It seems like he should have been there: chasing the vans down the street, shaking his fist in anger, cursing Bob Irsay's name deep into the Baltimore night. But, in fact, then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer remembers how he heard the news that the Baltimore Colts had packed their belongings into a fleet of Mayflower moving vans and unceremoniously left town.
"I heard it on the radio," he says grimly.
He was on mayoral business, staying at the Eisenhower Hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. Of course, like everyone else in town, Schaefer knew that owner Bob Irsay had been threatening to relocate the team. But the news still came as a shock. "The day before, [Irsay] promised me personally that he would not move the Colts," Schaefer says.
Schaefer recalls a feeling of helpless-ness. "The way he did it, under cover of night. It was too late to get an injunction. There was nothing I could do."
And today, almost 25 years later, when asked describe his feelings about that fateful night, he replies, "Anger. I'm still mad!" Then he adds for good measure: "I hated Mayflower after that, too."
Of course, lots of Baltimoreans felt angry after the move. It's hardly a stretch to say that when those vans drove into the night, they took a piece of Baltimore's heart with them.
But the question remains: Why can't Baltimore just, well, get over it? After all, we have a new team—an excellent, well-run, exceedingly popular franchise, the Baltimore Ravens. We even have our Super Bowl victory. So why did the recent Colts-Ravens playoff matchup stir up such intense feelings of animosity and pain? Are we justified in our anger? And did the move really contribute to Baltimore's famously tenuous self-esteem?
Most observers agree that the bond between the Colts and the city of Baltimore was something special.
"I think it was something that can never be repeated in sports again," says Tom Matte, a broadcaster who was a halfback (and emergency quarterback) for the Colts from 1961 to 1972. "We were part of the community. We interacted with the fans. We were real. I had a listed phone number!"
Bruce Laird, who played defensive back for the Colts during much of the dreaded Irsay period from 1972 to 1981, and is now an executive for Multi-Specialty Healthcare, speaks fondly of the era right before he joined the team: "Seventy-five percent of the players who played here lived here. They raised their children here. You saw them at the grocery store. They went to the school board meetings. They were part of the community in every sense of the word."
Steve Davis, sports director for WBAL radio, characterizes the town's relationship with the team as "a unique love affair. And I don't think love affairs in sports come along that often and they don't happen in every city."
So what created that love affair?
Well, winning of course. From 1957 to 1971, the Colts won three NFL championships and one Super Bowl (V). They electrified a nation (and elevated a city's pride) with the so-called "Greatest Game Ever Played" against the New York Giants in 1958. They were fronted by stud quarterback Johnny Unitas, who, like a football-playing John Wayne, effortlessly embodied the period's masculine ideal. They had the league's most celebrated marching band, its first cheerleaders, and its first fan club, the Colts Corral.
"The Colts made the National Football League," says Matte.
Also, this was before the age of free agency—the names on the team were all familiar—Johnny Unitas, Art Donovan, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti—and they didn't change from season to season.
"You bonded to players for their entire career," notes Davis.
And the players themselves had a special bond that inspired the fans. "We were a close-knit group," explains Matte. "We stuck together."
But all of that changed when Los Angeles Rams owner Bob Irsay acquired the team in 1972. The decline of the team came swiftly. First, five games into the season, Super-Bowl-winning coach Don McCafferty was fired. The following season, the unthinkable occurred when a disgruntled Johnny Unitas was traded to the San Diego Chargers. One by one, Irsay alienated the team's mainstays.
"He tried to embarrass me and Johnny Unitas," says Tom Matte. "He put me on special teams [a demotion of sorts]—after 12 years! And he was often drunk as a skunk."
Stories of Irsay's drinking—not to mention his propensity to exaggerate (and often lie about) his own accomplishments—were legendary.
"He totally ruined the credibility of the franchise," says Stan "the Fan" Charles, a longtime observer of the Baltimore sports scene and the publisher of Press Box magazine. "He essentially pissed on every tradition the Colts had."
As the team began losing its heroes—and losing games—the fans stopped coming. The ties between the team and the community—once seemingly indestructible—were eroding. Irsay wanted upgrades to Memorial Stadium. Baltimore city officials were reluctant to give in to his demands, especially considering the state of the franchise.
"My last year in Baltimore was 1981," says Laird. "In my final game we played at home in front of 17,000 people."
Considering that Memorial Stadium held almost 65,000 people at the time—this was pretty grim.
So, you could say, by the time Irsay snuck his team out of town, the Colts weren't really the Colts anymore. They were a skeleton of their former selves—a franchise that bore the logo and uniforms of the Baltimore Colts, but in no way resembled the glorious franchise they once were.
Which prompts the question: Why do we miss them so much?
The anger has taken many forms. There was anger at Bob Irsay that continued until (and, frankly, beyond) his death. There was anger at the NFL in general for letting this happen. There was anger at Paul Tagliabue, longtime commissioner of the NFL (now retired) for not awarding Baltimore a franchise, instead opting to give expansion teams to such bustling metropolises as Charlotte, North Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida. After we got the Ravens, there was anger at the injustice of the Cleveland Browns fans who got everything we didn't—national sympathy for losing the team and the right to keep their team name, history, and colors. When we finally got the Ravens, there was anger that we didn't get the national coverage—or respect—we deserved. And finally, when we got that respect (or, more accurately, took it by force) the anger got a new focus: The fact that there is no distinction between the Baltimore Colts and the Indianapolis Colts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It's hard not to notice that much of our anger would not be out of place in a Rodney Dangerfield routine. You know, the one that goes: "I don't get no respect!"
Matthew Crenson, a Hopkins political science professor and a Baltimore native, says it has always been this way.
"It's more than just the Colts," he says. "It's a whole gestalt that the Colts just nailed. Baltimore is a city with a chip on its shoulder. It's a city that resents the fact that it's not appreciated."
Because Baltimore is wedged between bigger, more "important" cities, he notes, it relies disproportionately on its sports franchises for its sense of self.
"Our sense of municipal self-esteem is somewhat precarious," Crenson says. "We don't have as much history as those other cities"–like New York and Philadelphia and Washington.
"If you compare Baltimore's self-esteem to New York or Philly, we're always the little stepchild," agrees Stan Charles.
Still, Steve Davis, for one, thinks Baltimore's anger is justified. "Yes, there's a lot of hostility," he says. "It's one thing to get robbed of your team. It's another thing to get robbed of the history and records and tradition. A hundred years from now, people are going to think that Johnny Unitas played for the Indianapolis Colts!"
With that said, most observers agree that the younger generation of Baltimore foot-ball fans has fully embraced the Baltimore Ravens and don't really care much about the storied traditions of the Colts.
"It's the older people, the 55-plus, who can't let go," says Charles. "To them, it was like losing their first love."
Of course, that's the perfect analogy: A first love who never ages, never changes, remains a pristine image, frozen in time. To older Baltimoreans, the Colts will always be good guys, local guys, who worked hard and competed hard and were members of the Baltimore family. If Baltimore had kept the Colts, who knows what images might have replaced our perfect nostalgia?
It's telling that Baltimoreans rarely speak of the dark period, the Irsay years, when they reflect on the Colts. It's always Johnny U and Artie Donovan and Lenny Moore. (Never, with all due respect, Jim Cheyunski and Marty Domres and Nelson Munsey.) We want to remember them exactly as they were—young, strong, champions.
"That was our team," says Schaefer. "Still is our team."