Descendants of the
Mayflower: The Story of the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts
By Mike Devitt
Note: The following is a collection of articles that originally appeared on the Indianapolis Star-News Online in March and April of 1998. A number of Colts fans have asked that this series be posted online somewhere on a permanent basis. You asked for it, folks, so here it is.
Any questions or comments? Feel free to e-mail me.
Descendants of the Mayflower, Part I
Time for a little history lesson, everyone. See if you can guess which Maryland sports figure uttered these famous words:
"It was the failure of our local and state elected officials in Maryland to provide the Colts with a firm proposal for a new stadium that led Mr. Irsay to accept an offer from Indianapolis to play in a new dome in that city."
A. Current Colts' owner Jim Irsay, who signed a ten-year lease agreement to keep the team in Indianapolis on the one-year anniversary of his father's death?
B. Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell, who threw a half-century of tradition out the window by pulling up stakes and moving the beloved Cleveland Browns to Maryland?
C. Baltimore Sun sports columnist John Steadman, who correctly predicted the winning score in the Colts' 23-17 victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game?
D. None of the above.
If you answered "D", you're correct. You may also be surprised at the person behind that little quote. It came from none other than John Moag, Jr., chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, who testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee against the passage of the Fan Freedom and Community Protection Act. This law was proposed late in 1995, just after the Cleveland Browns announced their intention to relocate to Baltimore.
What's this? A Marylander excusing Robert Irsay for moving the Colts out of Baltimore? It can't be. The sun didn't rise in the West this morning. Hell didn't freeze over. And I didn't win the lottery.
So what's going on? And more importantly, what's the whole point?
Well, it's simple. Ever since I've been a Colts fan, I've received what could be considered an undue amount of grief about it. There are some diehard fans who just refuse to accept the reality of the Colts being in Indianapolis. I've heard the name Irsay used as a synonym for idiot, toilet, Hitler and a few dozen other things, most of which aren't allowed in print.
But enough is enough. I'm sick of hearing about how the city of Indianapolis stole the Colts from Baltimore without a chance to defend themselves. I'm sick of getting messages describing how the residents of Indianapolis are nothing but a bunch of sister-kissing dirt farmers who have no class, let alone indoor plumbing. And I'm sick of the people who seem to dedicate their entire existence to spouting half-truths and misinformation about a long-departed football team and its owner as if it were scripture.
So once and for all, I've decided to try and put some of these issues to rest by outlining the history of the franchise, showing just why the Colts moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis. Some of it will be nice. Some of it will be not so nice. Either way, I'm sure fans in both cities may be upset by what follows. But the important thing is that what will be said here is true; it can all be looked up and referenced in newspapers and books about the NFL if it's that important to you. And in the end, it's the truth that really matters when you get down to it.
So without further ado, let's get this story started. It begins, curiously enough, not in Baltimore or Indianapolis, but in Miami, Florida ...
Once Upon a Time: the Original Baltimore Colts
The year was 1946. America was less then four months removed from the end of the Second World War. The winner of the Oscar for Best Picture went to "The Best Years of Our Lives." Billie Holiday and Lee Wiley sang their hearts out to returning soldiers and sailors on the radio waves. The nation of Israel didn't yet exist on a map, and the rest of the world was beginning to get its first real look at a relatively new invention known as "television."
In the sports world, another invention was taking shape -- the All America Football Conference, which had been devised by Archibald Ward, the sports editor at the Chicago Tribune. Consisting of eight teams, the AAFC played in direct competition with the National Football League in some cities such as New York and Chicago. Other franchises in the new league, such as the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Dons, had certain areas of the country all to themselves.
One of those teams was the Miami Seahawks, a franchise which seemed destined to failure in Florida almost from the beginning. The team ended their first season in the AAFC at the bottom of the league's Eastern Divison with a 3-11 record, despite replacing nearly the entire roster at mid-season. Although they played in the spacious and (at the time) modern Orange Bowl, the Seahawks also had the league's worst attendance record. An average of only 7,100 fans attended Seahawk home games, barely a third of the AAFC's average. Less than a week after the AAFC's debut season was over, the rest of the league's owners decided to wash their hands of Miami, filing debt charges against the team's owners and expelling the franchise from the league.
Baltimore, Here We Come
The void created by Miami's absence from the league didn't last long. The city of Baltimore, which had originally been considered to receive a charter AAFC franchise as early as 1944, was contacted to see if there was any interest in having the team play there. It took exactly a week to find out just how much interest there was. Seven days after the Miami Seahawks were declared null and void, there was a new professional football franchise in the state of Maryland.
Robert Rodenberg, a Harvard-educated journalist and movie producer who doubled as a spy for the Americans during World War II, took over the franchise in Baltimore. Since "Seahawks" was not the most appropriate name for a Maryland city, Rodenberg originally wanted to call the team the Whirlaways, after the horse that had won the 1941 Kentucky Derby. But the name was considered too long, and so a name-that-team contest was held in the city. The nickname "Colts" won, being used as a way to honor Baltimore's long history of thoroughbred racing.
And so it was that on September 7, 1947, the Baltimore Colts, still wearing the garish green and silver duds originally donned by Miami, played their first professional football game in rickety old Municipal Stadium against the AAFC's Brooklyn Dodgers. The color of the Dodgers' jerseys that day? Sunflower yellow.
It was the kind of opening game a new franchise's owner dreams about, with luck, skill and fate all playing a part in the final outcome. On the opening kickoff, Brooklyn's Elmore Harris ran the ball back to his own 25 yard line, where he was hit and fumbled. A lineman for the Dodgers named Harry Buffington picked up the ball and ran, but got accidentally turned around and headed in the direction of his own end zone. Realizing his mistake, he tried to get rid of the ball, but it was batted down.
A fullback for the Colts named Jim Castiglia jumped on the fumble in the end zone, scoring Baltimore's first touchdown, on the team's first play, in the first game of the franchise's history. Castiglia became a local football hero, and the team cemented a victory with a 95-yard kick return for a touchdown by halfback Billy Hillenbrand. The final score of that first game against the Dodgers was 16-7, Baltimore -- a score that would be quite memorable for the Colts more than two decades later, but for another reason altogether.
The next morning's newspapers showed the Colts atop the league's Eastern division for the first -- and what would turn out to be the last -- time. The team won only one of their remaining 13 games that season and finished in the AAFC East's cellar -- the same spot occupied by the Seahawks the previous year. For the season, the Colts ended up being outscored by 210 points and outrun by more than 1,500 yards. Only the Chicago Rockets, at 1 and 13, ended up with a worse record.
At the box office, the team didn't fare much better, finishing sixth in an eight-team league with an average attendance of just over 14,000. Rodenberg, known for holding lavish post-game parties, admitted that he knew nothing about owning a football franchise and gave up control of the team. A "Save the Colts" operation was held by the city's mayor, Tommy D'Alessandro. A group of 16 civic leaders anted various sums of money to buy the team from Rodenberg and keep the Colts in Baltimore.
The team also got help from some of the league's other owners, who organized a plan to help endangered franchises such as the Colts from going under. One of the players the Colts received from that plan was a quarterback by the name of Y.A. Tittle, who would go on to have a Hall-of-Fame career with the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants. Things finally began looking up for Baltimore.
Under Tittle's guidance in 1948, the Colts finished 7-7 and earned a playoff spot, where they lost to the Buffalo Bills in the postseason. Tittle was named the league's rookie of the year and posted rookie records in completion percentage and passing yards in a season. The average attendance in Municipal Stadium also made a dramatic improvement, averaging more than 29,200 per game (higher than the league averages for both the AAFC and the NFL). But the team still lost money, and there was pressure in the league to drop the franchise. Negotiations to merge the two leagues were underway, and the Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall was in no mood to have to compete for fans, especially with the threat of an up-and-coming competitor just 40 miles away.
