Baltimore Colts deserve own Hall of Fame identity

January 24, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

It has been a source of continuing aggravation. Demeaning. Frustrating. Thirty-five years of franchise residency for the Baltimore Colts and then, in absentia, all that remains, to go with the joy of past achievements, is an enormous bundle of pain and regret. A team that meant so much to a city and to history now means so little.

There should be more than a perishable memory, which will continue to fade with the passing of time, to mark the spot of a team that contributed in so many definable ways to the success of the NFL and its contemporary appeal.

The policy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, originating in the fair minds of men attempting to work the proper solution to a difficult dilemma, has left a twisted shipwreck of agony for Baltimore. No amount of reason or logic can adequately support the decision that gives Baltimore little or no recognition for the immense role it played in making the NFL what it has become in commercial structure and popular appeal.

Baltimore provided a personal touch to a game that was then not ; much more than semipro in concept. The first organized fans clubs were in Baltimore, the first cheerleaders and a live horse circling the field. All a part of the Sunday football experience for more than three decades. Baltimore and the Colts personalized football.

Commissioner Pete Rozelle, always impressed by any individuality that brought favorable attention to a sport that was straining to get a grip on America, realized the role Baltimore performed. That indeed was why one of his last concerns, even though he was in retirement, was that an expansion team be made available for Baltimore. But his wish, sad to relate, was rejected as if it were coming from some frivolous source by the side of the road.

The Hall of Fame believes it has done all it can to make note of the Colts' previous presence; Baltimore feels otherwise. A mediation process should be instituted, with conversation between the city of Baltimore and the Hall of Fame. There's no quarrel with what has been done to perpetuate the deeds of the former Colts. This has been put in place for perpetuity names such as Unitas, Moore, Parker, Berry, Marchetti, Donovan, Ewbank, Mackey, Perry, Tittle, Hendricks, Blanda and Shula. They are there in bronze plaques, their likenesses and backgrounds and affiliations with the Colts.

"But I have nothing to do with Indianapolis and resent any reference to have ever been a part of a city where I never played a game," said John Unitas. It's a position that can't be challenged. "Can't someone make the NFL realize how offensive this is to all of us players to be linked to Indianapolis and not to the football city of our heritage?"

Unitas can't understand why the Indianapolis club continues to use its press guide to extol Baltimore Colts in the Hall of Fame. He knows he can't put a stop to such references but believes it to be unfair, kind of a fantasy -- truly inventing a past that never existed.

"I've given this entire subject a lot of thought," said Bruce Laird, who spent 10 years as a Colts defensive back and now is a highly respected TV and radio commentator. "Baltimore isn't asking for that much. My belief is if you took a vote of the owners, they'd say give Baltimore what it wants to make the fans happy. I think it would amount to about six feet of space in the Hall of Fame."

John Bankert, executive director of the Hall of Fame, and Joseph Horrigan, vice president in charge of public relations, have listened to the Baltimore requests but hold to their position -- citing how 11 of their current NFL franchises "played in a city other than where they exist today."

"I would only add that I feel that some if not most of the controversy comes from the misconception that throughout the Hall of Fame building, Colts Hall of Famers are referred to as Indianapolis Colts," Horrigan said. "That is simply not true. They do, however, appear in one specific exhibit that is the Indianapolis Colts' niche in which every Colts Hall of Famer is listed. Undoubtedly, this list will eventually include Colts who did play a major part of their careers in Indianapolis. Perhaps when that occurs, this display will make more sense to people."

The ambiguity that exists inside the Hall of Fame regarding the Baltimore-Indianapolis issue needs to be resolved. Fans from Indianapolis are pleased to see Unitas, Moore, Donovan, et al, under their adopted domain, but it's confusing and leads to a misunderstanding that is, in the least, totally unfair to Baltimore. And puzzling to the public.

Bankert and Horrigan didn't invent the rule pertaining to a defected franchise. They simply inherited it, so there's reason to hope they can be convinced Baltimore has a case worthy of study and appropriate consideration.

Hopefully, Bankert and Horrigan, along with the Hall of Fame's board of directors, will deal with the festering issue. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue can be of help. All he needs to do is ask George Young, the NFL's senior vice president in charge of football operations, to provide him with a report and a recommendation.

Young, himself, is a future candidate for the Hall of Fame in the area of contributions to the game. He knows how his old hometown feels about being deprived of its 35 years of identity. All Baltimore deserves is justice and recognition. Hardly too much to ask.

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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