Sunday, October 16, 2016

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Bob Irsay for Moving the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis

Today, the New York Giants will host the Baltimore Ravens. Neither the Giants nor the New York Jets visit Baltimore this season.

The Ravens, formerly the original version of the Cleveland Browns, are celebrating their 20th Anniversary. They arrived at Memorial Stadium in 1996, and moved to what's not M&T Bank Stadium in 1998.

Previously, the Baltimore Colts played at Municipal Stadium, in the All-America Football Conference in 1947, 1948 and 1949, and were admitted to the NFL in 1950. But they were terrible, and folded. But Municipal Stadium was converted from a 70,000-seat football stadium built in 1922 into a 54,000-seat stadium capable of hosting baseball as well, and in 1953, the Colts returned, with the baseball Orioles getting promoted from minor league to major league the following Spring.

The Colts won the NFL Championship in 1958 and 1959, beating the Giants in the NFL Championship Game both times. They were good through most of the 1960s, losing the 1964 NFL Championship Game to the Browns, then tying the Green Bay Packers for the 1965 Western Division title before losing to them in a controversial Playoff game. In 1967, they lost only 1 regular-season game, but lost to the Los Angeles Rams in the Playoffs. In 1968, they went 13-1, losing only to the Browns, then beat the Browns in the Championship Game -- and then lost Super Bowl III to the Jets.

They rebounded to win Super Bowl V for the 1970 NFL Championship. They got old and bad, but rebounded, winning the AFC Eastern Division in 1975, 1976 and 1977, but couldn't get past the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders to get back to the Super Bowl.

In the strike-shortened 1982 season, the didn't win a game, going 0-8-1. On December 18, 1983, they beat the Houston Oilers 20-10, to finish 7-9. Attendance at Memorial Stadium: 20,418. Average attendance that season: 38,336.

On March 29, 1984, team owner Bob Irsay moved the team to Indianapolis, with Mayflower moving vans infamously getting loaded up with equipment, and driving out of their training camp in suburban Owings Mills, Maryland overnight and in the early morning.

It took a while before the Indianapolis Colts got good. But in their 1st 32 seasons, they've made the Playoffs 17 times, reached the AFC Championship Game 5 times, and reached 2 Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl XLI and losing Super Bowl XLIV. Compare that to their 35 seasons in Baltimore: 10 Playoff berths, 7 times reaching the round of 4, 5 times reaching the World Championship game (under any name), and winning 3 titles.

No, they haven't been more successful in Indianapolis than in Baltimore -- yet. And the Ravens have done fairly well for themselves in their 1st 19 seasons: 10 Playoff berths, 4 AFC Championship Games, and 2 trips to the Super Bowl, winning both: XXXV and XLVII.

So, in spite of the 12-year interregnum, Baltimore hasn't done all that badly.

Still, the Baltimore Colts have become thought of as the Brooklyn Dodgers of the NFL, the "working man's team" that got pushed out of town by an evil owner, with the complicity of the league's powers-that-be.

Bob Irsay has become the Walter O'Malley of the NFL.
And he looks like the kind of guy who played a secondary villain
on Dallas. You know, the kind of guy who made us say,
"J.R. Ewing sure is an asshole, but at least he's not that guy!"

But does he deserve that title?

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Bob Irsay for Moving the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis

Before I give you the Top 5, let me exonerate an oft-cited reason.

John Elway. The Colts took him with the top pick in the 1983 Draft, and he refused to report, because he didn't want to play for a loser, and he said he would play baseball (he was in the Yankees' minor-league system at the time) rather than play for the Colts. So he was traded to the Denver Broncos, and the rest is history.
Or, in this case, alternate history.

If Elway hadn't been such a baby, and had agreed to play for the Colts, they still would have moved. Irsay's decision to move the team didn't have a damn thing to do with whoever his quarterback was.

Nor can you blame the head coach of the Colts, Frank Kush. He had a reputation for being hard on his players, and Elway's father, Jack Elway, warned him against playing for Kush. Funny thing, though: No other player ever refused to play for Kush. Indeed, Reggie Jackson, who went to Arizona State on a football scholarship before switching to baseball in 1966, played under Kush there, and he says Kush was good to play for.

