John Steadman, the popular Baltimore sportswriter, loves to perform a Knute Rockne routine on newsroom desktops, banquet podiums and Baltimore streetcorners. "We take a man down," says Steadman, his ruddy complexion a stage for his wiry gray eyebrows to play upon. "We take 'im down like a sack of wheat."
The famous Rockne exhortation to live clean, hit hard and win one for the Gipper is clearly from another era. But then, so is Steadman.
The 57-year-old "sports conscience of Baltimore," as Pete Rozelle calls him, is at odds with a world in which heroes have agents and loyalty is a cliche. His is a story of betrayal in Baltimore.
"I used to pray for players. I used to pray for teams," said Steadman, lead sports columnist for the Baltimore News American. "I don't do that anymore. I figure they're not praying for me."
The columnist will be in Indianapolis today when the Indianapolis Colts open their National Football League season against the New York Jets, but he won't be there out of loyalty anymore. He will be there to represent the "city that was plundered" -- Baltimore, the former home of the Colts, whose owner whisked them away one night last March.
Steadman wrote then, "Now the stroke of final indecency. Stealing away under the cover of darkness, like a common thief in the night. The Baltimore Colts, a once-proud and precious tradition, have apparently been kidnapped from their home and loved ones . . . "
Up until that time, Steadman, like many Baltimoreans, had linked his identity with the football team. The Colts were the first professional team to make a mark for Baltimore, to bring big league pride to what, in Steadman's boyhood, had been a minor league town.
Steadman made his own mark with the team. He was its assistant general manager for a time in the '50s and in his early years as sports editor he wrote columns that touted the team to the sports-hungry readers of the Hearst-owned News American.
Until owner Bob Irsay took the Colts to Indianapolis in March, Steadman had not missed a single preseason, regular season or postseason game since the team joined the NFL in 1950. Despite his duties to cover other sports, the columnist known by his friends as "Steady" shunted aside the Olympics and Orioles' World Series games to write about his beloved Colts.
"He gave his heart to the team and never let it go," said Michael Olesker, a Baltimore Sun columnist and former colleague. "It was legendary. You know the old slogan, 'No cheering in the press box.' John not only cheered, but he blew a bugle."
The managers of Memorial Stadium banned bugle-blowing by fans, and Steadman, taking up the fans' cause, brought his own bugle to blow. That was another side to the man, a playful side that enjoyed consorting with colorful characters. Steadman was always on the lookout for an oddball personality or notion that could be parlayed into a column, especially in the days when he wrote six a week.
"I once interviewed Babe Ruth in heaven," he recalled.
Characters with monikers like Balls Maggio (who collected tennis balls in culverts and sold them to kids), Good Luck Slim (a former circus thin man) and Mr. Diz (a denizen of the race track) gravitated to the generous nature of Steadman.
Olesker remembered, "Mr. Diz was a guy who went to the race track every day and depended on angels to keep him alive. It was like Blanche DuBois who said, 'I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.' That was Mr. Diz."
And that was Steadman. A product of the predominantly Irish 10th ward of old Baltimore, he grew up in a tightly knit, Catholic family -- the son of John Steadman Sr., a Baltimore deputy fire chief known for a devotion to baseball and an intense loyalty to his fellow firefighters. Steadman Sr. died of a heart attack at 49 on the afternoon he was supposed to testify in a disciplinary case against three subordinates accused of drunkenness on the job.
After his graduation from Baltimore City College (a high school), young Steadman embarked on a career as a catcher in professional baseball. Signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, he played minor league ball until his arm gave out one day during infield practice.
Fatherless, jobless, his dream broken, Steadman in 1945 felt like he was "down a dead-end street." But in a turn of fate -- which, like so many in Steadman's career, seems to have sprung from the pen of a 1940s Hollywood scriptwriter -- a benefactor emerged to give him a job as a $14-a-week copyboy with the Baltimore News-Post, predecessor of the News American.
The benefactor was Rodger Pippen, a sports editor of the old school who adored prizefighters and picked a few bouts himself. Max Baer and Ty Cobb made appearances in the sports department and the young Steadman was hooked on the romance of sportswriting.
