Out of town, out of mind: Colts, too, have fond Memorial memories


August 03, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

There is the Memorial Stadium poster series, the Memorial Stadium commemorative pin, the Memorial Stadium watch, coffee mug, jacket, two caps, four shirts, the miniature moving van, the four-sided crystal paperweight. And not a football anywhere.

There are the banners running along both sides of 33rd Street, the "thanks for the memories" commercials, the color embroidery, the stone replica, the commemorative minted coin, the button, the key ring, two pennants, the pen-and-ink print. And not a Colts helmet in sight.

Yes, there is a Colts chapter in the "House of Magic" stadium biography. Sure, the Orioles, to their credit, are planning a Colts commemoration at a Sunday game in September. But, otherwise, football has become the lost half of Memorial Stadium's history. Notice everyone calls it a ballpark now. As if that's all it ever was.

Funny. The Orioles are reaping the benefits of this nostalgic indulgence, their every memory filed, collated and assigned a price, but they couldn't fill seats for years, even when they were winning championships. The Colts were the ones with unofficial franchise rights in this town. They made the concrete rattle. Magical memories? Where do you start? And, now, not a trace recalled as the stadium dies. Funny.

"Shouldn't be a surprise, though," said Jim Parker, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman, sitting at his bar in West Baltimore. "They aren't talking about it, because the team isn't here anymore. But there are people who'll always remember what happened at that place. Not a day goes by without somebody saying something to me."

Something about Unitas or Berry or Moore or Donovan, the championships, the crazy crowds, the horse running across the field. It was an eccentric stadium for football, the field lumpy and dusty by December, the locker rooms small and outdated even in the '50s, the north end zone open to the row houses of Waverly. But the team was terrific, and the noise in the horseshoe end was the loudest in the league.

"I loved the place," Parker said. "It was home. I have a 5-year-old daughter now, and when I drive by the stadium, we stop the car across the street and get out and look. I tell her, 'That's where daddy used to work.' I show her where we parked, where we went inside. I tell her about the games. Now, when we drive by, she says, 'Look, daddy's football.' "

Yeah, football. Used to be the game in town. The Colts played more than 200 games at Memorial Stadium between 1953 and 1983. They won an NFL championship there in 1959. They won an AFC championship there in 1970. They suited up six Hall of Famers there in the late '50s, seven including the coach. They suited up a Super Bowl winner.

It has all been forgotten, or not so much forgotten as obscured, because a man whose mother called him "a devil on Earth" bought the team and ruined it as rain ruins a kid's bicycle, and finally moved it to Indianapolis in the middle of the night, a civic fleecing everyone immediately wanted to purge. No thanks for the memory.

But the Colts couldn't take their history to Indiana with their shoulder pads and footballs. You can break hearts with history, but you can't steal it. So maybe there's dust on it now, and no one is singing about it or stitching embroideries or minting commemorative coins, and certainly no one is lining up for tickets to the last game, because the last game was eight years ago. But all those electric Sundays at the stadium: They did happen.

"The game at the stadium I'll always remember was against the 49ers in 1958," said Parker, recalling the win that put the Colts in the NFL playoffs for the first time. "It was the best game we played in my 11 years as a Colt. We were down, 27-7, at halftime and Weeb [Ewbank, the coach] chewed the hell out of us, and we came out and Lenny [Moore] ran backward for a touchdown and we outscored them, 28-0, and won."

Most of the old Colts will tell you that's the game they remember most fondly. They will also tell you about Alan Ameche running 79 yards for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball as a pro, about John Unitas coming back from a punctured lung in 1958 and throwing a touchdown on his first pass, about the grace of Lenny Moore, the balletic routes of Raymond Berry, the sheer strength of Art Donovan.

They will tell you about the day the fog rolled in and the Packers' Paul Hornung scored five touchdowns, about the day all the quarterbacks were hurt and Tom Matte wrote the plays on his wristband and moved over from halfback. They will tell you about the generations changing, Bert Jones and Lydell Mitchell taking over. They will tell you about watching the collapse of the house they'd built.

A few can tell you about leaving a playoff game early in 1976 and hearing about the nut crashing his plane into the upper deck.

It happened at Memorial Stadium. All of it did. But it's a ballpark now, a ballpark only, so these moments gather dust instead of appreciation, and so the Colts are remaindered in the rush to gild everything the Orioles ever accomplished at the stadium. Which is too bad.

"The stadium was all that was left from those days, except for some old, tired bodies," said Ordell Braase, who played with Donovan in the defensive line, "so I guess it's really, really the end of the era. But you can't cry. The team moving, now that was sad. But the end of the stadium, well, time goes on. We had a hell of a time there, though. Whether or not anyone remembers, we did have a hell of a time."

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