John Steadman covered Baltimore football for more than 50 years. This book shares his inside view.
“This is a day when there should be unrestrained joy, but I don’t find it. Call it a bittersweet attitude. In truth, as much as I hate to admit it, Cleveland is being hurt at Baltimore’s gain,” WJZ anchor Denise Koch says in John Steadman’s From Colts To Ravens.
Koch was reporting on the Browns’ move to Baltimore, from Cleveland. Baltimore new first-hand the pain of losing a football team but was now inflicting the same on another city. While Baltimore fans certainly wouldn’t reject a new team, some fans had mixed feelings, Steadman acknowledges. The pain of losing the Colts in 1984 was fresh enough in Baltimore that many of those lobbying for an NFL team would not have dreamed of taking a franchise from another city.
However, attitudes changed after the NFL rejected the city for an expansion franchise in 1993. Paul Tagliabue, then NFL commissioner, suggested that Baltimore might build a museum instead of a stadium. Baltimore city officials became convinced that the only way to get a team was to lure one from another city.
That’s where Steadman’s book opens, before travelling back to the 1940s and the dawn of pro football in Baltimore. It closes with the Colts leaving Baltimore for Indianapolis almost 40 years later.
John Steadman covered Baltimore football from 1945 until his death in 2001. He attended every Colts game between 1950 and 1983 and every Super Bowl from the first until Super Bowl XXXIV. In his preface he notes that he was offered jobs at the NFL office, as general manager of the LA Rams and Baltimore Orioles, and as executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame but, aside from a brief stint as Colts’ publicity director in the mid-1950s, he remained a reporter. Steadman died from cancer just three weeks before the Ravens won their first Super Bowl. He twice left his hospital bed to cover the Ravens, so as not to break his streak of games attended.
Under the circumstances, with the Indians drawing so much favorable attention, the belief persists that Modell’s vanity caused him to think about taking his football team to Baltimore. Sports have been known to do this to a man. There was his own misguided feeling that he wasn’t truly appreciated—a false assumption on his part. The ego aspect, as much as anything, contributed significantly to the transfer of the Browns’ franchise to Baltimore. Modell had difficulty, after all those years of standing front and center, being relegated to the role of “second banana”.
[In his bid for an NFL franchise, Tom Clancy] commissioned a first-rate production that ran twelve minutes and showed him playing pool and firing guns with leading military figures in his own shooting gallery on his estate in Southern Maryland. It was an elegant presentation. If they gave Academy Awards for such ventures, then his certainly would have been nominated. The video was packaged and shipped air express to each NFL owner, along with a case of six of Tom’s best-selling books, all autographed. On the outside, in bold gold-leaf lettering, was stamped: Another Blockbuster from Tom Clancy. It was by every measure an attention-getter, something way out of the ordinary, a valuable and unique gift. It weighed eighteen pounds. It was as expensive as it looked, probably costing in total as much as $60,000 to produce, package, and deliver.
Steadman’s closeness to the Colts means that he can offer a good recap of the franchise’s highs and lows on the field and off. The 1958 NFL Championship Game, which he covered at length in another book, The Greatest Football Game Ever Played (1988), was the first NFL game to go to sudden-death overtime and Steadman relates the tension: “I figured the excitement might lead to a heart attack and I actually said a prayer to the Lord, right there in the overhanging press box at Yankee Stadium.”
Behind the scenes, the Colts were often just as dramatic. Steadman is particularly interesting on Carroll Rosenbloom, who owned the Colts until 1972 and was more than happy to try to influence the media. At one event Rosenbloom ordered a raffle to be rigged so that Steadman won a $100 savings bond. The reporter declined and asked that it be given “to Mary Dobkin, a woman who lived in a poor section of Baltimore and sponsored baseball, football, and softball teams for children. Unfortunately, something went awry. Mary never got the $100 bond. The Colts kept it.”
Rosenbloom traded teams with the Rams’ Robert Irsay in 1972, and Irsay was an equally colourful owner for the Colts. Described by his mother as “the devil” and his brother as a “no good son of a bitch”, Irsay was known for tall tales and heavy drinking. Steadman describes watching Irsay come into the press box after one game, “having trouble with his equilibrium”. Eventually the unpredictable owner moved his team in the dead of night, which Steadman describes as “the crime”. The Ravens had yet to play a game when Steadman wrote this book. The team doesn’t even appear in the index, despite being mentioned a handful of times. “The Colts remain irreplaceable,” Steadman concludes, though he acknowledges that a new generation deserves “the chance to have a team of their own”.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books
Photo: Jon Haupt