Monday, August 17, 2009

Browns vs. Colts at Tampa Stadium, 8/17/74

On August 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace, resigning from his office rather than facing certain impeachment by Congress. Vice President Gerald R. Ford took the oath of office at noon and declared shortly thereafter that “our long national nightmare is over.”

Some 900 miles to the south, Bill Marcum found himself in a nightmare from which neither Ford or anyone else could easily wake him. As the organizer/promoter for the NFL pre-season game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts at Tampa Stadium just eight days later, Marcum found himself trying to sell tickets to an exhibition game during a players strike.

The labor dispute had reached its 39th day and showed no obvious signs of coming to an end. Even though close to 400 players had begun crossing the picket lines, over 800 still remained on strike throughout the league.

At the heart of the dispute: freedom. In fact, the players even had a motto – “No freedom, no football” – to bluntly express their reason for striking. Their goal was to eliminate the so-called “Rozelle Rule,” which limited player movement following the expiration of their contracts.

In addition to eliminating the “Rozelle Rule,” the player also sought the elimination of option clauses, the abolishment of the entry draft and waiver system, guaranteed payment of salaries, as well as impartial arbitration for all disputes. These were rather bold demands for a players association still in its infancy following the merger between the AFL and NFL in 1970.

Much to Marcum’s relief, on August 11 the NFLPA declared a temporary, two-week end to the strike. This “cooling-off period” would supposedly allow for more substantive discussions to resolve the strike.

From his perspective, this at least meant the guaranteed participation in the game by a few veteran players. The “super-relieved” Marcum had faced the unappealing prospect of promoting a game between rookies and assorted journeymen players hoping to land a job. He optimistically predicted a crowd of 40,000 for the game, even though only 28,000 had been sold up to that point.

Maybe he had reason for optimism. After all, the Tampa Bay area had done so well turning out for the 12 previous exhibition games put on at Tampa Stadium since 1968. The local enthusiasm and interest in pro football had paid dividends earlier in the year when the NFL awarded Tampa with its 27th franchise.

As the week leading up to the game on August 17 progressed, however, it became more apparent that the game would have few established players as participants. Many of the Many of Baltimore’s veteran players were told by General Manager Joe Thomas not to bother showing up until the team returned to Baltimore on Sunday. For his part, Cleveland owner Art Modell at least promised to field a “representative team.”

The team that represented Cleveland that night, however, turned out to be pretty awful. On a hot and humid night in front of a less-than-expected crowd estimated at 23,000, the Colts whipped up on the Browns to the tune of 37-3.

One of Baltimore’s veterans who didn’t stay home, starting quarterback Marty Domres, scored two first quarter touchdowns to essentially put the game out of reach as Cleveland fielded a lineup almost exclusively comprised of rookies.

As exhibition games go, this one proved to be an utterly forgettable affair, and those who turned out yet again validated the NFL’s decision to award this area a franchise.
Little could anyone imagine, however, that this game might be considered an all-time classic compared to what they would see from their own team, the Buccaneers, starting two years later in 1976.

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