Tradition on tap

Della Rose's serves tradition

December 23, 2007|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

The words just tumbled out of Tony Della Rose's mouth.

He was trying to say something inspirational about the Ravens at his family's bar in White Marsh. But he had just watched some special on the Nature Channel, and he found himself talking about apes.

"Every once in awhile, a hurricane comes through the jungle and wipes out all the old apes," he bellowed. "And a purple hurricane is coming for the NFL this year!"

The place went nuts. A natural-born ham had found his stage.

For 63 years at four locations, Della Rose's Tavern has offered the football lovers of Baltimore a place to quench their thirsts and shout about the local team. If football is intrinsic to this country's soul, bars such as Della Rose's are among the chief places where devotees have bonded with the game.

In the old days on Ashland Avenue, Joe Della Rose Sr. served brews and meatballs to Colts stars Art Donovan and Gino Marchetti. From his next location on Belair Road, he ran buses full of beer and fans to Memorial Stadium every time the Colts played. And now his sons, Joe Jr. and Tony, try to make their taverns in White Marsh and Canton the most exciting places in town to watch the Ravens.

For Tony Della Rose, that means getting up on the bar before every road game to give a rambling pep talk. The speech about the apes came during the 2000 championship run, and you never mess with a winning formula.

"He's sort of the star of the show," says Gene Palese of Perry Hall, a patron since the Belair Road days.

In addition to Tony's homilies (on some Sundays this year, he gave a pre-game talk in Canton and raced to White Marsh to deliver a halftime speech), Della Rose's plays theme music and audio clips at appropriate moments. If the Ravens need to rally, the Rockytheme blares. If an opponent does something stupid, cue a track of Tom Hanks laughing from The Money Pit.

"They really put a lot of effort into making this a Ravens place," Palese says.

Regulars assume the same perches for every televised road game. Most wear purple. Then there's Pittsburgh Mike, the only Steelers fan permitted to wear his colors in the place (though he's not allowed in on Steelers-Ravens weekends).

"What's good about it is that people get really involved," says Butch Filipkowski, a patron since the 1960s who now works at Della Rose's.

Joe Della Rose Sr. was a machinist in East Baltimore before he enlisted during World War II and went overseas. He sent money back during those years and told his father to set up a business opportunity for him and his brother. His dad used the cash to buy a neighborhood tavern, near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The place had a long, narrow bar in front and a dining room in the back. When Joe Sr. came back from the war in 1944, his father removed his bar apron and said, "It's yours."

From the time the modern Colts began play in 1953, Della Rose's maintained a strong association to football. Joe Sr. and his brother bought a block of 60 season tickets and parceled them out to loyal patrons. For every home game, the same merry band bused over to 33rd Street, their spirits fueled by the beer that Joe Jr. carefully loaded.

During the week, players wandered in for a meal, a drink and conversation with Joe Sr. The brothers still have a thank-you note from defensive back Ray Brown, delivered to their father after Brown was honored as the bar's rookie of the year in 1958.

"He knew those guys personally," Joe Jr. says of his dad. "I think for him, going to the game was like going to watch his buddies."

The Della Rose boys loved going to the games or simply listening to their father and his friends talk sports at the bar. Tony was born in 1970, 15 years after Joe Jr., so he missed the Colts' glory years.

"But I still always believed they'd win," he says. "Even if they were down 35 in the fourth quarter, I thought the games were just the greatest things in the world."

Joe Sr. died in 1981. His sons, along with their mother, Josie, kept the family business going. They were wounded like everyone else when the Colts left, but they opened up more space in the bar, added televisions and began to emphasize the NFL as an attraction for Sundays and Monday nights.

"We got to be known as a place to watch games," Joe Jr. says.

When they heard the Ravens were coming, they knew their place had to become a destination for the next generation of fans. So, as their father had, they bought a block of season tickets and began running four school buses from Belair Road to Memorial Stadium for every home game. Those rides were joyous, even though the Ravens were nothing special.

"People were just so happy to have a team and be able to go out with their buddies," Tony recalls. "A lot of beers were had."

He delivered his earliest speeches on those bus trips.

"I was drunk from the games, and I'd just ramble off these crazy things," he says.

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