My suspicion is that Jack Elway, himself a college coach, had some other reason for not liking Kush. Maybe something happened between them that caused Jack to consider Frank untrustworthy. Jack died in 2001. Kush is now 87, and, as far as I know, has never addressed this.

What I do know is, after trading John Elway to Denver for a package that included quarterback Mark Herrmann, future 7-time All-Pro guard Chris Hinton, and a 1st round draft pick, the Colts improved from 0-8-1 to 7-9. I don't know if Elway would have won more than 7 games leading that 1983 Colt offense (especially, as Hinton likes to point out, without Hinton to block for him). But one thing is for sure: When the 1984 season dawned, John Elway would not have been the starting quarterback in Baltimore. Had he stuck with the Colts, he would have been the starting quarterback in Indianapolis.

Now, here's...

The Best of the Rest.

The Baltimore Orioles. What? The O's caused the Colts to move? Was it winning the World Series in 1983, causing the people of Baltimore to pay attention to them, and not the Colts? No, that had nothing to do with it.
In 1980, Irsay asked Governor Harry Hughes of Maryland for $25 million in State funds to renovate Memorial Stadium, to extend the upper deck and replace the seats with wider ones, expanding football capacity from 60,020 to 64,124. It would also have improved the plumbing and given both the O's and the Colts sufficient office space.

The plan's approval was contingent on both the Colts and the O's signing long-term leases. The Orioles challenged the requested football improvements, and refused to sign anything more than a 1-year lease. Irsay also refused to sign long term. As a result, the State legislature dropped the plan.

In hindsight, both the Orioles and the current football team are better off at Camden Yards, at the western edge of downtown, next to Camden Station and the light rail and a short walk from the subway, than the Orioles and the Colts would have been at even an expanded and improved Memorial Stadium, 4 miles north of downtown, unless there had been a subway or light rail extension to 33rd Street. But the Orioles did do as much to kill this project as Irsay and the Maryland legislature did.

Carroll Rosenbloom. A Baltimore native, he owned the team from its 1953 revival until July 13, 1972, when he did something shocking: He sold the Colts to Bob Irsay, the owner of the Los Angeles Rams, who then sold the Rams to Rosenbloom.
Carroll Rosenbloom

Why would they do that? Rosenbloom didn't like Memorial Stadium, and the City of Baltimore raised his rent in 1969. He asked the City to build him a new stadium, and they wouldn't do it. The lease ran out after the 1972 season, and he threatened to build a stadium on land in Baltimore County -- from which Baltimore City is separate.

Rosenbloom was also feuding with the Baltimore media. And his new wife, Georgia, hated Baltimore, a declining city with often rotten weather, and wanted to move to Los Angeles. So, realizing how much it would cost to build a new stadium (probably around $20 million at the time), and rather than move the team to L.A., he moved himself and his wife there.

A Colt fan site suggests that, had the Colts/Rams swap not happened, Rosenbloom would have worked things out, and not listened to his wife, and would have continued to own the Colts until his death in 1979. That probably would have happened anyway, since his drowning happened off the coast of his winter home in Florida, not off California. Not moving the team probably wouldn't have saved his life, and he had heart trouble anyway.

But his widow, soon to be Georgia Frontiere (she got married again real fast after inheriting Carroll's millions) was a lousy owner with the Rams. She would've been a lousy owner with the Colts as well, and probably would have moved them. Probably to her hometown of St. Louis, because that's where she did move the Rams, since Irsay would probably have moved to Indianapolis anyway, making the Indianapolis Rams. The St. Louis Cardinals football team moves to Phoenix anyway, and in 1995, right on schedule, Georgia is watching her team in a new dome in the Gateway City -- except it's the St. Louis Colts, not the Rams. And she becomes "The Bitch of Baltimore."

But maybe not! Baltimore is home to Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the best in the country. Maybe he gets better treatment there than in L.A. (which, to be fair, has some really good hospitals), and he doesn't have a heart attack while swimming in Florida and drown. And then maybe he lives long enough to rewrite his will and make his son Steve (from his previous marriage) majority owner after his death, and Steve freezes Georgia out, at least as far as the Colts are concerned. (There are some people who think Georgia had Carroll killed, but I don't think there's any evidence of that.)