As the franchise struggled to remain competitive the next season, the team's attendance dipped to just under 22,000 per game. D'Alessandro once again organized a plan to keep the Colts in Baltimore, including an exhibition game to be held in August, 1950. Tickets for that game were to be sold at the then unheard-of price of $5. D'Alesasndro himself promised to move 10,000 tickets before the game was held, but more important matters soon took precedence.
Things were about to change for the Baltimore Colts in a big way.
Welcome to the NFL
In 1950, the National Football League signed an agreement that brought three AAFC teams into the NFL. One of those teams was the Cleveland Browns, who had won every AAFC championship and went undefeated in 1948. Another was the San Francisco 49ers, one of only two teams to beat the Browns during their tenure in the AAFC. The other team was the Baltimore Colts, who had to pay the Redskins $150,000 for "invading" their 75 mile barrier.
Off the field, local businessman Abe Watner became the Colts' owner, agreeing to guarantee the team's operations for a year. On the field, the team was pathetic, finishing the season with a 1-11 record. The Colts' defense allowed more than twice as many points as the offense could muster. As a result, attendance sagged to less than 16,000 a game, well below the 25,000 the team said it would need to break even financially.Despite cutting expenses greatly, Watner was faced with economic ruin. He approached the rest of the league's owners for help in January of 1951 at the NFL's winter meeting in Chicago, with the hope that they would come to his assistance. Unlike the AAFC's owners, however, who had been willing to help out their less unfortunate brethren, the NFL's good ol' boy network turned Watner down and left him to fend for himself. The Colts' owner then raised the white flag and gave his franchise back to the league. For his efforts, the NFL's other owners voted to pay him $50,000 for control of the Colts' players, who were then put into a draft for their own clubs. The Green Bay Packers bought the team's old helmets for themselves, and the Colts' landlord held an auction to sell team equipment to pay off rent that was past due. Watner, meanwhile, who by this time had become Baltimore's version of John Dillinger, sneaked out of town for an indefinite vacation in Florida. It looked like the end of pro football in the state of Maryland.
As we all know, it wasn't. But that's another story, and the tale of how the Colts were reborn in Baltimore will be told in part two of this series.
* * *Descendants of the Mayflower, Part II
Second Time's a "Charm"
In 1951, it looked like the idea of having a professional football team in Baltimore had come and gone. After agreeing to operate the team for a year, owner Abe Watner had slashed expenses brutally and, in the process, produced a club that won only one game its first season in the National Football League. With an anemic offense, the team was outscored at a margin of better than 2 to 1. And although it was one of the ten most populous cities in the nation at the time, the average attendance at Colts games in 1950 was less than 16,000, far less than the projected 25,000 the team had said it would need to survive.
When Watner's pleas for financial aid fell on deaf ears at the league's owners meeting (an incident due largely in part to the actions of Redskins front man George Preston Marshall), the new owner finally gave up the ship. The rest of the NFL's owners bought back the Colts players for $50,000, where they were put into a special pool and drafted. The Colts' helmets were sold to the Packers as surplus items; meanwhile, the rest of the team's equipment was auctioned off to pay back rent. Watner, sensing the wolves at the door, left town for a long vacation, and the Colts franchise reverted became the property of the NFL.
Less than five years after it had begun, professional football was in Maryland was no more. The Baltimore Colts had simply ceased to be.
But things weren't over just yet. There's a reason they don't call Baltimore "Charm City" for nothing.
Bring In the Lawyers
Shortly after Watner handed the team back to the league, the Colts' board of directors, who had known nothing of Watner's plans until it was too late, filed a lawsuit against both him and the NFL. Commissioner Bert Bell, in an effort to head off litigation, admitted that the league was wrong in allowing Watner to abandon the franchise and offered to return the team to Baltimore if its debt could be cleared.
This promise wasn't good enough for the city's attorney, William D. MacMillan, however. Instead of sitting on their hands, MacMillan proceeded with the lawsuit, which accused Watner and the league of, among other things, violating the Sherman Antitrust Act and restraining trade. Faced with the very real chance of losing such litigation (several preliminary rulings had gone in the city's favor; the case would have been tried in Baltimore; and the judge expected to rule on the case was a devoted Colts fan), in December of 1952 Bell issued a challenge to the city: sell 15,000 season tickets in six weeks, and the league would reward Baltimore with another football team.
It took less than four. Along came the Dallas Texans, a franchise which had done so poorly in the Lone Star state that they had abandoned their hometown midway through the 1952 season and played the rest of their games on the road that year. Without a city to call their own, the Texans were reassigned to Baltimore, where they arrived complete with elegantly simple blue and white uniforms and a fat defensive end named Art Donovan. On January 23, 1953, wealthy textile manufacturer and native Baltimorean Carroll Rosenbloom, a good friend of Bell, bought the franchise back from the league. Local investors raised money to help pay off the Washington Redskins and their 75-mile "relocation fee", and the Baltimore Colts were back in business.
Glory Days: The Rosenbloom Era, 1953-1971
It didn't take long for the Colts to make a splash in professional football. Even before the team had played its first game, the Colts made news with one of the largest player trades in history, sending five Baltimore players to Cleveland in exchange for 10 Browns. Among the players acquired in the trade were kicker/linebacker Bert Rechicar, end Art Spinney, and a young defensive back named Don Shula, who would one day end up in the league's Hall of Fame after coaching the Colts and the Miami Dolphins.
Just as the original Baltimore Colts had done, the new Baltimore franchise won its first game with an upset, beating the Chicago Bears 13-9. But the team soon reverted to its Seahawk-like losing ways, losing its last seven games to finish fifth in the division with a 3-9 record.
The following year, head coach Keith Molesworth was replaced by Wilbur (Weeb) Ewbank, an assistant coach behind Paul Brown and the Cleveland football franchise and one of the best football men ever at finding great new talent. One of the promises that Ewbank gave to Rosenbloom was that the team would be a contender within five years. Even before he took over the position as head coach, however, Ewbank would contribute mightily to the team's future success on the field.
Because Ewbank played such a large part in deciding whom the Browns would select when it came to the amateur draft, Paul Brown argued that Ewbank should remain with the Cleveland franchise until after the draft occurred. Commissioner Bell agreed, so when the draft took place in 1954, Weeb Ewbank was still a Cleveland Brown.
But that agreement was only on paper. During the draft, Ewbank had secretly written notes to a reporter from the Baltimore News-Post, who then passed them on to general manager Don Kellett. Using that information, the Colts drafted, among other players, wide receiver Raymond Berry and linebacker Robert Lade. The next year, with Molesworth as the team's head scout, Ewbank and company compiled a number of other finds, including quarterback George Shaw and running back Alan Ameche.
And the team finally began showing signs of improvement. In 1955, the Colts won their first three games and finished with a record of 5-6-1, the best the team had ever done in a season. Shaw was named the league's rookie of the year for his efforts, and Ameche had emerged as a force to be reckoned with out of the backfield.
The following season, an event occurred that would alter the destiny of the franchise for years to come. While it signaled the end of one player's career, it marked the beginning for another -- a stoop-shouldered, sandlot quarterback named Johnny Unitas. It also began the Colts' rise to glory as one of the most dominating teams in pro football history.
