BALTIMORE — For a generation of disillusioned fans, the date which will live in football infamy was precisely 35 years ago. John Ziemann knows it well. But, across America, every town with a sports team should know it, too, and tremble over it even now.
It’s the day the Baltimore Colts were stolen away – March 28, 1984. Ziemann remembers it because he was the leader of the Colts marching band back then and helped hide scores of band uniforms so that owner Robert Irsay and his gang of thieves couldn’t snatch them away along with everything else.
Instead, Ziemann kept the band together, and they put on their uniforms and kept playing the Colts marching song at different ballparks and parades, loud enough that the big shots in the National Football League were constantly reminded that they’d let Irsay do great harm and they needed to fix things.
“Oh, that awful night,” Ziemann was saying this week. He’s retired now, but he’s been a consulting hand for the Baltimore Ravens for several years. The Ravens eventually replaced the Colts, and this city’s love affair with football quickly rekindled. But, at a cost that should worry fans everywhere.
The snatching of the old Colts set the standard for municipal blackmail. What followed has been a succession of professional sports owners telling struggling cities, “Either you build us a new ballpark – with luxury suites and personal seat licenses and all the rest of the high-ticket items – or we find some sucker city that will.”
The list of baseball and football and basketball teams that have kissed off their home towns in the ensuing years is too long to list. And, around here, we’re wondering if the owners of Pimlico Race Course are following the same game plan, threatening to take the treasured Preakness Stakes to Laurel if millions in improvements aren’t made to Old Hilltop.
And so we’re still recalling the events of 35 years ago, and remembering the shock and heartache of that snowy night when the Mayflower moving vans took away all traces of the Colts.
Ziemann and his wife, Charlene, had just come home from a Colts band practice when they got the news.
“We had a new baby at home, Patrick, who’s now 35, and our four-year old son, Chris,” Ziemann said, “and we walked in and the baby sitter gave us a look. I thought, ‘Uh-oh, something with the baby.’ Then she pointed to the TV. And I saw moving vans, and there was the Colts training complex, and right away, I thought, ‘It’s over. It’s over.’”
Ziemann worked fulltime back then as a WMAR-TV photographer. Within minutes, the station was calling, telling him to head out to the Colts training complex, where Susan White Bowden was doing live reporting.
“We were there all night,” Ziemann recalled. “And, at some point, Walt Gutowski (the Colts’ public relations voice) came out with Marge Blatt (Gutowski’s assistant). They showed us their newest pay checks. They were done by a bank in Indianapolis. So, you know, you don’t get a bank to do this overnight. This move had been in the works for a while.
“And Walt said, ‘You might as well go home. It’s over. They didn’t even leave chairs for us to sit on inside. Everything’s gone.’ It felt like World War Three had broken out in Baltimore.”
When he got home early the next morning, Charlene told John they’d been getting calls all night long from members of the band. They were all saying the same thing: somehow, they wanted the band to keep going.
“And then,” Ziemann remembered, “I heard my four-year old, Chris, coming down the steps, and he came over to me and said, ‘Daddy, I’m sorry the Colts hurt you.’ That’s when I lost it. And I said to Charlene, ‘If the band wants to stay together, I’m there.’
“And I looked at my kids and thought, Just because one crazy man decided to end this, that doesn’t make it so. And I pledged right there, We’re gonna get football back here.”
It’s not merely that Ziemann kept the band together, and took them to parades and ballparks in the wilderness years between teams. First, he had to hold onto the bands’ uniforms. In their rush to Indianapolis, Irsay’s outlaws had left them behind. They were at Kirsh Cleaners, on York Road.
“We got word, a few days later, that they were coming back for some stuff they’d left behind,” Ziemann said, “so we had to find a place to hide the uniforms. Mr. Kirsh, at the dry cleaners, called me and said, ‘Take my truck for a walk.’ He was talking in code. He was afraid his phone was bugged.”
Ziemann piled the uniforms into a Kirsh delivery truck – and, thanks to a friend whose family had a cemetery mausoleum, the uniforms were hidden inside that mausoleum, where the Colts’ brass couldn’t find them. The band played on.
Thirty-five years later, it’s a light-hearted postscript to a time of football infamy.
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of several books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.