"People don't know," Art Donovan says, sitting in the kitchen of the country club he owns in suburban Baltimore. "Believe me, they have no idea."
Donovan is talking. And what you do when you're with Donovan is listen. You've probably caught his act on Letterman. What makes the act work is that it's so genuine. In the mid-1950s, before the big money hit the game, Donovan nearly gave up the Colts to be a New York City cop. In those days it wasn't a clear-cut choice.
"We were Baltimore's college team," says Donovan, who came to play for the Colts in 1950 and has been around Baltimore ever since. "The people thought we were their kids. They knitted for us, hats and scarves and sweaters, whatever you needed or didn't need. They'd bake cakes for us. Loudy [the late super-fan Hurst Loudenslager] and his wife, Flo, made a cake for you on your birthday every year. When we returned from a road game, they'd be at the airport at 4 a.m. with a phonograph and a mile-long extension cord to play the Colts' fight song. Didn't matter if we'd won or lost. They'd be there. This is nuts, right? The band. The fan clubs. I'm telling ya, it was like a college team. All you had to do was be halfway nice to the people, and they ate it up."
The Colts were at least halfway nice. In the era before Pete Rozelle made pro football America's game, the Baltimore players were out in the neighborhoods selling Colts football. If you went to church before a game, one of the players might be there for the Holy Name breakfast. If you went to a bar, it might be Colts night. If you belonged to the Optimists, some Colt was going to be at your meeting. The Colts were the community; the community was the Colts. And by the late 1950s, when they were a championship team, they sold out every game, which back then was considered a phenomenon.
"We had this general manager, Don Kellett," Donovan says. "He was a cozy guy, very cozy. He'd tell us we gotta go here, gotta go there, gotta meet the people. We'd say, 'Mr. Kellett, why we gotta go?' He'd say, 'It's your civic duty.' " Donovan laughs. "Civic duty? Oh, he was something. And they didn't pay us a penny, not a cent for that. He was cozy all right. People just don't know."
When Donovan wasn't out in the neighborhood working for the Colts, he was out in the neighborhood working for a local distillery. Donovan was probably the first Mr. Baltimore Colt. Unitas is an icon. But Artie is just Artie. Everybody in town knew Art Donovan, and Art knew everyone right back.
"There was this guy," Donovan says, "we called him The Fan. What the hell was his name? We went to his funeral. He took too much interest in the Colts, and his plumbing business went to pot. I remember this other man, Mr. Martin, who worked for the B&O Railroad. He told me he was such a fan that if we lost, he wasn't right again until Thursday. Couldn't do nothin' all week. I told him, 'Mr. Martin, when we lose, we go out and get loaded and forget about it the next day.'
"This is what it was like in Baltimore. It wasn't like anyplace else. I tell the guys, if we'd played in Chicago or New York or somewheres, we'd be forgotten. Baltimore is different. People just don't know."
The Ravens, having been not so long ago the Browns, have some idea. For the first game the old Colts were brought back to Memorial Stadium. Johnny U handed off the ball, old to new. The Ravens front office rounded up about 40 former Colts and put them in Colts jerseys and then handed them Ravens jackets. Guess what? The players couldn't rip those jackets off fast enough. "I didn't want to be there," Donovan says. "What the hell should I do this for? I'm not a Raven. They conned us into it. They got their own team. Let them make their own history."
You can locate the future in a giant hole in the ground. By July the hole will begin to look like a stadium. By September 1998 it will actually be the Ravens' stadium, a companion piece to the adjacent cathedral that is Oriole Park at Camden Yards. "It will be on a par with Oriole Park—a cousin, not a sister," says John Moag as he lunches in the Stadium Club, on the top floor of the wonderfully idiosyncratic former B&O ware-house just beyond rightfield, from where you can almost see the giant hole. "It will be intense. Baseball is played in a park. This will be a football stadium."