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The Curious Case of Art Donovan

Posted by Chase Stuart on March 9, 2009

I was reading Sean Lahman's terrific book the Pro Football Historical Abstract when I stumbled upon a fascinating bit of trivia that I never knew about before. After a bit of research, I was able to turn his four paragraphs into a full blog post.

Part I

Few players have a team history as odd as that of Art Donovan. Here's a list of the teams he played on during each season of his twelve year career:

1950	Baltimore Colts
1951	New York Yanks
1952	Dallas Texans
1953	Baltimore Colts
1954	Baltimore Colts
1955	Baltimore Colts
1956	Baltimore Colts
1957	Baltimore Colts
1958	Baltimore Colts
1959	Baltimore Colts
1960	Baltimore Colts
1961	Baltimore Colts

You might think he switched teams three times in his career, played for three franchises in his career and played for ten seasons with one franchise, the Baltimore Colts. What actually happened is he played for two franchises in his career, switched teams just once and played for ten seasons with two franchises named the Baltimore Colts. Here's the full story.

In 1927 and 1928, there was a short lived NFL franchise named the New York Yankees. And in the All America Football Conference, there was a team called the New York Yankees. But let's begin with the history of a different defunct team called the New York Yanks. As described by Lahman, in 1944:

Owner Ted Collins wanted to play at New York's Yankee Stadium and call his team the New York Yankees. Tim Mara of the Giants insisted that he still had exclusive rights to playing in New York, however, so Collins was forced to relocate to Boston. He still called his team the "Yanks".

After a nondescript 2-8 inaugural season in 1944, World War II forced the Boston Yanks to merge with the Brooklyn Tigers. The Brooklyn Tigers have their own interesting history. They were owned by Dan Topping, who was a part owner of the New York baseball Yankees from 1945 to 1964. But first Topping owned the Brooklyn Dodgers in the NFL, not to be confused with the Brooklyn Dodgers in MLB or the Brooklyn Dodgers in the AAFC. The Dodgers played from 1930 to 1943, and while they never won a title, they did have HOFers Benny Friedman and Ace Parker. The Dodgers were hit particularly hard by the war, and Topping renamed the team the Brooklyn Tigers for the 1944 season. After going 0-10 that year, they merged with the Boston Yanks.

Topping, apparently like Ted Collins, wanted to play in New York and at Yankee Stadium. So after the 3-6-1 merged season between the Boston Yanks (Collins) and Dan Topping (Brooklyn Tigers), Topping chose to accept an invitation to own a team in the new AAFC. Topping would name his new AAFC team the New York Yankees and play at Yankee Stadium, and the NFL canceled his Brooklyn Tigers and assigned all of those players to Collins' Boston Yanks. At least nine players from the combined Tigers/Yanks team played for the Boston Yanks in 1946, but four players -- including Ace Parker and Pug Manders -- went to play for Topping in the AAFC.

The New York Yankees of the AAFC were pretty good from '46 to '49, but there's another ironic twist here. Remember when I said that Topping's Brooklyn Dodgers in the '30s shouldn't be confused with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the AAFC? Those Dodgers folded after the '48 season and were merged with Topping's New York Yankees for the final season of the AAFC. Over in the NFL, the Boston Yanks continued their losing ways up until 1948, when Ted Collins asked the NFL to allow him to move to New York. They moved to New York in '49, played in the Polo Grounds along with the New York Giants, and became the New York Bulldogs. Some historians say the Boston Yanks franchise folded after the '48 season and Collins' New York Bulldogs in 1949 was a brand new franchise. Whatever the case, at least 16 players were on both the 1948 Boston Yanks and 1949 New York Bulldogs. One player who was new to the '49 New York Bulldogs? From Chicago Bears quarterback Bobby Layne. So through 1949, here was Ted Collins' resume:

1944   Boston Yanks
1945   Boston Yanks/Brooklyn Tigers
1946   Boston Yanks
1947   Boston Yanks
1948   Boston Yanks
1949   New York Bulldogs

