Ron Snyder was 5 years old when the Colts left Baltimore. Professional football was a distant memory until a CFL expansion team appeared in 1994 almost from out of nowhere. The city had just been denied an expansion franchise by the NFL, which awarded franchises to Jacksonville and Carolina. Then-league commissioner Paul Tagliabue suggested Baltimore should build a museum with the money it had set aside for a stadium.
The baseball strike that summer had denied the city its only major professional sport. As a teenager, Snyder began to follow this new team initially called the Baltimore CFL Colts on an improbable and electrifying journey that led to a Grey Cup championship in 1995 and an almost immediate disappearance from the city.
Snyder's new book, "The Baltimore Stallions: The Brief, Brilliant History of the CFL Champion Franchise," set to be released in January 2020, tells the tale of a team that evaporated into thin air as soon as it won a championship.
"It was the perfect marriage for the time," Snyder said. "We were mad about Jacksonville getting the franchise and never thought the NFL was coming back. The Stallions were the bridge between the Colts and the Ravens. There was no Ray Lewis or Ed Reed. Forty thousand people were coming to the games. We won the Grey Cup championship and then we dumped them for the old girlfriend who came back -- the NFL."
An award-winning journalist, Snyder tells the story of dynamic owner Jim Speros, a former Clemson football player and an entrepreneur long on vision but short on cash. His executive team included a talented young general manager named Jim Popp, a seasoned coach in Don Matthews and a rising public relations star in Mike Gathagan. The group resurrected a dilapidated Memorial Stadium and put a team on the field in only a few months.
Now an associate athletic director at Towson University, Gathagan worked the phones, bartered for services and sold season tickets.
Popp found players with chips on their shoulders like undersized running back Mike Pringle, quarterback Tracy Ham and linebacker O.J. Brigance, the only football player in the history of the game to win a Grey Cup and a Super Bowl in the same city. Iranian offensive tackle Shar Pourdanesh also went on to play in the NFL.
The voice of the Stallions was Fox45's Bruce Cunningham, who found calling a game for a team that didn't have a name especially challenging. The use of "CFL Colts" was banned ahead of the 1994 season, so the team was called "The Baltimore Football Club" during the 1994 season before becoming the Stallions in 1995.
"You try calling a game for a team without a name," Cunningham said. "Sometimes it was ‘The Baltimores.' We made it up. It wasn't easy."
The city and Baltimore's football legends embraced the team.
"The old Colts -- Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore and Artie Donovan -- loved these guys," Snyder said. "They worked in the offseason and didn't make much money, just like the Colts."
In 1994, the team became the first American CFL franchise to make it to the Grey Cup final, losing to the B.C. Lions, 26-23, on a last-second field goal. The Stallions dominated in their second season and defeated the Calgary Stampeders, 37-20, to win the Grey Cup and finish on a 16-game winning streak.
A few months after the championship game, the Ravens arrived. Art Modell moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Speros moved the Stallions to Montreal and they became the Alouettes.
"Montreal never claimed the Stallions as part of their history," Snyder said. "One of the greatest teams in the history of the CFL."
Snyder conducted more than 50 interviews for his project, and the book contains photos from the team's two seasons in Baltimore. He worked with Ravens marching band president John Ziemann, who manages a treasure trove of Baltimore sports artifacts.
"John opened the storage units," Snyder said, "and we found some incredible sideline photos."
The story of the disappearing champions will now have a home within the pages of Snyder's book.
"The Baltimore Stallions: The Brief, Brilliant History of the CFL Champion Franchise," will be released Jan. 30, 2020. The book can be preordered on Amazon.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of McFarland Publishing (Photograph by John Patrick Kelly, from the archives of John W. Ziemann)
Issue 259: November 2019