So Steve Rosenbloom keeps the Colts in Baltimore, and in 1987, a deal for not one, but two stadiums is made for Camden Yards, and both the Orioles and the Colts move in for 1992 -- the Orioles according to the history we know, the Colts 6 years before the Ravens would have. And then the Colts are still in Baltimore, where they belong.

And then that bastard Art Modell moves the original Browns to Los Angeles.

Speaking of which...

Al Davis. He moved the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles in 1982, and the NFL tried to stop him, and he took the League to court, and won. He got away with it. (Yes, he moved them back in 1995, but that's not relevant to this discussion.) Irsay figured, "If Al can do it, I can do it. They can't stop me." He did it, and they didn't even try to stop him.
"The Autumn Wind is a Raider, pillaging just for fun.
He'll knock you 'round and upside down
and laugh when he's conquered and won."
-- Steve Sabol, NFL Films

If Davis worked out his difference with the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority, and the Raiders stayed put, maybe Irsay would have started to think he could get a good deal from Baltimore anyway. Or, suppose the NFL succeeded in stopping Davis. Maybe Irsay would have thought twice about taking the NFL on. (At the very least, he would have been more conciliatory, giving the other owners more velvet glove, less iron fist than Davis did.)

Now, for the Top 5.

5. Indianapolis. It was the 3rd-largest city in the Midwest, and now that Detroit has fallen below them in population, they're 2nd only to Chicago. They had a new domed stadium. They had a fan base used to watching football: Notre Dame, Indiana University, Purdue, and the Chicago Bears. They were ready for their own NFL team.
Hoosier Dome, with downtown Indianapolis in the background,
probably around the time of the move in 1984

And in less than 30 years, the Colts have become as ingrained in the minds and hearts of Indiana sports fans as the Indiana Hoosiers, the Purdue Boilermakers, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Indiana Pacers, and the Indianapolis 500. If the Colts had to move, Indy was a good place in which to set up shop.

4. The Baltimore Fans. As with the legendary Brooklyn Dodger fans of the 1950s, the much-lauded Colt fans weren't selling out Memorial Stadium. Were they betrayed? Yes, but they weren't coming out in overwhelming numbers.

This was partly due to...

3. The Washington Redskins. In the late 1950s and through the 1960s, the Colts were good and the Redskins were bad, and a lot of people in the suburbs between Baltimore and Washington, and a lot of people further away in Maryland, such as on the Eastern Shore and the western Panhandle, became Colt fans.
Johnny Unitas leading the Colts against the Redskins.
Number 70 is former Giant linebacker Sam Huff.
Looking at the helmet design, this must be in 1964.

But in the early 1970s, the Redskins got good and the Colts got old and bad, and a lot more people became Redskin fans. The Colts' brief revival in the latter half of the 1970s didn't help, and when the Redskins won Super Bowl XVII in January 1983, after the Colts had finished the strike-shortened 1982 season without a win, the Redskin publicity machine went into overdrive, hyping running back John Riggins, the receivers known as the Fun Bunch, even making the least glamorous position on the field, the offensive line, famous: The Hogs.
The Fun Bunch celebrating a touchdown in Super Bowl XVII

With fans showing up in Indian headdresses and plastic pig masks (or at least snouts), the 'Skins became more popular than ever, just as the Colts were bottoming out again, and taking suburban Maryland fans away. Never mind the Unitas-led NFL Championships of 1958 and '59: Super Bowl V, and even the AFC East titles of 1975, '76 and '77 now seemed a long way back.

The Colts were bad, and not interesting. The Redskins were great and fun. It was the same combination that happened in New York baseball in the latter half of the 1960s, with the Colts in the Yankees' place and the Redskins in the Mets' place. It was probably the worst thing that could have happened to Baltimore football fans.

2. Memorial Stadium. It wasn't a bad stadium, but it was in a bad location. Not because of neighborhood crime, but because of access and parking. It also didn't have enough office space for either the Orioles or the Colts, much less both teams. It also didn't have enough luxury boxes, which is why a replacement for it was necessary for any team moving to Baltimore to take the Colts' place.
Memorial Stadium. A scoreboard in left field but not in right field
means this picture was taken between 1970 and 1983.

