INDIANAPOLIS (March 24, 2014) – It was in the middle of the night nearly 30 years ago that the Baltimore Colts loaded everything they were onto a fleet of Mayflower moving vans and headed west for a better football life.
The NFL team was quite literally sneaking out of town under cover of darkness, one step ahead of the sheriff.
Former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut remembers the morning phone call that would change Colts and Indianapolis history.
“We got this call from Chernoff (Michael Chernoff, team counsel to Colts owner Robert Irsay). (He said) ‘We got to get out of here today.’ And we said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because the General Assembly in Annapolis, Maryland, passed a law giving the city of Baltimore the right of eminent domain over the Colts property and the governor’s going to sign it tomorrow and we’ve got to get out of here before he signs it or we’ll be tied up for four or five years.’”
Hudnut and city leaders were on the verge of realizing their dream of capturing an NFL team for a brand-new, $80 million domed stadium that did not have a tenant. The stadium, they believed, would launch a new era for the Circle City.
The scheme hinged on getting a dozen or more moving vans to Baltimore by nightfall to spirit away the Colts before anyone would notice…or could do anything about it.
“We called Johnny B. Smith,” said Hudnut, recalling his conversation with his neighbor who owned the Indianapolis-based Mayflower Transit Company. “‘Johnny B…you and I have had this deal all cooked up for now the better part of two months and we need your trucks,’” Hudnut recalled.
“‘No problem, Bill.’ This was like at noon, and he said, ‘I’ll have them there by nine o’clock.’ He had them there by nine o’clock that night, whole bunch of trucks. They went to Owings Mills. They loaded up all the paraphernalia, all the equipment and went out and were fanning out through Pennsylvania, through West Virginia and Virginia. They weren’t one great huge long line.”
An erratic route was essential because Hudnut, Smith and the Colts were afraid if word got out about the move on the eve of the governor’s expected signing of the eminent domain decree, Maryland state troopers would pull over the trucks and impound the team’s assets.
“This night before, Johnny B. is sitting on my couch in my living room,” said Hudnut. “He wandered over from next door, we’re drinking scotch together, and he says, ‘Bill, you know, I feel just like Dwight Eisenhower on D-Day. I know my troops are out there, I just don’t know where they are.’”
If Hudnut and the Mayflower boss felt the midnight move was hair-raising and seat-of-the-pants, the atmosphere was even more chaotic inside the Colts’ suburban Baltimore headquarters.
Indianapolis Colts Chief Operating Officer Peter Ward was an administrative assistant, working alongside Robert Irsay’s son in 1984.
“Late that day I was called into Jim Irsay’s office and he said, ‘My dad says we’re moving to Indianapolis tonight. You need to go home and get your personal life in order but be back by ten o’clock because you need to handle these trucks that are coming in. There are 14 Mayflower moving vans that will be coming in and you need to be here.’
“I wish it was as organized as a dorm move,” said Ward, looking back. “We had the coaches and myself and, of course, our equipment guys had an unbelievable load to handle that night and get packed up. We didn’t really have enough time other than get our own offices in order and packed in some way.
“We had a small staff and had about 50 packers coming in. They had no idea where they were going when they arrived. They thought they had arrived at an embassy because embassies arrive in the middle of the night, so, they came in and it was like army ants into our building and they had boxes with no labels and everything just thrown in.
“It was chaos. It really was, and then, when we got to Indianapolis, we had to figure out what was in the box.”
The after-dark dash started to break on Baltimore radio, which reported at midnight there was activity at the team’s headquarters.
Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Chief Rick Hite was a Baltimore police officer in 1984, assigned to the personal security staff of Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Hite got word that something was up from an off-duty city police officer working security at the team’s offices.
“My job at the time…I was working special operations and was assigned to the mayor’s office,” Hite said. “I had to wake him up and explain to him what was happening.
“I guess I became the grim reaper of bad news,” he said. “He took it pretty hard. Here was a guy who was working towards a deal with the owner at the time and working on a new stadium.”
Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium was antiquated and Irsay or his man Chernoff had visited Phoenix, Memphis, Jacksonville and Indianapolis looking for a better deal.
Irsay found that better offer in the middle of Indiana.
“Memorial Stadium in Baltimore was regarded as the ashcan of the NFL,” Hudnut said. “The lease had not been renewed…attendance had dwindled to under 20,000 for those games…and he (Robert Irsay) was made to feel uncomfortable by the media who picked on him rather mercilessly. For those four reasons he was looking to get out.”
The mayor was confident that Indianapolis’ thirst for NFL football would not let the city or the Colts down.
“We guaranteed him we would have 40,000 in the stands each time or we would pay him the difference,” Hudnut said. “We never had to pay the difference.”
Indianapolis loaned the Colts $12 million to finance their share of the move and stadium costs. The city also gave the team a cut of Hoosier Dome concession sales and parking fees.
Monday morning, after the moving vans pulled over and lined I-70 on the east side of Indianapolis as Mayor Bill Hudnut welcomed the team to town, 10,000 football fans showed up at the Dome to cheer on the Indianapolis Colts.
“Indianapolis was exciting,” said Ward. “The reception we had when we got here can’t compare to anything that I’ve ever experienced. My personal belief is that as long as the Colts exist, they will be in Indianapolis.”
In the Colts trophy room at the team’s West 56th Street headquarters—behind a door secured with a digital lock—are the paraphernalia and jerseys and autographed footballs and Super Bowl trophy associated with the franchise.
Some of the memorabilia arrived in Indianapolis packed in boxes in the back of a Mayflower moving van 30 years ago this coming weekend.
On a shelf, representing that move, is a toy Mayflower truck, a tangible artifact recalling the night an NFL team left a town where it was beloved but not respected for a new suitor with a state-of-the-art enclosed stadium—brand new and never used—and a market craving professional football and validation as a Major League City.
It all began with a Hail Mary pass by a mayor and city running the risk of financial ruin and second-guessing to a team owner fed up at home and looking for a new end zone.
“I don’t know how long it was, but we were able to connect,” Hudnut said. “It was a big risk…but maybe when you’re young and idealistic, you don’t think about the risk. You think about the opportunity which is what we did. You know, no guts, no glory. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Find out more about the Colts’ and Indianapolis’ efforts to become a major league city at the Digital Mayoral Archives of the Institute for Civic Leadership at the University of Indianapolis.