Tittle hits all right notes in benefit for Colt Band

John Steadman

September 28, 1992|By John Steadman

What Y.A. Tittle was able to do in the name of the Baltimore Colts and his first professional team merits a resounding drum roll and a stirring blare from the trumpets. He came to Baltimore for a card-signing show to benefit the band without requesting a fee (the going rate is $5,000) because he believed it was the decent thing to do.

Professional athletes don't generally make such a concession. Cities where they play, for the most part, are places they merely pass through, like migrant workers or an orchestra on tour. Tittle made Baltimore an exception because this was where he started on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The members of the Colt Band found out what Tittle thought of them when he heard they wanted to raise money to pay for uniforms and travel expenses. He accepted air passage from Palo Alto, Calif., and an overnight hotel accommodation but didn't charge for his time or his autograph. It was a courtesy he wanted to extend, which is a pleasing contrast from how the majority of athletes feel about appearing at similar public functions.

Don Bevans, who deals in the promotion of sports shows and the sale of cards and memorabilia, said Tittle was as "fine a crowd-pleaser as I have ever dealt with, right up there with Brooks Robinson and Harmon Killebrew." The explanation Bevans gave for Tittle's non-paid visit to the Towson Center was "because he responded to an invitation by John Ziemann, the president of the Colt Band, and wanted to do all he could to help."

Tittle went out of his way to be cordial to visitors and was overwhelmed by some of the things he was asked to sign -- a 1943 game program from when he quarterbacked LSU and pictures from his days with the Colts in 1948, 1949 and 1950. They were relics from the past and he enjoyed the chance to be with the grandchildren of fans who once cheered his name and considered him the purest thrower the pro game ever produced.

When Tittle put the ball in the air with his smooth delivery it was, indeed, a thing of beauty. Arriving in Baltimore on Saturday, he first asked about John Unitas, a fellow Hall of Fame quarterback, who was away from the city on business. Tittle inquired of Haussner's Restaurant, a Baltimore landmark, and the Clifton Park neighborhood where he lived and was befriended by a golf professional, the late Johnny Bass.

Ziemann and his wife, Charlene, were elated to meet Tittle. "He told us any time we wanted him back he'd be pleased to come again and do all he could for the Colt Band," said Ziemann. "Y.A. was upset he wasn't at the reunion of Colt players at the Memorial Stadium exhibition game. He said he would have been glad to have appeared but never received an invitation."

When you know the history of Baltimore football, Tittle, the first bona-fide hero, is an integral part of the story. He was, however, treated with disdain by management in 1950 when he had a signed holdover contract for $18,000 but the club owner, Abe "Shorty" Watner, used the arrival of first-round draft choice Adrian Burk and the acquisition of another quarterback, George Blanda, to pressure him into renegotiating downward.

Tittle wanted to stay in Baltimore. Watner issued a 24-hour ultimatum to sign at a reduced figure or be released. Tittle had his family set from 1Btled and didn't want to make a change. So he signed, taking a $6,000 cut. There was no players association then to offer even the slightest protection.

"The thing my wife and I enjoyed about Baltimore was how much the public loved football and the way it made the players feel at home," he said. Meanwhile, at the card function, he was signing autographs, having his picture taken and even tossing soft spirals to youngsters.

Natalie Rizzi, whose father Nick had been a high school football player at City College when Tittle was a Colt, asked him to autograph a picture for her dad and he complied, adding the line, "City Forever" -- the name of the old school song. Asked what he thought of Baltimore's bid to obtain an expansion franchise, he answered:

"There's no city in America more deserving. Why? Because the history of the Colts is still such a romantic part of pro football. The NFL owners will be doing themselves a favor if they bring a team back. I have nothing against the other places applying for expansion, but I know firsthand the love and understanding they have for our game in Baltimore.

"I experienced it as a Colt and then when I came back to Baltimore as a New York Giant and San Francisco 49er. The NFL and Baltimore deserve each other. It's where the NFL belongs. And that's no bunk. My personal opinion is the league should take in Baltimore and then consider where else to expand. No cities, even some in the NFL, offer what Baltimore has."

Y.A. Tittle was so impressed with the graciousness extended by Ken McAllister at the collectors' show he signed a picture "Yelberton Abraham Tittle, Jr.," a concession he makes on only rare occasions. By traveling 3,000 miles and making himself available to the public, gratis, while trying to lend assistance to the Colt Band, he set himself apart.

It's a refreshing change from the mad commercial demands placed by so many players, past and present, on a masochistic public willing to provide hero worship and, at the same time, pay whatever price such naive patronage requires. Tittle, by his actions, separated himself from much of that.

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