Johnny U and "The Greatest Game Ever Played"
The date was October 21, 1956. The Colts and the Chicago Bears were playing a heated contest at Wrigley Field, which at the time was home to both the Bears and the Cubs. With the Colts leading 20-14, Shaw went down with a torn knee ligament. It was the type of injury that an athlete could make a full recovery from nowadays. But this was the 1950s, long before MRIs and arthroscopic surgery had appeared on the scene. The injury effectively ended Shaw's career and threw Unitas directly into the starting lineup.
It was one of the most inauspicious debuts a quarterback would ever make in professional football. On his first pass attempt, the Bears intercepted the ball and ran it back for a touchdown. On the Colts next play from scrimmage, Unitas fumbled a handoff to Ameche. The Bears recovered that fumble and scored again. A few possessions later, Unitas fumbled another handoff, and Chicago scored yet another touchdown. The 20-14 lead he had inherited when Shaw was knocked out disintegrated into a 58-27 Chicago rout.
But Unitas got better -- a lot better. Two weeks later, he won his first game as a starting quarterback with a 21-7 upset win over the Cleveland Browns. Although the team finished the year 5-7, Unitas had already begun to show glimpses of his future greatness, setting an NFL completion rate for a rookie quarterback by connecting on more than 55 percent of his passes. The following year, Unitas was named the league's MVP, and the team finished with its first winning record at 7-5. Although the Colts failed to make the playoffs, their continually improving play set the stage for the 1958 season and a championship game that would catapult the National Football League into the hearts and minds of America.
On December 29, 1958, a little more than two years after having the starting quarterback's job practically fall into his hands, Unitas' Baltimore Colts faced off against the New York Giants for the championship of the National Football League. Because the game was being held in New York's Yankee Stadium, and because the Giants had beaten Baltimore 24-21 in the regular season, the Giants were considered the heavy favorite going into the championship.
It was the type of game of which legends are created. On the field that day were 11 players who would later make it to the NFL's Hall of Fame -- Unitas, Alan Ameche, Raymond Berry, Art Donovan, Lenny Moore and Gino Marchetti for the Colts; Charlie Conerly, Frank Gifford, Rosey Grier, Sam Huff and Pat Summerall for the Giants. In the end, it was Unitas and Ameche who helped the Colts attain their ultimate victory.
Unlike the two previous NFL championships, which had been blowouts decided before halftime, the title game between the Giants and Colts was a nail-biter, with momentum shifting nearly each possession. New York started the scoring off early, when Summerall kicked a field goal to give New York a 3-0 lead in the first quarter. But the Colts reacted quickly, forcing two Frank Gifford fumbles and converting each one into a touchdown, the second one the culmination of a brilliant 88-yard drive led by Unitas.
With the Colts holding a 14-3 lead in the second half, the Giants' defense finally rose to the challenge, stopping a Baltimore drive that could have iced the game in the third quarter. Instead, Charlie Conerly engineered two scoring drives of his own, the last of which put the Giants up 17-14 early in the fourth quarter.
The Colts tried to respond, but two consecutive possessions went nowhere, and the Giants found themselves four yards away from a first down that could have let them run out the clock. On a crucial second down run, Gino Marchetti broke his leg trying to make a tackle, but he managed to hold Frank Gifford short of a third down. Donovan and Ordell Braase then stopped New York on their next play, and Giants coach Jim Howell, figuring his team could protect a three point lead, opted to punt the ball away.
It turned out to be a fatal mistake. The Colts, who had practice using a two-minute offense during the season, quickly marched down the field and into field goal position. With just 30 seconds remaining, Steve Myrha tied the game at 17, which led to the NFL's first-ever overtime game. The Giants won the toss and received the ball first, but they were stopped on their opening possession and forced to kick.
Now came Unitas' turn in the national spotlight. Just 25 years old, he displayed the poise and leadership that would one day land him in the Hall of Fame as he directed the Colts on a 10-play, 80 yard drive that kept the Giants off balance.
First, Unitas handed off to halfback L.G. Dupre, who gained 13 yards on two carries; then he connected with Ameche for another first down. After a short run by Dupre, Unitas was sacked on second down, but managed to direct Berry downfield on the next play and hit him with a bullet pass for another first down.
Two more first downs by Ameche and Berry, and the Colts were on the Giants' eight-yard line, where the team called time out. Expecting a field goal, the crowd in Yankee Stadium was surprised to see Unitas then call his own play and throw an option pass to tight end Jim Mutscheller, who caught the ball at the one-yard line and slid out of bounds.
On the next play from scrimmage, eight minutes and 15 seconds into overtime, Unitas handed the ball off to Alan Ameche, who used a picture-perfect block by Moore to plunge into the end zone for the winning touchdown. The victory gave the Colts their first championship title, set off parties and fireworks throughout the state of Maryland, and brought about a wave of public enthusiasm and love for a football team seldom seen by even today's standards.
Later, Weeb Ewbank would joke that he had missed out on his promise to deliver a winner to Rosenbloom in five years. "It took me five years and eight minutes," he would say. But at that moment, such trivialities were easily forgotten. Nothing else mattered at the time, and why would it? The Baltimore Colts were champions of the National Football League
Jack Hand, a sportswriter for the Associated Press who saw the game live at Yankee Stadium, would later write, "If they play pro football for 100 years, they never can top Baltimore's first championship, snatched dramatically in a sudden-death playoff, 23-17, after New York refused to gamble."
Added Ravens owner Art Modell, who was an advertising agent in New York at the time, "It had all the drama you would want. It confirmed my belief that the league was here to stay."
As for Unitas, the 1958 championship marked only the first peak in what would become a mountain range of records and accomplishments. Before he retired in 1973, Unitas would be named league MVP a total of three times. He would be named all-league five times, play in ten Pro Bowls and set 22 NFL records, passing for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns. During one stretch of his career, Unitas threw at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games, a feat many sports fans compare to Joe Dimaggio's 56 game hitting streak in pro baseball.
The Good Times Keep Rolling
The 1958 NFL championship was only the beginning for the Baltimore Colts. They would repeat as league champions the next year, once again defeating the New York Giants in the final game. Just as in the title game the year before, the Colts trailed in the final quarter, but the team's defense came alive in the fourth, intercepting the Giants three times for touchdowns and winning 31-16.
The Colts continued to post good numbers in the 1960s as well, while Weeb Ewbank moved aside for Don Shula to become the team's head coach. In 1964, Shula's second year as head coach, the Colts made it all the way to the NFL championship game, where they were soundly beaten by the Cleveland Browns. The next year, the Colts went 10-3-1 and made it to the division championship under the leadership of halfback Tom Matte, who had been pressed into the starting quarterback's role when Unitas and his backup, Gary Cuozzo, both were knocked out of action in the final weeks of the season.
With a pair of cheat-sheet wristbands taped to his arms, Matte nearly won the division championship against the Green Bay Packers. However, Green Bay tied the game on a still-controversial field goal by Don Chandler that was called good despite photographic evidence to the contrary. The Colts ended up losing that game in overtime to the Packers 13-10, but Matte's wristbands eventually found their way to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
The 1965 division loss may have stung, but the way the 1967 season ended was even more heartbreaking. After starting unbeaten in their first 13 games, the Colts lost the season finale to the Rams and ended up not making the playoffs. But the team fought back from that in 1968, posting a 13-1 regular season record and setting up one of the biggest showdowns in professional football history.
The Game That Changed History
The date: Sunday, January 12, 1969. The event: Super Bowl III, a relatively new contest that pitted the champions from the American and National Football Leagues against each other. The young AFL, which had been manhandled by the NFL's Packers the previous two years, was looking for a way to gain respect from its older, more established rival. A win in the Super Bowl would be just the thing that would shift the balance of power at the bargaining table in the AFL's direction and help fast-forward ongoing merger talks.
