You may know the story of how the NHL franchise in St. Louis that just won its first Stanley Cup, was supposed to be Baltimore’s franchise?
If you don’t, here’s how it goes…
When the league expanded in 1967 from six teams to 12, Baltimore was in line to be the sixth new franchise. It boasted one of the larger markets in the country at the time, with a history of strong support for minor league hockey. In fact, the minor league Baltimore Clippers at the time, were regularly outdrawing the NBA Baltimore Bullets.
However, the league power brokers were reluctant to put a team in Baltimore. They cited a poor arena (Even then!) It was only five years old, but a rectangular seating bowl meant poor sight lines around an oval rink. That’s about the only public objection they could come up with.
Meanwhile, the league was talking up the appeal of bringing hockey to new territory in the Midwest, pushing for a team in St. Louis instead, even though St. Louis had not even put in a bid.
An influencing factor lurking behind the scenes was Blackhawks co-owner James Norris, who also owned the St. Louis Arena. His arena was falling apart and bleeding money. So, under pressure from the Chicago group, the league coaxed St. Louis to get into the mix under the condition they purchase the arena from Norris.
The rest is history.
St. Louis was in, Baltimore was out.
Baltimore got St. Louis’ baseball team in ’54, but The Louie got what should have been Charm City’s hockey team in ’67.
So, what’s all this have to do with football?
It seems eerily similar to the storyline from the NFL’s 1993 expansion, where a strong bid from Baltimore ended up a last-minute loser.
Recall that Baltimore was one of the early favorites, along with the shoo-in bid from Carolina. The second choice likely would have been St. Louis, but their ownership group collapsed.
Rather than just “Give Baltimore the Ball”, the league awarded Carolina a franchise and delayed their decision on a second market. It would give St. Louis time to gin up a new, Stan Kroenke-led group.
If St. Louis couldn’t get its act together, Baltimore would be the fallback favorite over Memphis and Jacksonville. They had a stable owner option now in the picture, with Al Lerner, the best stadium option, and the largest market.
In a fair fight Baltimore wins a unanimous decision.
But the end game was rigged! Owner interests stood in the way.
Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Redskins, didn’t want to see a team parked just up I-95. Also, I’ve always maintained that Art Modell, who was a strong voice on the expansion committee in ’93, may have steered the award away from Baltimore because he was saddled with the ownership of a money-bleeding, crumbling facility, and wanted Baltimore’s stadium deal to save himself.
Modell had all the reason to vote for Baltimore–he was friends with AL Lerner. But rather than awarding his friend the expansion team, I theorize he cooked up a deal that would eventually give Lerner ownership of a new team in Cleveland after Modell would move his Browns to Baltimore.
With league forces working behind the scenes against Baltimore they needed to find an acceptable alternative market. St. Louis wasn’t going to work because the original owner group was posed to sue the league if Kroenke’s group got the team.
So, the commissioner and Redskins ticket holder Paul Tagliabue, and ops guy Roger Goodell, started steering the award towards Jacksonville, which had long been considered a long-to-no-shot bid. In fact, they had withdrawn their bid and had to be coaxed back into the running. Their Gator Bowl facility was a crumbling dump and the city was tiny, second only to Green Bay in its lack of butts to put in seats.
But Tags got on TV and trumped-up the idea of needing more NFL teams in the sunbelt, and Baltimore, once again, was left standing at the altar.
It was an all-too familiar tale.