This NFL tale of two cities should have Baltimore ending

John Steadman

October 23, 1991|By John Steadman

Putting Baltimore vs. St. Louis on the line of scrimmage, one-on-one in a position battle for a National Football League expansion franchise, results in a veritable standoff -- except on one important issue.

The two cities are so close they could be sisters. They have much in common -- ground rents, individual municipal governments with the counties surrounding them functioning as separate entities, sprawling ethnic neighborhoods, a high percentage of working-class citizens, and each is located on important bodies of water -- the Chesapeake Bay and Mississippi River.

There's not much to choose between them. Because of these similarities, a natural closeness has existed for the last century. Physically, they look the same. It's difficult under any rationalization to find fault with St. Louis.

Baltimoreans and St. Louisans might even think alike. The one serious regret is Baltimore and St. Louis are battling for the attention of the NFL in deciding which of the two -- if it comes to that -- is invited to rejoin the fold.

In almost every category of measurable statistics, excepting size of the television markets, Baltimore has the edge. The TV figures list St. Louis 18th; Baltimore 22nd. But when linked to Washington, the combined TV total lifts Baltimore to ninth on the national list.

"I was born in St. Louis and moved to Baltimore in my high school years," says Lou Sleater, who grew up to be a brilliant high school athlete, coveted by Notre Dame for his football ability, by Dartmouth for how he played ice hockey and the major leagues of baseball. Oddly enough, he pitched for the Browns in St. Louis and the Orioles in Baltimore.

"The two cities, St. Louis and Baltimore, are so much alike they defy comparisons," says Sleater. "The downtowns are similar, the weather is almost identical and psychologically they are virtually the same. Both are family communities. Personally, I think St. Louis is more of a baseball town and Baltimore is stronger for football, but you can debate that."

Some interesting demographics are available. The commercial trading assessment of the two areas places Baltimore/Washington in 10th place; St. Louis 19th. In metropolitan population, when evaluated for marketing purposes, Baltimore has 7,600,000 to 4,800,000 for St. Louis.

On a radius of 150 miles (the maximum distance generally used for measuring how far a sports fan will travel for a game) Baltimore shows an enormous margin in audience potential . . . 19,869,000, to St. Louis' 5,360,600. And in earning power, the per capita income in Baltimore is $20,267 to $18,957 for St.Louis. But how much does all this mean?

From a historical reference, Baltimore had a pro football team 35 years; St. Louis 28 seasons. Baltimore produced higher crowd counts but this is correlated directly to success on the field. The Colts earned three world championships and nine of its players and a coach, Weeb Ewbank, made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Thus far, St. Louis has only Larry Wilson as a representative in the Hall of Fame, and the franchise has no titles to show for its time in the city.

So Baltimore offered contending teams at the box office while St. Louis was struggling. The NFL expansion committee will decide in March the unspecified number of finalists among 10 cities. Baltimore, St. Louis and Charlotte -- which replaced Baltimore as the front-runner after a potential Baltimore owner, Bob Tisch, bought 50 percent of the New York Giants -- are virtually certain to survive the "cut list."

Baltimore, it seems, has an imposing advantage over St. Louis when the NFL considers how both cities lost their original franchises.

What happened in Baltimore, carrying away the team's equipment and office furniture in moving vans on a ghastly night in March of 1984, and setting up shop in Indianapolis, was a low moment in the history of the NFL, which works hard to enhance its image. The Baltimore indignity was more than that. It was a crime against football fans it can't begin to defend.

Now for St. Louis. The Cardinals left three years ago via a unanimous vote of the NFL owners. Now those same executives are being asked to fill a void in St. Louis they created when they gave owner Bill Bidwill permission to move the club.

All points were covered by Bidwill in the official request. He fulfilled the NFL guidelines in making application for the transfer to Phoenix. The identical owners are being asked to place an expansion team in St. Louis after voting to let the Cardinals leave.

Baltimore was plundered; St. Louis, in the opinion of the owners, failed in its support, which allowed an orderly move to Phoenix to be completed. Right here, on this point, Baltimore pushes out ahead of St. Louis on the expansion scoreboard.

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