clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A Reminder of a Bitter Past: Colts Residency in Indiana Eclipses Stay in Baltimore

New, comments

On that fateful March morning, those moving trucks took away more than just a team, they took away a city's pride.

Lloyd Pearson

Well my fellow Baltimore fans, and in particular, residents of Baltimore, it's a bittersweet day for us. As our superb (seriously, they're a great site) sister blog Stampede Blue reported yesterday, June 3rd marks the day that the Colts franchise has officially been in Indianapolis longer than Baltimore. Curious how that all adds up? Well the Baltimore Colts were in existence from January 23, 1953 to March 29, 1984, when they infamously left in the middle of night to flee Maryland jurisdiction. (more on that later) Their tenure in the 'Charm City' lasted 11,388 days. In contrast, they have been in Indianapolis now for 11,389 days. (March 29, 1984 to June 3, 2015)

Now if you're a very young fan like me, one who wasn't around for any of this, or even Y2K, you probably don't know all, or any of the context surrounding the Colts dramatic and sudden departure from Baltimore. Well allow me to change that, by giving you a history lesson based off a 30-minute crash course I 'took' on Wikipedia.

Football History Crash Course: 'Colts Chaos'

Overview & Context Prior to 'The Swap'

'The Rosenbloom Era'

The first proper rendition of the Baltimore Colts appeared in 1953, when Baltimore-native Carroll Rosenbloom became principal investor of a defunct Dallas Texans expansion franchise, which folded after one year. Rosenbloom chose to keep the team name 'Colts', after the city's original AAFC team. While Rosenbloom was new to managing a football team, he quickly proved to be genius from a managerial standpoint. Before their first season, Rosenbloom helped organize one of the biggest trades in sports history: in exchange for ten Cleveland Browns, the Colts traded five players. One of those guys he acquired was a future legendary coach, Don Shula.

When he took over, Rosenbloom asked the city of Baltimore and Colts fans to "give him five years to create a winning team." He did just that. In the 1958 season, five years after their inception, the Colts won their first NFL Championship. Led by free agent acquisition (and ex-Steeler, ha) QB Johnny Unitas, the Colts defeated the New York Giants in what is regarded as "The Greatest Game Ever Played". It was the first NFL playoff game to go into sudden death overtime. "Johnny U", who would later be regarded as one of the greatest ever, famously led the Colts down the field to set up the game-tying field goal. This drive is often referred to as the "first two minute drill". The game is, to date, one of only two NFL championship games ever decided in overtime, and is widely attributed as the main cause of the NFL's popularity surge, since the game was nationally televised.

In 1959, the Colts repeated as champions, defeating the Giants again. This game was just the beginning of football's long legacy in Baltimore sports.

In 1963, Rosenbloom hired their ex-player Don Shula to the Head Coach position. Shula at the time was the youngest coach in NFL history, at the ripe age of 33. It was a good fit however, as "Rosenbloom was familiar with his [Shula's] personality and approach from his playing days in Baltimore." In '64, they appeared in the NFL Championship again, but were shutout by the Cleveland Browns. Four years later, in '68 the Colts found themselves in Super Bowl III despite losing star QB Unitas to injury. They had beat the Browns in the NFL Championship, but were upset by an underdog Jets team in the Super Bowl. Sadly however, the 'Shula Era' ended for the Colts in the '69 offseason, when the Dolphins poached him from the Colts.

In '70 season, the year of the AFL-NFL merger, the Colts won Super Bowl V against the Cowboys, their first 'Super Bowl' and fourth league title. However, all good things must come to an end.


'The Swap'

Rosenbloom had long had issues with the Colts' home field, Baltimore Memorial Stadium. He called the stadium "inadequate" and "antiquated", and wished for a better place to call home for the team. He even considered using $12–20 million of his own money to help fund the building of a new football only stadium on land in adjoining Baltimore County. Rosenbloom's qualms weren't unjustified either, as a stadium committee was made in 1971 to assess the stadium's conditions and needs. I'm just going to quote their findings here:

"Some of the problems mentioned: 10,000 of the stadium's seats had views that were "less than desirable"; 20,000 seats were out-dated bench seats that had no back support; 7,000 so called seats were actually poorly constructed temporary bleachers that were installed for football games only. Also, there was not enough office space adequate enough for the front offices of either the Orioles or Colts, much less both teams combined. Both teams had to share locker rooms, the upper deck of Memorial Stadium did not circle the field, ending instead at the 50-yard line. Any expansion plans for the stadium had usually mentioned less attractive (and less expensive) end-zone seats, not upper deck seating. And the number of bathroom facilities in Memorial Stadium was deemed inadequate."

However, the City of Baltimore wasn't really helping anyone by announcing prior to the committee's findings that it would seek a "substantial" increase in Memorial Stadium rental fees from the Colts. Things got ugly, and Rosenbloom had no choice but to announce that the Colts would not return to Memorial Stadium when their lease ran out following the 1972 season. Rosenbloom wanted out of Baltimore, and he had a suitor in real estate investor Will Keland. However, Keland could not acquire enough funds for the purchase. So in a strange turn of events, Keland's golfing buddy, Robert Irsay, who was originally planned to only own 1% of the Colts with Keland ended up purchasing the franchise. Irsay assumed ownership of the Baltimore Colts on July 13, 1972 after acquiring the Los Angeles Rams from the estate of Dan Reeves with a last minute bid of $19 million, and swapping franchises with Rosenbloom, all made official on the same day. It should be noted, that no players were swapped in the move.