And this year, a little something extra had been thrown in to add fuel to the fire. At an awards ceremony three days before the game, the New York Jets' brash young quarterback Joe Namath made a stunning prediction. At the close of the ceremony, Namath made national headline by saying, "And we're going to win Sunday. I'll guarantee you."
But it wasn't going to be easy. The Jets had been installed as 18-point underdogs to the Colts, who had destroyed Minnesota and Cleveland on their way to the Super Bowl. Baltimore owner Carroll Rosenbloom was so sure of impending victory, he had already planned a party in advance, hiring a 10-piece band and mailing out invitations to selected guests.
All the planning in the world couldn't help the Colts that fateful Sunday, however, as the Jets intercepted Baltimore quarterback Earl Morrall three times in the first half, building up a 13-0 lead going into the fourth quarter. Johnny Unitas, who had not played the entire regular season due to an elbow injury, made a valiant attempt at pulling off a miraculous comeback, but it was too little, too late. Namath and the Jets had stunned the football world by pulling off a 16-7 upset that solidified the AFL's place in pro football and dealt the National Football League a crushing blow to its self-esteem.
Despite the loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III, when one looks back on the Carroll Rosenbloom era in Baltimore, it was still a marvelous 19-year run for the franchise. Under Rosenbloom's ownership, the Colts would make the playoffs seven times, clinch five division championships, win three NFL championship games and one Super Bowl (a redeeming 16-13 victory over the Cowboys in Super Bowl V), and compile a .632 winning percentage, a record second only to the Cleveland Browns in that time span. And from 1957 to 1971, the Colts would go 15 seasons without posting a losing record, something that no other NFL club could lay claim to during that time. It was one of the greatest eras that any professional sports franchise had ever enjoyed, not just for Rosenbloom, Ewbank and Shula, but for the team's players and fans as well.
However, all good things must come to an end, as the saying goes. For some fans of the franchise, the beginning of the end of the Baltimore Colts occurred on July 13, 1972, when Rosenbloom traded teams with Los Angeles Rams owner Robert Irsay. Despite what some people think, however, the actual sale of the club involved much more than just a pair of franchises changing hands. There were several reasons behind why Rosenbloom sold the team to Robert Irsay, such as the lease situation surrounding Memorial Stadium and other local laws that were unfavorable towards the Colts. Those issues and more will be discussed in part III of this series.
* * *Descendants of the Mayflower, Part III
On the surface, 1972 looked like it was going to be another banner sports year for the citizens of Baltimore. The Colts had finally gained some redemption from their earlier loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III, beating the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V two years later and coming within a game of the championship the following season. Baseball's Orioles had just played in their third consecutive World Series, with a high-powered lineup that featured a pair of all-stars named Robinson (Brooks and Frank) and one of the best pitching rotations in the American League. And in the NBA, the Bullets had won the Eastern Division title, making it all the way to the finals before losing to the Milwaukee Bucks. From a sports fan's point of view, the future couldn't look much brighter in Baltimore.
If that was the case, then why did Carroll Rosenbloom shock nearly everybody in Maryland and sell the Colts to Robert Irsay? His teams were perennial winners that had sold out Memorial Stadium for years; he was making money hand over fist; and as a native Baltimorean who had returned professional football to the state of Maryland, he was held in the same esteem as the players who won ballgames for him down on the field.
As it turned out, it was a number of city and state elected officials who failed to live up to their end of the bargain. Professional sports is still a business, and Baltimore's legislators didn't give Rosenbloom (or the other professional sports owners) the respect they deserved when they decided not to help fund new, modern, athletic facilities. The story of the problems surrounding the Colts and Memorial Stadium is one that is not all that well-known to the general public. However, the history of the franchise's problems with the stadium provide valuable insight both as to why Rosenbloom eventually swapped franchises with Robert Irsay in 1972, as well as to why Irsay himself moved the team to Indianapolis just 12 years later. It begins with an idea that was years ahead of its time; one that would have made raised Baltimore's image and earned the city respect around the world.
Memorial Stadium: The Inmates Who Built the Asylum
In the spring of 1945, long before the original Baltimore Colts played their first game at old Municipal Stadium, the city's civic leaders were in the midst of a dilemma. Faced with the prospect of losing the region's younger citizens to other, more prosperous cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, a committee was formed by then-mayor Theodore McKeldin to assess the city's future.
In part, the Stadium Committee Report to the Mayor read, "There is no avoiding the unpleasant truth that until recently Baltimore was being outrun by a number of younger cities in the race for national and international prominence." World War II had provided only a temporary solution and reversed the problem, but the war's end was less than five months away. "It is for the leaders of Baltimore and Maryland to see that the reversal is permanent," the committee concluded in its report.
To try and solve the problem, the mayor's committee came up with an ambitious solution: a 100,000 seat, circular stadium with a thin metal roof, which would be supported not by bulky columns that blocked one's vision, but by air pressure. One of the backers behind the project was Glenn Martin, whose airplane company would once blossom into the mammoth aerospace corporation Lockheed-Martin.
At the time, no one had ever built a domed stadium. Martin argued fervently in favor of the new project, claiming that it would retain the city's young people and show the rest of the nation that Baltimore was more than just steel mills, defense plants and a notorious red-light district. Martin even went so far as to offer to help fund the complex, but it was not meant to be. Instead of building a trend-setting structure that would have drawn attention and prestige to the city, the more budget-conscious minds of Baltimore prevailed. The result was a bargain-basement stadium that was considered obsolete almost from the time it was completed.
As an example of the frugality in Baltimore's legislature, the new stadium was built at the exact same site where Municipal Stadium existed, using the same foundation and utilities as a base for construction. Originally conceived as a 20,000 seat structure with a single deck, by 1953 work had begun on a second deck that would more than double seating capacity and hopefully attract a full-time tenant. By the time it was finished at the end of the following year, with two professional sports teams filling its seats, Memorial Stadium looked quite charming from the outside, with its horseshoe shape and concrete and red brick exterior.
But once inside the stadium, it was clear that some corners had been cut in building the second deck. For instance, the upper deck was held up using giant concrete pillars, which pushed the deck back from the field and reduced the ticket value in those seats. The pillar system also left thousands of seats in the lower deck with obstructed views, which reduced their value, as well. Many of the original seats were also made of backless wooden bleachers, and the stadium lacked a roof -- the first double-decked stadium ever constructed that did not provide some sort of protection or cover for its fans up top. There were also problems with inadequate bathroom facilities, cramped office space, and the location was horrible for commuters.
While Memorial Stadium did not have the modern design and conveniences of its contemporaries across the nation, it did what it was supposed to -- bring professional sports back to Baltimore. The Colts had been revived in 1953, and the following year, the Saint Louis Browns would relocate and begin play as the Orioles. With the inclusion of the NBA's Bullets, who had been in Baltimore since 1948, it marked the first time the state of Maryland could claim three professional sports franchises of its own. Unfortunately, it also ushered in an era whereby Baltimore's legislature would try and bite the hands of the franchises that had boosted the state's image and added to their city's financial coffers.
Rumblings from Rosenbloom
Almost from the start, Carroll Rosenbloom was uncomfortable with the Colts playing in Memorial Stadium. One of the issues that made him unhappy was the lease agreement between the Colts, the Orioles and the stadium, which treated the older Colts like second-class citizens. While both teams were required to pay the city a certain amount of rent per year, the Orioles, who were considered a more significant factor economically than the Colts, had control over the stadium's concessions and parking revenues -- even during football season.
