Theodore N. “Ted” Lerner, a self-made billionaire developer who became the majority owner of the Washington Nationals and oversaw the team’s rise to prominence, capped by his win at the 2019 World Series, died Feb. 12 at his Chevy home Chase, Md. He was 97.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, said Nationals spokeswoman Jennifer Mastin Giglio.
The peak of Mr. Lerner’s stewardship of Nationals came in 2019, more than a decade after he bought the franchise for $450 million. After a rocky start to the season, the Nationals found remarkable team chemistry that year and won the National League pennant on October 15 – Mr. Lerner’s 94th birthday.
Fifteen days later, after a tense seven-game streak in which the home team lost every game, Mr. Lerner watched as the Nationals upset the heavily favored Houston Astros to win the World Series.
No Washington team had been baseball champions since 1924, the year before Mr. Lerner was born.
The win capped his career and transformed his public legacy from that of a reclusive real estate and mall magnate known for his gruff and cantankerous personality to that of a community-minded team owner who brought a championship to his hometown.
A former usher at Washington’s old Griffith Stadium, where the Senators grew up, Mr. Lerner poured $450 million of his fortune into the Nationals and bought the team from Major League Baseball in 2006, a year after the franchise moved from Montreal to Washington had moved.
The Nationals endured six mostly miserable, loss-making seasons as Mr. Lerner and other members of his family, who were part of the ownership group, learned the baseball business and built the team.
Mr. Lerner closely oversaw the construction of the publicly funded Nationals Park, which opened in 2008 on South Capitol Street, 15 blocks from the US Capitol and resulted in the revitalization of a once-deserted neighborhood along the Anacostia River.
One of Mr. Lerner’s most important decisions came in 2009 when he hired Mike Rizzo as general manager and president of baseball operations. Rizzo was the architect of a team that won four National League East Division championships from 2012-2017 before breaking through with the 2019 World Series title.
The Nationals named Mr. Lerner’s son, Mark, as the principal executive owner in 2018, but the elder Mr. Lerner remained the undisputed, albeit reclusive, patriarch in control of the team’s purses.
In 2018, Mark Lerner said, “We will never sell the Nationals.” But in April 2022, when the club was valued at $2 billion, the Nationals announced “an exploratory process” for additional investors or a possible sale of the franchise.
As his team’s fortunes grew, Mr. Lerner tried to stay out of the public eye. Known as “Silent Ted” at the district’s Roosevelt High School in the 1940s, Mr. Lerner studiously avoided the limelight while he built one of the largest private real estate companies in the area.
His company, Lerner Enterprises of Rockville, Md., built more than 22,000 homes and 7,000 apartments in the Washington area. The company owned and managed millions of square feet of commercial and retail space and for many years had shopping destinations in Tysons Corner and Dulles Town Center in Northern Virginia and White Flint Mall in North Bethesda, Md 2015 and is scheduled for redevelopment.)
Mr. Lerner and his family’s net worth was estimated by Forbes magazine at $6.6 billion in 2023. Buying the Nationals fulfilled a lifelong dream for Mr. Lerner, who recalled working as an usher at Griffith Stadium because he could rarely afford to buy Senators’ tickets.
He attended baseball’s All-Star Game in Washington in 1937. “The tram to Griffith Stadium was three cents,” he told The Post in 2015. “Reduced because I was a student. The All-Star ticket cost 25 cents. I’m not sure how I bought it. But I definitely remember the game.”
He kept a framed scorecard of the game in his office.
Over the years, Mr. Lerner has expressed interest in owning football, basketball, and baseball franchises, but has never had anywhere near success.
When the Washington Senators left the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season, Washington became the largest metropolitan area in the country without a major league baseball team. The capital was bypassed when baseball expanded to other cities.
In 2002, Major League Baseball took ownership of the financially troubled Montreal Expos and announced two years later that the franchise was moving to Washington. Mr. Lerner led one of several groups competing to buy the Expos.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and his selection committee were looking for a deep-pocketed owner with deep Washington roots who would make a long-term commitment to the team. They also sought a low-key public image and a willingness to treat the franchise as a public trust.
Mr. Lerner complied with those requirements, but following criticism that his ownership group was not sufficiently diversified, several prominent black investors joined at the last minute. Stan Kasten, a former Atlanta sports executive, brought experience and expertise to the Lerner investment group and was eventually named team president.
