For over 30 years the Colts football team called Baltimore home, so what exactly happened to make them suddenly decide to pack up and leave in the middle of the night? In today’s video we’ll take a look back at how one owner’s quest for a new stadium, and the fight that ensued, led to one of the most infamous moves in NFL history.
Origins of the Colts
Long before the Colts moved to Indianapolis, they originally started in Baltimore… well sort of… but I’ll get to that in a second. The name “Colts” typically refers to a young male horse, perfectly illustrated here by this piano playing horse, as most horses do. The name was picked as a nod to the Preakness Stakes horse race which takes place in Baltimore every year. The Preakness Stakes forms the triple crown of horse racing along with the Belmont Stakes and the Kentucky Derby. There are actually two teams that mainly influenced the modern day Colts team’s history. One of those teams was the original “Baltimore Colts”, whose colors were green and silver, started as a franchise in the All-America Football Conference, or AAFC for short. This team played from 1947 to 1950, but folded after just one season when AAFC merged with the NFL. However, the team that we know today as the Colts can be directly traced all the way back to 1913, as the Dayton Triangles. Without getting to deep into it, the Triangles would eventually join the NFL in 1920 and would move around a lot, and I mean a lot.
They moved to Brooklyn from Ohio, and became the Brooklyn Dodgers, no not those Dodgers, yep those Dodgers. Then they became the Brooklyn Tigers, then they later merged with the Boston Yanks and played in Boston for three seasons, before moving back to New York and becoming the New York Bulldogs, then later they became the New York Yanks, nope not the baseball team, yep there we go, then finally they moved to Dallas and became the Dallas Texans, which brings us back to just a couple years after the former AAFC Baltimore Colts had folded.
Halfway through the 1952 NFL season, the Dallas Texans owners sold their franchise back to the NFL after not being able to find a buyer. The NFL, looking to replace the Texans franchise, sold the old Dallas franchise to a new ownership group out of Baltimore headed by Carroll Rosenbloom on January 23, 1953. This new team opted to use the Baltimore Colts name, but kept the Dallas Texans colors of blue and white. Officially though, the NFL considers the current Colts franchise as an expansion club, and does not officially recognize the previous histories of the Dayton Triangles through the Dallas Texans as part of its history.
It wouldn’t take long for the Colts to become a successful team, as within five years of forming the Colts made it all the way to the NFL championship game in 1958. Facing off against the New York Giants, they would win their first championship in what would be known as the “Greatest Game Ever Played”. When a young quarterback named Johnny Unitas led the Colts down the field in overtime, which set up a 1-yard run into the endzone by Alan Ameche scoring the winning touchdown. The two teams would once again meet in the NFL championship the following year in 1959, and once again the Colts would defeat the Giants, winning back to back championships. The team would struggle to make it back to the championship game in the following seasons, which led to the team replacing their head coach Weeb Ewbank to a young Don Shula. Shula would turn the team around in his second season, finishing first in the Western conference and appearing in the NFL championship game. The Colts would lose however to the Cleveland Browns, but Shula seen here showing a startled Johnny Unitas the inside of his basement, would go on to win Coach of the Year while Johnny Unitas won league MVP in 1964. The team remained successful for the next few seasons, with Shula and Unitas once again winning Coach of the year and MVP in 1967. The Colts managed to defeat the Browns in the 1968 NFL championship game, earning their first ever appearance in the Super Bowl where they would face off against the underdog New York Jets.
Heading into the Super Bowl, the Colts were without their star quarterback Johnny Untias who in preseason had suffered an injury to his throwing arm. Unitas was replaced by veteran quarterback Earl Morral who went on to have the best season of his career, winning 13 regular season games that season (he would actually go on to win league MVP that season as well). Morral would get the start over Unitas in the Super Bowl, while head coach Don Shula had to face off against his predecessor Weeb Ewbank who happened to be the head coach of the New York Jets. Ewbank would get his revenge on the Colts, when the Jets stunned the world by holding the Colts to only 7 points, defeating them 16-7. The Colts would return to the Super Bowl two years later in Super Bowl 5, with Don McCafferty replacing Don Shula as head coach before that season and an aging Johnny Unitas. The Colts defeated the Dallas Cowboys 16-13 in what would be known as the “Blunder Bowl” for it’s poor play on both sides. But it earned the team it’s first franchise Super Bowl win, and it’s fourth overall NFL championship win which included 1958, ‘59, and ‘68 wins.
