Colts departure from Baltimore really hurt, once upon a time

You have to be of a certain age now, your mid-30s at least, to even remember the midnight trauma of March 28-29, 1984. But to fully appreciate the hard, numbing slap of that snowy night — how much it hurt, once upon a time — your memories of the Baltimore Colts would have to go back further than the 30 years since they packed up and moved to Indianapolis.

For this old story to have any meaning anymore, you'd have to remember the last good years of the Baltimore Colts, the Bert Jones-Lydell Mitchell years, at least seven seasons before the move. The last time the team had a winning record before its move was 1977.

Of course, the true golden age was before that — before Robert Irsay, the ruddy-faced heating-air-conditioning contractor from Skokie, Ill., got his hands on the Colts and almost immediately alienated the most loyal fan base east of Green Bay.

That would take you back to 1971, when the Colts won a Super Bowl, or back further to the 1960s and the 1950s, the championship seasons of Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore and teammates beloved in Baltimore.

So to have a memory of that time and an appreciation of what the Colts once meant to the city, you would have to be a Baltimorean of a certain age now — north of 55, anyway.

And when you think of the old Colts or see the blue-and-white pentimento emerge somewhere in the local landscape, you probably also think of parents, aunts and uncles now departed, members of the Greatest Generation and long-gone Colts Corrals. They latched onto the team in the 1950s and never let go — even after the Mayflower vans pulled out of the Colts complex in Owings Mills during the night of March 28, 1984.

Indianapolis Mayor Richard Hudnut declared the next day "one of the greatest days in the history of this city."

In Baltimore, the mayor, William Donald Schaefer, an irrepressible civic cheerleader known for making "greatest day" declarations at all kinds of events, had little to say. Like most Baltimoreans, he appeared to be somewhere between stunned and seething.

People cried, too — Norman Goodman among them.

He was an insurance adjuster who loved the team and had been to dozens of games, including the famous 1958 National Football League championship against the New York Giants in Yankee Stadium. The Colts won that game in sudden death, a seminal moment in the history of professional football and network television.

Before the game, a New York City police officer suspected Goodman of scalping tickets. Goodman took umbrage and chastised the cop in Yiddish. The cop was Jewish and understood Yiddish: Goodman came close to getting arrested and missing the Greatest Game Ever Played.

"True story," says his son, Brian.

The elder Goodman started taking his son to games in 1964. The Goodmans went to Memorial Stadium together over the next two decades, and they even went to Miami for the 1971 Super Bowl.

By the time Irsay moved the franchise to Indianapolis, in that dreary March of 1984, Norman Goodman was in a nursing home, having suffered a massive stroke.

"But he understood what happened, that the Colts had left town, and he cried," says his son, now 56, an attorney with Pessin Katz.

Norman Goodman died a year later.

"The Colts were a religion in my house growing up, like everyone here in town," Brian Goodman says. "I have lived in Baltimore my whole life, and I love the Ravens, but [the Colts' departure] was a civic crime."

Certainly it was an act long in the making, with Irsay making noise for years about replacing Memorial Stadium, and with Schaefer and other business and political leaders from the city and Baltimore County trying to ascertain what exactly he was after.

Irsay had not only made a shambles of a storied football franchise — the Baltimore Colts had three winning seasons in the 12 Irsay was owner here — but the constant worry that he'd move the team grated already irritated fans.

In the last year before the move, news reporters tracked his moves — to Arizona, to Indianapolis, to Memphis and Jacksonville — until finally, in an absurd airport news conference, with an uncharacteristically bewildered Schaefer at his side, a finger-pointing Irsay launched into a tirade against sportswriters.

"Whaddaya hang me for?" the Colts owner wanted to know. "I'm a good Catholic. Where the hell did all this come from?"

Convinced that Irsay was not reasonable or rational, and worried that he would soon move the team, the Maryland Senate approved an eminent domain bill to give Baltimore the power to condemn the Colts franchise and seize the team.

The vote was on March 27. On March 28, at least 15 Mayflower moving vans went to the Colts complex in Owings Mills.

By night, with snow falling, those trucks took 31 years of football history out of Baltimore. A lot of people were upset, depressed and bitter. But a good number said good riddance to Irsay and believed the National Football League would soon do the right thing and give Baltimore the next new franchise.

But it took 12 long years — and some cold slaps in the face from the NFL, which bypassed Baltimore to expand in two other cities — for professional football to return to the banks of the Patapsco. And when it did, for the 1996 season, we got Cleveland's team.

The rest is history of a mostly pleasing kind: not only the establishment of the Baltimore Ravens in a new downtown stadium, but the creation of a franchise with committed ownership and savvy management, and two world championships in 18 seasons. In fact, the Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl in only their fifth season — and before the Indianapolis Colts finally did, in their 23rd.

Cleveland got a new team in 1999.

With ceremony and bronze and marching band, the Ravens went out of their way to honor the memory of Unitas and the bygone Baltimore Colts, smart moves that ingratiated the new team to fans of a certain age, the ones who took the events of March 28-29, 1984, the hardest. It really hurt, once upon a time — a long time gone.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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