Baltimoreans woke up the morning of March 29, 1984, to discover they no longer had an NFL team to call their own. Gear belonging to the once proud Baltimore Colts franchise had been transported to Indianapolis in a procession of Mayflower vans the night before. Team owner Robert Irsay's public declaration only two months earlier that he had no intention to move the Colts had proven to be meaningless. Although the move happened suddenly, it was something Irsay had desired for almost a decade.
Irsay had acquired the Colts from Carroll Rosenbloom in 1972 and quickly made his presence felt. Five games into his first season, he fired Don McCafferty, the coach who had led the Colts to victory in the 1971 Super Bowl. He appeared on the sidelines during a 1974 game and suggested coach Howard Schnellenberger change quarterbacks. Schnellenberger refused and was fired after the game.
The first hint of Irsay's desire to relocate came in March 1976 when he said he had received an "attractive offer" to move the Colts to Phoenix. In January 1977, during Super Bowl XI, Irsay said he had been approached about the possibility of moving the Colts to a rent-free stadium in Indianapolis. By September 1979 Irsay was claiming to have received offers from Los Angeles, Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla. He said Jacksonville had promised $60 million in revenues over 10 years and improvements to the Gator Bowl and reportedly said three times in meeting with Jacksonville officials that it was a matter of where, not if, he was moving. On Oct. 9, 1979, Irsay claimed he had been misquoted and intended to keep the Colts in Baltimore if the proposed renovations to Memorial Stadium provided acceptable seats. Gov. Harry Hughes' plans to spend $22 million on the stadium convinced Irsay to withdraw his proposal to move the team from the league agenda on Oct. 31. The Colts signed a two-year stadium lease on June 10, 1981.
If the Colts were still in Baltimore, their glory days were almost certainly gone. The team had won championships and sold out 51 consecutive games during the 1960s, and during Irsay's first year of ownership they averaged more than 60,000 fans. By the early 1980s, however, attendance had declined sharply. Appearing in public drunk and employing a chaotic management style - he went through seven coaches in 12 years - certainly alienated Irsay from the fans. Tom Matte, a former Colts player and broadcaster, later said that Baltimore fans hated Irsay because "he only created bad will." But the most unsettling thing to fans was undoubtedly the team's record: the Colts went 68-104-1 during Irsay's tenure.
On Jan. 5, 1984, Irsay began negotiations with Anthony Nicoli, an Arizona real estate developer, about moving or selling the Colts. Fifteen days later, Irsay stood next to William Donald Schaefer, Baltimore's mayor and a personal nemesis, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and denied having any plans to move the team (it was later learned that news leaks had forced him to cancel a meeting that day with officials from Phoenix to fly to Baltimore). Behind the scenes, Irsay reportedly held negotiations in early February to play in New York City's Shea Stadium and by the end of the month had reportedly received a sweet offer from Indianapolis officials. Indianapolis acquired a $15 million loan at 8 percent interest for Irsay on March 1.
How did the NFL feel about this? Commissioner Pete Rozelle said during the league's owners meeting in Chicago on March 2 that the NFL wouldn't prevent Irsay from moving due to a legal consequences over Raiders owner Al Davis' case. A Maryland delegation led by Hughes, Schaefer and Baltimore County Executive Donald Hutchinson traveled to Chicago on March 11 to meet with Irsay. On March 15, Phoenix offered Irsay a $15 million loan at 8 percent, a $5 million practice facility and a domed stadium downtown. A guarantee on ticket sales of 34,000 a year for the next 12 years was added to Phoenix's offer four days later. Irsay flew to an airport on March 25 and met with Schaefer and Frank De Francis, Maryland's secretary of economic development. Schaefer and De Francis offered Irsay a package they felt met his demands. They were wrong.
Speaking to De Francis by phone on March 27, Irsay gave a new list of demands. The state Senate approved eminent domain legislation that would give Baltimore power to take ownership of the Colts by a vote of 38-4 that same day. De Francis and Schaefer both tried and failed twice on March 28 to call Irsay to inform him that the city would accept new demands. By then it was too late. The Mayflower vans arrived just before 10 p.m. Shortly before noon on March 29, Hughes signed the eminent domain bill. Baltimore wired a $40 million offer to Irsay that same day and filed an eminent domain suit on March 30.
Naturally, Colts fans were devastated. Bumper stickers declaring "Will Rogers never met Bob Irsay" quickly became a frequent sight in the city. One ice cream shop no doubt reflected many people's feelings by hanging a sign in the window saying "Honk if you hate Irsay." Fans even took their anger out on Mayflower trucks by pelting them with stones.
Baltimore's condemnation suit against the Colts was rejected in federal court on Dec. 10, 1985. Schaefer was later elected Maryland's governor and turned the anger over the Colts' departure into the political desire to build Camden Yards. Irsay died in Indianapolis at age 73 on Jan. 14, 1997. Football historian Robert Barnett credited Irsay with introducing the "era of the entrepreneurial owner" who make large amounts of money.
The NFL's Colts made a surprising move from Baltimore to Indianapolis in March 1984.