By 1972 Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner of the Colts had grown tired of dealing with the city of Baltimore over issues with the aging Memorial stadium, sharing facilities with the Orioles, and a dislike of the local press. Rosenbloom decided to sell the team, and in an historical sale actually ended up swapping franchises with the Los Angeles Rams’ owner Robert Irsay. Irsay literally purchased the LA Rams and traded it with Rosenbloom all on the same day, on July 13, 1972. Unfortunately for the Colts, Irsay’s ownership wasn’t as smooth as Rosebloom’s. The teams struggled, and failed to reach the playoffs three years in a row after the ownership swap. Even legendary Quarterback Johnny Unitas ended up getting traded to the San Diego Chargers after the 1972 season. The team did bounce back however towards the mid to late 1970s, when the Colts made the playoffs three years in a row starting in 1975. However they would lose each time in the divisional round to the Pittsburgh Steelers twice, and most famously to the Oakland Raiders in 1977 on the “Ghost to the Post” play. Where Dave Casper of the Raiders made an over the head catch that set up a game tying field goal, and the Raiders eventually defeated the Colts 37-31 in double overtime. At three hours and 50 minutes, it’s still to this day one of the longest NFL games ever and would also mark the last time the Colts would play in the playoffs while in Baltimore.
Pretty much from the moment Robert Irsay took over the Colts, he’d been looking to build a new stadium in Baltimore to replace their current home, Memorial stadium. He quickly ran into the same issues that the Colts previous owner Carroll Rosenbloom ran into, which is that the city of Baltimore was very much against using public tax dollars to fund new stadiums. Around 1973, Maryland’s state planners came up with a project that could potentially become home to the Colts, and the Orioles, while also having the ability to convert into an arena for any future basketball or hockey teams. The project known as the “Baltodome” (sweet name) was very much in line with the trend at the time to build multi-purpose stadiums that could be home to many sports teams. The proposed site would have been near Baltimore’s inner harbor area, close to Camden Yards where the Orioles play today. The Baltodome project however never got the support it needed to pass in Maryland’s state legislatures, and by February 1974, Maryland’s Governor Marvin Mandel officially shut it down for good. Initially, this didn’t upset Irsay too much as he felt time was on his side and that people would eventually come around to see that the Colts needed a new stadium, especially when newer dome arenas were being built in New Orleans and in Seattle. However in the local election of 1974, Baltimore’s comptroller Hyman Pressman put forth a ballot measure to amend the city’s charter. The amendment called “Question P”, stated that the memorial stadium would be recognized as a memorial to war veterans and therefore no city funds should be used to construct a new stadium. The measure passed, which enraged Irsay because without some public funding it would be extremely difficult to get a new sports complex built. This marked a turning point in the relationship between the Colts and Baltimore, which rapidly deteriorated afterwards.
Overtures from Indianapolis/Elway snub
By the late 1970’s, Irsay had been listening to offers from a few different cities wanting the Colts to move there. Most notably Phoenix, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Jacksonville all jumped in offering enticing deals to Irsay to relocate. Initially, the Colts wanted to use these offers as a way to put pressure on Baltimore to either help fund a new stadium or at the very least spend the money on renovations to Memorial stadium. By 1980, both the Colts and the Orioles asked for 25 million dollars in renovations to the aging stadium. Maryland’s legislature would only agree to the renovation plans if they knocked it down to 23 million, and both teams had to sign long term leases with the stadium. However, the deal never went through because The Orioles refused to sign anything more than a one year lease, with Colts also refusing to sign long term. The city refused to budge on it’s stance to spend money on a new stadium due to the city being cashed strapped and also due to the reluctance of the public to fund such a costly expenditure. Even with the Orioles having decent attendance and winning the World Series in 1983, it was difficult to get the city to budge. The Colts on the other hand routinely struggled with attendance and had a recent stretch of miserable seasons. In fact the Colts were so bad that before the 1983 NFL draft, future star quarterback John Elway who was widely seen as the obvious number one pick by the Colts, publicly refused to play for them and threatened to play for the New York Yankees (who also drafted him) instead. This move forced the Colts hand into trading Elway, which they eventually did to the Denver Broncos.
-Construction of the Hoosierdome
Sensing that they had a real shot at either an expansion club or luring a team away from their current home, the city of Indianapolis approved of a 60,000 seat domed stadium that would be an expansion to Indianapolis’ convention center. Construction of the dome began in may of 1982, and would open two years later in 1984. The dome, which was called the Hoosier Dome originally (and later renamed to the RCA Dome), cost $77.5 million dollars to construct. It’s design was very similar to that of the Metrodome in Minneapolis and the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan which all featured air-supported roof structures. By early 1984, Baltimore had made Irsay an offer of a $15 million dollar loan, with a guarantee of $43,000 tickets sold for each game for six seasons, and the chance to buy the Colts training facility from the city for $4 million dollars. With Baltimore’s mayor William Schafer adding that the city can’t build a new stadium because they don’t have the taxpayers to support building a $60 million dollar building. And that unless a private company built it, it wasn’t going to happen. With Baltimore struggling to fund a new stadium, not long after this Irsay got the approval from the NFL to move to another city of his choosing and Irsay had narrowed his preferred cities down to just two, Indianapolis and Phoenix.
