An American Invasion – some context
This was all part of an American expansion plan masterminded by then CFL commissioner Larry Smith who envisioned a multi site North American CFL with teams in the USA and Canada.
As we are back to a nine team league consisting solely of Canadian based teams, we can say that didn’t really work out. However this is a period looked back on fondly by fans.
I won’t go into all the details of all the teams. But I cannot recommend enough the book End Zones & Border Wars if you are interested in this period of CFL history.
Baltimore is a football town
On and off Baltimore has had a pro football team in town since 1947. The original Baltimore Colts were part of the All American Football Conference. They would be one of the three teams from the league to integrate into the NFL for the 1950 season.
That team lasted just 4 seasons (3 in the AAFC & 1 in the NFL) going 11-40-1 overall.
Just three years later however, in 1953, a new franchise was in town. Once again named the Baltimore Colts this team would remain in town until a fateful move to Indianapolis in 1983.
During those three decades the Colts would be a marquee franchise in the NFL. They went 230-201-7 in the regular season. And played in some key games in NFL history including the 1958 Championship game and Superbowl III.
Latterly of course the Ravens have been representing Baltimore in the NFL since 1996. Whether they would have been there since then without the Stallions success paving the way is open to question.
The Stallions Arrive
In 1994 the city of Baltimore had been without a pro football team for 11 years. There had been a chance to change all that when they got the chance to bid for an NFL expansion franchise.
The NFL chose to put teams in Jacksonville & Carolina instead. The NFL commissioner of the time, Paul Tagliabue, suggested Baltimore should build a museum with the money it had set aside for a stadium.
For Baltimore natives it was a metaphorical thumb in the eye. Now they were angry at the NFL and that perfect storm allowed a CFL team to come in and work its way into the affections of the football fans in town.
Owner Jim Speros (a former Clemson player and assistant in Washington), and his staff made that marriage even more tight-knit. They may not have had much money but they marketed very well.
The new CFL team would adopt the Colts colours but add silver into the mix. They also invited the Baltimore Colts marching band (which had stayed together after the team left) to play at home games.
They also brought in the remnants of any Colts fan clubs under a Colts corrals banner alongside the old teams uniformed cheerleaders.
This was a new team in a new league with new (to an American audience) rules. The CFL had even issued a 21 page booklet entitled First & ten from the fifty-five: Canadian football explained. But in Baltimore they were playing up continuity.
Ex Colts players even said they liked the Stallions. This was because they didn’t make the big bucks NFL players did & so the ex-Colts felt more of an affinity with their own situation back in the day.
What’s in a name?
The cherry on the cake of continuity was going to be in the name. They were introduced to the city of Baltimore as the ‘Baltimore CFL Colts’. They sold 13,000 season tickets within 4 days of announcing the name.
The CFL Colts were due to play in Memorial Stadium, the home of the old Colts when the NFL stepped in.
The NFL went to court and obtained an injunction against the use of the name ‘Colts’, a name still retained by the Indianapolis Colts who had fled Baltimore in the night all those years before.
That the NFL had appropriated that name from a defunct AAFC team was irrelevant. Thus Baltimore found themselves facing a legal injunction against using the name ‘Colts’ hours before their first season was set to begin.
Merchandise and souvenirs ready for the season had to be scrapped. The team quickly became the Baltimore Football Club. They would also be known as the Baltimore CLFers for the 1994 season.
It’s a shame nobody came up with Stallions at this time. It’s a great name and still throws back to the Colts time in the city. Still, most locals still called the Baltimore Football Club the Colts anyway. At home games the PA would introduce them as “Your Baltimore CFL…”and the crowd would shout ‘Colts’ before he finished with .”Football team”.
Familiarity breeds success
A lot of American CFL team owners looked to ex-NFL players, local stars and former college greats to fill their roster. Speros took a different approach, hiring personnel and players who specifically had CFL experience.
Key members of the off-field team included young general manager Jim Popp, a veteran coach, Don Matthews and public relations handled by Mike Gathagan.
