50 years ago, Colts had a bizarre NFL beginning


FROM THE AVENUE of the absurd emerged the caricature of a football team that almost defies description. It created its own unforgettable identity - which survives today, 50 long years later.

The final game of that lamentable 1950 season found the Baltimore Colts, depleted in numbers, show up at Yankee Stadium with only 25 players. One fewer, and under NFL rules, they would have had to forfeit.

Coach Clem Crowe, who went back to Knute Rockne's time at Notre Dame, once stepped into a practice-field huddle and encountered fumes more to be associated with a brewery than a 10 a.m. workout.

"Not so early in the morning," exclaimed Crowe, to which center Joel Williams corrected him, "No, coach, that's from last night."

Art Donovan, Don Colo and Sisto Averno heard that Weissner's Brewery was going out of business in Baltimore. The sellout price per case was 75 cents, and they bought enough to stack beer from the floor to the ceiling at their rooms in the St. James Hotel.

Team president Abraham "Shorty" Watner, who hardly knew a football from a pumpkin, couldn't understand why the players used so many boxes of chewing gum. He told the trainer to conserve on expenses by giving each of them only half a stick.

Watner once pointed to guard Averno and said, "He gained almost 5 yards every time he carried the ball." That was one thing Averno didn't do, run out of the backfield, but he went both ways as a starting offensive and defensive middle guard for a salary of $4,000.

During that long, trying season, Averno told Crowe he had an injured shoulder and might not be able to play. The coach, showing no mercy, said, "That's OK. Just block them with your other shoulder."

Before the season even started, the Colts were physically abused by being scheduled for seven (yes, seven) exhibition games - three during a span of six days: the San Francisco 49ers in Baltimore, the Los Angeles Rams in San Antonio, and the New York Yankees in Shreveport, La.

The Rams annihilated them, 70-21, and tried an onside kick with less than two minutes to play. The Colts, desperate, traded guard Dick Barwegen and tackle Dub Garrett to the Chicago Bears for players who included George Blanda. He played one game in Baltimore, but the Colts decided to trade him to Green Bay.

However, George Halas, the Bears' owner-coach, stepped forward and said he had an agreement that the Colts couldn't send Blanda to Green Bay, a bitter rival the Bears were going to have to play twice.

Going back to the previous season and into 1950, counting exhibitions, the Colts lost 18 in a row. When they won for the only time, beating Green Bay, the fans carried fullback Jim Spavital off the field - a hero's ride.

End Jim Owens, an Oklahoma All-America end, later a Rose Bowl coach at the University of Washington, injured a kidney against the Steelers, but the team left him in a Pittsburgh hospital without any assistance or comfort from the organization. The only one who seemed to care was his wife.

From such a bedraggled past came three Hall of Fame players: quarterback Y. A. Tittle, Donovan and Blanda. The backup QB and punter was Adrian Burk, the club's first-round draft choice. Coincidentally, both Tittle and Burk were to later tie Sid Luckman's NFL record for most TD passes in a game, with seven, while playing for the Giants and Eagles, respectively.

The roster wasn't devoid of talent - there just wasn't enough of it. They were playing for a confused owner in Watner, a weak general manager, Al Ennis; and coaches Crowe, Rocco Pirro, Joel Hunt and Wayne Millner. Practice facilities were at Clifton Park, which didn't make for any kind of a professional setting.

There were some solid players on the roster, including Chet Mutryn, Ed King, Hardy Brown, George Buksar, Billy Stone, Leon "Muscles" Campbell, Bob Nowaskey, Colo, Donovan, Tittle, Burk and others. The brightest rookie was Herb Rich, a Vanderbilt product who could fly with the football on kick returns and was an outstanding safety, later playing extensively for the Rams and Giants before becoming an attorney in Nashville, Tenn.

A midseason pickup, Paul Salata, was an exceptional receiver, catching 45 passes in only seven Colts games, plus five in four games in San Francisco, and finishing tied for third in the league in receptions behind Tom Fears and Dan Edwards. Salata became a momentous post-football success, first acting in the movies and then in construction in Orange County, Calif.

The Colts of 1950, though, made a positive dent in history. They were the first Baltimore team to have a black athlete, end Art Fletcher, and the only NFL club to graduate a player to the governorship of a state - Ed King of Massachusetts.

Misery on the field was a regular occurrence. They led the Chicago Cardinals 13-7 at halftime but gave up 48 points in the second half to lose, 55-l3. To the Rams, in their regular-season meeting, they lost, 70-27, after being hammered in the earlier exhibition, 70-21. They had a chance to beat the 49ers in Kezar Stadium, except end Hal Crisler's jersey tail came out and the shirt flapping in the breeze enabled a 49ers' defender to make the desperate tackle.

When the 1-11 season was concluded, with the team setting all kinds of embarrassing records for giving up yardage and points, Watner decided he wanted to sell the team. The league took it off his hands for $50,000, which covered all the players on the active and reserve lists. Uniforms, training room, and office equipment were sold to anyone interested.

The only problem, which had serious legal complications, was that Watner didn't officially own the team. The stockholders, led by the late Zanvyl Krieger, brought suit. The league was in deep trouble, and to get off from a serious financial penalty agreed to put a team in Baltimore in 1953 - which turned out to be the bankrupt Dallas Texans.

Although 1950 was Baltimore's first in the NFL, after spending three in the All-America Conference, it turned out to be a comic book season - the most mixed-up, confused, disorganized, chaotic, and bizarre series of events any team or city ever had to endure.

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