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History of Pro Football in Baltimore - Background on the Browns’ Week 17 opponent

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Not just the Colts and Ravens have called this city home

Buccaneers v Ravens Photo By Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The City of Baltimore has won 10 pro football championships. It’s true. Colts: 1958, 1959, 1968, 1970; Stars: 1985; Stallions: 1995; Ravens: 2000, 2012; and Mariners: 2010, 2014.

And Baltimore’s history with pro football has had its quota of ups-and-downs throughout the decades. Several teams have played just a single season in their respective league while others moved from Baltimore to other cities just as other former cities’ teams have relocated to this city.

Baltimore is a municipality rich in history and has a longtime involvement with horse breeding and horse racing. Thus, many of their pro football clubs have called themselves a derivative of this aspect of equestrian culture. The city gets its name from an Irish gentleman by the name of Cecil Calvert – whose lineage was that he was named as the second Lord Baltimore. In the beginning, the Calvert family owned all of Maryland and established a sanctuary for those in the Catholic faith, especially those who were previously persecuted in England. Oddly enough, “Mary-land” is named after English Queen Mary.

The region loves the game of professional football with an infinity for the game very early.

Baltimore Orioles/Bluebirds: 1936-1937

In 1936 there was a pro football league called the “South Atlantic Football Association” but everyone called it the “Dixie League.” As was popular back in the day, since pro baseball was all anyone cared about in professional sports, a lot of pro football clubs called themselves the same name as their baseball counterparts. The football “Baltimore Orioles” played in the Dixie League’s first two seasons only (although the league lasted until 1947). The Orioles went 4-4-2 and featured Ted Wright who led the league in scoring. The Orioles then defeated the Alexandria (Virginia) Celtics in the first-round of the playoffs which sent them to the championship. Against the Washington Pros in the title game, the score was 0-0 with 13 seconds to play when Willis Brenner kicked the winning FG to secure a 3-0 Pros victory.

The Orioles became the “Baltimore Bluebirds” for the 1937 season with colors of blue and white. After going 5-1-1, they were once again pitted against Washington in the title game which ended in a 3-3 tie. The league granted Washington the championship based on their better win-loss record. Again, Wright was the league’s leading scorer.

Baltimore Broncos: 1963

The Atlantic Coast Football League (ACFL) operated beginning in 1962 and had agreements with National Football League (NFL) and American Football League (AFL) teams as a makeshift farm league. Players were paid $100 a game plus room and board with the understanding that they could be called up to any one of the parent clubs at any time. In 1963, the “Baltimore Broncos” joined the league in its second year but ceased operations after only one season. The ACFL played until 1973. In 2008, another Baltimore Broncos team was formed in a semi-pro league and is still an active organization.

Baltimore Colts I: 1947-1950

In 1946, a new rival to the NFL arrived with the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). Although this league began with eight charter franchises, there were many more cities that wanted entry into pro football but were turned down initially and told expansion would be imminent eventually. An ownership group in Baltimore was one of those turned away.

A franchise was placed in Miami instead and called the Seahawks but played only the first season. The Seahawks began 1-8-0 and fans simply stayed away in a predominately beach town which basically preferred the game of soccer instead. At the conclusion of the year and a 3-11-0 record, the club was over $350,000 in debt and was taken over by the AAFC. The league then offered the team to a five-man ownership group in Baltimore to which the team relocated and were renamed the “Baltimore Colts” after the area’s steed history. The colors were changed from the Seahawks’ orange/green to silver, green and white.

The Colts played their home games at Memorial Stadium which would seat 47,855. This was also the home of the AAA baseball Orioles. In 1947, the Colts went 2-11-1 with the Seahawks’ old roster, but drew an average of 28,523 fans for seven home games. That first year the team had numerous financial setbacks, and at the conclusion of the season the entire five-man ownership group gave up and walked away.