So now a strange, unknown man from Illinois was the majority owner of this Baltimore institution. The future of the Colts was in his hands, and it was a very uncertain future.

The 'Irsay Era'

On the personnel front, Irsay made his mark, and not in the best of ways. "With a so-called "house-cleaning" of old Colts veterans, a new controversial general manager Joe Thomas and unrewarding trades and acquisitions of players." Later on, Irsay would trade away Unitas, and when the Colts selected John Elway, the #1 pick, he refused to sign with them.

Over the next three seasons, the Colts would go 11-31. The Colts found limited success in the following seasons, as they appeared, and lost in the Divisional Playoffs three consecutive times. But, things went from okay, to downright 'dumpster fire' as the Colts put together a 26-62 record over the next six seasons. Irsay wasn't popular with the media, the fans, or anyone really. He had singlehandedly taken a quality franchise, and made it the laughingstock of the league. Baltimore sportswriter Frank Dedford said it best: "A man who could screw up professional football in Baltimore would foul the water at Lourdes or flatten the beer at Munich." It was clear Irsay didn't care about the team like Rosenbloom did.

Aside from personnel issues, the more pressing issue was the stadium. As I mentioned earlier, it was known that Memorial Stadium was in need of renovation, or most likely, replacing. The Maryland planners had proposed the 'Baltodome', which is either the best or worst name for a stadium I've ever heard. The 'Baltodome' would be located near Inner Harbor. The facility would be multi-sport, as "the new stadium would host 70,000 fans for football games, 55,000 for baseball, and 20,000 as an arena for hockey or basketball." It's cost: $78 million. The proposal was intended to satisfy all parties involved: "Orioles owner Hoffberger, Colts owner Irsay, the Stadium Complex Authority (whose Chairman Edmond Rovner reiterated in 1972 that "A major consideration in Mr. Irsay's trading of franchises was the city's firm commitment to proceed with these plans."), Baltimore Mayor Schaefer, and the state's governor, Marvin Mandel."

However, the proposal fell flat when introduced to Maryland's Legislature, and thus Governor Mandel killed it. Irsay had this to say about the failed proposal:

"It's not a matter of saying that there will be no stadium. It's a matter of getting the facts together so everybody is happy when they build the stadium. 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." - Robert Irsay

But city comptroller Hyman Pressman had completely different ideas about a new stadium. He wanted absolutely no public funds used towards the building of a stadium. So he introduced a measure on that year's ballot, known as "Question P". "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." This killed any chance of a public sports complex being built in Baltimore.

Now keep in mind, Irsay was already seemingly universally hated in Baltimore, as his "wild antics and rude comments" made the sports media covering him "became testy and strained." So imagine the uproar he caused when he publicly shopped the team. He said things like:

"I like Baltimore and want to stay there, but when are we going to find out something about our stadium? I'm getting offers from towns like Indianapolis to build me a new stadium and give me other inducements to move there. I dont want to but I'd like to see some action in Baltimore"

There was also this interview, in which he lied about moving to Phoenix in a drunken rage. Keep in mind, in 1976, "he acknowledged publicly that he had received an "attractive offer" to move the franchise to Phoenix, Arizona."

So anyways, it was safe to say that Irsay didn't really want Baltimore, and they didn't want him either. This would be a messy divorce. However, this didn't stop him from proposing "$25 million in renovations" to Memorial Stadium to the Governor. "Irsay's request for $25 million in improvements was decreased to $23 million by the Maryland legislature. The plan's approval was contingent on both the Colts and Baltimore Orioles signing long term leases. The Orioles challenged the requested football improvements and refused to sign anything more than a one year lease. Irsay also refused to sign long term." So with no solution in place, it looked as if the Colts weren't staying in Baltimore. Irsay continued to shop the franchise around, visiting Phoenix, Memphis, Los Angeles, Jacksonville and Indianapolis.

Surprisingly, Indianapolis emerged as the favorite. As they were building the Hoosier Dome to attract an NFL franchise. However, back in 'Charm City', the local government was bending over backwards to accommodate Irsay. Baltimore Mayor Schaefer asked the Maryland General Assembly to approve $15 million for renovation to Memorial Stadium, Baltimore also "reportedly offered Irsay a $15 million loan at 6.5%, a guarantee of at least 43,000 tickets sold per game for six years, and the purchase of the team's Owings Mills training facility for $4 million". A little while after this, "Irsay appeared before the Baltimore media and exclaimed, "This is my team!" He reiterated that, despite problems, the rumors that he was moving the team were untrue." This of course, was a huge lie.

