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City recalls glorious NFL past, but Irsay lurks there, too


Picture it for a moment: Tens of thousands of fans in a sold-out Memorial Stadium, wildly cheering professional football. Johnny Unitas is there. The Colt Marching Band, too. There are flags, banners, cheerleaders.

The scene -- scheduled to be staged tomorrow -- is designed to recall Baltimore's proud football legacy, a time when the fledgling league emerged as a national passion.

Like a tightly scripted political convention, the Miami Dolphins-New Orleans Saints preseason game at Memorial Stadium is designed to demonstrate the city's historic love affair with football.

At the same time, planners hope the event will erase another, less proud memory of a city that lost interest in its team.

After years of record-setting attendance, fans began turning away in the Colts' final years here. After averaging near 60,000 throughout the 1960s, fewer than 17,000 showed up for a game against the Kansas City Chiefs in 1980. During the final season, 1983, the average barely exceeded 40,000.

Then, on a snowy night in March 1984, a fleet of moving vans secretly hauled the team's equipment from Owings Mills to Indianapolis after negotiations for stadium improvements faltered. Indianapolis' promise of a modern, domed stadium and other financial incentives beat out Baltimore's offer to add sky boxes to the 38-year-old Memorial Stadium.

Competing cities are not shy about raising Baltimore's troubled NFL past. Max Muhleman, a leader of the group from Charlotte, N.C., said both Baltimore and St. Louis will have to address the fact that they had teams and lost them while the other finalist cities -- Charlotte, Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn. -- would be fresh territory for the NFL.

League officials are aware of it, too.

"That's going to be part of our job -- answering the question, 'Why did the Colts leave there?' That's going to be an important part of our thinking," said one NFL official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Local backers blame the attendance slump on the team's owner, Robert Irsay, who obtained the team in 1972 and is now roundly vilified in Baltimore.

"I went to those games. They had 40,000 people there when they had a revolving door of players and the owner had lost interest in Baltimore," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who, as mayor of Baltimore in 1984, was humiliated by the club's move.

"I think it's a tribute that they sold 40,000," Schaefer said.

Shortly after his arrival, Irsay became an unpopular figure. He meddled with game strategy and fired coaches with impunity. He traded players -- including the legendary Unitas -- to the fans' dismay. A resident of suburban Chicago, he was called an "absentee owner."

The team's performance fell and attendance soon followed. Irsay criticized local fans for not supporting the team and talked publicly about moving. In 1979 he helicoptered into a Jacksonville rally of tens of thousands of fans who were hoping to persuade Irsay to move his team to the Gator Bowl.

One of the lowest points in Colts history came in 1983, when the team drafted John Elway out of Stanford, and the quarterback refused to come. The club traded him for quarterback Mark Herrmann, guard Chris Hinton and a No. 1 draft pick in 1984.

The fall in Colts attendance also followed league restructuring that reduced play against such traditional rivals as the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers.

In 1967, the NFL split into four divisions, with the Colts in the Coastal Division along with the Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons. In 1970, the NFL merged with the American Football League, and the Colts were put in the American Football Conference Eastern Division with the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Boston Patriots and Buffalo Bills.

Craig Kelley, a spokesman for the Indianapolis Colts, said the club and Irsay have a policy of not discussing the team's move to Indianapolis or to respond to criticism of the owner.

Not so for past players. Tom Matte, a running back for the team from 1961 to 1972, said, "The fans dropped off because they got fed up with Bob Irsay and the way he treated the city."

During the tenure of Irsay's predecessor, Carroll Rosenbloom, players were asked to spend time at the stadium autographing team photos and mailing them out free to fans who requested them, Matte said.

When Irsay arrived, Matte said, the players were limited to 25 free pictures and had to pay the postage.

From 1964 to 1970, the team posted a record 51 straight sellouts, although there is controversy about some tickets being given away. Average home-game attendance hit a peak of 59,756 in 1968.

During the 1960s, demand for tickets was so hot that courtroom battles would erupt over the wills of deceased season-ticket holders, Matte said.

Players for other teams hated playing before the boisterous Baltimore crowds during the 1960s, he said. The fanaticism prompted one out-of-town football writer to dub Memorial Stadium the "world's largest outdoor insane asylum."

Attendance varied from year to year, but generally fell during the Irsay years, from a high-water mark of 56,432 during his first year of ownership to 41,967 in his last.

Backers of the local NFL effort point out, however, that television ratings remained high even as attendance fell.

C. Robert Barnett, a sports historian at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., said the enthusiasm of Baltimore fans in the 1950s helped make football a major television sport. The thrilling 1958 Colts-Giants championship in New York is considered a turning point in the popularity of the game.

"People still have a sense that Baltimore supported its team and that it was [shafted] by an owner," Barnett said.

Herbert Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and the head of the city's effort to land a new team, is more diplomatic.

"You can't put all the blame for the attendance on the owner, but a number of people who were emotionally connected to the Colts took personal offense when some of our stars were traded off," he said.

Nonetheless, he said he hopes the one-day sellout of tomorrow's game, along with the record-setting Orioles attendance, reinforces the image of Baltimore as a strong supporter of sports in the eyes of the NFL.

Saints-Dolphins facts and figures

What: NFL preseason game between New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins

Where: Memorial Stadium

When: Tomorrow, 8 p.m.


Radio: WMIX (106.5 FM) starting at 6 p.m.

Tickets: The game is sold out

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