Selig and other baseball officials originally said they wanted new ownership by the time Nationals started playing in 2005. But one delay led to another, and the team remained a Major League Baseball property throughout its first season in Washington.
Eight serious bidders turned into three, and it was not until May 2006 that Mr. Lerner and his family finally prevailed and bought the franchise. Mr. Lerner, who had accumulated enormous wealth without becoming a public figure, was suddenly thrown into an unfamiliar spotlight in which he admitted he wasn’t entirely comfortable.
“It’s a whole different world,” he said in a 2014 interview with Nationals broadcaster Bob Carpenter of the MASN sports network. “The same business principles apply [in] Baseball. You have important decisions to make. And one of the decisions… is do you invest money, time and effort in the short term – and take risks in the short term – or do you go for the long term? We have made a commitment to the world not to profit from this franchise for 10 years.”
During the 2007 season, the Nationals played at the aging Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. The Lerner family pledged to invest heavily in the team and develop land around the new $611 million ballpark being built with city funding on the Anacostia waterfront.
As the club struggled through two consecutive seasons of 100 losses and low payrolls in 2008 and 2009, fans began to vent their frustration, accusing Mr Lerner of opportunistically taking the public’s money without spending enough to secure a competitive build team. Kasten left the Nationals after the 2010 season and became a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Despite the Nationals Park opening in 2008, attendance fell as the team continued their losing streak. The rehabilitation of the devastated neighborhood of the stadium has also been slow during a severe nationwide economic downturn. Within a few years, however, the area known as the Navy Yard flourished with restaurants, shops, and apartment buildings near the stadium.
The Lerner family also faced a storm of anger from the DC government in 2008 when it refused to pay the city $3.5 million in rent because some of the facility’s cosmetic features were not “substantially complete,” despite the team already played in the park .
“There’s really nothing better than the sporting goods store,” Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio told The Post in 2019. “Everything you do is looked at under a microscope. Imagine you’re on Wall Street doing all these deals over the course of a day and at the end of the day you have to publicly explain all your decisions. This is the position Ted was in. It is a transition for all of us.”
Mr. Lerner and his owning team have sometimes been criticized for signing some players on deferred compensation contracts, which meant full value was not paid out for years — sometimes long after a player left Washington.
The club’s fortunes improved in 2012 as the Nationals won 98 games and made the playoffs for the first time. Attracting about 2.5 million fans annually, the team placed in baseball’s top third by winning the NL East four times in six years. In 2018, the All-Star Game was played at Nationals Park, 81 years after Mr. Lerner watched his first All-Star Game at Griffith Stadium.
Criticism of Mr. Lerner and his leadership of the team turned to praise in 2009 when the Nationals drafted pitcher Stephen Strasburg and paid him $15.1 million, a record contract for an amateur player.
When the celebrated 21-year-old right-hander made his debut with the Nats in June 2010, hitting 14 batsmen in his first game, the stadium began to sell out for his performances. After the 2019 World Series, where Strasburg was named MVP, he signed a $245 million contract extension to keep him with the team through 2026.
Mr. Lerner, who has developed a strong working relationship with Scott Boras, the agent of many of the Nats’ top players, opened up his wallet further in 2010 when the team drafted 17-year-old slugger Bryce Harper and paid him $9.9 million over five years, including a $6.25 million signing bonus. Harper left after the 2018 season on a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.
In 2015, the Nationals signed pitcher Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract. Scherzer became one of baseball’s dominant pitchers and a huge fan favorite for his passionate style of play before being traded in 2021.
The Nats made the playoffs in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017, but each failed to advance past the opening round. After the team lost a hard-fought divisional series to the Chicago Cubs in 2017, popular coach Dusty Baker was not hired after his contract expired, despite leading the team to 95 and 97 wins in back-to-back seasons.
Many fans of the team were angry and complained that Mr. Lerner and his family did not fully understand the vagaries of baseball, in which postseason success often depended on chance and luck.
“Regular season wins and division titles are not enough,” Rizzo said on behalf of Mr. Lerner and other family members. “Our goal is one [championship] Parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Prior to the 2018 season, the Nationals hired Dave Martinez as their manager. He built the team around Scherzer, Strasburg, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman—the first Nationals draft pick in 2005—third baseman Anthony Rendon, shortstop Trea Turner, and young outfielder Juan Soto.
