Today the National Football League takes a backseat to no other major professional sport and arguably no other sport period here in the United States. But it wasn’t always that way. Baseball for many, many years was considered to be our nation’s favorite pastime. Clearly that is no longer the case.
The NFL’s ascension to the comfortable pinnacle that it now occupies in the sporting world began back in 1958. Historians would argue and with good reason, that the game often referred to as the “Greatest Game Ever Played” changed the way the viewing public embraced the NFL.
The game took place on December 28, 1958 in Yankee Stadium featuring the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. Twelve future Hall of Famers played on that afternoon yet the game’s shining star was none other than the Baltimore sports icon, John Unitas. Unitas engineered a masterful game winning drive in overtime to capture the World Championship by the score of 23-17.
The game proved to be a watershed event for the NFL. It was a captivating struggle between two talented teams and the nation took notice on black and white TV sets in living rooms throughout America. Madison Avenue noticed as well as opportunistic ad agencies capitalized on the world’s new sporting hero, Johnny U.
The Colts became the first true “America’s Team” as fan clubs called Colt Corrals sprung up all over the country, the most famous in Hollywood with chapter president Clark Gable. The NFL caught a bolt of lightning on that unseasonably warm December day in ’58 and they’ve never let it go.
While the Colts, particularly Unitas, were considered heroes nationally, in Baltimore they became entwined in the fabric of the community. Players stayed here year around, they bought homes and raised their families right here in the Land of Pleasant Living.
NFL salaries back in the late 50’s and early 60’s weren’t much different than the average citizen’s salary. The players went to church to worship with the fans that worshipped them. Some fans even worked with their heroes as Colts’ players took jobs in the offseason to support their families. The players frequented the same parks, bowling alleys and neighborhood pubs as their adoring supporters.
The Colts and their city’s namesake were synonymous.
From 1958 to 1972, the Baltimore Colts enjoyed 103 consecutive sellouts and their popularity largely influenced the first national TV contract. Equal monies were divided among all teams – money without which the Steelers (who were drawing only 20,000 fans a game) may have been forced to leave Pittsburgh. The struggling Redskins’ franchise was on the verge of moving to Louisville, Kentucky until Pete Rozelle convinced then Washington owner George Preston Marshall to stay while showing Marshall a way of capitalizing on the traveling Colts’ fans who drove to D.C. to watch their heroes.
The late Lamar Hunt who was a successful businessman and beloved owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, recognized the natural fit between the NFL and TV after the “Greatest Game” and founded the American Football League in 1960. The very existence of the teams that we know today as the Bills, Jets, Titans, Patriots, Chiefs, Chargers, Broncos, Raiders, Dolphins and Bengals is due in part to the Baltimore Colts and John Unitas.
In many ways, Baltimore put the NFL on the map and the Colts made Baltimore more than just a pit stop between D.C. and Philadelphia. Baltimore and the Colts – a perfect marriage and the first of its kind.
The marriage ended in March of 1984 when under the dark skies of a snowy spring night, then owner Robert Irsay hauled the Colts out of Baltimore in Mayflower vans. The city was left to mourn and for some, the pain has yet to subside.
Much has happened since those vans exited Baltimore and fortunately the city has re-established itself in the NFL with the Ravens. And while Baltimore in large part has come to accept that the prideful horseshoe will never grace the helmets of their hometown team, the city can’t nor should it accept the humiliating disregard of its NFL heritage, particularly in light of the fact that it is one of the league’s pioneering cities and arguably its defining city.
Hall of Fame players like Art Donovan, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Jim Parker and of course Johnny Unitas do not and in the case of the late Parker and Unitas, did not associate themselves with the city of Indianapolis. Why would they? They were and always will be Baltimore Colts.
All who played for the Baltimore Colts have had their records absorbed into those of the Indianapolis franchise. Today, when a Baltimorean visits the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, they don’t see their heroes records recognized as part of the city in which they were established. Their NFL heritage has been stolen just like their team.
That hardly seems fair to a city that for all intents and purposes built the foundation upon which the NFL and that building in Canton, OH stand.
The Baltimore Colts will never play another NFL game but at least their memory should remain alive and young fans and future fans deserve to understand the historical significance and relevance of Baltimore in the league’s remarkable history.
Let the careers of those Hall of Fame Baltimore Colts rest in their proper place. Restore all of the Baltimore Colts records prior to the 1984 season so that all former Baltimore Colts can be acknowledged and not treated as outcasts or the black sheep of the NFL family.
And finally, restore the dignity of a pioneering city.
Your electronic signature on this petition will help us take our cause to those who can make this grossly overdue change to the NFL record books – namely the directors of The Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Thank you for your time and for your consideration.
Together we can make a difference.
Unitas We Stand.