Shortly after Irsay became the owner, a new idea came along: The Baltodome, which would have gone up in the Inner Harbor -- what we now call Camden Yards. It would seat 70,000 people for football, 55,000 for baseball, and have a contracted capacity of 20,000 for basketball and hockey. The idea was to save all of Baltimore's teams: The Colts, the Orioles, and the NBA's Baltimore Bullets, and possibly attract a hockey team, as the NHL was expanding and the World Hockey Association was getting going.

What's that? You've never heard of the Baltodome? That's because the Maryland legislature wouldn't go for it, and Governor Marvin Mandel pulled the plug in early 1974. The Bullets had already fled to the D.C. suburbs the preceding Summer, and O's owner Jerry Hoffberger wanted out, eventually selling the team to Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams -- who, because of the NFL's rule at the time, prohibiting a majority owner from being a majority owner of a team in another sport, had to sell a majority stake in the 'Skins to Jack Kent Cooke. Now, the possibility of the Orioles moving to Washington, Williams' hometown, to take the place of the departed Senators, was real.

Irsay was willing to wait. But it's not like he didn't drop hints.

1. The Government. The City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland didn't take Irsay's threat to move seriously. By the time the Baltdome was canceled in 1974, construction had begun on the Superdome and the Kingdome. "It's not a matter of saying that there will be no stadium," Irsay said. "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."

He talked with city officials of Phoenix in 1976 -- and then, in 1977, Indianapolis, which, unlike Phoenix with Sun Devil Stadium in nearby Tempe, didn't yet have a suitable stadium, but was planning the Hoosier Dome.

By 1980, with Georgia Frontiere having taken the Rams out of the Los Angeles Coliseum, hard by the South Central ghetto, down the freeway to Anaheim, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum commission approached Irsay about moving the Colts to Los Angeles, which Carroll Rosenbloom had decided not to do in 1972. Memphis wanted the Colts for the Liberty Bowl. Jacksonville wanted the Colts for the Gator Bowl. It seemed like everybody without a team wanted the Colts, but the City of Baltimore didn't.

In 1983, Mayor William Donald "Dud" Schaefer asked the legislature for $15 million to renovate Memorial. But it took weeks to approve it. In January 1984, Schaefer said, "We're not going to build a new stadium... We don't have the voters or taxpayer who can support a $60 million stadium."

On February 23, Irsay visited the Hoosier Dome, which was scheduled to open in August, and was very impressed. On March 2, 8 days later, NFL owners gave Irsay permission to move the Colts. He talked to Indianapolis, Phoenix, Jacksonville and Memphis, all of which he'd talked to before, and also to Birmingham, Alabama. He narrowed it down to Indianapolis and Phoenix. (Indianapolis was also talking to John Mecom, then the owner of the New Orleans Saints, about a local buyer bringing the Saints there.)

On March 27, the Maryland State Senate passed legislation giving the City of Baltimore the right to seize ownership of the Colts franchise by eminent domain. And that's why Irsay took the team and its stuff out of Owings Mills in the moving vans in the middle of the night on March 28-29: He was, as the old saying goes, one step ahead of the law. He also had all 15 moving trucks take different routes, in case the Maryland State Police stopped one of them, so they couldn't stop all of them.

As the team's lawyer, Michael Chernoff, put it, "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."

That day, March 29, 1984, the lower house, the House of Delegates, passed the eminent domain legislation, and Governor Hughes signed it. But it was too late: The Colts, lock, stock and jockstraps, were out of Maryland.
Harry Hughes, Governor of Maryland 1979-87

The only thing the franchise owned that stayed put was the uniforms of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band. They were being drycleaned. Irsay agreed to let the bandmembers keep them, and the band stayed together, finally changing their name to the Marching Ravens in 1998.

VERDICT: Not Guilty. I don't like saying that. Casting him as a villain is easy. Certainly, it looks like he moved over money, which makes him look greedy. But Bob Irsay tried to find a way to stay in Baltimore.

He tried for over 11 years. He tried harder to keep his NFL team where it was than did Al Davis, Billy Bidwill, Art Modell or Georgia Frontiere with theirs. He certainly tried harder than did Walter O'Malley, Calvin Griffith, Bob Short and Jeffrey Loria in baseball; Short and Clay Bennett in basketball; Norm Green and Peter Karmanos in hockey.

