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Carroll Rosenbloom: Man of Mystery

December 18, 2007
By John Eisenberg

In most ways, Baltimore’s pro sports history is a typical chronicle of highs and lows, cheers and tears, delight and despair. But for some inexplicable reason, the city has had more than its share of controversial baseball and football owners. 

Peter Angelos. Art Modell. Robert Irsay. Edward Bennett Williams. Their names conjure vivid images and stir powerful emotions. 

Time has dimmed the renown of the owner who came before them all: Carroll Rosenbloom, a local boy-made-good who owned the Baltimore Colts from 1953 to 1972. But he was as shrewd and strong-willed as any of them and, in his own way, set standards of outrageousness and originality that none of the others has matched. 

“There was never a dull moment,” said his son, Steve, who worked for his father in pro football and now lives in Louisiana. “If things ever got too quiet, he would throw a couple of paper clips into the machinery just to watch people scramble.” 

Bert Bell Jr., who worked for Rosenbloom in the 1960s as the Colts’ business manager, said succinctly, “You knew he was robbing you, but you liked him anyway.” 

Modell worked with Rosenbloom as a fellow National Football League owner from the early ’60s until the late ’70s. 

“Carroll was a very unique character,” he said. “He acted on his own a lot, certainly had his own way of doing things. He wasn’t universally loved, but he was well-liked by the people who knew him best, including myself.” 

Thirty-five years have passed since Rosenbloom left his hometown in typically bold fashion, having orchestrated a bizarre franchise swap that gave him possession of the Los Angeles Rams and put the Colts in the hands of Irsay, who later broke Baltimore’s heart by moving the franchise to Indianapolis. 

Rosenbloom’s departure ended a golden era for the Colts, who won two NFL titles and a Super Bowl on his watch and were almost always a winning team in playoff contention. After Irsay took over, the franchise didn’t win a playoff game for 23 years, while Rosenbloom’s Rams won seven straight division titles in the 1970s. 

“Carroll was an outstanding owner, one of the best the NFL has seen,” said former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel, a Colts (and now Ravens) season ticket holder who often traveled with Rosenbloom to out-of-town games. 

But his story wasn’t all sonnets and sunshine. A hard-driving businessman, Rosenbloom feuded with the Baltimore press, threatened to move the Colts long before Irsay and was reportedly an active gambler who, according to Bell, wagered on his own team -- strictly against NFL rules. He died mysteriously at age 72 while swimming in the surf by his Florida beach home in 1979. Some believe he was murdered, and while there’s no hard evidence supporting the theory, Steve Rosenbloom still doubts the medical examiner’s finding that his father drowned. 

“It’s just a gut feeling I have long held, that something else happened,” Steve Rosenbloom said. 

Carroll Rosenbloom was born in Baltimore in 1907, grew up on Hollins Street, attended City College and played football at the University of Pennsylvania under an assistant coach named Bert Bell, who would later become NFL commissioner and strongly influence Baltimore’s football life. One of nine children, Rosenbloom went to work for his father Solomon after college. Solomon had emigrated from Russia in the late 1800s and built a successful denim manufacturing company. When Solomon died in 1942, he left ambitious Carroll in charge over several older sons. Carroll greatly expanded the company’s scope and profits by securing government contracts for military clothing and purchasing rival businesses.

 By 1950, according to the 1999 book "Interference" by Dan Moldea, Rosenbloom was known as “America’s overalls king” and oversaw a far-flung empire that included 7,000 employees and the nation’s three largest producers of overalls. 

His hometown had lost a pro football franchise in 1950 because of non-support, and Bell, by now the NFL’s commissioner, was skeptical about returning to Baltimore when the Dallas Texans folded in 1952 and needed a new home. But according to former Baltimore mayor Tommy D’Alessandro, a local attorney found a loophole that forced Bell to give Baltimore the right of first refusal on the Texans. 

Publicly, Bell said Baltimore could have the franchise if it sold 15,000 season tickets. Privately, he sought to put the team in the hands of an owner with deep pockets and a competitive spirit. Rosenbloom, his friend, fit the profile. 

Rosenbloom rebuffed Bell at first; pro football was still a small-time enterprise in the early 1950s. But he eventually relented and, as always, cut a favorable deal. He put up just $13,000 to buy a controlling interest in the Colts with several minority partners. 

“We came to town for an introductory banquet,” Steve Rosenbloom said, “and [local radio announcer] Bailey Goss got up and said, ‘It’s a good thing Carroll is in the shirt business because he is liable to lose his here.’ That summed up pro football at that time. There wasn’t a lot of attendance and not a lot of money in it.” 

According to Steve Rosenbloom, his father put $1 million in the bank and privately pledged to own the team unless he lost that much, at which point he would walk away. But his timing was splendid. The NFL soon became more popular and profitable. 

“And something funny happened to him, anyway,” Steve Rosenbloom said. “In 1953, we weren’t winning, but he was impressed with how hard the players played even though they were going down to defeat. Their effort convinced him to get involved and get into it. That’s when he turned the corner. I don’t know if he ever looked at what was in the bank, but he became a dedicated owner. He might have lost that $1 million and stayed.” 

