Baseball was the national pastime in 1951. Those who followed football watched college and high school games. National Football League teams played their games in stadiums built for baseball or college football teams. In New York, a baseball and football team shared the Polo Grounds. They were both called the Giants. The other NFL team in the city, the New York Yanks, played their games at Yankee Stadium.
The Yanks franchise was struggling financially and moved to become the Dallas Texans for the 1952 season. But that area’s love for football was limited to college and high school teams. The NFL franchise lost money and played the last part of the season away from the city which failed to support it. Out of desperation, and over the objections of Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, the struggling Texans franchise was sold and became the Baltimore Colts.
What happened next changed the fortunes of the NFL. Baltimoreans developed a furious love for the Colts, as depicted in the movie Diner, and the good fortune of the team spread to the league. In the 1958 championship game Johnny Unitas led the Colts in a desperate drive in the final minute of the game to force a tie. In the first “sudden death” overtime game in the history of the league, the Colts won the championship.
In that era of black-and-white television and movies, Unitas, wearing white, led the Colts against the black-jerseyed Giants. Commentators compared Unitas to Gary Cooper in the movie High Noon. That game showed television executives NFL football was ideally suited for their medium. Large television contracts followed and the NFL became the most popular, and profitable, sport in America. One of the leaders for the league in this process was Cleveland Browns‘ owner Art Modell.
Baltimoreans might have expected some respect and courtesy from the NFL for the region’s part in the league’s success. But they were mistaken. The years that followed were marked by disregard and disrespect from the National Football League. Baltimoreans came to a love-hate relationship with the league and felt continually slighted. Their view of the league, the game, and many of its players and executives differed drastically from the views of those in the rest of the country.
It started with the fact that from the mid 1950’s into the early 70’s, every Baltimore home game was sold out and not one game was broadcast in Baltimore. In 1972, the Washington Redskins made the playoffs for only the second time in 27 seasons. Before the following season, Congress passed a law requiring the broadcast of sold-out home games. No one cared if Baltimoreans couldn’t see their team, but it was unacceptable when it happened to others.
The biggest shock of all came on a snowy night in 1983. The owner of the Colts, Robert Irsay, had driven the franchise from one of the best in the league to one of the worst. It was so bad that a player drafted by his franchise refused to play for the Colts. John Elway insisted on a trade and spent his career in Denver. As the franchise’s fortunes declined, Irsay made various demands of Baltimore. Its mayor, William Donald Schaefer, tried to meet each one. After promising he would not move the team, Irsay stole out in the middle of the night to Indianapolis. Outside of Baltimore, the silence was deafening. The league didn’t care and Congress, including Maryland’s delegation, was mute.
While Baltimore had no NFL team, a young player was drafted by Indianapolis and became known as one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the league. While the people of Baltimore had nothing in particular against Peyton Manning, the idea that he was setting those records while playing in the Colts’ blue-and-white uniforms for another city made him extremely unpopular in Baltimore.
To keep the Orioles from joining the Colts, Baltimore built a new baseball stadium and set aside land and money for a football stadium. For the next dozen years Baltimore would be used as a stalking horse by the league and its owners. Each time, Baltimore’s bid would be used to raise the price for other teams. The last straw came when the league added two teams for the 1995 season. Baltimore was skipped over in favor of Charlotte and Jacksonville.
City and state leaders had had enough. The league and its owners were told they had only months to move a team to Baltimore or the stadium offer would be off the table.
At the same time Art Modell’s Cleveland Browns franchise faced bankruptcy. Modell owned the stadium where his team played. For years he had received revenue from baseball’s Indians. Cleveland built a new baseball park and the Indians moved and stopped paying rent to Modell. Cleveland then built a basketball arena, a Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame and other facilities. Modell continued to tell city officials they needed to fulfill their promise to him for a new football stadium.
