" John Unitas," says a newspaper copyreader, "never has a cold, he has pneumonia. He never has a sore leg, he has a broken leg. The smallest detail about the club is embroidered and turned into what they consider exciting conversation. Colt fans, the real ones, are the biggest bores in town."
A waterfront orphan in the eastern megalopolis, the city, it seems, relates to the Colts, and each autumn it waves them like a banner in front of all the lifted noses in the nation, in front of all those who used to motor through town on wine-soaked, fetid U.S. 40 and then went home and pronounced the city just a tunnel between Philadelphia and Washington, in front of all those who came and left calling it a tapped-out bumpkin of a town smothered with sullied monuments to forgotten heroes of forgotten wars.
But it is not just that the team has won, it is the way it has won. Scratched up and head down from the hook, they took the Giants on one faraway December day. Then last season, chipless and light in the center of the table, they called the Packers and raised them with a halfback at quarterback and nearly made the bluff stick. Baltimore, with its massive inferiority complex, needs the Colts.
Class D sports town or big-league town, who can make a case? Unfriendly toward Navy, indifferent toward Maryland, the city gets no play from college football. Lacrosse is first-rate, but college basketball is an atrocity to be earnestly avoided. The hockey is minor league, and so are the fans. Say the same for attendance at NBA basketball. Nobody knows, or cares, that the Bullets are here, in this town full of nine-hole women golfers and dart-throwers and pinochle players gone wrong.
"All the throwers and players are gone, Sonny," Uncle used to say. "Gone to fresh air and clothes that hurt an old man's eyes. They're all golfers now. In the old days they would have chased fire engines, too. That was big in this here town."
Once, too, it was a fighter's town, and a town full of pool hustlers and crapshooters who worked during jazzless hours. Five champions came out of the town: Joe Gans, who owned the old Goldfield Hotel; and Kid Williams, who owned only misery; Joe and Vince Dundee; and Harry Jeffra. Fight Night made it through the '40s, but it died in the '50s, along with the pool-hall salesmen and the crapshooters and the last of the marks who fled when work in the war-production plants ebbed. The city, the diehards say, then went back to sleep.
Now, in this October, a World Series comes to a town that has a grand and rich past in baseball. John McGraw, Willie Keeler and Wilbert Robinson worked here, when the city belonged to the old National League. Jack Dunn was the first to have Babe Ruth, a Camden Street urchin and a reform-school dropout. Dunn once brought the city seven straight International League pennants, and—so say the old men who sit in the public parks and play checkers and lament the passing of the 5� draft beer—he had to sell all his players because the fans, bored, stopped coming to the park.
The city had Lefty Grove and Joe Boley and Max Bishop and Jack Bentley then, and later, in the '40s, it would win a Little World Series with names that now are only recalled in trivia exercises: Kenny Braun, Bias Monaco, Stan Benjamin, Stan West, Bo Bo Barillari and Bob Latshaw. Fifty-five thousand attended one of those Little World Series games in the old and vast stadium of weather-frayed wooden benches, and even now, when the moon is full, those who were there and those who were not dredge up a day of minor glory that Baltimore baseball has not felt since—and then call the newspaper.
"How many people were there that night?" the voice will ask.
"Fifty-five thousand," he is informed.