The Baltimore Colts relocation to Indianapolis was a successful effort by the then-owner of the Baltimore Colts (Robert Irsay) to relocate the American football team from Baltimore, Maryland, to Indianapolis, Indiana, after the 1983 National Football League (NFL) season. The team began play as the Indianapolis Colts in the 1984 NFL season.
Irsay moved the team in the dead of night on March 28-29, 1984, after the city of Baltimore proved unwilling to replace Memorial Stadium and the Maryland General Assembly was on the verge of passing legislation allowing the city to seize the team via eminent domain. The move embittered many Baltimoreans for decades, and has had a lasting impact on the NFL, including another controversial relocation 12 years later that brought Baltimore its current NFL team, the Ravens.
Although the Colts had been successful since arriving in Baltimore for the 1953 NFL season, Memorial Stadium was claimed to be inadequate for both them and Major League Baseball's Baltimore Orioles. In May 1969, the city of Baltimore announced it would seek a substantial increase in Memorial Stadium rental fees from Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom and the team itself. Rosenbloom had already called Memorial Stadium "antiquated" and had threatened to move all Colts home games out of the stadium unless improvements were made. Rosenbloom even considered using $12-20 million of his own money to help fund the building of a new football-only stadium on land in adjoining Baltimore County. By November 1971, Rosenbloom announced that the Colts would not return to Memorial Stadium when their lease ran out following the 1972 season and that he was not interested in negotiating with the city anymore. He wanted out of Baltimore for several reasons--team revenue, problems with Baltimore Orioles ownership relating to Memorial Stadium revenues, a running feud with the Baltimore press, and his new wife's desire to move to the West Coast.
In 1971, Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer and Maryland governor Marvin Mandel created a stadium committee to examine the city's stadium needs. Their report was a blow to Memorial Stadium. Some of the problems mentioned: 10,000 of the stadium's seats had poor views of the field; 20,000 seats were out-dated bench seats that had no back support; 7,000 seats were poorly constructed temporary bleachers that were installed for football games only. Also, there was not enough office space for the front offices of either the Orioles or Colts, much less both teams combined. Both teams had to share locker rooms. The upper deck of Memorial Stadium did not circle the field, ending instead at the 50-yard line. Any expansion plans for the stadium had usually mentioned less attractive (and less expensive) end-zone seats, not upper deck seating. Lastly, the number of bathroom facilities in Memorial Stadium was deemed inadequate.
Maryland's planners came up with an ambitious project. Nicknamed the Baltodome, the original plan was to create a facility near the city's Inner Harbor known as Camden Yards. The new stadium would host 70,000 fans for football games, 55,000 for baseball, and 20,000 as an arena for hockey or basketball. For an estimated $78 million, the city would build a facility that would have kept all parties happy: Orioles owner Hoffberger, Colts owner Irsay, the Stadium Complex Authority (whose Chairman Edmond Rovner reiterated in 1972 that "A major consideration in Mr. Irsay's trading of franchises was the city's firm commitment to proceed with these plans."), Baltimore Mayor Schaefer, and Governor Mandel.
However, the proposal did not receive support to pass the Maryland legislature, in spite of assurances that contributions from taxpayers would be limited strictly to city and state loans. On February 27, 1974, Governor Mandel pulled the plug on the idea. Orioles owner Jerold Hoffberger was blunt: "I will bow to the will of the people. They have told us what they want to tell us. First, they don't want a new park and second, they don't want a club." Irsay was willing to wait. "It's not a matter of saying that there will be no stadium. It's a matter of getting the facts together so everybody is happy when they build the stadium. I'm a patient man. I think the people of Baltimore are going to see those new stadiums in New Orleans and Seattle opening in a year or two around the country, and they are going to realize they need a stadium ... for conventions and other things besides football."
Hyman Pressman, Baltimore's comptroller, was against using any public funds to build a new stadium. During the 1974 elections, Pressman had an amendment to the city's charter placed on the fall ballot. Known as Question P, the amendment called for declaring "the 33rd Street stadium as a memorial to war veterans and prohibiting use of city funds for construction of any other stadium." The measure passed 56 percent to 44 percent, and the same political motivations that had been used to upgrade Baltimore Stadium, originally built in 1922, in the late 1940s and rename it Memorial Stadium, effectively destroyed any chance of a new, modern sports complex being built in Baltimore.
