Unitas' Golden Arm scored points with fans

Restaurant was place to mingle with quarterback, others

September 18, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

In its last years, the Golden Arm Restaurant had ceased to be anything more than, well, a restaurant. While Johnny Unitas' pictures were still all over the place, he was no longer an owner, his Baltimore Colts pals were gone and with them an association between professional athletes and fans that now seems as quaint as a leather football helmet.

If the food in the Anneslie neighborhood restaurant was always undistinguished, there's the argument that the food was not necessarily the point. You could get a respectable prime rib and a version of oysters casino that had its devotees. The shrimp under a generous mound of crab imperial became a favorite among regulars who jammed the place in the best days.

Whatever the menu, when the Baltimore Colts were in town and tearing up the National Football League, you'd have a tough time getting a reservation on a Sunday at the 160-seat restaurant. Customers would stream in for brunch, then board buses for the ride from the small shopping center on York Road to Memorial Stadium. After the game they returned by bus, followed by some players and coaches and their wives.

"It was sort of our hangout after a game," says Tom Matte, former Colts running back. "Three-quarters of the team would come back. ... It was a meeting place."

And why not, at those prices? To encourage their attendance, the management let the Colts and their families order for half price. Absent the electronic overload of an ESPN Zone, the Golden Arm relied for buzz on the presence of greatness.

The players would often be there, hanging around the bar or settled into their table in the back of the restaurant. You had to pass their table to get to the bathrooms, suggesting opportunities for a quick handshake or an autograph.

"The players were always accessible to the fans," says Matte. He has an expression: "If you don't have my autograph, it's your fault."

The Golden Arm opened in April 1968 under the joint ownership of Colt defensive back Bobby Boyd and quarterback Unitas, who died last Wednesday of a heart attack in Baltimore County at the age of 69. By the spring of 1968, Unitas had already been named the NFL's Most Valuable Player four times and led his team to two league championships in the 1950s. In 1970, Unitas marched the Colts to victory in the Super Bowl.

While making NFL history and lifting Baltimore's collective sense of self, Unitas was also showing up occasionally at his restaurant. Not a natural schmoozer, Unitas by one account had to be persuaded to mingle with customers. He is said to have asked: Why would anyone want to talk to me?

People did, of course, and they would, at least in the restaurant's early years. On a lucky night you could find Unitas stepping from table to table, shaking hands, chatting, posing for photographs and signing autographs. He was not known to refuse an accommodation.

In 1988, Unitas sold his interest in the restaurant. In 1995, the Golden Arm closed to allow the Giant supermarket in York Road Plaza to double in size. If you've ever shopped produce there, you have essentially walked this hallowed ground.

Even when Unitas wasn't at the Golden Arm in body, his image was present in photographs and paintings from one wall to the next: Johnny in high school football days, Johnny as he orchestrated the 1958 championship overtime victory over the New York Giants that would be known as the Greatest Game Ever Played. The beer glasses and the matchbooks carried his name, the restaurant logo was a quarterback throwing a pass. On the dotted line, Unitas was always co-owner - first with Boyd, then businessman Jack Kahl - but it was hard not to consider the Golden Arm Unitas' place.

"He was the central figure," says Boyd, who is now in the trophy and awards business in Garland, Texas. "He sure was what most of the people wanted to see when they got there."

Sports figures in many cities have tended to drift into the food business, and Baltimore in the 1960s and '70s was awash in Colts restaurateurs.

Fullback Alan Amechi was apparently the first with Amechi's restaurant. Linebacker Bill Pellington had the Iron Horse, defensive end Ordell Braase had the Flaming Pit, tackle Art Donovan had and still has the Valley Country Club. Amechi and defensive end/tackle Gino Marchetti eventually teamed up in Gino's, a chain of hamburger restaurants.

None seem to have had the Golden Arm's following, if only because Unitas was Unitas - "the biggest name in town," says Boyd. "People would see him, that would make their day," says Kahl.

Unitas was no Art Donovan, regaling a crowd with hilarious and profane stories, but in his quiet way he got in his shots.

John Ziemann, who was a percussionist and later president of the Colts marching band, tells about bringing his girlfriend, Charlene, to the Golden Arm for their second date. He sensed this could be a serious pursuit, so everything had to be just right. How nice that Unitas stopped over to say hello.

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