Ted Lerner, the Nationals' founding principal owner and a lifelong baseball fan who helped return baseball to Washington, passed away due to complications from pneumonia at the age of 97, the club announced on Monday.
“I have great appreciation for Ted’s impact on his hometown and the game he loved," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. "On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to Ted’s entire family, including Annette Lerner, Mark Lerner and Judy Lenkin Lerner, Marla Lerner Tanenbaum and Robert Tanenbaum, and Debra Lerner Cohen and Edward Cohen.”
Born on Oct. 15, 1925, in D.C., Theodore N. Lerner possessed a passion for baseball at an early age. Unable to afford the cost of a ticket, Lerner became an usher at Griffith Stadium. As a student at Roosevelt High School, he was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, a sports reporter and a member of the tennis team. After graduating high school in 1944, Lerner served in the U.S. Army and also earned an Associate of Arts degree from The George Washington University in ’48 and a Bachelor of Laws from The George Washington University Law School in ’50.
Lerner’s father passed away when Ted was 21, and he sold real estate on the weekends while in law school to support his family. At 26 years old, Lerner borrowed $250 from his wife, Annette, to start a real estate company that sold homes to developers.
Lerner Enterprises would go on to become the largest private real estate development company in the metro D.C. area, with more than 20 million square feet of commercial and retail buildings in a portfolio that features hospitality, office, residential, retail and sports and entertainment.
The Nationals became part of that business when the Expos relocated in 2004 and baseball returned to D.C. after 33 years.
"It has long been my dream to bring the national pastime back to my hometown, the nation's capital," Lerner said after ownership of the Nationals was transferred from Major League Baseball. “Now that it's been realized, I plan on doing everything I can to make sure that this franchise becomes an international jewel for MLB, D.C. and the nation."
Lerner became the managing principal owner on May 3, 2006, and the Lerner Group’s purchase of the Nats was finalized on July 24, 2006.
"I am extremely pleased to welcome the Lerner family and their partners into Major League Baseball," then-Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig said at the time. "As I've come to know Ted and his family better over the past several weeks, I'm more certain than ever that they will provide the kind of committed and stable ownership that will help this franchise flourish in the D.C. area for years and years to come."
The Nats moved from RFK Stadium to the newly built Nationals Park in 2008, and they won the NL East in ’12, ’14, ’16 and ’17. In 2018, Lerner transferred the team’s day-to-day operations to his son, Mark, and became founding principal owner. The following season, the Nationals won the first World Series by a team from Washington since the Senators in 1924.
“It’s been a very great day for the Washington Nationals,” Lerner said at the championship parade. “They say good things come to those who wait. Ninety-five years is a pretty long wait. But I’ll tell you, this is worth the wait. This is for the city that’s always believed, the players that always fought and the fans who were with us every step of the way.”
Philanthropically, The Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Foundation supports local and international organizations, including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Weizmann Institute of Science, Junior Achievement of the Greater Washington Area, Georgetown Day School, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, B’nai Brith Youth Organization, Washington Hospital Center Foundation, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Washington and District of Columbia, Imagination Stage of Bethesda, Food and Friends, YouthAids and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Lerner was a founding member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and he served on the board of trustees and executive committee of the George Washington University, which includes the donation of the Annette and Theodore Lerner Family Health and Wellness Center and the Theodore N. Lerner Hall at the GWU National Law Center.
Lerner also was the recipient of awards and honors including the American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award of Excellence, the Thomas G. Corcoran Award by the University Club of D.C. and Urban Land Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as induction into the Washington Business Hall of Fame by Junior Achievement, the George Washington University School of Business Sports Executives Hall of Fame, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington Sports Hall of Fame and the Washington D.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
Lerner is survived by his wife of 71 years, Annette Morris Lerner; his children, Mark D. Lerner, Debra Lerner Cohen and Marla Lerner Tanenbaum; nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.