They were very successful. The Stallions went 27-9 over two seasons and appeared in back to back championship games.
A 1994 baseball strike helped the CFL here too. With the strike in effect, the Stallions were the only pro game in town for part of 1994 and that gave them a chance to embed themselves with the fans in the city.
Despite losing to Calgary in their first ever home game in 1994 the Stallions were a box office draw. They averaged 37,000 fans a game – almost 7,500 more than the second best attended team that year Edmonton.
Another factor in the Stallions success centred around personnel. Whilst the Canadian based teams had to have 10 Canadian starters, the US based teams face no restrictions. Mind you, none of the other US based teams were ever as successful as Baltimore!
Cross Border Rivalry
For some of the stalwarts of the CFL this became a key issue. Was this an American staffed team challenging the Canadian’s in their own back yard?
One man who benefited was running back Mike Pringle. Behind a huge O line he ran for 1,972 yards & 1,791 yards respectively. Mind you 3 years later he would become the only CFL back ever to rush for 2,000 yards with the Montreal Alouettes.
That rivalry was accentuated by the Stallions’ on-field success. Not only did they make the playoffs but for both years of their existence they made the Grey Cup. For some traditional CFL fans these games could almost be seen as an existential crisis.
The Grey Cups
The Stallions were facing a hugely partisan crowd as the game was played at BC Place stadium in Vancouver.
This was the first non All-Canadian Grey Cup game in its’ 82 year history. A fact not lost on the Canadian crowd who rowdily supported the Lions. As you can see here, the noise throughout the game was phenomenal.
Baltimore led the game 14-3 at one point, and 14-10 at the half. A 20-10 lead in the third quarter was the high point. Eventually the Lions won 26-23 on a last second Field Goal from Lui Passaglia.
The Stallions came back even stronger in their second season season. A 15-3 year was capped by a dominant display against the Calgary Stampeders, 37-20, to win the Grey Cup at the second attempt.
This time around they were 23-13 ahead at half time and there would be no comeback from Calgary.
The 1995 Stallions went 18-3 between regular season and playoffs. A run highlighted by a 16-game winning streak to see out the season.
The NFL Returns to Baltimore
1995 marks the only time in CFL history that a non-Canadian team has won the Grey Cup. Yet it passed by in Baltimore without much fanfare.
Not a single TV crew from Baltimore went to the Grey Cup to cover the game, and only around 200 fans turned up for the celebrations when the team returned.
The city was moving on because it looked like the NFL was coming back. And so it proved to be. A few months after the championship game Art Modell moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. The Baltimore Ravens were born out of that Browns team.
One player who bridged the gap was OJ Brigance. The Linebacker would go from the Stallions to the Ravens and win Super Bowl XXXV. He is the only player ever to win a Grey Cup & Superbowl ring for two teams from the same city.
The Stallions leave a legacy in the CFL
A few months later, the CFL folded up the American expansion experiment. Teams in Birmingham, Shreveport, Memphis and San Antonio folded completely.
Jim Speros and the rest of the Stallions team knew they would not be able to compete with the might of the NFL in town.
The Baltimore franchise moved to Montreal. Now, as the Stallions had returned football to Baltimore after a decade long hiatus they would bring football back to Montreal nine years after the Alouettes folded before the 1987 season.
To this day, the Montreal Alouettes don’t recognize the Stallions in their official team history. They are seen as separate franchises. But they would not be here or have had the success they did without the core of that Stallions organization moving north.
The successful return of football to Montreal was a public relations coup for the league at that time. From 1996-2012 the Als wound go on to be hugely successful going 176-93-1, appearing in 8 Grey Cup games and winning 3.
Following a dip in success from 2013-2018 they recently returned to the playoffs.
So although the Baltimore Stallions existence was, as Snyder’s new book suggests, ‘brief & brilliant’, their legacy lives on in the CFL to this day.
Banner Image: The Stallions lifted the 1996 Grey Cup. Image from rollingstone.com