In 2019, the Nationals overcame a slow start – the team was 19-31 after 50 games – and won several dramatic postseason games before triumphing over the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the World Series. After the Nationals won 6-2 at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, Ted Lerner wasn’t silent anymore. “The dream came true,” he said.
Theodore Nathan Lerner was born in Washington on October 15, 1925 and grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family.
His father, a clothing merchant, had emigrated from British Mandate Palestine; his mother was from Lithuania. On Saturday, the Sabbath, they did not use electric lights or listen to the radio. After buying the Nationals, Mr. Lerner gave up attending Friday night games to celebrate the Sabbath.
At Roosevelt High School, he was involved with the school newspaper, the French club, and the tennis team. His class of 1944 yearbook called him one of the “most energetic and resourceful students” at the school.
After military service in Texas during World War II, he received an associate’s degree from George Washington University in 1948. Two years later, he graduated from the university’s law school and began his career in real estate. A local developer challenged him to sell 25 homes, and Mr. Lerner went well beyond that goal.
“It was mid-November,” he told Washingtonian Magazine. “I had a house completely wrapped in cellophane with a huge red bow. Santas were around every corner.” He sold 100 houses and convinced him he had a “feel for real estate.” He remained a developer of subdivisions for many years.
In 1951, Mr. Lerner married Annette Morris, the daughter of a builder on the east coast of Maryland. In addition to his wife of Chevy Chase, survivors include three children, Mark D. Lerner and Debra Lerner Cohen, both of Washington, and Marla Lerner Tanenbaum of Bethesda; nine grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
In the mid-1950’s, when closed malls were still a novelty, Mr. Lerner got into the business through Isadore M. Gudelsky, a former sand and gravel salesman who built up a sizeable real estate portfolio in the Washington suburbs. Their Wheaton Plaza project became one of their most successful soon after it opened in 1960.
Mr. Lerner soon won over Fairfax County planners with his ideas for developing the apple orchards and cow pastures around Tysons Corner. In doing so, he defeated James W. Rouse, a Maryland shopping center pioneer who later developed the proposed City of Columbia, Faneuil Hall in Boston, and Harborplace in Baltimore.
To keep out competition, Mr. Lerner and associates purchased more than 100 acres of farmland across from Tysons Corner Center and eventually built what is now Tysons II.
Mr. Lerner was as argumentative as he was smart, and relationships with some of his business associates broke up. H. Max Ammerman, a partner at Tyson’s grocery stores, told a Post reporter shortly before his death in 1988 that Mr. Lerner was “a tough guy.”
“When he didn’t get his way, he was a terror,” Ammerman said. “Meetings would end in arguments.”
In the early 1980’s, when the DC Department of Finance and Revenue erroneously valued Mr. Lerner’s property at Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW at $2.90 per square foot instead of $290 per square foot, Mr. Lerner balked at the correct price and the resulting tax on the property placed lien.
Mr. Lerner’s attorneys launched a lawsuit alleging that the lien amounted to libel and defamation. In the end, Mr. Lerner and a partner reportedly agreed to a $675,000 tax payment, about $160,000 less than the district had requested.
Mr. Lerner also threw out his younger brother Lawrence as an officer and director of the family’s property management firm. In the mid-1980s, Lawrence Lerner, a pharmacist, sued his brother, accusing him of having been defrauded of tens of millions of dollars over the years. Despite a settlement in 1987, Lawrence Lerner had to return to court to enforce the agreement. He died in 2019.
Even those who were the target of Mr. Lerner’s wrath have recognized his generosity in charitable donations. He and his wife started a philanthropy, the Annette M. Lerner and Theodore N. Lerner Family Foundation, which gave away millions of dollars. Among the largest recipients were George Washington University, Children’s National Hospital, and his synagogue, Ohr Kodesh, a conservative community in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
But for most Washington-area residents, Mr. Lerner’s greatest legacy lay in the baseball team he built and in the 2019 championship year.
“They say good things come to those who wait,” Mr. Lerner said at the Nationals victory celebration, nearly a century after the city’s only other World Series title. “Ninety-five years is an awfully long wait. But the wait was worth it.”
Dana Hedgepeth contributed to this report.