The stadium's location was another problem. Because it was situated in a residential neighborhood not close to a major thoroughfare or highway, traffic before and after Colts games would tie up the overlying streets for hours. Residents who lived near the stadium became virtual prisoners in their own homes, unable to leave in case of an emergency because of the overflow of cars and fans.
Even the law came down against the team. A provision that had been written in the city's charter while Memorial Stadium was being constructed prohibited spectator sporting events from starting before 2:00 pm on Sundays. Although originally conceived as a way to let the city's churchgoers make their way to and from religious services before the crush of Colts fans arrived, as a consequence, Baltimore was the only team in the NFL not to observe the traditional 1:00 pm starting time, a factor which irritated Rosenbloom for the duration of his ownership of the team.
Planting the Seeds of Relocation
In Rosenbloom's eyes, Memorial Stadium just wasn't big enough for both his team and the Orioles. So he began playing with the idea of building his own stadium. In 1965, he announced plans to build a new stadium with his own funds, possibly in conjunction with Oriole owner Jerold Hoffberger. In return, all he asked was that the city tear down Memorial Stadium so that it wouldn't attract a possible rival with a new AFL franchise.
At the time, Mayor McKeldin was supportive of the idea, telling reporters that August, "I'm for anything that is big, new and progressive." But the support needed to pass construction of the stadium through legislation never really surfaced, and there were problems over what area of the city the new stadium would be built in.
Adding to the problem was Rosenbloom's tenuous relationship with Hoffberger, which grew more remote as the years passed. At times, it seemed that whenever Rosenbloom and the Colts asked for some type of improvement to the stadium -- scheduling games at a particular time, adding bleachers or changing the seating plan, using different vendors or changing parking rates -- the Orioles would ask for something else. Things got so bad between the two that at times they refused to speak to each other, relaying messages to each other and passing notes even while the two were in the same meeting room.
The Last Straw
Finally, the Colts' owner decided he'd had enough of playing second fiddle to the Orioles. In November 1971, Rosenbloom announced that the Colts would not return to Memorial Stadium when their lease ran out following the 1972 season.
"We aren't interested in negotiating with the city anymore ... I'm tired of being the bad guy no matter what happens," Rosenbloom told reporters at the time. "If the city offers to build a practice field, or do something that would benefit the Colts, we are squandering the taxpayers' money. If we want to build our own stadium, we're bad. No matter what, we're wrong."
Rosenbloom's announcement awoke the city's legislators, and they quickly sprung into action. In February of 1972, Baltimore mayor Bill Schaefer and the state's governor, Marvin Mandel, created a stadium committee to examine the city's needs. Their report, which was completed and issued a month later, was not kind to Memorial Stadium.
Among the problems mentioned: 10,000 of the stadium's seats had views that were dubbed "less than desirable"; 20,000 seats were bench seats that had no backs; and 7,000 were poorly-constructed temporary bleachers that were installed for football games only. In addition, the space wasn't adequate enough for the front offices for either the Orioles or Colts, let alone both teams. Both clubs also had to share locker rooms, and the number of bathroom facilities in Memorial Stadium was considered woefully inadequate.
There were other problems with construction as well. Because the upper deck of Memorial Stadium did not circle the field, ending instead at the 50-yard line, thousands of potential seats (and added revenue) were missing. Any expansion plans for the stadium had usually mentioned less attractive (and less expensive) end-zone seats, not upper deck seating. And the aforementioned issues with the stadium's location and local laws did nothing to endear itself to either Rosenbloom or Hoffberger, who had begun receiving inquiries about relocating his team to New Orleans.
In response to the review of Memorial Stadium, Mandel drew up legislation to create the Maryland Sports Complex Authority, which was designed to "provide for a sports complex and related facilities in the greater Baltimore region." It was a wonderful idea, which eventually paved the way for the building of Camden Yards and a complete renovation of Baltimore's waterfront area in the late 1980s. But by the time Mandel's plan had been put into action, it was too late to stop an idea that had already been fermenting in Carroll Rosenbloom's for quite some time.
While Mandel and the state's Sports Complex Authority began drafting plans for building a new stadium in Baltimore, Rosenbloom began scouting around to see if there were any cities interested in becoming the Colts' new home. He found one in Tampa, Florida, which suited Rosenbloom just fine -- he had taken to living in Florida and flying in to Baltimore to watch the team only on game days, something that fans criticized Robert Irsay for but seemed to have forgiven otherwise. The owner even went so far as to move the team's training to camp and schedule three exhibition games there, but none in Baltimore. Tickets for the games sold like hotcakes, and local leaders offered to make stadium improvements if the Colts would move there.
The idea of moving to Tampa appealed to Rosenbloom so much that he approached Pete Rozelle, the league's top executive, about the possibility of relocation. Having teams move was nothing new, but Rosenbloom's request occurred during a time when the league had a commissioner who actually cared and knew something about football, and a man the league's owners had genuine respect for. Rosenbloom lost his personal battle, but Tampa won a victory by being awarded its own franchise a few years later.
Most owners would have been content to remain in Baltimore and play their games in perpetually sold out stadiums. But not Carroll Rosenbloom. Long before the Colts' owner made his announcement to discontinue playing at Memorial Stadium and considered moving to Tampa, he had already held preliminary discussions about buying the Los Angeles Rams from then-owner Dan Reeves. A personal friend who knew a little something about relocation himself (he'd moved the Rams from Cleveland to Los Angeles in 1946), Reeves had confided to Rosenbloom that if something happened to him, it would make him quite happy if he could take over the Rams.
So when Reeves died in April of 1971, Rosenbloom came up with another idea. Instead of moving his franchise out of Maryland, Rosenbloom would simply buy the Rams from the Reeves family, then give the Colts to his son as a gift. But Rozelle played the nepotism card and axed that plan as well, thinking that it would be a conflict of interest to have different teams owned by close relatives.
Third Time's a Charm
By this time, few owners would have continued to try and move their team to a new location. With his first attempt to move to Tampa Bay flatly denied by Rozelle, and his earlier scheme to buy the Rams and give them to his son also rejected by the commissioner, the Colts owner was rapidly running out of options. But Rosenbloom wanted out of Baltimore so badly that he devised yet another plan. He figured if he could find someone who would buy the Rams from the Reeves family, Rosenbloom could then convince that buyer to swap the team for the Colts and some extra cash. It worked.
Enter Robert Irsay. Originally intended to own only one percent of the team, Irsay was little more than a golf buddy of Will Keland, a real estate investor who was originally slated to buy the Colts from Rosenbloom. However, on the day the proposed deal was to be closed, Keland came up short of the funds necessary to purchase the team. Irsay, who did have the money available, realized that he didn't need Keland and quickly grasped the opportunity that had been handed to him. And so, on July 13, 1972, Robert Irsay became the sole owner of the Baltimore Colts.
Under the terms of the arrangement, Irsay bought the Rams for $19 million, then traded them to Rosenbloom for the Colts and $3 million in cash. The deal gave Irsay full control of the Colts and instant prestige, but it was an even bigger financial deal for the team's former owner. In addition to having a team in a much more valuable market, Rosenbloom, always the shrewd businessman, also saved himself millions of dollars in capital gains taxes by trading the Colts instead of selling them outright.
At the time, many fans lamented the loss of Rosenbloom and foresaw nothing but bitter times ahead for the Colts under their new owner. But it appears that Rosenbloom knew just what he was doing to the city when he sold the Colts in 1972. For those who still think that Carroll Rosenbloom was the innocent in this, that his selling the team to Irsay was just an unfortunate incident that happened to turn sour for the fans of Baltimore, consider the following passage from Rosenbloom's own son.Years after the team had been sold and Rosenbloom's son Steve was out of the football business, Washington Post sportswriter William Gildea asked him, "Did your father know about Irsay?", in reference to the team's decline in the late 70s and early 80s.
