JIM PARKER was one of our great storytellers. Some of the stories were true, and some were embellished for comic effect. Buddy Young used to say, "Parker'll call you up at 2 in the morning, just to make up a story." But here's one that's true: Parker, the man who helped keep John Unitas on his feet for 11 years and opened the holes Lenny Moore scooted through, goes to his grave tomorrow, signaling once more the closing of a long-ago era still remembered with infinite warmth and affection.
He was the Baltimore Colts' lineman judged as fine a blocker as ever flattened a linebacker. But that was only part of his story. In the wilderness years between pro football teams in Baltimore, Parker helped hold things together. He was there with Unitas and Spats, and Donovan and Mutscheller, and Matte and Lydell Mitchell, and Joe Ehrmann and Bruce Laird, the ones who settled here after their playing days were done and helped lead municipal cheers as the city struggled to bring back the game.
One morning at his package-goods store, at Liberty Heights Avenue and Garrison Boulevard, Parker stood wolfing down a breakfast large enough to feed small armies. He had the store for a few decades, long enough to become not only a neighborhood fixture but a kind of community squire.
"When you finished playing ball," I asked him, "what made you stay in Baltimore?"
"Didn't have the money to move," he said.
That's part of it. In his brilliant Hall of Fame career - the NFL unanimously named him to its all-star 75th anniversary team - he said he'd never made more than $35,000 a year. That's tip money for today's jocks. But big pay has also robbed them of something that endeared Parker's generation to the town: They were working-class chumps, like the rest of us.
Parker always told the story of his first contract with the Colts: a two-year deal for $12,500. For incentive, the Colts' general manager, Don Kellett, put $1,500 in cash on a table where Parker and his young wife, Mae, sat. It was all in $1 bills.
"Ready to sign?" Kellett said.
"No, I'm not," Parker said.
But then, he'd say with a laugh, Mae kicked him under the table. "It looked like all the money in the world," Parker said, "so we took it and went back to the hotel, and Mae said, 'I'm gonna take a bath in $1 bills.'"
In his off-seasons, Parker worked at Sparrows Point. Or he sold embalming fluid, or sold cemetery plots. Anything to stretch the dollar. Then Artie Donovan helped him get a job with a liquor distributorship.
Parker told only half the story about why he settled here permanently. His generation of Colts lived among their fans far more intimately than the modern ballplayers. Their lifestyles were built on the same kinds of economics. They got to know their neighbors, and in the process came to understand how adored they were. Who in his right mind would want to leave such a place?
That affection was reinforced in the dreary years after the Colts left for Indianapolis. It was a time for Baltimoreans to remind ourselves how badly we'd been jilted by Robert Irsay, a time for recalling great old tales and for reinforcing the legends of our youth. Feats that might otherwise have slipped from memory were instead planted deeper into the city's collective psyche, and took hold. Minus a here-and-now, we nurtured our yesterdays.
Parker was part of that '58 championship team, protecting Unitas in the pocket as he drove the ballclub to the New York Giants' 17-yard line for Steve Myhra's kick with seven seconds left. Parker and Donovan both blocked for the field goal team. As they raced to the line in those frantic seconds, Donovan recalled years later, "Parker's going, 'I'm nervous. I'm nervous.' And I'm going, 'Shut up. Shut up.'"
What a hoot - the image of the two big buffaloes with all the fears of schoolyard kids as they lined up to create one of the golden moments in American sports history.
But Parker was an insightful and sensitive man as well. As a ballplayer, he is recalled as Unitas' prime protector. But he also uttered the most poignant response, nearly three years ago, when Unitas was fatally stricken by a heart attack.
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"When I heard the news," Parker said, "I drove out to the country, parked my truck, and sat and thought awhile. What about? This was the only time I couldn't protect him. I loved John Unitas to death."
That's an image that has gripped their generation of fans. They weren't just gypsy jocks, chasing the enormous bucks from one market to another. They stuck together across years and years. Not all of it was easy. Parker felt racial slights as much as any man in a town that could be slow to cast off old prejudices.
But that generation of ballplayers taught lessons while winning championships. Nobody got up on soapboxes to talk about it, but it was there. It was barely a decade after Jackie Robinson had integrated baseball. The public schools were newly integrated, and neighborhoods all over town were nervous.
And here were the toughest of men, black and white, playing ball together. If they could work things out, it was a lesson to all of us.
In the year before he died, Unitas took physical therapy at Kernan Hospital. So did Moore and Parker. By this time, Parker had suffered a debilitating stroke. One afternoon outside the hospital, there was Parker, leaning heavily on Unitas and Moore as the three old teammates gimped into the hospital.
You couldn't miss the irony. For years, it was Parker who'd protected Lenny and John. Now they were returning the kindness.
Viewing hours for Jim Parker are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. today at the March Funeral Home, 4300 Wabash Ave. Services are at 10 a.m. tomorrow at New Antioch Baptist Church, 5616 Old Court Road.