My Uncle James worked for the Baltimore Colts. Originally he and his brother Arthur ran The Racing Film Patrol, a production company that filmed the horse races at Pimlico Race Track. When Weeb Eubank became the coach of the Colts in 1954, he looked around town for a film crew to make game films. He approached The Racing Film Patrol about becoming the official Baltimore Colts Game film producers. It was a glamour job. They filmed everything that moved on the field. The dashing figure of Uncle James on the sidelines with his camera became a common sight. We went to just about every home game growing up just a few blocks from Memorial Stadium. It was a thrill to be down on the field, breathing the same frigid winter air as Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, and Gino Marchetti. Those guys were my heroes. It always seemed to be raining or snowing or freezing and that just made it more fun.
I once attended a game against the Green Bay Packers on a bitterly cold day. My two cousins were there. We drank too much hot coco my mom had put in a thermos. By halftime we all had to pee something fierce. Uncle James led us to the ancient and venerable urinary facilities of Memorial Stadium: a primitive steel trough that ran the length of the wall. The men’s room was something out of Dante’s Inferno. There were hundreds of guys trying to squeeze themselves into pissing distance of the reeking trough. For a couple of kids it was hopeless. By this time we were running in place. Uncle James pointed to a bucket with a mop in it in the corner. We didn’t have to be told what to do. The three of us crowded around that bucket and let loose. What an incredible relief! But we didn’t realize what was happening behind us. When we turned around there was a line of fifty guys waiting to use the bucket. I often wonder what happened after that. One can only conjecture what the janitor thought when he returned. It must have been ghastly. But, I digress. Big time. Sorry. Where was I?
Oh, yeah. Uncle James and the Colts. Never had a city so embraced a team as Baltimore embraced the Colts. The team was beloved. The players lived among us. In fact two of them lived in my neighborhood. These were the days when professional football players didn’t make a fortune. They had off-season jobs. It was common knowledge that the great Johnny Unitas worked at Bethlehem Steel. Many took their share of 1958 NFL Championship money (about $1475 per player) and, along with a loan from the team’s fatherly owner Carroll Rosenbloom, started their own businesses around town: Johnny Unitas Bowling Alleys, Ameche’s Drive-Ins, and Gino’s Hamburgers. The Colts were part of the community. Some even went to our church. They weren’t rich and unapproachable. They lived in semi-detached row houses and drank at the local tavern.
When I was 14 my folk group, the Voyagers, played at a thing called Rookie Night at the Colts training camp in Westminster, Maryland. Our Uncles had conspired to get us on the show, which consisted of various players getting up in front of everybody and doing some kind of act. The Rookies all had to participate. I remember Big Jim Parker, the hulking All-Pro offensive lineman, doing an absolutely hilarious comedy skit.
I think we played some Kingston Trio songs. The Colts were all very nice and polite to us and we got to eat the team meal. Afterwards, there was a huge beer party and we got to see our heroes get plastered. It was amazing. I remember a drunk Alex Hawkins singing country songs. Johnny Unitas gave me his autograph and told me to stay in school. Raymond Berry didn’t touch a drop, and on the field on Sunday afternoons he never dropped a touch. Art “Fatso” Donovan ate salami. Gino Marchetti told jokes. It was a great day for us, one I’ll never forget. The Colts were mythical figures in my neighborhood, and we gave out hearts and souls to them unconditionally.
It’s hard to describe the influence Memorial Stadium had on all of us. We lived only a few blocks away. My elementary school, good old P.S. 51, was directly across the street and we played sandlot ball in the shadow of the lighting towers. Uncle Arthur lived directly across the street from centerfield. Both the Orioles and Colts were champions. Aunt Julia and my mother made crab cakes with Old Bay Seasoning and life was about as good as it gets.
In the winter, they opened a skating rink in the parking lot. On frigid nights we walked up to the rink and hung out trying to meet girls. Memorial Stadium was more than just a place to watch sports; it was also our extended home.
When I was a kid, we would walk over there after school and have spitting contests from the third deck. In those days they locked the entrance to the stadium but not the ramps. You could walk up and have yourself a happy loogie contest with your buddies. In competitive spitting, results are judged by distance, accuracy, form, size and style. The best score was a perfect barbell that wing-wanged its way from the upper reaches to end with a satisfying splat on the concrete below. The finished loogie resembled a perfect barbell, two round spots connected by a thin shaft. Vinny, Snyder, and me would stand up there for hours, comparing techniques.
When I was a teenager I parked cars. The Boy Scouts sold Christmas trees there every year. I learned to drive in the stadium parking lot. Our big Thanksgiving Day High School football game, the Poly-City classic, took place there. Norman Rockwell painted Brooks Robinson giving autographs to kids in the stands. Come to think of it, I could have been one of those kids.
When I was ten years old I got a complete Colts uniform for Christmas; shoulder pads, helmet, the whole nine yards. It was number nineteen, just like Johnny U. All the guys in the neighborhood had flattop crew cuts just like Johnny U. We ate Gino’s hamburgers before we’d ever heard of the Big Mac. They cost twenty cents. I remember the jingle, “Everybody goes to Gino’s” and it always made us hungry. When I got my driver’s license, the first place I went on Saturday night was Ameche’s Drive-In. It was a scene right out of Happy Days. These memories are precious to me and the city of Baltimore.
Sadly, Memorial Stadium has been torn down. The current NFL team in Baltimore, the Ravens, play in a beautiful new stadium downtown next to Camden Yards. But I’ll always remember those happy go lucky days of my youth at the old stadium. Now, with the Ravens going against the 49ers, the memories of Baltimore come flooding back.