"The kind of guy he was?", replied the younger Rosenbloom. "Yeah, oh yeah. I think it was a legacy my father left Baltimore on purpose. I don't think he could have been more delighted that the guy was like he was, because at that time in his life, my dad was not very happy with Baltimore."Some "legacy" that was. Under Irsay's ownership while the team was in Baltimore, the Colts won less than 39% of their regular-season games, never won a game in the postseason, and finished last in the AFC East four times in twelve years. The story of the Irsay regime in Baltimore, and the events that led to the team's move to their current location, will be discussed in the fourth and final installment of this series.
* * *Descendants of the Mayflower, Part IV
The Irsay Regime
In July of 1972, when Robert Irsay became the owner of the Colts, it looked like he would usher in a new era of respect and stability to a franchise that had been on the brink of relocating elsewhere. His arrival in Baltimore was considered a breath of fresh air by some. Many area columnists, who had been turned off by Carroll Rosenbloom's growing ego, took an immediate liking to the new owner, an entertaining salesman with a firm handshake and a curious habit of calling people "Tiger."
When he was first introduced to the city's media, which had taken frequent potshots at Rosenbloom during his last few years in Baltimore, Irsay did the best he could to soothe fears about the team being bought by someone not native to Maryland. "I didn't particularly like the idea of traveling for hours to Los Angeles, and the situation there needs a lot more work than the present situation with the Colts," he said, noting that his hometown of Chicago was much closer to Maryland than California.
When asked about the team's situation at head coach and the future of aging quarterback Johnny Unitas, Irsay said, "I have no plans to make any changes, because things are going so well ... I won't be an interfering owner. I bought the Colts to play in Baltimore. I have no thought of taking them elsewhere. We have a great team in a great sports town where there have been sellouts. Why move?"
In the end, very little of what Irsay turned out to be true. But at the time, it was just what the people of Baltimore wanted to hear. It also gave support to a month-old idea from the newly-created Maryland Sports Complex Authority, one that would have kept the Colts in Baltimore indefinitely and made both Irsay and Orioles owner Jerome Hoffberger content to reside in Memorial Stadium for the time being.
Birth of the "Baltodome"
In the 1960's, America was undergoing a boom in the construction of large, multi-sport stadiums. There were a number of reasons for this phenomenon. Old structures that had been built prior to World War II had begun to disentegrate; sports leagues were being created and expanding rapidly; and attendance at sporting events was skyrocketing, spurned on by a tremendous population boom in the previous decade. The number of people in the U.S. younger than age 18 was higher than it had ever been in the nation's history at that time, and a whole new generation of sports fans had been born to fill those new arenas.
In 1965, the nation's first domed stadium -- an idea which Baltimore's own city leaders had passed on nearly 20 years earlier -- opened in Houston, Texas to worldwide acclaim. The Astrodome, which had been dubbed "the eight wonder of the world" by some, was a technological marvel, with heat, air conditioning, comfortable seating, spacious parking and luxury boxes. And both football and baseball could be played in it, making it a symbol of things to come for sports franchises throughout the nation.
In 1966, both the football and baseball Cardinals moved into Busch Stadium, in Saint Louis, Missouri. While it had all the ambience of a prison cell, for sports owners it was a dream come true. After a baseball game, a switch could be thrown that would move and rearrange whole sections of seats, hose off the foul lines and lower the pitcher's mound to the ground. Within eight hours, a baseball stadium would become a football stadium.
During the next few years, several stadiums modeled on the Busch design were completed in Cincinnati, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Philadephia. Meanwhile, other open-air structures were being built in New England, Kansas City, Dallas, New Jersey and Buffalo, and domed stadiums were being constructed in New Orleans and Detroit.
Not wanting to miss out on the party, Maryland's planners came up with an ambitious project of their own. Nicknamed the "Baltodome", the original plan was to create a facility in an area near the city's Inner Harbor known as Camden Yards. The new stadium would house 70,000 fans for football games, 55,000 for baseball and 20,000 as an arena for hockey or basketball. For an estimated $78 million, the city would have been able to build a complex that would have kept all parties -- Irsay, Hoffberger, the Stadium Complex Authority, Baltimore Mayor Donald Schaefer and the state's governor, Marvin Mandel -- happy and willing to keep playing in Memorial Stadium, while helping revitalize a downtown region which had been gradually falling into disrepair.
Unfortunately, the proposal did not receive the necessary support to pass legislation, despite assurances that the contributions from taxpayers would be limited strictly to city and state loans. Authority chairman Ed Rovner issued a very important statement about the stadium project, saying "A major consideration in Mr. Irsay's trading of franchises was the city's firm commitment to proceed with these plans." The writing was on the wall for the Baltimore legislature: get busy with constructing a new stadium, or risk losing the Colts and Orioles to another city that cared about their sports teams. Sadly, it was a warning that would go unheeded by the city's leaders until it was far too late to do anything.
Baltodome II and Question P
The following year, the Authority came up with a revised set of plans for a new facility to be built at Camden Yards. At a cost of $114 million, this new complex would be comprised of a stadium, convention center and a huge parking system. Again, the proposition had its share of supporters, but the timing was awful. In a ten-year span, Baltimore lost more than 110,000 residents, which made deep cuts into the amount of public money available to fund such a project. Governor Mandel, fearful that any state-backed financing of a stadium could result in higher taxes, and faced with the possibility of not being re-elected that fall, put the idea on the back burner in February of 1974, saying that there were "other problems, other priorities, and other needs that have to be met" before proceeding with the new complex.
Now, this may come as a surprise most Irsay-bashers, but it was Hoffberger, not the Colts' owner, who threatened to move his franchise to a friendlier location. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Hoffberger made his feelings on the stadium situation quite clear, saying that if attendance didn't pick up and a new arena wasn't built, "I will bow to the will of the people. I think the people of Baltimore will have told us what they want to tell us. First, they don't want a new park and second, they don't want a club."
Irsay, however, took the governor at his word and was willing to wait. "I'm a patient man. I think the people of Baltimore are going to see those new stadiums in New Orleans and Seattle opening in a year or two around the country, and they are going to realize they need a stadium ... for conventions and other things besides football."
But any dreams for a new stadium came crashing down in November of that year, courtesy of a tight-fisted little man who used the veil of patriotism for his own designs. Hyman Pressman, the city's miserly comptroller, was against the use of public funds to build a new complex. During the 1974 elections, Pressman had a little-known amendment to the city's charter placed on the fall ballot. Known as Question P (despite what most think, the P did not stand for penny-pinching), the amendment called for declaring "the 33rd Street stadium as a memorial to war veterans and prohibiting use of city funds for construction of any other stadium." The measure passed 56 percent to 44 percent, and the same jingoistic ideas that had been used to construct the stadium in the 1950s effectively destroyed any chance of a new, modern sports complex being built in Baltimore.
LA to Jacksonville, and All Points In Between
For two years, Irsay waited and watched, while other franchises around the league either moved into new stadiums or had their existing arenas upgraded to more modern standards. Although the Colts were enjoying a bit of a revival under Bert Jones and Ted Marchibroda, making the playoffs for three straight years from 1975-77, there had still been no progress made on a new park for the team. Memorial Stadium, meanwhile, was now lagging far behind in terms of the amenities most other football teams enjoyed. The facility had no luxury boxes to speak of; parking was atrocious and tied up local streets for hours at a stretch; and the plumbing was so inadequate that most of the stadium's flush toilets routinely began to spontaneously overflow by the middle of the third quarter.