He was willing to make a deal. It was the politicians, Democratic and Republican alike, who didn't try hard enough. The people of Baltimore, the people of Maryland, got screwed out of their Colts, but it wasn't Irsay who did it.

*

The United States Football League tried to step into the breach: After the 1984 season, the Philadelphia Stars announced they were moving to Baltimore. But due to a legal technicality, the Indianapolis Colts still held veto power over another football team using Memorial Stadium, so the Baltimore Stars had to play their 1985 home games at the University of Maryland, closer to D.C. (possible because the Washington Federals had moved to Orlando), with the promise of playing at Memorial Stadium in 1986. That didn't happen, because the idiot owner of the New Jersey Generals wanted to go head-to-head with the NFL in the Autumn, and the League collapsed as a result. His name was Donald Trump.

A settlement was reached, and from 1986 onward, Irsay agreed to support a new team for Baltimore, either through a team's move or an expansion of the NFL. The Maryland Stadium Authority got serious, and, with Dud Schaefer now Governor, got the Camden Yards projects approved. Orioles moved in for 1992.
William Donald Schaefer, Mayor of Baltimore 1971-87,
Governor of Maryland 1987-95. Dud blew it with the Colts as Mayor.
He was not going to blow it with the Orioles as Governor, too.

In 1985, bankrupt, Leonard Tose considered moving the Philadelphia Eagles -- not 100 miles down Interstate 95 to Baltimore, but to Phoenix. Instead, he sold them, and they stayed put. In 1987, Billy Bidwill moved the football Cardinals out of St. Louis -- not to Baltimore, but to Phoenix. In 1993, the NFL chose 2 new expansion cities, to begin play in 1995, but not Baltimore: Charlotte and Jacksonville.

During this period, the Sullivan family, bankrupted through their ownership of the New England Patriots, considered selling the team to people who might move them, and Baltimore was one of the cities being considered. Once Bob Kraft bought the team, it was going to be either going to Hartford, a stadium in downtown Boston, or (as actually happened) a new stadium next to the old one in Foxboro. But Kraft wasn't taking the Pats out of New England, and certainly not to Baltimore.

In 1994, the Canadian Football League expanded into America, and put the Baltimore Stallions in Memorial Stadium. After 2 years, the experiment failed, through no fault of the Stallions, and they were moved to become the new Montreal Alouettes. In 1995, both the Rams and the Raiders moved out of Los Angeles -- but neither to Baltimore: Georgia Frontiere took the Rams to her hometown of St. Louis, and Al Davis took the Raiders back to Oakland.

Later that year, dissatisfied with how he was being treated by the City of Cleveland, and unable to fund improvements to Municipal Stadium himself, Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore, and they became the Ravens. They played in Memorial Stadium in 1996 and '97, moved to Camden Yards in 1998, and surpassed the Orioles to become Baltimore's most popular team.

Johnny Unitas attended the 1st game on September 1, 1996, handed the game ball to the officials, and watched as the Ravens beat Al Davis' Oakland Raiders 19-14 -- 19 being his number with the Colts, and 14 being the number he briefly had in the Pittsburgh Steelers' training camp before being cut in 1955, allowing him to become a Baltimore legend. The Ravens erected a statue to Johnny U outside the stadium after his death in 2002, and hired his son, Chad Unitas, in their executive sales department.

Bob Irsay voted to permit the Browns to move to Baltimore. Shortly thereafter, he suffered a stroke, and his health never recovered. He lived long enough to see the NFL return to Baltimore, and died on January 14, 1997, at the age of 73. His son Jim Irsay now runs the team. He's not particularly popular in Maryland, either.

The Colts' 1st game back in Baltimore was on November 29, 1998, at what's now named M&T Bank Stadium -- after the death of Bob Irsay. The Ravens won, 38-31. This was an outlier: Since the arrival of the Ravens, the Colts have a 10-4 record against them. This includes Playoff wins by Indianapolis in 2007 and 2010 (for the 2006 and 2009 seasons), and a Playoff win by Baltimore in 2013 (2012).

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