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Steelers Steelers' foe has checkered past; Baltimore fans know all about suffering

Wednesday, January 16, 2002

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

BALTIMORE -- The story of professional football here is as much about grand larceny as it is about Super Bowls.

They may call it a game, but Baltimore residents know better than most that it is a brutal business. Indianapolis stole Baltimore's Colts, so Baltimore reciprocated by hijacking Cleveland's Browns.

At least, Baltimore fans say, they were thieves with honor. They had the decency to rename their new team the Ravens. A more callous city would have stolen the team lock, stock and ballboy.

The defection of the Colts in March 1984 happened just that way, and it has left wounds in Baltimore that are still raw.

"It irks me to no end to hear about the Indianapolis Colts," said John Unitas Jr., 45, a Baltimore businessman and son of the city's most storied quarterback. "We want absolutely nothing to do with the Colts. When they left, they should have become the Indianapolis Racers."

So, even while the Ravens are flying high on emotion for Sunday's divisional playoff game with the Steelers in Pittsburgh, it is tame stuff compared to what Baltimore fans have lived through.

Pittsburgh, the Baltimore faithful will tell you, does not know what suffering is. Pro football has been a constant in Western Pennsylvania since 1933, not budging even for the Depression or World War II.

Baltimore is another story.

"It was wrong for us to take the Browns, but this town was prepared to do anything to get another NFL team," said Phillip Stankovic, 38, who runs the Downtown Sports Exchange, a sports bar that is just a long punt from PSINet Stadium. "We were starving for it."

Pro football began in Baltimore 54 years ago, and the city has since watched its team die two painful deaths. Not many Ravens fans remember the beginnings of the franchise or the first funeral, both of which happened in a three-year whirlwind. But, as is usually the case in professional sports, the birth and death of the team were tied to owners with money troubles.

The Colts first took the field in 1947 as a member of the old All-America Football Conference. That conference merged with the National Football League in 1949, but the Colts could not keep pace with the competition. Baltimore's franchise folded a year later.

Circumstances were so dire that the NFL had to fork over $50,000 to pay the players. Back then, when a middle-class American brought home $3,000 a year, $50,000 covered the salary of every player on the roster.

The Colts lay dead in Baltimore for two years. They got new life in 1953, when NFL Commissioner Bert Bell said the franchise might be allowed back in the league if Baltimore fans bought 15,000 tickets in six weeks. Baltimore recaptured its Colts by hitting the quota with 11 days to spare.

Pittsburgh never knew such struggles.

Art Rooney started his Pittsburgh football club in the worst of times -- the middle of the Depression -- but it survived every challenge with only minor changes. Rooney changed the name of his team from Pirates to Steelers to give it a clear identity. His greater feat was fielding a team during the 1940s, when the great war forced a couple of abrupt team mergers.

The Steelers combined squads with the Philadelphia Eagles to become the Steagles, and then with the Chicago Cardinals to form an outfit called Card-Pitt. Peacetime saw a return of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

By the mid-1950s, though, the fortunes of the Pittsburgh and Baltimore teams reversed. The Steelers of that era were consistent losers. The Colts, reborn from bankruptcy, became one of the NFL's glamour teams.

Johnny Unitas, the crafty quarterback with Pittsburgh roots, found stardom in Baltimore. What's more, he and his Colts proved to the networks and advertisers that pro football could be the greatest television sport of all.

The breakthrough happened in the 1958 World Championship game, when Unitas led the Colts to a 23-17 sudden death win over the New York Giants in Yankee Stadium. It was the first overtime game, and one so stirring to fans that the NFL for years called it the greatest game ever played.

After that, television executives soon were all too happy to bid for the rights to broadcast NFL games.

The Colts would go on to solidify television interest in pro football with the most famous loss in Super Bowl history in 1969. Favored by three touchdowns, the Colts were whipped 16-7 by the New York Jets of the less-vaunted American Football League.

That loss stung, but not like the one in March 1984 when the Colts packed in secret and moved to Indianapolis, which offered a sweeter deal in a new domed stadium.

"I'll never forget it. They moved in the middle of the night, those Mayflower vans taking our team," said Bill Day, a salesman at Gage World Class Men's Store in downtown Baltimore.

The move was proof that loyal fans do not count for much in the NFL.

After being jilted by the Colts and team owner Robert Irsay, Baltimore tried without success to land an expansion team. Finally, Baltimore made a run at the Cleveland Browns, whose owner, Art Modell, was peeved because he could not get a new stadium in northern Ohio.

Modell was eager to relocate his own team, and Baltimore residents were happy to do to Cleveland what had been done to them.

"At the end of the day," said Baltimore restaurateur Stankovic, "we didn't care how we did it."

This city loves the Ravens with all the fervor that it did the Colts.

At the men's store where he works, Day sells plenty of Ravens leather jackets, as well as shirts, hats and gloves with the team's official logo.

"The enthusiasm is the same as it used to be for the Colts," Day said.

It might be greater, for these Ravens are winners. These days, every telephone call to the team headquarters is answered the same way: "World champion Baltimore Ravens."

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