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Retro Baltimore: Before Johnny Unitas, it was Y.A. Tittle who carried the Colts with his mighty arm

In this Dec. 8, 1961, file photo, New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle works out at Yankee Stadium in New York. Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback and 1963 NFL Most Valuable Player, died in 2017. He was 90. (AP Photo/John Lindsay, File)
In this Dec. 8, 1961, file photo, New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle works out at Yankee Stadium in New York. Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback and 1963 NFL Most Valuable Player, died in 2017. He was 90. (AP Photo/John Lindsay, File) (John Lindsay/AP)

He was 21 and balding, with a quirky name and a Hall of Fame arm that would set him apart if the other stuff didn’t. In the early years of the Baltimore Colts, Yelberton Abraham (Y.A.) Tittle wowed football fans who rallied around the young quarterback of their fledgling football team.

Before Johnny Unitas captured the city’s hearts, there was Tittle, who led the Colts for three years (1948-1950) during their skittish start in the pros. Then a member of the All-America Football Conference, Baltimore fielded a moribund club that won two of 14 games in its 1947 debut.

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Enter Tittle, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound rookie from Louisiana State who started immediately — and didn’t disappoint. In the opener he sparkled, passing for two touchdowns in the first six minutes of a 45-28 victory over the New York Yankees, the defending division champs. For the day, Tittle threw for a league-record 346 yards – breaking the mark held by the celebrated Otto Graham – and four touchdowns, including scores of 60 and 80 yards. He also ran for a TD.

The Municipal Stadium crowd of 31,800 went nuts, spilling onto the field before game’s end.

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“Young Tittle found himself surrounded at every step,” The Sun reported.

Afterward, coach Cecil Isbell exclaimed, “He surely has lots of snap in his right arm.” One of those scoring passes had traveled 55 yards in the air.

One month later, the Colts were 3-1 and set for a showdown at home with the two-time champion Cleveland Browns, who hadn’t lost in 13 games. The Browns boasted seven future Hall of Famers plus their coach, Paul Brown. The Colts had Tittle but little else.

Still, Baltimore was stoked. Led by their first-year quarterback, the Colts had stunned the Browns, 21-17, in the preseason. The buzz was such that WMAR-TV, in its infancy, aired the contest.

The Colts struck quickly. On the third play, Tittle launched a 78-yard touchdown pass to halfback Billy Hillenbrand. But Cleveland escaped with a 14-10 victory en route to an undefeated season. The Colts finished 7-7 and tied for first place in their division but lost in a playoff game.

Tittle’s arm had raised the team from worst to first. He passed for 2,522 yards (more than Unitas did in any of his first three years) and 16 touchdowns and rushed for four more. His accuracy rate — nine interceptions in 289 attempts — led the league. He’d blossomed with the Colts, throwing more than three times as many passes as in his senior year at LSU and elevating his game under Colts coach Cecil Isbell.

“Every pass that kid throws is a picture,” the coach said.

The New York Giants' Frank Gifford had all the right moves in the second quarter when he faked Cleveland Browns defender Bernie Parrish out of position and was able to latch onto a Y.A. Tittle toss, good for 6 yards in 1963.
The New York Giants' Frank Gifford had all the right moves in the second quarter when he faked Cleveland Browns defender Bernie Parrish out of position and was able to latch onto a Y.A. Tittle toss, good for 6 yards in 1963. (New York Daily News)

“[Isbell] inspired me to become what I am — a great forward passer,” Tittle told The Sun in 2013. “When I left college, I didn’t know what kind of player I was, but Isbell believed in me. He was my confidence builder. He convinced me that I was the greatest player to ever throw the football.”

Fans embraced the hard-throwing Texan who, as he fired a pass, shouted “Go git it!” to receivers. Reporters dubbed Y.A. “Yard Arm”; to teammates, he was simply “Y.” His picture appeared on wrappers of Koester’s Bread, a Baltimore favorite. Not surprisingly, his rookie year was fraught with temptation.

“We trained that summer in Sun Valley, Idaho, because one of the team’s owners owned a share of a ski resort there,” he recollected in 2013. "We stayed in a lodge, where all of these pretty college coeds had summer jobs waiting on tables. The other guys had fun, but it irritated me because I’d just gotten married a week earlier.

“I was jealous, yes, but I never broke my marriage vows.”

In this 1964 photo, New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle kneels after being sacked by the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh. Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback and 1963 NFL Most Valuable Player, died in 2017. He was 90. (Morris Berman/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
In this 1964 photo, New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle kneels after being sacked by the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh. Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback and 1963 NFL Most Valuable Player, died in 2017. He was 90. (Morris Berman/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP) (Morris Berman/AP)

Sadly, despite his efforts, the Colts reverted to form in 1949. They won one game, defeating the Buffalo Bills on Tittle’s 53-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds left. Absorbed into the National Football League in 1950, Baltimore went 1-11, breaking a midseason string of 12 straight losses with a 41-21 rout of the Green Bay Packers. That afternoon, Tittle led a 27-point fourth-quarter comeback, passing for 277 yards and a score. Afterward, the jubilant home crowd carried him on their shoulders to the locker room.

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At season’s end, the Colts folded, its players dispersed around the league. (Baltimore returned to the NFL in 1953.) Tittle landed in San Francisco and played 10 years with the 49ers before a trade to New York. There, he led the Giants to three consecutive division titles and, at age 37, won the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 1963. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971 and died in 2017 at age 90.

In this Oct. 3, 2010, file photo, Y.A. Tittle poses before an NFL game between the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback and 1963 NFL Most Valuable Player, died in 2017. He was 90. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun, File)
In this Oct. 3, 2010, file photo, Y.A. Tittle poses before an NFL game between the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback and 1963 NFL Most Valuable Player, died in 2017. He was 90. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun, File) (Bill Kostroun/AP)

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