Although the Colts made the playoffs for three straight years from 1975 to 1977, there had still been no progress made on a new park for the team. Robert Irsay first spoke with Phoenix, Arizona, in 1976 and then Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1977 about the possibility of moving his team to one of those cities. In 1976, he acknowledged publicly that he had received an attractive offer to move the franchise to Phoenix. Then, in 1977, he said, "I like Baltimore and want to stay there, but when are we going to find out something about our stadium? I'm getting offers from towns like Indianapolis to build me a new stadium and give me other inducements to move there. I don't want to but I'd like to see some action in Baltimore." In 1979, Hoffberger sold the Orioles to Washington, D.C. attorney Edward Bennett Williams, who declared 1980 to be a trial year for the fans of Baltimore. He then went on to explain his concerns with Memorial Stadium, saying it had "inadequate parking and inadequate access and egress. Frankly, I don't know if those problems will ever be solvable at that location." Irsay began shopping the Colts around in earnest, talking first to officials from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission, Memphis, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, Florida where he visited the Gator Bowl packed with 50,000 cheering fans trying to convince him that Jacksonville would be the best home for the Colts. That same year Irsay presented Maryland's Governor Harry Hughes with a request for $25 million in renovation to the 64,124 seat Memorial Stadium. Irsay's request for $25 million in improvements was decreased to $23 million by the Maryland legislature. The plan added more seats (but none of the revenue-generating skyboxes), improved the plumbing, and gave both teams better office space. The plan's approval was contingent on both the Colts and Baltimore Orioles signing long-term leases. The Orioles challenged the requested football improvements and refused to sign anything more than a one-year lease. Irsay also refused to sign long term. As a result, the funds and improvements never came.
--Robert Irsay, January 20, 1984
Under the administration of Mayor Richard Lugar and then continuing with successor, William Hudnut, the City of Indianapolis was making a serious effort to reinvent itself into a "Great American City." In 1979, Indianapolis community leaders created the Indiana Sports Corporation in order to attract major sports events to central Indiana. The next year, Hudnut appointed a committee to study the feasibility of building a new stadium that could serve primarily as a boon to the city's convention business and, secondarily, as a lure for an NFL team.
In 1982, construction of the Hoosier Dome (later renamed the RCA Dome) began. Deputy Mayor David Frick, who later led the negotiations with the Colts and then went on to become chairman of the Indiana state commission that oversaw construction of the RCA Dome's replacement, Lucas Oil Stadium, later said that the RCA Dome was a key to changing the city's image. "Sports was an element in our game plan to change the image of the city back in the late 1970s, early 1980s."
Baltimore reportedly did offer Irsay a $15 million loan at 6.5%, a guarantee of at least 43,000 tickets sold per game for six years, and the purchase of the team's Owings Mills training facility for $4 million.
On March 2, 1984, NFL owners voted to give Irsay permission to move his franchise to the city of his choosing. Irsay continued discussions with several cities hungry for an NFL franchise (New York City, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Memphis, and Birmingham) eventually narrowing the list of cities to two, Phoenix and Indianapolis. In January 1984, Baltimore mayor Schaefer stated, "We're not going to build a new stadium. We do not have the bonding capacity. We don't have the voters or taxpayers who can support a $60 million stadium. One-third of the people in Baltimore pay taxes. Unless private enterprise builds it, we won't build it."
The Phoenix Metropolitan Sports Foundation, headed by real estate developer Eddie Lynch, along with Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt and other top Arizona officials, had secretly met with Irsay early in January 1984. Preliminary talks seemed promising. Phoenix was offering a below market rate $15 million loan and rent-free use of the 71,000–seat Sun Devil Stadium on the campus of Arizona State University. A second meeting was scheduled between Irsay and the Phoenix group. But when word of a second scheduled meeting leaked out and was reported by the media on the Friday before the Super Bowl, Irsay canceled.
In January 1984, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced that expansion had been put on hold. As a result of that announcement, Indiana Pacers' owner Herb Simon contacted Colts officials in order to take negotiations between the club and Indianapolis to the next level. Mayor Hudnut then assigned deputy mayor Frick to begin secret negotiations with Colts counsel Michael Chernoff. On February 13, Colts representatives came to town to look at the Hoosier Dome construction. Colts owner Robert Irsay visited on February 23. "He [Irsay] was visibly moved," former deputy mayor Dave Frick said commenting on Irsay's reaction to entering the brand new domed stadium. "Emotionally, he was making the move."
Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the Maryland General Assembly became involved in the dispute. On March 27, 1984, the Maryland Senate passed legislation giving the city of Baltimore the right to seize ownership of the Colts by eminent domain, an idea first floated in a memo written by Baltimore mayoral aide Mark Wasserman. Irsay said that his move to Indianapolis was "a direct result" of the eminent domain bill. Chernoff said of the move by the Maryland legislature: "They not only threw down the gauntlet, but they put a gun to his head and cocked it and asked, 'Want to see if it's loaded?' They forced him to make a decision that day."
