwaukee owner Bud Selig said Williams was “one of the best people I’ve ever known.”
“I know how much Ed wanted to win,” Selig said, “and he knew I felt the same way about my club. But when the game was over, Ed was always very gracious. I’ll never forget after we won that game on the last day of the 1982 season (for the division championship), he came down to our clubhouse and shook my hand. I know his guts were tearing up inside, but he made a gesture I’ll never forget.”
Farm director Doug Melvin remembers Williams urging him to enroll in writing classes at Georgetown University. Melvin had not graduated from college, and because Williams was grooming him to run the Orioles, he wanted him to be functional in writing and speaking skills.
Williams had the look of a tough Irish gumshoe, with a huge nose, a ruddy complexion and a booming voice. He was a man who inspired a rainbow of emotions from the people who knew him.
“Whenever he gives us a pep talk, my first reaction is to yell, ‘I’m guilty,’ ” Orioles outfielder Larry Sheets said.
Allen once called him “devious and deceitful . . . a Jekyll and Hyde . . . a cold-blooded fish.”
Yet, Reggie Jackson was so impressed after a conversation with Williams that he said: “That’s what it must have been like talking to Winston Churchill.”
Said former Redskins coach and general manager Bill McPeak: “He had an incredible desire to excel. He once told me about a summer job in a gas station, and how he was determined to be the best gas station attendant ever. He told me about all the little extras he’d do for people because he wanted the customer to feel there was no other place he’d ever go for gas.”
Williams’ relationship with the Redskins began in the late 1950s when he was an attorney for Marshall. In 1962, Marshall named Williams to the team’s board of directors, and in 1965, he became an executive vice president. Then in 1966, after Marshall became incapacitated, Williams took over a team that had had nine straight losing seasons and hadn’t played a postseason game since 1945. The Redskins not only had the NFL’s lowest payroll, but, worse, were the league’s last all-white team.
“The single thing that made the Redskins respectable was the acquisition of Bobby Mitchell in 1962, and Ed was instrumental in that,” McPeak said. “For the first time, we had a supreme weapon. With Norm Snead at quarterback, we had someone to get him the ball, and for the first time, the Redskins were capable of beating people.”
McPeak said getting Mitchell was only part of the solution; Williams also convinced Marshall that salaries were rising and the Redskins couldn’t win more without paying more.
“Before Ed, we had to draft very carefully,” McPeak said. “We’d use our first-round pick to take a guy that should have gone in the late second or third round. If we took a legitimate first-round pick, we wouldn’t have been able to pay him the money he wanted. You could get players, but not an impact player like you’d be likely to get in the first round.”
That was the beginning. Williams brought in Otto Graham as head coach in 1966, then came his most dramatic move--talking Lombardi out of retirement in 1969. It was an incredible stroke of public-relations brilliance because it showed people that the Redskins no longer were afraid to spend money or make bold commitments.
When Lombardi died, Williams made another bold move, bringing in Allen for the 1971 season. He and Allen would later come to despise one another, but for seven up-and-down seasons, the Redskins were, if not the NFL’s most successful team, certainly its most interesting. Even today, people around the NFL and major league baseball marvel at how two strong, independent, intolerant men like Williams and Allen co-existed for so long.
“We got along fine,” Allen said. “He was as competitive as I was, and whenever we talked, it was about how we could get better. Anything I asked for, he always cooperated.”
It was Williams who supported Allen’s idea for a state-of-the-art practice facility (Redskin Park), something no other team had.
“I approached the board of directors about building it, and they voted me down,” Allen said. “They said maybe next year. I said, ‘I thought you guys wanted to win. You’ve had one winning season in 15 years and that was 7-5-2 under Lombardi.’ I told them next year was too late, and that’s how we came up with the slogan ‘The future is now.’ ”
Under Allen and Williams, the Redskins had their first glory era since Sammy Baugh, going to the playoffs five times in seven seasons and playing in Super Bowl VII. The Over the Hill Gang became regional, if not national heroes, and for the first time in decades, Washington went bonkers over a pro sports team.
The Williams-Allen divorce came in 1978 when Allen declined to sign a long-term contract extension, and while shopping for another job, was fired by Williams. Allen went out with guns blazing, ripping Williams as deceitful and dishonest.
Williams hired Jack Pardee from Chicago to be head coach and hired Beathard as general manager.