Phoenix and Indy compete for Colts
In January of 1984, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle officially announced that any expansion to the league would be put on hold for the time being. Because of this, both Phoenix and Indianapolis became more aggressive in their attempts to lure the Colts away from Baltimore. Phoenix offered the Colts a similar loan that Baltimore was promising but with a better interest rate, as well as rent free use of Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Stadium. Not long after this offer, Irsay visited the Hoosier Dome contrition site to tour the area. Deputy mayor of Indianapolis David Frick said that he could tell Irsay was visibly moved by the new stadium, and emotionality was making the move. And it’s not hard to see why with promotional videos like this: Upon hearing about Irsay’s openly discussing moving the Colts away, the city of Baltimore became very aggressive in their actions to keep the team. On March 27, 1984 the Maryland Senate passed legislation that gave Baltimore the right to take over ownership over the Colts through eminent domain. This was a similar tactic that the city of Oakland used against the Raiders to keep them from moving. The eminent domain legislation triggered a domino effect of events in rapid order, first the city Phoenix sensing this could turn into a long drawn out legal battle retracting their relocation offer to the Colts. After hearing of the eminent domain news, Irsay’s hand was forced to make a big decision very quickly, or he could face losing the team. The day after the bill passed the state senate, Irsay feared that the city of Baltimore would move quickly to seize control over the team once the eminent domain bill signed into law by the state’s governor. So Irsay called the mayor of Indianapolis, William Hudnut asking if their offer still stood. The mayor and Irsay agreed to a $12.5 million dollar loan, use of the yet to be opened Hoosier Dome, and a $4 million dollar training facility. With a big move on the way, Irsay called his friend John B Smith who happened to be the CEO of the Mayflower moving company and got them to send 15 moving trucks to the Colts offices.
Gone in the Night
Later that night, 15 Mayflower moving trucks arrived at the Colts facilities in Baltimore. There’s some conflicting reports as to when exactly the trucks showed up, some reporting around 10pm with others saying it was closer to 2am. In either case, It took the moving crew about 8 hours to pack everything up, and by noon the entire Colts organization was gone (with the exception of the team’s marching band who just managed to get their gear in time before it was moved with the team). Each truck took a different route out of Baltimore fearing that Maryland State police might try to stop them in order to stall for the eminent domain document could be signed into law. Once each truck crossed over state lines into Indiana, Indiana State police personally escorted the trucks to their new home in Indianapolis. Later that day, Mayor Hudnut held a press conference to officially welcome the Colts to Indianapolis. Baltimore on the other hand was stunned by the move, Mayor Schaffer appeared on the front page of the Baltimore Sun in tears and would later change his stance on building a new stadium, making it one of his top priorities of his legislative agenda. The Colts would play their first game as the Indianapolis Colts on August 11, 1984 in a preseason matchup against the New York Giants. In the meantime, the move to Indianapolis triggered lawsuits from Baltimore, which would go on for two years before finally being settled in March of 1986. The fallout from the move prompted voters in Baltimore to repeal the controversial “Question P” measure that blocked any chance of using public funding for new stadiums.
The aftermath of the Colts leaving Baltimore lead local politicians to emphasize their efforts on keeping the Baltimore Orioles baseball team from leaving as well. The Orioles, just like the Colts, had been looking for a new stadium for a long time. Plans were developed throughout the late 1980s, and construction of a new ballpark began in 1989, just five years after the Colts left town. The new ballpark named Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992, which again was built near the original proposed site of the failed Baltodome project. Around this time, the city also was trying to persuade the NFL to grant the city with a new expansion team. However, the NFL shocked almost everyone when they granted a new team to Jacksonville Florida, instead of one of the two favorites St. Louis or Baltimore. With all other options exhausted, Baltimore was left with the one thing they were most reluctant to do, which was take a team from another city.
There were rumors that Orioles owner Peter Angelos, seen here not knowing what to do with his hands, might convince the LA Rams to relocate to Baltimore. But no such deal ever worked out and the Rams instead moved to St. Louis. There was another team however, the financially struggling Cleveland Browns and their owner Art Modell who was open to offers from other cities. Baltimore promised to build a brand new stadium and give the Browns a $25 million dollar subsidy. Modell agreed to the terms, and made the official announcement in November of 1995. Initially, Modell wanted to keep the Browns name, history and colors, but the NFL stepped in and reached a settlement with the city of Cleveland that Cleveland would get to keep the Browns history, and colors and that a new Browns team would play no later than 1999. Don’t worry you’ll get to bust out those orange and brown zumba pants in no time! Through a fan vote, the fans picked the “Baltimore Ravens” as the new nickname for their football team. The Ravens played at Memorial stadium for their first two seasons, and then moved into their new home Ravens Stadium (now known as M&T Bank Stadium) in 1998. It wasn’t just the fans and the local politicians who were upset about the Colts leaving, there was also one person of note who was not too thrilled with the Colts. Legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas, disgusted with how the whole move went down, publicly cut all ties with the Indianapolis Colts organization. He went as far as telling the Pro Football Hall Fame not to display any of his memorabilia unless it specifically stated it was from the “Baltimore Colts”. When the Ravens came to town, Unitas became a fan and attended many home games, while the Ravens even built a statue of Unitas outside of M&T Bank Stadium.
So what did you guys think of the Colts leaving in the middle of the night for Indianapolis? Would you continue to follow a team that moved away? Let me know in the comments below!