1947 Colts vs. Browns game ticket stub

The league sold the Colts to another group. The AAFC did not hold an annual college draft so the better teams gobbled up the talent away from NFL clubs as well as the rest of the AAFC member teams. To help the lesser talented clubs, the AAFC forced the better teams to part with one solid player. The Colts received QB Y.A.Tittle from the Cleveland Browns in this situation. In 1948, they went a respectable 7-7-0 and qualified for the playoffs but lost 28-17 to the Buffalo Bills. A slight increase in ticket sales prevailed with a 29,444 average.

The final year of existence for the AAFC was 1949. Instead of expansion, the league was down to seven clubs. The Colts plummeted to 1-11-0 and experienced a decrease in attendance for a 25,397 average.

The NFL and the AAFC met and decided to end their financial war as player salaries had escalated tremendously over the four-year existence of the younger league. The NFL agreed to accept three AAFC’s teams: the Browns, the San Francisco 49ers and the Colts. This created quite an uproar in Buffalo because the Bills were the league’s third best club and ranked third in overall attendance.

Buffalo Bills’ fans petitioned the NFL to also include their team, but to avail because the older league would have had 13-clubs instead of an even dozen. Despite Buffalo’s better attendance and much better roster, the NFL didn’t want this western New York city because games played later in the season were incredibly frigid plus the Buffalo market was considered small. Accepting the Colts over the Bills ended with disaster. The 1950 Colts still had the 1949 roster and again went 1-11-0. This placed team owner Abraham Watner in a deep financial crisis and he sold the franchise back to the league – this time the NFL - for $50,000. In the end, the NFL folded the franchise.

Former Colts’ players who would end in the Pro Football Hall of Fame were DT Art Donovan, QB’s George Blanda and Tittle.

Baltimore Colts II: 1953-1984

The New York Yanks went 1-9-2 in the 1951 NFL season while the crosstown New York Giants had finished 9-2-1. The Giants were the darling of the city and outdrew the Yanks 2 to 1. Yanks’ owner Ted Collins then sold his franchise to brothers Giles and Connell Miller, millionaires whose money had been gained from their father’s textile empire.

The Millers bought the Yanks old roster, equipment, uniforms - and losing disposition and then moved the franchise to Dallas and renamed the team the “Dallas Texans.” The Yanks’ colors were blue and white with a dash of silver. An instant problem was the fact that there were three black players on the roster. Dallas was still segregated and an integrated team suddenly became a highly local hot topic. The entire area still maintained Jim Crow laws which mandated racial segregation at all public facilities - including hotels. This meant that visiting NFL teams would be required to seek separate accommodations for their own black players at black-only boarding houses via The Green Book or would be forced to leave those players home.

During the season and a horrid win-loss record coupled with huge amounts of debt, the Millers requested a $250,000 bailout from the league but were denied. The next step for Giles Miller was to call NFL Commissioner Bert Bell and tell him that they could no longer operate the team. The league could not function with an odd number of clubs, so they reached out to the City of Baltimore to see if perhaps they might be interested. Soon, Baltimore had sold 15,753 season tickets and raised over $300,000. The Texans moved to Baltimore and were renamed the “Baltimore Colts” once again. But now, instead of the original green and silver, the club wore the same blue and white as the Yanks and Texans.

The 1953 and 1954 Colts went 3-9-0 and subsequent seasons were just as mediocre. In 1957 the club finally had a winning season with a 7-5-0 record. The following year they were tied as one of the best teams in the NFL and then defeated the Giants 23-17 in the very first televised overtime championship game, now known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The following season, the Colts won back-to-back championships by handily defeating the Giants again, the NFL’s best club, 31-16 for the NFL title. All of those one and two win seasons were finally vindicated.

World-class players during this time were QB Johnny Unitas, WRs Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry, DTs Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti and Gene Lipscomb, offensive linemen Jim Parker and Fuzzy Thurston, and RB Alan Ameche.