On March 28, 1984, the Phoenix group withdrew its offer, citing the Maryland Senate's actions. That afternoon, Irsay called Mayor Hudnut; the city of Indianapolis offered the Colts owner a $12.5 million loan, a $4 million training complex, and the use of the brand new $77.5 million, 57,980–seat Hoosier Dome. Irsay agreed.
After he got off the phone with Irsay, Hudnut called his neighbor and friend, John B. Smith. Smith was the chief executive officer of Mayflower Transit, an Indiana-based moving company; Hudnut asked him to help the team move. Smith sent 15 Mayflower trucks to Owings Mills, arriving at the Colts' facility at around 10 p.m. Irsay and Hudnut wanted to move quickly because they feared that the Maryland House of Delegates would approve and Maryland Governor Harry Hughes would sign the eminent domain bill, allowing the state to seize the team the following morning. Workers loaded all of the team's belongings and the trucks left for Indianapolis. Within eight hours of the Mayflower trucks' arrival in Owings Mills, the Colts were completely gone from Baltimore. Later that day, the House of Delegates did indeed pass the bill by a count of 103-19 and Governor Hughes signed it, but by that time it was too late.
The fifteen moving trucks took different routes to Indianapolis from Baltimore as a diversion tactic so that the Maryland State Police could not delay them until after the eminent domain law was signed. As each truck reached Indiana, the Indiana State Police met it and escorted it to Indianapolis--a process repeated until all fifteen vans had reached the destination. Indianapolis Mayor Hudnut held a press conference on March 29 to announce the agreement. On March 30, the Capital Improvement Board, which operated the Hoosier Dome, agreed to the deal. Two days later, 20,000 new Colts fans cheered as Mayor Hudnut proclaimed March 29, 1984, "one of the greatest days in the history of this city." Baltimore's Mayor Schaefer appeared on the front page of The Baltimore Sun in tears. After the Colts left, and in spite of his earlier stance that the city of Baltimore would not build a new stadium, he placed the building of a new stadium at the top of his legislative agenda.
Later John Moag, Jr., chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, stated in sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate subcommittee responsible for the Fan Freedom and Community Protection Act: "It was the failure of our local (Baltimore) and state elected officials in Maryland to provide the Colts with a firm proposal for a new stadium that led Mr. Irsay to accept an offer from Indianapolis to play in a new dome in that city."
Not only were Baltimore Colts' fans heartbroken about losing their team, but they also lost the team name. (The Colts had been named in honor of the city's Preakness Stakes and Maryland's horse farmers.) In elections that year, city voters repealed Question P by a vote of 62 percent to 38 percent. However, the amendment's author (Hyman Pressman) remained as an elected City Comptroller for 28 years (seven terms in a row) until retiring in 1991.
Representatives of Baltimore and the Colts organization reached a settlement in March 1986 in which all lawsuits regarding the move were dismissed, and the Colts endorsed a new NFL team for Baltimore.
The Colts' move prompted city and state officials to redouble efforts to retain Baltimore's remaining major-league team, the Orioles. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a facility designed specifically for baseball, was constructed near the proposed Baltodome site and opened in 1992. Its retro-classic design was well-received and inspired the designs of new MLB stadiums for the next twenty years.
One aspect that remained in Baltimore was the Baltimore Colts Marching Band. According to an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary called The Band That Wouldn't Die, directed by Baltimore native Barry Levinson, band leaders received advance warning that the team was being moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis overnight and were able to remove their equipment from team headquarters before the moving vans arrived. At the time of the move, the band's uniforms were being dry-cleaned. Band President John Ziemann contacted the owner of the dry cleaners, who was sympathetic, the latter told Ziemann where the uniforms were and offered to let Ziemann take the company van "for a walk". Ziemann and some associates then hid the uniforms in a nearby cemetery until the wife of then-Colts owner Robert Irsay said they could keep them. From 1984 until the NFL returned to Baltimore in 1996, the band stayed together, playing at football halftime shows and marching in parades, eventually becoming well known as "Baltimore's Pro-Football Musical Ambassadors". The band remained an all-volunteer band as it is today and supported itself. At one point, Ziemann pawned his wife's wedding ring for the money to buy new equipment.
Colts Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas, who had settled with his family in Baltimore after his playing career was over, was angered by the move to Indianapolis and cut all ties with the team. Unitas aligned himself with the Ravens when they moved to Baltimore, and a statue of him was placed outside of M&T Bank Stadium.
Punter Rohn Stark was the last active Baltimore Colt to retire from the NFL, doing so in 1997.
When Camden Yards opened in 1992, it marked a departure from the cookie-cutter flying-saucer parks of the previous two decades. It was constructed of steel and brick and concrete, with the hope of taking fans back to a day when ballparks really were parks. Major League Baseball was changed forever. For the next 20 years, most new parks had a retro feel to them.