Gildea completes emotional pass with Colts book

August 29, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

What Bill Gildea does in his new book is turn his heart inside out. It's right there, 311 pages worth, an elegantly written text with touching sensitivity and profound emotion -- as much a story of family as one about football, the city of Baltimore and a team that was presumed, erroneously as it turned out, to be a public trust.

It's a keen writing effort that does far more than document the records and achievements of a litany of past heroes, men with names such as Unitas, Donovan, Mutscheller, Lipscomb, Moore, Berry, Parker and Marchetti. The gifted Gildea quickly establishes the central theme of how it was to grow up in Baltimore (Gwynn Oak is his old neighborhood) with a father who introduced him to a franchise that was born in 1947 and died so ignominiously in 1984.

"When The Colts Belonged To Baltimore," published by Ticknor & Fields, is destined to be a best seller because of its content and Gildea's treatment. He reveals the close relationship with his father, a drug store pharmacist, and their Sunday ritual of going to Memorial Stadium when it was known as Municipal Stadium to cheer the early pioneers, Jim Castiglia, Augie Lio and Y.A. Tittle, in their then green-and-silver jerseys.

Gildea traces the eventual emergence of the Colts as a champion, under the coaching of Weeb Ewbank, and the adulation as personified by a fanatical spectator named Hurst "Loudy" Loundenslager. Loudy's wife baked walnut cakes for the players' birthdays while he showed up at the airport to bid them farewell on road trips and was waiting there at the passenger gate when they returned -- playing the "Colts' Fight Song" on a tape recorder.

There are only highlights, no down sides, to this fascinating tale of how Baltimore embraced the players and met them in such restaurants and watering holes as the Govans Grill, Andy's, Stadium Tavern, Casey's Pub, Club 4100, Sweeney's, The Bear's Den, Swallow at the Hollow and Al Flora's place.

He relates how the Colts met their fans, this ongoing love affair, and vice versa. In reality, there's no way the depth of the romance could adequately be described in mere words. Yet Gildea comes close to bringing it into accurate focus with a narrative account that only a true eyewitness could convey.

Bill does it well. Art Donovan tells him, as he and others have often insisted, that the greatest game the Colts played wasn't the sudden-death 1958 NFL championship with the New York Giants but what transpired three weeks before when they won the Western Division with an epic rally against the San Francisco 49ers.

The game turned in the third period on a 73-yard run by Lenny Moore and, as Gildea recounts, ". . . Moore got the ball on a `` pitchout from Unitas and cut wide to his left. . . . From the stands behind the Colts bench I could see him only as he passed in the spaces between the players on the sideline. He raced along in what looked to me like a rapid-fire sequence of snapshots. . . . It was the most important touchdown the Colts had ever scored."

Behind 27-7 at intermission, they silenced the 49ers thereafter and won, 35-27. Indeed, it was a momentous performance.

For a full chapter, Gildea visits Bert Rechichar at his residence in Belle Vernon, Pa., and paints a poignant view of a man who once told us he was "made of 210 pounds of springy blue steel." Ewbank and Rechichar weren't compatible, which is one way to put it, but Ewbank errs in saying Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns dealt Rechichar away because of a disagreement.

Cleveland players said the one year Bert was there he rarely said a word. What upset Brown, who abhorred baseball, was a newspaper interview. Rechichar said if he could make it through the Cleveland Indians' farm system, where he played a season, he'd prefer baseball to football. To Brown this was treason and the reason Rechichar was traded to Baltimore in 1953.

The death of Alan "The Horse" Ameche in 1988 is dealt with in tender detail, as related by his widow, Yvonne. Discussing Alan's trip to a Houston hospital, she said, "By Sunday afternoon he became a candidate for a heart transplant. The doctors called me into the room and said, 'If we can prove he is neurologically sound he will qualify for a heart transplant. What we want you to do is get him to hold up two fingers and have him squeeze your hand.' He held two fingers up. He squeezed my hand. The nurses began to cry. The doctors cheered. But you know, nobody told him what we were doing. Why didn't I tell him?

"Waiting for someone to die in order for my husband to live was a terrible feeling. A priest said, 'It's Sunday night and we get a lot of hearts on Sunday night.' But a heart never came. On Monday, Ameche died."

The Colts, to their loyalists, were more than a commercial commodity. They gave of themselves and, in turn, the city reciprocated. True love is always that way.

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