In its last years, the Golden Arm Restaurant had ceased to be anything more than, well, a restaurant. While Johnny Unitas' pictures were still all over the place, he was no longer an owner, his Baltimore Colts pals were gone and with them an association between professional athletes and fans that now seems as quaint as a leather football helmet.
If the food in the Anneslie neighborhood restaurant was always undistinguished, there's the argument that the food was not necessarily the point. You could get a respectable prime rib and a version of oysters casino that had its devotees. The shrimp under a generous mound of crab imperial became a favorite among regulars who jammed the place in the best days.
Whatever the menu, when the Baltimore Colts were in town and tearing up the National Football League, you'd have a tough time getting a reservation on a Sunday at the 160-seat restaurant. Customers would stream in for brunch, then board buses for the ride from the small shopping center on York Road to Memorial Stadium. After the game they returned by bus, followed by some players and coaches and their wives.
"It was sort of our hangout after a game," says Tom Matte, former Colts running back. "Three-quarters of the team would come back. ... It was a meeting place."
And why not, at those prices? To encourage their attendance, the management let the Colts and their families order for half price. Absent the electronic overload of an ESPN Zone, the Golden Arm relied for buzz on the presence of greatness.
The players would often be there, hanging around the bar or settled into their table in the back of the restaurant. You had to pass their table to get to the bathrooms, suggesting opportunities for a quick handshake or an autograph.
"The players were always accessible to the fans," says Matte. He has an expression: "If you don't have my autograph, it's your fault."
The Golden Arm opened in April 1968 under the joint ownership of Colt defensive back Bobby Boyd and quarterback Unitas, who died last Wednesday of a heart attack in Baltimore County at the age of 69. By the spring of 1968, Unitas had already been named the NFL's Most Valuable Player four times and led his team to two league championships in the 1950s. In 1970, Unitas marched the Colts to victory in the Super Bowl.
While making NFL history and lifting Baltimore's collective sense of self, Unitas was also showing up occasionally at his restaurant. Not a natural schmoozer, Unitas by one account had to be persuaded to mingle with customers. He is said to have asked: Why would anyone want to talk to me?
People did, of course, and they would, at least in the restaurant's early years. On a lucky night you could find Unitas stepping from table to table, shaking hands, chatting, posing for photographs and signing autographs. He was not known to refuse an accommodation.
In 1988, Unitas sold his interest in the restaurant. In 1995, the Golden Arm closed to allow the Giant supermarket in York Road Plaza to double in size. If you've ever shopped produce there, you have essentially walked this hallowed ground.
Even when Unitas wasn't at the Golden Arm in body, his image was present in photographs and paintings from one wall to the next: Johnny in high school football days, Johnny as he orchestrated the 1958 championship overtime victory over the New York Giants that would be known as the Greatest Game Ever Played. The beer glasses and the matchbooks carried his name, the restaurant logo was a quarterback throwing a pass. On the dotted line, Unitas was always co-owner - first with Boyd, then businessman Jack Kahl - but it was hard not to consider the Golden Arm Unitas' place.
"He was the central figure," says Boyd, who is now in the trophy and awards business in Garland, Texas. "He sure was what most of the people wanted to see when they got there."
Sports figures in many cities have tended to drift into the food business, and Baltimore in the 1960s and '70s was awash in Colts restaurateurs.
Fullback Alan Amechi was apparently the first with Amechi's restaurant. Linebacker Bill Pellington had the Iron Horse, defensive end Ordell Braase had the Flaming Pit, tackle Art Donovan had and still has the Valley Country Club. Amechi and defensive end/tackle Gino Marchetti eventually teamed up in Gino's, a chain of hamburger restaurants.
None seem to have had the Golden Arm's following, if only because Unitas was Unitas - "the biggest name in town," says Boyd. "People would see him, that would make their day," says Kahl.
Unitas was no Art Donovan, regaling a crowd with hilarious and profane stories, but in his quiet way he got in his shots.
John Ziemann, who was a percussionist and later president of the Colts marching band, tells about bringing his girlfriend, Charlene, to the Golden Arm for their second date. He sensed this could be a serious pursuit, so everything had to be just right. How nice that Unitas stopped over to say hello.
" 'How come you bring a different girl in here every week?' " Unitas asked, says Ziemann.
It's just a joke, honey. Really.
Charlene was eventually convinced that Unitas was kidding. At least she eventually agreed to marry Ziemann.
It's one story among many to emerge from a place of several faces. For the locals it was a nice neighborhood restaurant with a piano bar, wherein pianist Brad Wines says he handled not only the keyboard, but also a special-effects machine that generated bubbles or fog, according to the demands of the moment.
On the other hand it was a place of frequent celebrity sightings - Jim Nabors, Sarah Vaughan, Roberta Flack and, yes, Frank Sinatra are said to have appeared - and there were moments of wildness, as members of the bar crowd tell. While bar stories occupy the fringes of the nonfiction category, it's tough to argue with their entertainment value.
There are slight variations, for example, on the story of Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgenson's walking into the Golden Arm one day and loudly saying to Unitas: "Hey, thanks for naming the place after me. ... "
Some folks say it was bartender John "Rocky" Thornton, some say Unitas who had the notion in the early 1980s to recognize the regrettable change in Colts ownership with a metal nameplate on the men's room door: "Bob Irsay Room." Unitas at the very least apparently did not object. The Irsay sign and many other Golden Arm items may now be found at Patrick's Restaurant in Cockeysville, where the Golden Arm's owners moved when they were pushed out of York Road Plaza.
Several versions are told of the story about someone or other perhaps riding a horse from the Golden Arm to Sweeney's bar on Greenmount Avenue, near Memorial Stadium. One version says Colts running back Alex Hawkins did it. Another says there was no horse at all, but that during an after-hours party a woman on a bet was persuaded to remove her clothing in preparation for making a Godiva ride.
Hawkins, reached in Denmark, S.C., says: "Print the best one. ... Actually, we never could get a horse. We went outside the door a few times and said 'Here, horse ...' "
Then there is Boyd's version, which goes like this: "I don't think that ever took place."
It should be noted here that whatever carousing went on apparently happened without Unitas, who by all accounts was no drinker.
"Two or three beers and he was done," says Henry Amos, a former restaurant owner and one of the 5 p.m. regulars at the Golden Arm bar. Unitas preferred Arrow 77, a Baltimore brew.
A regular of the Golden Arm bar crowd, Hawkins drank bourbon, sometimes in large amounts. He chose to open his autobiography - My Story (And I'm Sticking to It) - with his recollection of waking up the morning after his all-night retirement party on the floor of a certain Baltimore establishment.
"I woke up to the sound of a vacuum cleaner screaming in my ear, somewhere close by. ... "
This was the Golden Arm after Hawkins' last season of 1968. After a few more intoxicating years, Baltimore fans would be waking from their own wild dream: Unitas' throwing another perfect pass and the team's winning and the heroes simultaneously larger than life and right there - regular guys in the neighborhood haunt.