Rodenberg gave city big-league status

October 12, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

That he became the father of pro football in Baltimore was important to Bob Rodenberg. A monument should be raised in his honor. Historically, he stands alone -- the man who gave the city its first major-league identity. This was the ideal owner, the kind that isn't around much anymore: gregarious, genuine and gracious, a gentleman.

Rodenberg died last week and will be remembered at a service tomorrow in Washington. It has always been a contention if Rodenberg could have remained owner of the Colts, the team he started in 1947, the pleasure created for the public would have exceeded anything Baltimore ever experienced.

Bob displayed a profound love for people and not all of them had to be the bevy of pretty girls, some Hollywood stars, he escorted to social and political functions. Rodenberg lived to be 84, yet was a perpetual college kid, who, when he set out to have a good time, made sure those around him did, too.

"I always liked to believe if I was having fun everybody else also would be having just as much enjoyment," he commented during a visit seven years ago. Rodenberg was a giant of a man, 6 feet 6, and didn't come in on a load of coal. He had what used to be referred to as having a fine background, graduating from Harvard (class of '32); the son of an Illinois congressman who was elected for 12 terms.

After being the founder of the Colts, Rodenberg operated in luxuriant style. He signed Cecil Isbell, a legendary former quarterback from the National Football League, to be his coach on the recommendation of Paul Brown, then coach/general manager of the Cleveland Browns. The Colts' Band was organized and a team song written that has become Baltimore's football anthem. To give the team credibility, he hired famed network radio announcer Ted Husing to do play-by-play for the then-astronomical sum of $1,000 a game.

The reason Rodenberg didn't last longer than his rookie season in Baltimore is the All-America Football Conference was fighting the NFL in an escalating financial war for players. Tickets to seven home games cost only a total of $21. Television was relatively new and there was little money to be had from rights fees.

"Let me tell you what the Colts received for television," he once recalled. "We were on TV for one experimental game. We got $150. For Baltimore, I got $100 and by allowing it to be viewed in Washington meant I got another $50."

To this moment, going back 47 years, Rodenberg was the largest financial loser in the history of the Baltimore franchise, including such later owners as Charles P. McCormick, R.C. "Jake" Embry, Abe "Shorty" Watner, Carroll Rosenbloom and Robert Irsay. He put up his own money, $75,000, and lost it all.

His partner, Maury Nee, whose family owned a Washington furniture store, likewise took a beating. The figure of $75,000 was the largest part of the $250,000 it cost to establish the Colts.

It's modest when compared to the multimillion-dollar present day sports investments, but four decades ago it was a sizable expenditure for a team.

The idea to put a pro football club in Baltimore had its genesis in Calcutta during World War II when Rodenberg, an OSS agent, and Nee, a member of Naval Intelligence, had a chance meeting. They talked about the popularity of the Washington Redskins and began early planning to put a team in Baltimore that would duplicate their success.

In 1947, after the Miami Seahawks went bankrupt, Rodenberg got a franchise in the All-America Football Conference and brought to Baltimore such players as Lamar "Racehorse" Davis, an appropriate name for a Colt; Hub Bechtol, Ernie Case, Augie Lio, Jim Castiglia, John "Red" Wright and "Bud" Schwenke.

With the Colts receiving a warm acceptance, Rodenberg got inspiration from Rodger H. Pippen, of the then Baltimore News-Post, to pursue a major-league baseball club. He went to St. Louis and tried to buy the Browns, but that didn't come about until 1954 and Rodenberg, by that time, was back in Washington developing real estate.

When asked if he felt disappointed over not being given the credit he earned for planting the big-league seed in Baltimore, he answered directly. "Naturally, I was a little hurt. Then again, I don't give a damn. You can't live in the past."

All of his Baltimore associates were in the original ownership group by putting up less than $5,000, coming to a grand total of $8,500. So he owed them nothing. They, in turn, should have been indebted to Rodenberg for elevating Baltimore from minor-league status and the high start-up costs he undertook.

At his final news conference, at the end of the Colts' first season, he expressed no bitterness. What he did say about Baltimore was prophetic. "It's a hot sports town. It's a major-league town and it's going places."

That was the attitude voiced by this handsome native of East St. Louis, Ill., by way of Washington, who believed in Baltimore when even those born here into so-called "old money" wouldn't take the chance to find out. If there's a patron saint of Baltimore sports, let it be Robert Ridgway Rodenberg, who, without any historical doubt, made it a big-league city.

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