The Colts would become one of the NFL’s most stable and prominent franchises. In 1968, Baltimore was the league’s best team with a 13-1-0 record and were once again Western Conference Champions. After beating the Minnesota Vikings 24-14, they were pitted against the 10-4-0 Browns and cruised to a 34-0 victory for yet another NFL title.

The year of the merger, 1970, the Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and Colts had joined all of the former AFL clubs into the newly-minted American Football Conference (AFC). The Dallas Cowboys won two playoff games and were inserted into Super Bowl V, the first as a unified league. The Colts would go 11-2-1 and then beat the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders to represent the AFC in the title game. Oddly enough, in the very first league championship contest with all AFL and NFL squads involved, the two clubs in the championship game were each former NFL franchises. The Colts prevailed 16-13 on a last-second FG for the franchise’s fourth NFL title.

In 1984, the Colts moved to Indianapolis and became the “Indianapolis Colts.”.

Baltimore Stars: 1985

The “Baltimore Stars” began as the Philadelphia Stars in the United States Football League (USFL) in their inaugural year of 1983. Their coach was Jim Mora and went 15-3-0, but lost in the league’s championship game. Their colors were crimson, gold and white. The following season they were the league’s best team and compiled a 16-2-0 record and then defeated Arizona 23-3 in the USFL Championship Game for their first title.

Before the 1985 season, it became known that the owners within the league were going to shift from a spring league and go head-to-head with the NFL amidst a fall format. The Stars would not be able to rent Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and were faced with the aspect of having to find a smaller venue for home games. Plus, owner Myles Tanenbaum didn’t have an issue with the fan base during the spring, but certainly did not want to compete with the NFL Eagles for attendance with a fall schedule. Since the Baltimore Colts had vacated their old city with a relocation to Indianapolis, the Stars relocated to Baltimore. However, the club could not play at Memorial Stadium because the baseball Orioles were using it at the same time so they were forced to play home games at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland.

The Stars’ management kept their offices in Philadelphia, plus all players still lived in Philly. Even practice sessions were held in Philadelphia. This meant all of the Stars’ games were basically on the road counting their trips down to College Park for their home games. They then proceeded to go 10-7-1 and again make the playoffs.

The Stars were led by RB Kelvin Bryant who had signed with the USFL after being a draft choice of the NFL Washington Redskins. By 1985, Bryant had been the USFL MVP (1983) and elected to two USFL All-Star squads. The Stars also featured Willie Collier at WR, OT Irv Eatman, Chuck Fusina at QB, punter Sean Landeta, C Bart Oates and LBs Sam Mills and Mike Johnson.

After defeating favorite New Jersey Generals (which featured RB Herschel Walker) 20-17 and then Birmingham (also favored) in the semi-final 28-14, they captured their second straight title by defeating the league’s best club the Oakland Invaders 28-24. As a franchise, this marked back-to-back championships, but the first for the club in Baltimore. The Stars are considered the league’s best team for the three years of the USFL’s existence.

Baltimore Bombers (proposed): 1994

The year was 1992. The NFL had announced that two new franchises would be added to the league as expansion clubs. Numerous cities put their name in the hat, but the list was whittled down to five possibilities: Charlotte, St. Louis, Baltimore, Jacksonville and Memphis. St. Louis once had the Rams and Baltimore the Colts, while Jacksonville and Memphis each had several successful franchises in other pro football leagues.

The front runners initially were Baltimore, St. Louis and Charlotte. Richardson Sports headed the Charlotte group which was eventually awarded the first team in October of 1993. Baltimore had a trio of ownership groups and was the most likely to get the second franchise. A $200 million rent-free stadium was already approved along with the team name the “Baltimore Bombers.” The name was in honor of the World War II B-26 Marauder bomber airplanes produced in Baltimore.

Oddly enough, the final logo chosen featured a generic bomber airplane and not an actual B-26. In an upset, the owners voted 26-2 to award the second expansion team to Jacksonville in 1994. That left the City of Baltimore still without professional football.