The lack of action on the legislature's part forced Irsay to start questioning the quality of his surroundings. "I like Baltimore and I want to stay there, but when are we going to find out something about our stadium?" he asked publicly. "I'm getting offers from towns like Indianapolis to build me a new stadium and give me other inducements to move there. I don't want to, but I'd like to see some action in Baltimore."
Meanwhile, the Orioles were having troubles of their own. Hoffberger, who had owned the team since it had relocated from Saint Louis in 1954, finally gave up ship in 1979, selling 80 percent of the team to Edward Bennett Williams, an attorney in Washington, DC. Not long after, Williams also began complaining about the situation in Memorial Stadium, citing poor attendance and "inadequate parking and inadequate access and egress."
Irsay went even further as the years rolled on, openly courting offers from cities such as Phoenix, Los Angeles and Memphis, which had guaranteed the Colts upwards of $65 million in ticket revenues for the first nine years should the franchise move to Tennessee. Jacksonville, meanwhile, pulled out all the stops in an attempt to lure the team south. On August 15, 1979, city officials flew Irsay in by helicopter onto the field of the Gator Bowl for a nightmarish sort of Colt love-fest. With 50,000 fans in attendance, skydivers and cheerleaders strewn about the area, Irsay lapped up the attention he was receiving, giving the crowd a thumbs-up sign and reportedly telling the city's officials, "It's not a matter of if I'm leaving Baltimore, but where I'm going."
The Move Heard Round the World
Less than a month before Irsay had flown down to Jacksonville to hear that city's offer, Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom had dropped a bomb on the NFL with his decision to uproot the team and move it from Los Angeles to the sleepy suburb of Anaheim, California for the 1980 season. Although Rosenbloom would drown in a swimming accident a few months later, his widow and son went ahead with his plans and prepared for the move to Orange County, which would free up the Los Angeles market for another team.
The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission, eager on filling a now-empty 92,000 seat stadium, asked the league if there was the chance of receiving an expansion team in the near future. There wasn't, so the city began talking to teams that might be interested in moving, including the Colts. Standing in the way of any move, however, was a bylaw which required unanimous consent from the league's owners before one franchise could move into another's territory, which was defined as a 75-mile radius around the original team's home field. Because the vote had to be unanimous, the Rams had the power to block any move to Los Angeles as they saw fit. The commission saw this as a violation of the nation's antitrust laws and sued the NFL, but a judge dismissed the case on the grounds that since the city did not have a team committed to moving there, it did not have any standing to bring forth a lawsuit.
Enter Al Davis, the owner of the Oakland Raiders. On March 1, 1980, Davis threw a monkey wrench into the league's plans when he signed a memorandum informing the NFL of his intention to move the Raiders to Los Angeles. The move stood the sports world on its ear. Why would Davis want to move? The Raiders had sold out every home game for 12 consecutive seasons despite having some of the highest ticket prices in the league. And Oakland was one of the most profitable teams in the NFL, making $2 million in 1978 and $1.5 million in 1979.
But Davis, who was looking toward the future, cited problems that both Rosenbloom and Irsay were familiar with. Like the Colts before them, Davis' Raiders played in a stadium that had no skyboxes. Like the Colts, the Raiders usually had to play their early season games on the road, and some season ticket holders were forced out of their seats in the beginning of the season. And like the Colts, the Raiders shared a stadium with a baseball team that got the better end of the lease (the A's received 100% of the Oakland Coliseum's parking and concession receipts).
League commissioner Pete Rozelle, who was not happy about the prospect of franchises roaming the country looking for the best deal possible, had the matter put to a vote. Although six owners abstained, the 22 others who did vote all ruled against Davis, disallowing the Raiders' move to Los Angeles. Davis, in defiance, ignored the decision and moved forward with his plans to relocate the Raiders.
Los Angeles officials, meanwhile, revived their lawsuit against the league, and Davis joined in, contending that the NFL was not actually one entity made up of a number of smaller related branches, but was actually a cartel of clubs in competition with one another. In May of 1982, after one trial had ended with a hung jury, the judge in the second case sided with Davis and awarded him $34.65 million in retribution. The stadium commission received an additional $14.58 million in damages.
While the decision itself wasn't exactly an invitation for other teams to test the open market, the tremendous financial awards given to Davis and the stadium commission took some of the sting out of the commissioner's office. So, in an effort to keep other teams from relocating at the drop of a hat, Rozelle drew up strict guidelines regarding any future moves by existing franchises. Teams would be required to show proof of a lack of governmental and fan support, for instance, before it could move. And a team's owner would have to provide proof that he (or the franchise) was in financial distress before his team could move to another city.
Baltimore's Last Stand
Two months after Davis made his announcement that stunned league officials, Baltimore's political leaders finally realized there was a distinct possibility of losing both the Colts and the Orioles. In May of 1980, the Maryland legislature passed a $23 million bond package that would help renovate Memorial Stadium, adding more seats (but none of the revenue-generating skyboxes), improving the plumbing and giving both teams better office space. However, the deal was contingent upon getting the Colts to sign a 15-year lease to remain in Baltimore.
The improvement plan, which was supposed to unite both owners, ended up achieving the opposite effect. Irsay was steamed at the fact that his team would have to sign a 15-year lease, while Williams was not obligated to such a condition. Williams, on the other hand, was upset because the redesigned stadium would add seats for football but diminish the park's appearance for baseball games. Instead of working with Irsay, Williams decide to push for a new, baseball-only stadium. And so the improvement package, which was extended for another year, expired and was left unspent.
Schaefer did stem the tide temporarily in 1981, when he and the Colts hammered out a two-year lease extension. At the time, it was one of the best in football. The rent would be one percent of the team's first $1 million in revenue; 2% of the second million; 3% of the third million; and 10 percent of revenues above $3.5 million. For the 1982 and 1983 seasons, the Colts would enjoy the second-lowest rent in the NFL. But the lowered rent was like trying to heal a bullet wound with a Band-Aid. When the Colts played their last game in Memorial Stadium on December 18, 1983, only 27,934 fans showed up -- just 516 more fans than the crowed that had turned out for the first Colts game in 1947.
Goodbye, Charm City: Hello, Circle City
1984 began on an ominous note for Colt fans in Baltimore. The lease extension that Schaefer had worked so hard on in 1981 ran out, leaving the franchise virtually free to negotiate with the highest bidder. And for the first time since the team began operating in 1953, the Colts did not send out application for season-ticket renewals at the start of the year. Instead, a receptionist at the team's headquarters took names for a waiting list. The level of paranoia throughout the city became so heightened that the Baltimore News-American even began running a daily "Irsay Watch" column, showing what towns he was planning to visit for the upcoming week.
The Colts were being heavily wooed by three cities at the start of the year. First in line was a real estate group in Phoenix, Arizona, who had secretly met with Irsay early in January. Preliminary talks seemed promising, but when word of a second scheduled meeting leaked out and was reported by the local media on the Friday before the Super Bowl, Irsay canceled the meeting and returned to Baltimore. Upon arriving at Washington International Airport in a private plane, he encountered a gaggle of reporters from Baltimore armed with questions about relocation and selling the franchise.
A visibly shaken (and apparently drunk) Irsay fired back at the crowd that had gathered to meet him, denying that he had ever met with officials in Arizona and accusing the media of "hanging" him. "What are you all doing here?" he asked while being captured on videotape for the nation to see. "I don't know what in the hell this is all about. I have no intention of moving the goddamn team. If I did, I would tell you ... You want me here, why do you hang me? Why do you hang me?"
