Peter Angelos was an MLB owner from another time

Peter Angelos, 94, passed away this weekend, shortly before a sale of the team he’s owned for decades takes place.

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Given you’re reading a newsletter dedicated to sports labor, and especially in baseball, chances are good that you’re aware that Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 94, refused to use scabbing replacement players during spring training in 1995. It’s been mentioned in every obituary and reflection on his professional life that’s come out since, but that’s because it’s still worth pointing out — especially in today’s climate, where it’s unlikely you could find an owner willing to go against the majority on practically anything, never mind something that was anti-labor and pro-ownership.

The thing is, this wasn’t some random act by Angelos. And not even in the sense that Angelos was a union and personal injury lawyer whose practice made a point of representing “working men and women since 1961.” Angelos purchased the Orioles in 1993, and then made enemies of practically every other owner in the course of a year. Here’s the Washington Post on Angelos, from February 5, 1995:

He criticized the owners’ approach to negotiations with the Major League Baseball Players Association. He sparred verbally with management negotiator Richard Ravitch during an owners’ meeting. He was a conscientious objector when the owners voted in September to cancel the remainder of the 1994 regular season, the playoffs and the World Series.

He voted against the owners’ resolution in December to declare an impasse in negotiations and implement a salary cap system (a decision that was reversed on Friday when the owners, under pressure from the National Labor Relations Board, rescinded it). Angelos, in fact, gave quite a performance during the owners’ meeting on Dec. 15 in Chicago, when his colleagues approved the cap by a 25 to 3 vote. During that meeting, Angelos took the floor and delivered a fiery speech in which, according to several people who were in the room, he said the owners were about to commit “mass financial suicide.” He made a reference to “Jonestown,” witnesses say, and at one point asked: “When do we pass around the Kool-Aid?” He won’t go along with the owners’ plan to open the ’95 season with teams of replacement players if the major leaguers haven’t returned to work, and it’s likely he will end up in a legal battle with the American League if the strike isn’t ended before spring training games are scheduled to begin early next month. Angelos has not budged in his refusal to use replacements, though the league has threatened to suspend him, fine the Orioles up to $250,000 per game or even take the franchise from him if he doesn’t relent. For all of that, Angelos has won the scorn of the other owners. There are icy glares when he speaks during meetings. There’s the threat of putting an expansion franchise in Northern Virginia, something the owners probably wouldn’t consider as seriously if the Orioles — who say they draw about 30 percent of their attendance from the Washington ar\ea [sic] — were owned by a conformist. How hated is Angelos? The two groups trying to secure an expansion team and base it near Dulles Airport didn’t even bother to address the proximity-to-the-Orioles issue during their presentations to the owners in November; they knew it was moot.

Angelos voted against unilaterally implementing a salary cap, if for no other reason than that it went against the very idea of collective bargaining (something the NLRB had to eventually step in for, as mentioned). He knew canceling the World Series was a bullshit and unnecessary decision, because he was in the meetings where acting commissioner Bud Selig schemed about how it’d make the players look bad if it happened, so he didn’t want to go along with it. The never ending feud between the O’s and Nationals makes a lot more sense when you realize that the source of it all has a lot to do with the other owners wanting to punish Angelos: of course he wouldn’t want to simply just let this whole ordeal go for the sake of putting it behind the league! And the state of Maryland actually backed Angelos up on his decision to not use scabs and to outright cancel the Orioles’ spring training games, as well: in mid-March, they blocked other teams from being able to field scabs at Camden Yards, which served to at least legally take some heat off of Angelos.

Granted, the Blue Jays weren’t allowed to use scabs in Ontario, either, and were prepared to play their home games at their spring training facility in Florida, instead, but sometimes principle and making a stand is a lot better than just letting things happen. And the other owners wanted Angelos to let this happen so very badly.

Whether Angelos was a good owner in terms of allowing the Orioles to build a winner as often as they should have, or if his personal taste in players ended up causing some problems for various teams over the years, doesn’t really matter in this moment. This is just about how Angelos had principles when it came to organized labor, and he refused to allow his name to be part of anything that involved scabs or ignoring the rules of collective bargaining. Consider, for a moment, how ownership votes work: they must be presented as unanimous, even if they are not actually agreed upon that way, as a show of solidarity. Part of that public-facing approach is certainly due to the behavior of the few owners like Angelos who actually made their disagreement known, and publicly so.

Angelos arrived on the scene before Selig was the actual commissioner of Major League Baseball: yes, he had full control when he was acting commissioner, but all I mean by this is that Selig was still early in his tenure, and hadn’t fully established exactly what his form of rule and the expected behavior of the other owners was going to be. This was still in the feeling out stage, and so it took meeting an Angelos to realize that they could never again let one in.

Can you imagine the league bringing in an owner who is the exact opposite of current commissioner Rob Manfred? Manfred was a labor lawyer, except the wrong kind who works for the corporations and wealthy to ensure that workers don’t get their deserved share. Steve Cohen might spend more than the other teams want him to, sure, but he’s still an ultra-wealthy hedge fund guy who isn’t all that concerned about the little guy — he’s still the kind of owner whose organization had to be bullied into treating minor leaguers better, you know? If Cohen is what passes for a maverick these days, well, that should say all that needs to be said about how you won’t see another Peter Angelos around.

So, whatever else you want to say about Peter Angelos and his time as an owner, go for it. But it’s only more incredible by the day that the 1994-1995 version of this man ever existed in Major League Baseball, and it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on that.

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