On Tuesday night, ESPN aired Barry Levinson’s The Band that Wouldn’t Die, the second installment of its 30 for 30 documentary series. Levinson’s film tells the story of the Baltimore Colts’ marching band, a group that continued marching in Baltimore even after the team relocated to Indianapolis in 1984. While we were watching the grim tale of sports franchise relocation, we wondered what other moves almost happened, but fell through. Here are a few moves that nearly changed the landscape of sports:
The South Siders have almost hit the road on two separate occasions during the last few decades. The first potential move came in the 1970s, after Bud Selig purchased the Seattle Pilots and moved the team to Milwaukee. While Selig’s purchase wouldn’t seem likely to directly affect the Sox, the sale nearly triggered a massive reshuffling of the American League. A plan emerged in 1975 for the White Sox to slide into the vacant Seattle market while the Athletics left Oakland for a new home in Chicago, a move that sort of made sense because longtime A’s owner Charlie Finley was from the Chicago area.
That deal quickly fell through, but the team came even closer to leaving Chicago in 1988. After failing to secure funding for a taxpayer-supported new stadium, the team’s ownership group eyed St. Petersburg as a potential new landing spot. Fans in Florida even started printing Florida White Sox shirts as it became increasingly clear the Sox would be moving to the Sunshine State. Indignant Chicago fans inundated St. Petersburg Mayor Robert Ulrich’s mailbox with dirty pairs of white socks to let him know those were the only pieces of pale hosiery he’d be getting. Eventually, though, the state legislature relented in an eleventh-hour deal that saved the team $60 million in new construction costs and kept the White Sox in Chicago.
Pet food company Ralston Purina bought the NHL’s St. Louis Blues in 1977, but it had a tougher time marketing hockey than it did with kibble. The company lost around $1.8 million a year on the Blues during its ownership, but upper management didn’t mind bleeding a little cash to keep a hockey team in St. Louis. However, following an internal power shift in 1983, Ralston Purina decided it no longer wanted any part of this white elephant and quit putting any money into the team. The Blues didn’t even make any selections in the 1983 NHL Draft in Montreal; the team didn’t even send a representative.
Obviously, Ralston Purina was hot to sell the team, and they found a buyer in Edmonton Oilers founder Bill Hunter. Hunter and his investment group planned to buy the team and move it to hockey-crazed Saskatoon. The NHL wasn’t too keen to lose a big market like St. Louis, though, and nixed the deal. Eventually businessman Harry Ornest bought the team and kept it in St. Louis.
Not everyone was trying to get out of St. Louis, though. In 1992, St. Louis native James Orthwein bought the New England Patriots with the hope of moving the franchise to his hometown. Orthwein, who was the great-grandson of Anheuser-Busch founder Adolphus Busch, never got his relocation act together, though, and in 1994 he sold the team to current owner Robert Kraft.
At the beginning of this decade, the Houston Rockets briefly flirted with a move to Louisville, KY. Although the move never got all that close to happening, it was memorable thanks to a rumor about the team’s potential Louisville arena, a Kentucky Fried Chicken-sponsored home called – what else? – “The Bucket.”
Teams swap players all the time, but swapping cities? It almost happened in the NHL in 1980. At the time the Toronto Maple Leafs were hemorrhaging money with a lousy roster, and the Edmonton Oilers had a stacked squad that would end up winning five Stanley Cups over the course of the next decade.
According to Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, Leafs owner Harold Ballard called him up with a novel proposition: the teams would simply swap markets. The Oilers would move to Toronto and pay Ballard $50 million in cash for slipping into the bigger market, while the Leafs would take the Oilers’ old spot in Edmonton. Pocklington wrote in his autobiography that he was all for the move, but Ballard got cold feet and backed out at the last minute.
The Memphis Grizzlies are right up there with the Los Angeles Clippers in the race for the dubious title of the NBA’s biggest laughingstock, but they won at least one major battle this decade. On March 26, 2001, both the then-Vancouver Grizzlies and the moribund Charlotte Hornets applied to relocate to Memphis. When the NBA granted the Grizzlies the right to move to Elvis’ old city, the Hornets had to scramble to find another landing place. After eyeing Norfolk, Louisville and St. Louis, the Hornets settled for New Orleans and moved to the Big Easy for the start of the 2002-2003 season.
Who needs to swap cities when you can just swap deeds? It happened with the Colts and the Rams in 1972. Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom was tiring of owning an NFL team in Baltimore thanks to his squabbles with the local media and the Orioles’ ownership. He did like owning a team, however. Rather than move the team, Rosenbloom would just have to get creative.
Enter Robert Irsay, who was considering becoming a minority owner in any deal to buy the Colts. Irsay and Rosenbloom came up with a clever way to make everyone happy: Irsay would buy the L.A. Rams. Irsay then traded the deed to the Rams for the deed to the Colts and $3 million in cash. Just like that, the teams changed hands without moving an inch. Irsay, of course, would become Baltimore’s number one public enemy in 1984 when he moved the Colts to Indianapolis.
[Mayflower/Baltimore Colts image credit: Lloyd Pearson, Baltimore Sun]
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