The Redskins struggled through seasons of 10-6 and 6-10, but more troubling for Williams was that he was about to lose control of his beloved team. When Marshall died, Williams and Jack Kent Cooke were both minority stockholders, but over the years, Cooke had, a bit at a time, bought 85% of the team. He became the majority stockholder in 1974, but allowed Williams to remain as team president.
However, in 1979, Cooke moved from Las Vegas to Middleburg, Va., and within a year, had taken control. That cut Williams deeply, and even though he was about to buy the Orioles, he clearly wanted to keep his involvement with the Redskins.
“Jack wants me to be president, he’s committed to the idea,” Williams said at the time. “I feel attached and deeply committed to the Redskins. I want Jack Pardee and Bobby Beathard to succeed. I am sure they will, and I want to be part of it when they do.”
However, he must have known his days were numbered, especially in those weird days in 1979 when he and Cooke shared the owners’ box at RFK Stadium.
In the summer of 1980, Cooke took charge of the team (although Williams remained as a figurehead president). The formal signal that the Williams era had ended came on Jan. 5, 1981, when Cooke fired Pardee, whom Williams had hired in 1977 and strongly endorsed a few weeks earlier.
Asked about the firing, Williams declined comment, telling reporters, “Sometimes you can’t improve on silence.”
Williams and Cooke were never close again, and Williams rarely went to Redskins games again.
Williams’ involvement with the Orioles began in 1978 when he negotiated to buy the team for former Treasury Secretary William Simon. When the deal fell through, Williams approached Jerry Hoffberger and got the team for the bargain-basement price of $12 million.
In retrospect, it appears Williams intended to move the Orioles to RFK and return major league baseball to Washington. The lease at Memorial Stadium allowed the Orioles to play 13 games at RFK, and when it was reported that Williams was considering such a move, a firestorm of negative reaction erupted in Baltimore.
“The Orioles belong to us,” headlined a front-page editorial in the Baltimore News-American on Aug. 5, 1979.
Late in the ’79 season, shortly after the sale had been approved, Williams announced the Orioles would play all their 1980 home games in Baltimore. He said the decision was made “after talking to a number of people in Baltimore and taking some advice. But the major part of the decision was mine. There will be no games in Washington next season. That includes any presidential opener. . . . “
He refused to rule out ever playing games in Washington, and in August, 1980, raised the possibility again, saying that season was “a trial year for Baltimore attendance, and the trial is just about to begin.” If attendance wasn’t suitable, Williams said he was prepared to investigate “all my options.”
Again, there was a huge negative reaction, and a few weeks later, Williams said the Orioles belonged only to Baltimore. He realized he might be able to convince Washington fans to love the Orioles in Baltimore, but if he made the move, Baltimore fans would never drive to Washington (as the NBA Bullets discovered).
“The time may come when I leave baseball,” he said, “but baseball will never leave Baltimore.”
Instead, he hoped to make the Orioles every Washingtonian’s favorite team and began an intense marketing campaign that eventually made the team a regional giant worth more than five times what Williams paid for it. He played down the word “Baltimore” in marketing campaigns, opened a ticket outlet in Washington and eventually drew about 25% of his home attendance from Washington.
Williams’ early years as Orioles owner were the best years. They finished second in ’80, ’81 and ’82, then won the franchise’s third World Series in 1983.
The club dropped to fifth in 1984 and never came close again. With the farm system already in decline, Williams went for the quick fix. His intentions may have been good, but all the moves failed, from Fred Lynn to Lee Lacy to Alan Wiggins to Rick Burleson, the outsiders were not worth the money Williams spent on them.
That money would have been better spent in the minor league system, but Williams, who had battled cancer since 1977, may not have thought he had that long to wait. It may also have been deeper than that because baseball and Williams were an odd marriage.
He was accustomed to football, where one draft supplies immediate help and where emotion, not steadiness and consistency, can push teams over the top.
“I have trouble accepting any sport where losing 62 times a year is considered a great year,” he said. “I’ll be the first to admit that my temperament may be all wrong for the game.”
Many of his former employees are now extremely bitter, saying Williams publicly criticized the minor league system while slicing its operating budget to almost nothing. However, others say his problem was he had too much patience, that he had some pedestrian people working for him and he should have replaced them sooner.
Regardless, just as he had with the Redskins, he left a deep impression on the people who knew him or competed against his team.
“We had an intense rivalry, and I think we both enjoyed it,” New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said. “We’re both so competitive and we’re both hands-on owners. I think we got inspiration from each other, and I certainly knew I had to get up early in the morning to beat Ed Williams.