Given that Baltimore was about to withdraw its offer, Modell announced, during the 1995 season, that he would be moving the team to Baltimore. Modell did not sneak out of town in the middle of the night and he left the team name and colors in Cleveland. What followed was an outpouring of anger and rage against both Modell and Baltimore. The Ohio congressional delegation threatened all kinds of action against the league. The NFL, in the end, awarded a new franchise to, and helped build a new stadium for, Cleveland.
After Modell moved the team it was renamed the Baltimore Ravens. The team improved over the next few years. In early 2000, after the Super Bowl, one of its star players, Ray Lewis, was involved in an incident in Atlanta. The prosecutor alleged that Lewis or one of his companions had killed two other men in the bar. Lewis’s reputation suffered nationally and he was the target of many nasty remarks and catcalls for the following season. The Ravens won the Super Bowl in that 2000-2001 season, but in many parts of the country never earned respect. They won with a fierce defense instead of a glamorous offense. Baltimoreans didn’t care, we were Super Bowl Champions. We enjoyed the fact that neither Indianapolis nor Cleveland had accomplished that before we did.
Art Modell died before the beginning of the 2012 NFL season having been denied entry into the NFL Hall of Fame, in large part because of Cleveland’s anger. Ravens players have worn a patch on their jerseys honoring him throughout the season, a circle with the name “Art”. In January, 2013, Ray Lewis announced that the Ravens playoff run would mark his last games in the NFL. The Ravens were playing the 2013 playoff games for both Art Modell and Ray Lewis.
On January 12, in the divisional round, The Ravens went to play the Denver Broncos. The Broncos Director of Football Operations is the same John Elway who once refused to play for Baltimore. In what was generally acknowledged as a brilliant move, Elway saw that the Broncos needed a good quarterback to go with their excellent defense for the 2012 season. In a nationally watched bidding war, Elway convinced Peyton Manning, formerly of Indianapolis, to come to Denver.
For Baltimoreans, the Ravens-Broncos game became an effort for two men (Modell and Lewis) who are loved in Baltimore and disliked or despised elsewhere. It was also a struggle against two men (Elway and Manning) who are loved elsewhere and disliked or despised in Baltimore.
Going into the game, everyone knew the “golden-boy” team of Elway, Manning and the Broncos would win. The Broncos had won 11 straight games, including a blowout win against the Ravens in Baltimore. The Broncos earned a bye and had the advantage of home-field in a stadium a mile above sea level. The Ravens had lost four of their last five games in the regular season and had replaced their offensive coordinator. Baltimore was also playing on a short week, having won the previous Sunday. Given the relative age of their players, the short week, the high-altitude and Denver’s rest and first place standing, the Broncos were 10 point favorites.
The Ravens got the ball first and could not score. On the ensuing punt, the Broncos scored a touchdown. The Ravens quickly answered with 14 points and took a lead, but the Broncos scored the next 14 points and had a seven point lead with a minute left to go in the first half. Then Joe Flacco threw his second long touchdown pass of the half to tie the game.
On the opening kickoff of the second half, Denver again ran the ball all the way back for a touchdown and the Ravens were down. They tied the game and Denver again took the lead. With a minute left to go in regulation time, the Ravens were down by seven and the television network was showing John Elway in his booth and congratulating him for his management of the Broncos. But the Ravens weren’t done. Flacco completed a 70 yard touchdown pass play to tie the game. Denver fans were shocked and Baltimore fans were yelling and screaming.
In the overtime, the Ravens intercepted a Manning pass and kicked the game-winning field goal. The team from Baltimore, which had come in a 10 point underdog, won the game. Baltimoreans rejoiced that the experts had been wrong again. It was a very special day.
One might expect that the Ravens have now earned the respect of experts and bettors. Apparently not. Going into Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, the Ravens are again 10 point underdogs even though the last few Ravens-Patriots games have been close. We will have to see how it turns out, but Baltimoreans and the Ravens themselves are used to being the underdog. It makes victories even sweeter.