In March of 1984, the NFL owners voted to let Irsay move the Colts to wherever he pleased. Then Mayor Schaefer threw down the gauntlet, saying "We're not going to build a new stadium. We do not have the bonding capacity. We don't have the voters or taxpayer who can support a $60 million stadium. One-third of the people in Baltimore pay taxes. Unless private enterprise builds it, we won't build it." This left Phoenix and Indianapolis as the only two cities in the running. However, once Irsay visited the new Hoosier Dome, it was all but settled, as then Indianapolis deputy mayor David Frick said he was "visibly moved" upon entering the new stadium. "Emotionally, he was making the move." said Frick. If Irsay was going to move the Colts, Indianapolis was his destination.

Back in Baltimore, the state Legislature was getting involved. On March 27th, a bill passed giving Baltimore the right to seize the Colts by eminent domain. Sh*t had really hit the fan, and Irsay had his back to the wall. Colts counsel Michael Shernoff said of the bill: "They not only threw down the gauntlet, but they put a gun to his head and cocked it and asked, 'Want to see if it's loaded?' They forced him to make a decision that day."

Irsay, in a state of panic, called up Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut, he offered Irsay "a $12,500,000 loan, a $4,000,000 training complex, and the use of the brand new $77.5 million, 57,980 seat Hoosier Dome." Irsay obviously agreed to the terms, Indianapolis was giving him a shiny new stadium, how could he decline?

'The Move'

Now here's where things get weird. Irsay knew he had to move quick, before his team was seized. So he calls up his next-door neighbor, John Smith. Smith coincidentally, is the owner of Mayflower Transit, a moving company based in Indiana, of all places. Smith provides Irsay with fifteen moving trucks, free of charge, to move the Colts. Irsay had the trucks arrive in Owings Mills late night, in fear that the bill would pass the House of Delegates and be signed into law. By 10:00 AM of March 29th, the Colts were gone from Baltimore, forever. "According to one employee, after the move, "everything was gone…not a piece of paper or a trash can was left." However, some equipment was saved, as the Colts Marching Band were able to remove their equipment before it was taken away, it wasn't easy though, as they had to "hide their uniforms in a cemetery, in a mausoleum belonging to the family of one of the band members", before escaping with them. The Marching band would go on the play independently for 11 years, before becoming what is now known as the "Marching Ravens".

As for Irsay, his escape was successful. To evade the police, who could now enforce the eminent domain law since it had been signed into law by the Governor, Irsay had all 15 trucks take different routes to Indiana. "Once a truck got to Indiana, the Indiana State Police would meet it and escort it to Indianapolis—a process repeated until all fifteen vans had reached the destination." And just like that, overnight, a city lost it's beloved football team. On that fateful March morning, those moving trucks took away more than just a team, they took away a city's pride.

Aftermath

Baltimore fans were heartbroken, they lost their team, and a legacy, just like that. Not to mention, the 'Colts' name stems from Baltimore's own Preakness Stakes, so now Indianapolis had a piece of Baltimore heritage.

However, the citizens and government of Baltimore didn't want to lose another team, their beloved Orioles. So they collaborated and built Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992. Voters also repealed Question P, the one that blocked publicly funding a new stadium. The future was bright in Baltimore it seemed.

In between 1984 and 1995 (when the Ravens came to town), Baltimore hosted a USFL team, and bizarrely, a CFL team. Both won Championships, making Baltimore the only city to have a Super Bowl, NFL Championship, USFL Championship, and a Grey Cup. However, it wasn't the same, Baltimore needed NFL football, and they got it in 1995.

In a very ironic twist, Baltimore got football back the same way it left. Browns owner Art Modell announced that he intended to relocate the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore, he wished for the Browns heritage to transfer with the team. But the City of Cleveland sued, and so the Ravens began as a new franchise. It was new era of football for Baltimore, and one that we have all been lucky enough to be a part of.

The Colts in Indianapolis have enjoyed success over the years, accumulating a 264-231 record, 17 playoff appearances, 2 championship appearances, and one Super Bowl. Not to mention a future Hall of Famer in QB Peyton Manning.

It's hard to say exactly who was at fault for the messy divorce of the Colts and Baltimore. Some could point fingers at Irsay for being a obnoxious owner who tried to blackmail the city for what he wanted. Others could say that the city of Baltimore was unwilling to upgrade their stadium, and stuck Irsay with a terrible stadium. The truth is, both parties were at fault to some degree. It was a very unfortunate series of events, but I'd say it turned out for the best. Indianapolis has their NFL team, and Baltimore has their beloved Ravens.

Legacy

While many of us weren't around to see the Colts in their prime, they are still a very important part of our history. While their accolades and achievements may have gone to Indianapolis, you can't take away the fact that they were the Baltimore Colts, after all, the Colts Super Bowl trophy still resides in Baltimore. Legends like Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, and Art Donovan all played in the 'Charm City'. The Baltimore Colts were dominant in the early NFL, with four Championships, five MVP seasons, and 11 Hall of Famers. Baltimore football runs through the veins of Baltimoreans, and while we can't forget the legends of the past and our rich, yet sometimes bitter history, it sure is exciting to see a new dynasty play out right before our very own eyes. Here's to hoping for decades more of Baltimore Ravens football.