Colts' birth, 50 years ago today, marked beginning of love affair

September 07, 1997|By JOHN STEADMAN

Raise high the glasses and join in a birthday toast to the original Baltimore Colts, a team that started out with a penchant for losing games, but won our hearts. It was 50 years ago today that major-league football arrived. The passion began.

Game tickets were priced from $1.50 to $3.50 and you could see all seven home games -- a season book they were called -- for $10.50. A program was 25 cents. Home-team colors were green, silver and white, and Baltimore's first foe was the Brooklyn Dodgers, a counterpart of the much-beloved baseball franchise that later defected to Los Angeles.

It was the second season for the All-America Football Conference and Baltimore inherited the bankrupt, homeless Miami Seahawks, who were drawing fewer than 10,000 a game in the Orange Bowl and had to literally run from the sheriff when he served legal notice of their unpaid financial obligations.

Bob Rodenberg, a Washingtonian, son of an Illinois congressman, Harvard graduate, newspaper reporter and OSS agent in World War II, had the initiative and imagination to invest in Baltimore as a football city when business leaders here were reluctant to take the risk.

Rodenberg, handsome and fun-loving, put on a sparkling show for the fans. He hired a "name" coach, luring Cecil Isbell away from Purdue, paid Ted Husing $1,000 a game to call the play-by-play on radio and held a contest, won by Charles Evans, to give the team a name, Colts, that befitted Baltimore and its love of the horse.

Furthermore, he believed every team deserved a band to call its own. Thus, he recruited 60 musicians, dressed them in capes with jockey-style caps and had words and music written for what critics hailed as one of the most impressive of all football songs, "Fight On You Baltimore Colts."

Its up-tempo sound is as inspiring to listen to now as it was then. And the all-volunteer band played on -- for half a century, setting a tone for spirit and fervor unmatched by any organization, in or out of sports. On two different occasions, after the team departed, first in 1951 and again in 1984, the band continued to perform for the public, in parades and concerts -- an animated, entertaining billboard for Baltimore that offered hope that football would eventually return.

Among longtime members of Baltimore's football audience, there's as much pride held for the band as there is for the team. Why? Because of its determination to survive, despite overwhelming odds and recurring obstacles like not having a team. John Ziemann, formerly of the percussion section, joining in 1962 and now the band's president, brings incredible leadership to his position. It's a family affair; wife Charlene instructs the flag line, son Christopher is in the color guard and son Patrick is with the equipment crew.

Ziemann is ecstatic over the anniversary and offers this expression of elation (without a drum roll): "We made it. We made it. And I'm absolutely excited. Imagine, the band has been organized for 50 years." He has arranged for five of the original band members from 1947 to be a part of today's ceremonies, including trombone players Bill Miller, Marty Brusio, Bill Brubaker and majorettes -- the adopted darlings of Baltimore football -- the sister twirling act of Marge Schmidt and Doris Schneider.

A rain-pelting day greeted the 27,418 spectators who came to then Municipal Stadium on Sept. 7, 1947, a year when Harry Truman was president, William Preston Lane Jr. was governor and Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. was mayor. Vince Bagli was working as an usher, and the water caused the green dye from his cap to run all over his white shirt. But the Colts won, 16-7, in the most bizarre fashion imaginable. Consider yourself fortunate you were there and a part of a history that led to the Colts ultimately becoming one of the most colorful and revered teams in the annals of pro football.

The Colts scored in the first minute of each half on kickoffs. The first was as unconventional as it gets. Brooklyn's Elmore Harris, formerly of Morgan State, took the opening kickoff, raced upfield and fumbled when tackled. Teammate Harry Buffington recovered and, minus a road map, ran the wrong way into his own end zone and disposed of the football by throwing it up in the air in exasperation when he realized the seriousness of his geographical mistake.

The Colts' Jim Castiglia pounced on the ball and, just like that, the Colts were on the scoreboard. A near storybook start for a franchise.

Being a guard, Buffington, who ran the wrong way, wasn't accustomed to carrying the ball. Asked to describe his infamous error in Baltimore, he said: "I threw a good block and was spun around and when I stopped spinning there was the loose ball in front of me. I grabbed it and started for the goal." Only it was the wrong one.

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