Baltimore Stallions: 1994-1995

The Canadian Football League (CFL) got a grand idea: expand into the United States. In 1993 the Sacramento (California) Gold Miners was admitted and were the first non-Canadian club plus the first expansion team since 1954. The following season the CFL expanded again and added the Shreveport (Louisiana) Pirates, Las Vegas Posse and Baltimore.

At first, Baltimore was officially called the “Baltimore CFL Colts” and chose the colors of royal blue, silver, black and white. The owner was Jim Speros who had been an assistant coach with the Redskins and Bills. Speros was sued by the Indianapolis Colts because they still retained trademark rights to the moniker “Baltimore Colts.” A judge granted a preliminary junction preventing the team from using the name “Colts” as the name that was being used as it was found to violate the trademarks of the plaintiffs. Every sign, letter head, or advertising that was being used had to be covered up or changed. All appeals to grant the rights failed as well as negotiations with the Colts NFL club to use the moniker.

So, for the entire 1994 season the club was listed as the “Baltimore CFLers” and played all their home games at Memorial Stadium, the former home of the Colts. They were coached by veteran CFL coach Don Matthews who would eventually earn the second-highest win total in CFL history and was elected to the CFL Hall of Fame in 2011.

Instead of a roster of American football players, since the CFL was so different than the NFL Speros stocked his new team with former CFL players and several prized rookies. They featured All-Stars RB Mike Pringle and OT Shar Pourdanesh while DB Matt Goodwin would win Rookie-of-the-Year honors. In their first season, they placed second in the East Division with a 12-6-0 record.

Crowds were good for CFLers games. The city had been without pro football since the Colts left in 1984 and the USFL Stars single season of 1985. Memorial Stadium held 47,855 and they averaged 37,347 - tops in the entire CFL. In the playoffs, they defeated Toronto 34-15 and then were matched up against the 13-5-0 Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The winner would play in the Grey Cup for the CFL Championship. The CFLers won 14-12. In the Grey Cup, they lost 26-23, but were amazed at what they had accomplished as an expansion club. It marked the first time a non-Canadian team played in the Grey Cup.

The magic occurred in 1995. The Birmingham Barracudas and Memphis Mad Dogs were added as additional expansion clubs into the league while Sacramento relocated to San Antonio and renamed the Texans. Baltimore held a name-the-team contest to which “Stallions” became the new moniker for the franchise.

The Stallions began the season 2-3-0, but then went on a tear and did not lose another game to finish 15-3-0 with the league’s best record and number one seed in the playoffs. Eight players would be named to the CFL All-Stars. RB Pringle was named the league MVP, OG Mike Withycombe won Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman, and head coach Matthews captured the Coach-of-the-Year trophy. They came in second in attendance with an average crowd of 30,112.

In the playoffs, Baltimore defeated Winnipeg 26-15 and then San Antonio 21-11 which placed them in the 83rd Grey Cup. This time they were pitted against the league’s other best team, the 15-3-0 Calgary Stampeders; which featured QB Jeff Garcia who would later gain fame in the NFL. The Stallions scored 16 points in the second quarter and then shut out Calgary in quarter number four to take home a 37-20 victory. The conquest was the first time a non-Canadian club had won the legendary cup.

CFL USA official logo

At the conclusion of the season, the CFL decision-makers had soured on their American experiment for a number of reasons. Shreveport and Memphis had folded, Sacramento had been forced to move to San Antonio, Birmingham’s season co-existed too much with college football and competed for the same fans and were having issues, the City of Baltimore was getting the Cleveland Browns for the 1996 season and so the Stallions would have to relocate somewhere else or compete head-to-head for fans, plus an American city had desecrated the sanctity of the fabled Grey Cup. In the end, every American club was dissolved and their players dispersed amongst the other CFL teams – except Baltimore.