Boldly, Carroll Rosenbloom told the fans to give him five years and “you will see a different team.” Sure enough, after assembling a talented team around quarterback John Unitas, the Colts were playoff contenders by 1957 and won NFL titles in 1958 and 1959. 

“He was the first visible owner of any team around here,” said longtime sportscaster Vince Bagli. “There was a group of 30 guys who owned the [NBA] Bullets and there was Jack Dunn’s mother who owned the [minor league] Orioles. She sat behind the dugout in a big flowered hat. That was the kind of owner we’d had. Carroll was a major departure. He was very much out front and got a lot of publicity.” 

Rosenbloom oversaw all facets of the Colts’ operation without micromanaging. He was close to the players and stepped in at times on financial issues, but he didn’t call plays for coach Weeb Ewbank (and later Don Shula) or draft players for general manager Don Kellett. 

“He felt you needed strong leadership at the top, and he provided that, but he also created a family environment in which everyone had a role, down to the ballboys,” Steve Rosenbloom said. “He felt he could win with a family of intelligent players who had high character. It worked in Baltimore and also worked later in Los Angeles. I have seen other owners, and worked for one, who didn’t have that approach, and failed.” 

Almost in a fatherly way, Rosenbloom helped many players get started in business to prepare them for when their playing days were over. 

“He did a hell of a lot for a lot of guys,” Hall of Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti recalled recently. “Outside of my parents, he probably did more to influence me than anyone else in my life.” 

Rosenbloom advised Marchetti to move to Baltimore to take advantage of his popularity, Marchetti said, and then co-signed a lease to take financial responsibility for one of the first Gino’s fast food restaurants. When the chain became enormously successful, Rosenbloom helped Marchetti and his partners take the company public. 

When Marchetti was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972, he asked Rosenbloom to introduce him. 

“He was a personable, hands-on owner who made a commitment to his players,” said former Colt Tom Matte. “We played golf with him. He was very reachable. He came to your rescue if you needed him. He appreciated people who worked hard. But for his loyalty to you, he demanded loyalty in return. If you got on his bad side, you were gone. When [receiver] Roy Jefferson complained about him in the paper, he was sent packing almost immediately.” 

“Some players went to him like I did, and he wouldn’t do anything for them,” Marchetti said. “Maybe it was because of their lifestyle, or maybe something else. But he refused to talk to them about business. Some he helped, some he didn’t. He could be tough.” 

Indeed, according to Bell Jr., after the Colts went 7-7 in 1962, Rosenbloom told Ewbank to take a much-needed vacation and then brought Shula in and hired him. 

“He was all about doing whatever he thought was needed to have a winning team. He really wanted to win,” Steve Rosenbloom said. “He demanded everything you could give and then some. The better he thought you were, the more he pushed you.” 

Although he was a Baltimore native and owned the Colts, Carroll Rosenbloom mostly lived in Margate, N.J., kept his office in Manhattan and usually stayed in a hotel when he came to Baltimore. A dapper dresser and risk-loving jetsetter, he was just under 6 feet tall with a trim build, pointed nose, wry grin and laser-beam eyes. He exuded power. His golfing buddies included Joseph Kennedy, father of president John F. Kennedy. 

Unlike Baltimore’s other famous (and infamous) sports owners, Rosenbloom was difficult to categorize. He could be witty and charming, but also gruff. He could be generous, but also ruthless. In his 1987 book "First Down and a Billion," Gene Klein, late owner of the San Diego Chargers, wrote, “Carroll was one complex individual. Very smart, very tough, often very nasty. He always gave you the feeling that, if you crossed him, he was capable of slitting your throat, then donating your blood to the Red Cross blood drive.” 

That Rosenbloom enjoyed gambling on football seems beyond doubt. “I know he gambled on college games over the years, but I didn’t see that much when he bought the Colts,” Steve Rosenbloom said. 

But Bell Jr. said he witnessed Rosenbloom placing a bet on the Colts. 

“I walked into his room and he was on the phone and hollered to me, ‘Bertie, do you like us today?’ ” Bell Jr. said. “Then he said into the receiver, ‘Yeah, give me some of that.’ I just sauntered away.” 

Bell walked away from the Colts at the end of that season. His father, who had died in 1959, was known as an anti-gambling commissioner. 

“People thought I left because someone else was promoted to GM, but I could never have worked as a GM under Carroll,” Bell Jr. said. “I knew there would come a day when he would have asked me to do something illegal.” 

“Over the years I’ve heard from people doing various books and whatnot that they either spoke to my father or had information about specific games he bet on or said he bet on,” Steve Rosenbloom said. “Whether he did or not, I can’t honestly tell you. I’m not hiding anything. I’m sure if he did bet, he didn’t want me involved.” 

One of the NFL’s persistent urban legends is that the Colts went for a winning touchdown rather than a field goal in overtime of the 1958 championship game because Rosenbloom had bet on the Colts and needed to win by more than three points. 

