Ted Lerner, Developer Who Bought and Built the Washington Nationals, Dies at 97
Ted Lerner, the billionaire real estate developer who bought the floundering Washington Nationals in 2006 and oversaw their thrilling rise to 2019 World Series victors, rewarding his native city with its first major league championship in 95 years, has died at 97.
The Nationals announced his death in a statement posted on Twitter on Monday. It did not provide other details, but a spokeswoman for the team told The Washington Post that he died on Sunday from complications of pneumonia at his home in Chevy Chase, Md.
“There were generations of baseball fans who grew up in D.C. without a team,” Mr. Lerner’s son, Mark, who was given control of the team by his father in 2018, told The New York Times in 2019 when the Nationals defeated the Houston Astros in a seven-game Series. “Now they have one, and one that won a World Series.”
Washington had been without a World Series champion since 1924, when Calvin Coolidge was president, and without any major league team for 33 years before the Montreal Expos arrived there in 2005 as a ward of Major League Baseball and were renamed the Nationals.
Ted Lerner sat in the bleachers at Griffith Stadium as a youngster, watching the original Washington Senators play, and was later an usher there.
The Nationals had losing records in their first six seasons under Mr. Lerner’s ownership, extending a mostly lackluster history for Washington baseball teams when they played in the American League.
The first Senators won only one World Series between their founding in 1901 and their move to Minnesota in 1960 to become the Twins. The second Senators, created as an expansion team, had only one winning season from 1961 to 1971 before relocating to Texas and becoming the Rangers.
The Nationals played at the aging Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium from 2005 to 2007, then moved into the new Nationals Park, built by the District of Columbia with $611 million in taxpayer money. In the years that followed, their fortunes gradually improved, with Mr. Lerner spending lavishly on stars like pitchers Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and the slugging outfielder Bryce Harper.
After a dismal start to their 2019 season. the Nationals surged.
Harper had departed for a free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Phillies before the season, but the Nationals added the outstanding left-hander Patrick Corbin to their pitching rotation and were buoyed by a lineup that included Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. They defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals in the first rounds of the National League playoffs. The Nationals and the Astros lost all their home games in the World Series, which concluded with the Nationals capturing Games 6 and 7 in Houston.
Mr. Lerner kept a low public profile when it came to his baseball team ownership, a bearing that extended to his real estate activities.
“I never could have imagined over my life that I would build over 20 million square feet of commercial and residential space, and very few people would know my name,” he was quoted as saying by The Washington Business Journal when he received a lifetime achievement award from the Urban Land Institute in November 2015. “I guess I have a different approach to real estate development than Donald Trump. And I’m fine with that.”
Theodore Nathan Lerner was born on Oct. 15, 1925, the oldest of three children of Mayer and Ethel Lerner. His father arrived in Washington from Palestine in 1920 and worked as a distributor for a clothing company, then bought, remodeled and resold homes. His mother immigrated from Lithuania.
He graduated from Roosevelt High School in Washington, where he was a classmate of Bowie Kuhn, who later became baseball commissioner.
Mr. Lerner received undergraduate and law degrees from George Washington University after serving in the Army during World War II. In 1951, two years after he graduated from law school, he married Annette Morris, whom he met while they were in college.
“In my very first case, the court appointed me to represent a parking attendant charged with stealing the cars he was parking,” Mr. Lerner wrote in ForbesLife magazine in 2013. “I somehow got his sentence reduced from two years to six months. My client promptly left town without paying me. I figured there had to be a more rewarding way to make a living, so I decided to get into real estate full time.”
“I didn’t have any money,” he recalled, noting that he was 25 at the time. His wife was working as a secretary at the State Department, and so he asked her for financial help. “She loaned me $250,” he said. “That’s how I got started.”
Mr. Lerner had started selling homes on weekends when he was in law school, he told Washingtonian magazine in 2007. As he began building a real estate empire, “I took off for Jewish holidays and a Redskins game or two. It was nothing to do 18-hour days.” (The Washington Redskins of the N.F.L. are now the Washington Commanders.)
Mr. Lerner’s company, Lerner, became one of the largest private developers in the Washington metropolitan area, building malls, office buildings, hotels, private homes and apartment buildings. He and his family have an estimated net worth of $6.6 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
Mr. Lerner’s first shopping center, the open-air Wheaton Plaza (now Westfield Wheaton) in suburban Maryland, was dedicated in 1960.
He opened Tysons Corner Center, a national model for enclosed, climate-controlled malls, in the late 1960s and another mall, the Galleria at Tysons II, outside Washington in Fairfax County, Va., in the late 1980s.
As his wealth grew, Mr. Lerner sought without success to buy pro sports teams, including the American League’s Baltimore Orioles and the N.F.L.’s Washington Football Team (formerly the Redskins). Eventually he purchased the Nationals for a payment of $450 million to Major League Baseball, which had taken over the National League’s failing Montreal team in February 2002 and moved it to Washington three years later.
The Lerner family also holds a partnership in Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns and operates Washington’s Capital One Arena along with the N.H.L.’s Washington Capitals, the N.B.A.’s Washington Wizards and W.N.B.A.’s Washington Mystics.
Mr. Lerner’s survivors include his wife and son; his daughters Debra Lerner Cohen and Marla Lerner Tanenbaum; a brother, Lawrence; a sister, Esther, and grandchildren. His wife, as well as his children and their spouses, are all principal owners of the Nationals.
When the Nationals held a victory parade on the Saturday after the 2019 World Series, riding atop buses along Constitution Avenue, which was lined with joyous fans wearing Nationals’ red, Mr. Lerner joined the celebration.
“They say good things come to those who wait,” he told the crowd. “Ninety-five years is a pretty long wait. But, I’ll tell you, this is worth the wait.”
After “Baby Shark,” the Nationals’ anthem during their glorious season, blared over loudspeakers, Mr. Lerner told his players and the jubilant throng, “From now on you can call me Grandpa Shark.”