Baltimore Colts' spirit touches a father, a son and a city

August 28, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin

I have a distant childhood memory of the Christmas when Bert Rechichar came to dinner at the home of my uncle, Joe Mignogna. The year was 1958, and a few days later Mr. Rechichar and the rest of the legendary Baltimore Colts would be in New York, beating the Giants in what was hailed as the greatest football game ever played.

Uncle Joe says he knew Bert Rechichar and quite a few other players from his job as an assistant manager of Mar-Matic Sales, where the Colts and other celebrities were invited to shop at wholesale prices. "His wife was out of town. I just took a long shot and invited him home," my uncle explained.

That Mr. Rechichar would be enjoying the hospitality in a tidy Northwest Baltimore rowhouse is not so surprising, I find after reading the account of William Gildea, a Washington Post sportswriter (and Baltimore native), given this city's family-like ties to a football team that was spirited away under cover of darkness a decade ago.

"When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore" is more than a football story -- it is a personal remembrance of the ties between a father and son through the common bond of sports, of the ties that the diverse and very much divided population of Baltimore found for a few hours on those memorable home-game Sundays, and the ties many of the fans developed with players who, deep down, were surprisingly much like them.

Mr. Gildea's recollections take in the landscape of late-1940s and 1950s Baltimore. At that time, the shortest way between two points was a streetcar, a TV was not in every home and then only in black and white, and air conditioning was a big drawing card for movie houses on hot summer nights.

It was a time, Mr. Gildea writes, when "Everyone went to one of the city's big markets or had a favorite butcher or baker or knew where the freshest crabs were sold." His father was a Read's drugstore pharmacist, and you can forgive Mr. Gildea a bias in declaring Read's fountain ice cream sodas the best. Indeed they were.

But the book goes well beyond Mr. Gildea's own family and personal remembrance. He gives us a peek at Buddy Deane, the radio disc jockey and pioneering TV dance show host; Mr. Deane's story, much like that of the football team, proves to have disquieting racial overtones. Mr. Gildea shows us such local celebrities as duckpin-bowling champion Toots Barger.

He brings alive some of Baltimore's diverse football fans -- folks such as stevedore Joey Radomski, National Guard Supply Sgt. Hurst C. Loudenslager (better known as "Loudy," of course), and poet Ogden Nash, along with the Colts themselves.

Then there was young Mike Gregor, who met Gino Marchetti at the opening of a Gino's restaurant -- and another, and another -- until the star defensive end began to recognize the boy, an only child from a broken home, and brought him every Sunday into the locker room.

From his seat on the Colts' bench, Mr. Gregor recalls, he would see his hero "just throw people aside to get to the quarterback. . . . On the sideline, he was always walking. Never stood still."

From Mike Gregor, Mr. Gildea shifts to Mr. Marchetti's telling his own unlikely passage from World War II combat to football hero, and eventual fast-food millionaire, then a man lost in mid-life on the way to heart attack before finding his road again.

A giant Mr. Marchetti was, but vulnerable and human. He recalls how it felt to step out of the dugout at Memorial Stadium as he was introduced at the start of a game:

"That noise lifted me, like thirty feet in the air. You'd get to the top of the dugout step and you're nervous and you hear them say, 'From the University of San Francisco . . .' and you come out of there, snot coming out of your nose and steam coming out of your ears. Wow."

Mr. Gildea also explores a downside of the Colts' early days, in the pain felt by black players in a state that was Old South in its racial thinking. Players such as Lenny Moore and the late Buddy Young did much to change that thinking, but change in any appreciable degree came long after their playing days.

Mr. Moore, in particular, expresses sorrow that the racial divisions in society were felt within the teams he played on in Baltimore, and that he really didn't get to know his white colleagues off the field. His shabby treatment by Colts owner Robert Irsay also seems a disgrace.

If there is a fault to be found in this book, it lies in the structure of Mr. Gildea's time-tripping tapestry, which shifts back and forth between events and memories, sometimes smoothly and sometimes not. But the fault is easy to forgive when you are basking in the same memories, if from a different perspective.

In the end, there is tragedy, the souring of the bond between a city and team management.

Mr. Gildea paints an ugly final portrait of former Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom in the curious deal that brought Mr. Irsay to Baltimore.

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