Despite the circus-like performance that had occurred at the airport, Schaefer and Maryland governor Harry Hughes were sure that they would be able to keep the Colts in Baltimore. On March 21st, the two made Irsay a final offer that was probably the most attractive at the time. Among the incentives, the city would allocate $7.5 million in funds to upgrade Memorial Stadium. Schaefer and Hughes also guaranteed ticket sales equal to 43,000 per game for the next years and would provide Irsay with a $15 million dollar loan at below market rates.
In addition, the city promised to buy the team's training complex in Owings Mills and rent it to the Colts for $1 a year. The state had also passed legislation repealing Baltimore's 2:00 pm kickoff law, meaning that Colt games could now begin at the same time as most other football games, increasing the chances of the team appearing on network television. Besides the allocations being offered, Schaefer had what he felt was another ace in the hole. In January, while attending the impromptu press conference at Washington International Airport, he had made Irsay promise that he would call the mayor before he decided to move the team to another location. This unwritten commitment, Schaefer believed, would give Baltimore a last chance at matching any offer a rival city could come up with.
But Indianapolis held a trump card that the city could not match immediately. Its' recently completed Hoosier Dome (with Colt-blue colored seats) had a ring of skyboxes which had already been built into the stadium. These suites permitted corporations or private individuals to entertain a dozen or so clients or employees in a luxurious, private setting. Though commonplace now, at the time they were an extravagance not seen in professional sports at the time. They could also provide Irsay with the additional revenue and amenities he had long desired at Memorial Stadium, but was unable to attain in Baltimore.
Even though there was still a possibility of the team opting to move to Indianapolis, Schaefer and Hughes were confident that they had made the more lucrative offer, and that any differences between themselves and Irsay could be ironed out in time. On March 27, however, Maryland's legislature overplayed its hand and made a fatal mistake. A local senator introduced, and the Senate passed, legislation that would have enabled the state to seize the team from Irsay under the powers of eminent domain. The proposed law would have given the state's political leaders the power to buy the team from Irsay at fair market value and keep them in Baltimore.
News of the Senate's decision made the front page of Maryland newspapers the following day, March 28, but the resolution had still not become law -- it needed passage by the state's House of Delegates to become official. Approval by the Senate was more than enough for the team's owner, though. Forced between relocating to another state, and faced with the very real threat that Maryland's government might forcibly seize control of the team in the immediate future, Irsay spoke with Michael Chernoff. Chernoff, who was the Colts' general counsel at the time, asked Irsay if he'd heard about the eminent domain issue. Irsay said that he had. Chernoff then asked the owner what his plans were, and Irsay replied with a simple five-word statement:
"Implement. We're moving to Indianapolis."
Once Irsay decided to move, team officials acted quickly, wanting to leave Baltimore as soon as possible. That night, a group of eleven Mayflower moving vans headed up to the Colts training camp in Owings Mills and began all of the team's belongings for the long trip to Indianapolis. Under Chernoff's advice, the first van was loaded with importnat business records and financial information he thought was the most significant legally. Soon after proceedings were underway, however, the media either was tipped off or learned about the move on their own, and a helicopter flew over the training facilities, capturing the move on tape for posterity.
Each of the trucks involved in the move took a slightly different route on the way to Indianapolis. This was done to confuse the Maryland police, who might have tried to put a stop to the move. Once each van was at the Indiana state line, it was met by state troopers, who escorted each van safely to the Colts new home in Indianapolis.
By six o'clock in the morning of Thursday, March 29, 1984, the last moving van had finished packing its equipment and was on its way towards Indiana. The Baltimore Colts had ceased to be, and the history of the Indianapolis Colts began to take shape. That day, when Schaefer was interviewed by the media about Irsay's decision, all he could muster was a humble, "He didn't call his old friend, Don."
Understandably, fans in Baltimore were heartbroken. Football wasn't just a sport in Baltimore; it was a religion. Children had been rocked to sleep at night with the Colts' fight song ringing in their ears. Legal battles had been contested in divorce courts and estate settlements over which person became the owner of season tickets to Colt games. The names Unitas, Donovan and Marchetti were uttered with the same reverence given to presidents and foreign dignitaries. In a nutshell, Baltimore was the Colts, and the Colts were Baltimore.
Vain efforts were made by the city to get its franchise back. Governor Hughes signed the eminent domain bill into law the day after the team left. The city then tried to condemn the team and win them back in court, but a judge threw out the case on the grounds that the team was already gone. In the eyes of the law, there was no such thing as the Baltimore Colts anymore.
The Colts relocation also had a profound effect on Baltimore's citizens. In elections that year, city voters repealed Question P by a measure of 62 percent to 38 percent. Public support for new stadiums began to grow, planting the seeds for a new baseball stadium at Camden Yards, which would be constructed less than a decade later. Those efforts ultimately led to the inception of the Baltimore Ravens, who began play in old Memorial Stadium in 1996, and who will play their home games in a new, football-only stadium (with skyboxes and good plumbing) in September 1998.
So what's the moral to this story? Well, there's an old saying -- those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. That situation may have been the case in Baltimore. The city's leaders may have just assumed that because the Colts had always played in Baltimore, they would always stay in Baltimore. Never mind the fact that in the early part of the century, the city had lost its original baseball Orioles baseball franchise because its leaders were too frivolous to help construct a stadium for the team to play in. You may have heard of that original team: they moved north and became the New York Yankees, a franchise that has won more World Series than any other two baseball teams combined.
The same situation occurred 80 years later when the Colts left Baltimore. As Irsay himself said in January of 1984, "If you love the Colts, why don't you treat me right?"
It was a question that the Baltimore media had no immediate response for. The sad fact was that they and the state's political leaders hadn't treated Irsay (or any of the city's other sports owners) right since the Colts had begun play in Baltimore. For years, owners had complained about inadequate parking; poor access to and from Memorial Stadium; poor seating and field conditions; and a lack of support from local and state officials to either help upgrade their current facility or aid in the building of a new structure. In fact, Abe Pollan, whose NBA Bullets had been in Baltimore longer than the Orioles, became so disgusted with the lack of financial support that he moved the team out of the dilapidated Baltimore Civic Center to a new facility in Landover -- and he took the team's name and legacy, too.
Pollin's move took place in 1972, the same year Rosenbloom sold the Colts to Irsay. It was a signal most people could read, meaning that the future of professional sports in Baltimore was in grave trouble unless change were to occur quickly. But the city's elected leaders never saw what was right in front of their own faces, ignoring the warning signs until it was far too late (and much too costly) to do anything about it.
Which brings me, thankfully, to my last point. Since I began writing this series, I've received dozens of messages about the history of the Colts. Some have been informative, filling in small pieces of the team's past with anecdotes and stories I hadn't heard about. Some of them have been positive, with many younger fans thanking me for giving them a bit of insight into the beginnings of the franchise.Of course, there have also been several negative posts and messages, mostly from ex-Colt fans and old people who still hold Robert Irsay responsible for seemingly everything that's gone wrong in their personal and private lives since the team moved to Indianapolis. Since I began this series with a quote, I'll end it by addressing those naysayers with a couple of famous last words from another figure in Maryland's sports scene:
"We value the image of stability, of loyalty for our people. We don't move around for the buck ... it would be bad for the league's image if teams hopscotched around the country."
"I feel for the Baltimore fans ... I'm not sitting in judgement on whether Bob Irsay is right or wrong. What concerns me is where the league is going. This is the legacy of the Raiders' move. Baltimore is paying for it now, and others might in the future."The man who uttered those statements? Ravens owner Art Modell, whose team was averaging nearly 71,000 fans per game in home attendance when he announced that the Cleveland franchise would move to Baltimore following the 1995 season.
Now, if that ain't the pot calling the kettle black, I don't know what is.