Modell doubted the rumor then and still does. “It’s just a wild story,” Modell said. “Carroll would never have influenced a coach or anyone else, especially with Unitas as quarterback,” Steve Rosenbloom added. “Unitas ran his own show. Half the time he didn’t use the plays called in from the sideline.” 

Although Rosenbloom and Pete Rozelle, Bell’s successor as NFL commissioner, briefly had a falling-out over gambling rumors in the 1970s, Rosenbloom was a key member of the league’s inner circle during the years when pro football surpassed major league baseball and became the nation’s favorite spectator sport. He helped Rozelle put together the network TV contracts that turned the sport into a money-maker. To finalize the landmark merger between the NFL and rival American Football League, he agreed to move the Colts to the AFC for a reported $3 million. 

“[Steelers owner] Art Rooney and I also agreed to go [to the AFC] as a package,” Modell said. “Unbeknownst to us, Carroll cut his own deal.” 

Rosenbloom’s time in Baltimore began to sour after the Colts lost Super Bowl III to the New York Jets and Ewbank in a monumental upset. That led to the departure of Shula, who told the Palm Beach Post in January 2007, “He had his office in New York and he took a lot of heat from his New York buddies. Then he would get on the phone and pass that heat on to me. Our relationship was never the same after that game.” 

In the late '60s and early '70s, Rosenbloom became disenchanted with Memorial Stadium, which he shared with the Orioles, who drew fewer fans. The city government didn’t want to help the teams, so, according to Mandel, Rosenbloom proposed sharing $20 million in improvement costs with Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger. But Hoffberger declined. 

“Carroll was willing to pay his way, but he couldn’t get it done and became disgusted,” Mandel said. “It was a shame because he was such a good owner. He had great ideas and just wanted to win. I could work with him. We had come up with a plan for a new stadium where the Camden Yards complex is today, but we couldn’t get it off the ground.” 

Seeking to increase revenues, Rosenbloom forced his most loyal fans to pay regular-season prices for tickets to exhibition games by including the meaningless games in the Colts’ season ticket packages. Then he moved the Colts to Tampa, Fla., for training camp and the exhibition season in 1972, and flirted with the idea of moving there permanently. 

Mandel didn’t see anything wrong with the exhibition game ticket idea, but some insiders thought he was gouging the fans. 

“He was a smart businessman, but that exhibition thing was highway robbery,” Bell Jr. said. 

His most persistent critic was News-American sports columnist John Steadman, who had worked for Rosenbloom and the Colts in the 1950s. 

“It was a personal vendetta with John for some reason,” Steve Rosenbloom said of Steadman, who died in 2001. “John really hammered away at him, and my father got fed up and said he was too old to take that crap. He told me, ‘All we do is win, what do they want?’ ” 

Rosenbloom eventually just threw up his hands and left town. When Irsay took over the Rams, Rosenbloom traded franchises and set up shop on the West Coast. 

“It was a brilliant move, a tax-free exchange of assets, like you would do with a house,” Steve Rosenbloom said. “It’s something they teach these days in law school.” 

Before he traded franchises, Rosenbloom met with the Colts players and said he felt unappreciated. “He told us, ‘If these reporters think I’m bad, wait until they get a load of the guy coming behind me,’ ” Matte recalled. “The day we met Irsay, he was all drunk and slurring his words. Unitas and I looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, Carroll was right.’ ” 

Shortly after he took over the Rams, Rosenbloom came to watch the Colts play an exhibition game in Oakland, Calif. According to a reporter who was present, Rosenbloom sat behind Steadman in the press box, cursed him, blew cigar smoke rings at him and threatened him with physical violence. A fearful Steadman called his editors in Baltimore and alerted them in case harm befell him. 

Rosenbloom’s death seven years later added to suspicions that he could have been involved in unsavory activity. The PBS series “Frontline” included it as part of a 1983 investigation into ties between gambling interests and the NFL. 

Steve Rosenbloom said his father lived near the water for years, but was a poor swimmer and never swam alone. 

“If he went out alone that day, he was breaking a habit of a lifetime,” Steve Rosenbloom said. 

Even in death Rosenbloom created a stir. Surprising many people who had expected Steve to succeed him, he left a controlling interest in the Rams to his second wife, Georgia, who soon pushed Steve out. Georgia, a former dancer, later moved the franchise to St. Louis. 

But despite that ending, Steve Rosenbloom called his father “my favorite subject” in a recent interview and said Rosenbloom deserved to be remembered as a visionary and a winner. 

“He was a big man, not a little man,” Steve Rosenbloom said. “He was not without controversy, but anyone who is actually doing something is going to have controversy, He was tough but fair. He was old school. If Carroll Rosenbloom said, ‘You have my word,’ it was done. With something in writing, you could always put the lawyers to it and unravel it. But I never saw anything change once he gave his word. He didn’t want to cheat anyone. He could bend you over, but he wasn’t going to get the best of you that way. His word was his name. And his word was as dependable as the sun coming up every morning.”

Issue 2.51: December 20, 2007