When the company doctor rejected Steadman's application to become a full-time sportswriter (he had a hernia), publisher William Baskervill paid for the needed operation.
It was a Pat O'Brien kind of world that John Steadman lived in, with good guys and bad guys. Nothing so inspired him in those early days as a half-baked idea called the Baltimore Colts. First appearing in ragtag form in 1947, the team joined the NFL in 1950 and was unceremoniously disbanded in 1951 and 1952. But through a series of legal actions, some of which resemble those taken now to get the present Colts back, the city of Baltimore was able to resurrect the team under the majority ownershp of Carroll Rosenbloom, a New York clothing manufacturer.
Steadman boosted the team and in 1955 left his sporstwriting job to become assistant general manager and publicity director. The job was a mistake from the first and it opened his eyes to the seamy side of the sports world.
Steadman, who is described by colleagues as "the least mercenary man I have ever met" and "naive," was shaken, he says, when he saw owner Rosenbloom paying off sportswriters to win their good will. When Steadman got a chance to become sports editor of the News American in 1958, he snapped it up.
Rosenbloom's maneuverings did nothing to shake Steadman's devotion to the Colts. Throughout their halcyon years, Steadman remained a faithful and tireless booster. It was always Steadman's contention that the team belonged to Baltimore, not to the clothing manufacturer with the New York penthouse.
When the Colts got a bad call in the last game of 1965, Steadman wrote about it for weeks, dredging up grainy photos taken from movie film to show the Colts had been robbed. He grew close to the players (Johnny Unitas calls him "probably one of the best friends I have in town") and appeared, as he still appears, at continuous rounds of luncheons and ceremonies.
After the Colts' humiliating loss to Joe Namath's Jets in 1969, though, Steadman's good will began to curdle. Rosenbloom took the defeat hard and criticized coach Don Shula; Steadman reported the feud. Then Rosenbloom tried to force season-ticket holders to buy tickets to preseason exhibition games, a revenue-raising ploy Steadman called a "cheap carny trick."
In 1972 Rosenbloom dealt the team to Chicago air conditioning magnate Bob Irsay in exchange for the Los Angeles Rams, and blamed his leaving on Steadman's continuing opposition. Upton Bell, former director of player personnel for the Colts, says it was more complicated than that. Steadman, he said, saw Rosenbloom as an evil; Rosenbloom used Steadman's heavy criticism as an excuse to leave Baltimore for the West Coast where he could be "Mr. Hollywood."
Enter Irsay, a man whom the trusting columnist welcomed initially but whom fellow sportswriter Neal Eskridge later would dub, "Rosenbloom's Revenge."
Even as the Colts began their precipitous decline under Irsay, Steadman became a victim of developments inside the News American. In 1978 the Hearst corporation brought in new managers to modernize news coverage, boost failing circulation and repackage the paper.
Old-line reporters and editors like Steadman were brushed aside or tossed out with yesterday's papers. The new managers thought Steadman neglected too many sports. Even Steadman's supporters recognized he was out of synch with the new brand of journalism.
"He was at least a generation behind today's sportswriters," said Art Janney, a former colleague at the paper. "He was a rooter, for one thing." Modern sports journalists pride themselves on keeping a distance from their subjects. Steadman never pretended to be detached. He was intensely involved, was a part of the story himself.
To make matters worse, the new editor, Ron Martin (now executive editor of USA Today), believed Steadman was "not the most graceful writer who ever wrote a sports column." Under Martin, Steadman's column was moved to the back pages of the sports section.
Many of the columnist's colleagues left or were fired, but he stayed on and eventually outlasted the new managers. He turned down several job offers so that he could continue to write a column for the News American. One of his old cronies, Neal Eskridge, told Steadman, "John, your problem is you're in love with an old girlfriend who doesn't love you anymore."
The denouement of the story is well known. The poorly managed Colts hit the skids and in March Irsay took his losing team to Indianapolis. The betrayal of Baltimore, and of John Steadman, was complete.
Yet the crusade on behalf of Baltimore continues. Steadman still wants to "notify America that this was a tremendous wrong . . . .This wrong should be righted." He refuses to succumb to cynicism.
An old-fashioned man, John Steadman really believes it when he says, "In the end I feel that good will triumph over evil."