Day 979: A (Football) Tale Of Three Cities

originally published September 5, 2014

Fans of American football are no doubt giddy with delight in the afterglow of last night’s victory by the Seattle Seahawks over the Green Bay Packers – the first actual game we have seen in seven months. Non-fans of American football most likely stopped reading this article after the headline, or after they realized this has nothing to do with soccer-football. That’s okay, not everyone shares the same sports-page passions – a fact that becomes resoundingly evident every year as the city around me leaps to their feet at the start of hockey season.

Younger fans of the game might not recall that this 13-season stability we have seen in team names and locations is unprecedented in the history of the league. The 20th century saw several clubs shuffle around the country in search of a permanent home. Most every move was money-based, each one was reviled by fans, and some took place under dubious circumstances.

No team relocation was handled quite so strangely as the Baltimore Colts’ mysterious overnight disappearance to Indianapolis. It was a figurative stab at the collective heart of Colts fans, and a cloak-and-dagger escapade that would leave a gaping wound in the spirit of the city. A wound that would not heal for more than a decade, when Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell was ready to inflict a similar agony upon the football devoted of his own city.

Memorial Stadium. Home of the Baltimore Colts since their inaugural year in 1953, and home of baseball’s Orioles for even longer. By the early 1970’s, it needed a facelift. 10,000 of the seats had lousy views, 20,000 seats were just wooden benches with no back support, and both pro teams had to share office space and locker rooms. Colts owner Robert Irsay tried to work with the city to land some new digs for his team.

In fact, things went the other way. Hyman Pressman, the city comptroller, was so adamantly against using public funds for a new stadium, he actually pushed for an amendment to the city’s charter, calling the stadium a veterans’ memorial and prohibiting the use of public money to build another stadium. This passed in 1974; unsurprisingly, Irsay began fielding offers from other cities right around that time.

Phoenix, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis and Jacksonville were all trying to woo the Colts out of Baltimore. Indianapolis fought hardest, going so far as to build the Hoosier Dome when there was no pro team scheduled to play there. The NFL gave their blessing for a move, which is when the officials – the same ones who had denied any funding for a new stadium – stepped in.

The Maryland State Senate passed legislation on March 27, 1984, allowing the city of Baltimore to seize ownership of the Colts by eminent domain. Irsay was about to lose his team in a political move of confounding dickery. The next day, Phoenix withdrew their offer while Indianapolis finalized theirs. The House of Delegates was set to vote the bill into law on March 29. Irsay had less than 24 hours to get his team out of Baltimore before the city seized it.

He had a plan.

Robert Irsay called his buddy, John B. Smith. Smith owned Mayflower Transit, a moving company based out of Indiana. Fifteen Mayflower trucks were rushed to Memorial Stadium at 2:00am on the morning of March 29. The trucks were loaded with equipment, paperwork, furniture and everything that was the Baltimore Colts. Each truck took a unique route out of town, just in case the Maryland State Police caught them and tried to enforce the eminent domain law that was destined to be signed later that day. Once they were in Indiana, an Indiana State Police escort met each truck and guided it to their new home.

A few hours later, the bill was signed into law by Governor Harry Hughes. But by then it was too late – the team was gone.

Later that year, Baltimore voters repealed the law prohibiting the use of public funds for a new stadium. They wanted football back, but the USFL’s Baltimore Stars (who won the 1985 championship) and later the CFL’s Baltimore Stallions (who won the 1995 Grey Cup) weren’t sufficient. Fortunately, Art Modell in Cleveland was ready to be wooed.

Modell had been earning globs of cash from operating Cleveland Municipal Stadium since 1973. In 1993, those globs turned to tiny globulettes when Major League Baseball’s Indians found a new home. Between ’93 and ’94, Modell lost somewhere in the neighborhood of $21 million. He wasn’t getting any immediate support from city council, so on November 6, 1995, he announced to the press that he’d be moving the team to Baltimore. Right in the middle of the football season.

Browns fans hadn’t seen this coming. The team was coming off of an 11-5 season which had included a decent playoff run, and while they were looking rather stagnant that fall at 4-5, fans were optimistic that the team’s talent could bounce back. The outrage was fierce. Protests were launched. T-shirts were made. Drew Carey showed up at a rally, but somehow the presence of the actor/comedian failed to change Art Modell’s mind. The team was doomed.

The Cleveland Browns won one only more game that season: a 26-10 victory over Cincinnati to close down the droopy gloom of Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

The one glimmer of optimism granted to the city of Cleveland was the unusual precedent that was set with this move. When the Colts left Baltimore, their legacy travelled with them to Indianapolis (though Baltimore was allowed to keep their lone Lombardi Trophy for winning Super Bowl V). This was standard procedure: the Raiders took their legacy from Oakland to Los Angeles and back again, the Cardinals took their legacy (flimsy as it was) from St. Louis to Arizona, and so on. But Cleveland got an exception.

The Baltimore Ravens were treated as a new NFL team. The Browns’ history stayed in Cleveland, where  a new team was to be launched in 1999 with the same name. This had never been done before. This concept of perpetual civic sports legacy rights would pop up again in other leagues later on. Seattle still holds the legacy of the SuperSonics, even though their NBA team took off for Oklahoma City in 2008. Baseball’s Minnesota Twins have a similar arrangement in place, just in case they are ever moved.

It was a strange game of franchise-musical-chairs. Indianapolis is happy; they have been a winning team in all but one year of this century. Baltimore is thrilled; the Ravens have won two Super Bowls since jetting out of Cleveland. And Cleveland… well, the Browns have been the league’s crap-bucket for the last 15 years.

But at least they have a team.

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