The Stallions relocated to Montreal and re-invented the Montreal Allouettes name and colors which had been dormant since 1987. The former Stallions’ club would go to the playoffs the next 19 straight years with 10 division titles and eight more Grey Cup appearances, winning three.

Baltimore Ravens: 1996-present

The Browns moved from Cleveland in 1996. The franchise held a name-the-team contest with numerous team names offered to which “Baltimore Ravens” was selected. The new colors are purple, black and metallic gold. Although the franchise had been a team since 1946, none of the Browns’ history, team colors, former team name or player records and involvement followed the club to Baltimore. It was the first time in professional sports history that this has occurred.

Four years later the franchise captured Super Bowl XXXV, a 34-7 win over the Giants. In 2012, the club was again pronounced league champs as they defeated the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVII.

Baltimore Blackbirds: 2007

Although Baltimore had the Ravens, in 2007 an indoor league team called the city home christened the “Baltimore Blackbirds.” They played in the American Indoor Football Association (AIFA) and lasted only a single season with home games at the 1st Mariner Arena.

Their colors were black, red and white and hired Chris Simpson as the head coach. The logo and colors were basically a takeoff of the Atlanta Falcons. The AIFA was the home of medium-city teams located in places such as Canton, Ohio, Florence, South Carolina and Montgomery, Alabama.

The Blackbirds were a horrible club as they lost their first three games 78-6, 69-14 and 80-20. They won only one game and finished 1-12-0. Bad teams have bad attendance and the Blackbirds were no exception. Financial difficulties ensued to which the players did not receive game checks for their final two contests. Later, Simpson resigned and the league expelled the franchise for breach of contract. The franchise simply dissolved.

Baltimore Mariners: 2008-2010, 2014

The Mariners were an indoor league club that also played in the AIFA from 2008-2010 and then in another indoor league entitled American Indoor Football in 2014. They were accepted into the AIFA after the Blackbirds were ousted with a new team name, colors and a more solvent ownership group in C&G Management with principal owner Dwayne Wells. Ron Meehan was hired as head coach with colors of navy, gold and white.

When the Blackbirds were ejected, the AIFA had maintained arena rights so the Mariners simply took over that lease agreement for a viable place to play.

In their first season the franchise went 4-10-0. In 2009 the Mariners ended the year 9-5-0 and made the playoffs and then lost to eventual league champion Reading 50-20. In year three, Baltimore completed the regular season undefeated 14-0-0 with the number one seed. In the playoffs, they beat the Harrisburg Stampede 63-15 and then the one-loss Wyoming Cavalry 57-42 to capture the league title and finish unbeaten.

Although the City of Baltimore had many pro football championships, this marked the first indoor title.

Two months after taking the league championship, Wells was arrested for embezzlement of $1.7 million and subsequently was sentenced to 15 months in prison. The franchise was placed on hold and did not return until 2014 when the other C&G owner, Tom Conserette, applied for reactivation. At this point, the AIFA was down to seven clubs and played an abbreviated season. Baltimore went 4-1-0 and then defeated the Rochester Raiders 46-40 and the Cape Fear Heroes 45-44 to win their second league title. Mariners’ head coach Ron Meeham was named Coach-of-the-Year while DB Richard Johnson was awarded league co-MVP.

Although the club was a success on the field, the checkbook was a disaster and the franchise folded for good before the 2015 season.

Baltimore Brigade: 2017-present

In 2017, the Arena Football League awarded an expansion franchise to Ted Leonsis who placed his new team at the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore. He called his club the “Baltimore Brigade” and hired longtime Arena League coach Omarr Smith. The team name was in reference to the War of 1812 which inspired the poem written by Francis Scott Key (which eventually became the words to the United States national anthem). Team colors are navy, silver, white and light blue.

They made the playoffs their first season but lost 69-54 against Philadelphia. In their second year they again made the playoffs after going 7-5-0 and made it to ArenaBowl XXXI before losing 69-55.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.