And Dan Topping:

1934   Brooklyn Dodgers
1935   Brooklyn Dodgers
1936   Brooklyn Dodgers
1937   Brooklyn Dodgers
1938   Brooklyn Dodgers
1939   Brooklyn Dodgers
1940   Brooklyn Dodgers
1941   Brooklyn Dodgers
1942   Brooklyn Dodgers
1943   Brooklyn Dodgers
1944   Brooklyn Tigers
1945   Boston Yanks/Brooklyn Tigers
1946   New York Yankees (AAFC)
1947   New York Yankees (AAFC)
1948   New York Yankees (AAFC)
1949   New York Yankees (AAFC)

Part II

After the 1949 season, the AAFC and the NFL merged, with the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts joining the NFL. There were only seven teams in the 1949 AAFC, and the NFL agreed to take three of them. The Browns and 49ers were the class of the AAFC, but there was some debate over which other team should join. Chicago and New York already had the Cardinals, Bears, Giants and Bulldogs, so adding either the Chicago or New York AAFC franchise was not an option. The NFL wasn't going to triple its presence in California, so taking the Los Angeles franchise was going to be seen as similarly risky. That left just the Bills and the horrible Baltimore Colts, who went 1-11 in the AAFC in 1949. However, some were concerned about adding Green Bay East, so to speak, a small market team that came with a terrible climate. A series of deals were struck with the Bills owner and the Washington Redskins owner, and the Colts were chosen as the third team.

The NFL also chose to split the roster of Topping's New York Yankees between the two NYC franchises, but Tim Mara and the New York Giants got the better half of the transaction. Going to Tim Mara and the Giants was Tom Landry -- yes, that Tom Landry, along with Otto Schnellbacher and Arnie Weinmeister, who made 6 combined Pro Bowls in their careers. Collins' Bulldogs would get the overwhelming majority of the players, at least 16 by my count, but with Brad Ecklund being the only notable one. And while it took six years, Collins finally got his wish: with Topping's AAFC New York Yankees gone, Collins moved the Bulldogs from the Polo Grounds to Yankee Stadium and renamed them the Yanks. And in 1951, those New York Yanks signed Art Donovan.

Part III

There have been at least three professional football teams named the Baltimore Colts and all of them played exclusively at Memorial Stadium. The last was a CFL team in the 1990s that is most famous for having punter Josh Miller and losing a lawsuit to the NFL that required them to change their nickname; the team settled on calling themselves the Stallions. The famous version was the middle one, the Johnny Unitas Colts who called Baltimore home for 31 seasons. But the first one was the AAFC's Baltimore Colts.

One of the founding AAFC teams was the Miami Seahawks, who sported burnt orange and played home games at the Orange Bowl. A 3-11 season that saw the team go 1-7 before playing its second home game cost owner Harvey Hester his life savings. The team was sold to a Baltimore consortium led by Abraham Watner. A fan contest named the team the Colts, and Art Donovan wasn't the only star who donned the green and silver. Three HOF QBs have some ties to the team.

Bobby Layne -- who was drafted by Chicago in the first round and sent to the New York Bulldogs in 1949 -- was also drafted in the first round by the Colts in 1948, and was offered $77,000 to play for them. He chose to play for the Bears, but you already knew that. In that same NFL draft, the Lions selected Y.A. Tittle in the first round, but for whatever reason (probably lots of money), he went to the Baltimore Colts. George Blanda also played one game for the Baltimore Colts after they joined the NFL.

The Cleveland Browns (1950 NFL Champions) and San Francisco 49ers (four straight winning seasons from '51 to '54) adjusted fine to the NFL, but what about the Baltimore Colts? They would go 1-11 in 1950, too, and according to Wikipedia:

Due to financial difficulties after the 1-11 losing season, Colts owner Abraham Watner gave his team and its players contracts back to the NFL for $50,000. But many Baltimore fans protested the loss of their team. Supporting groups such as its marching band (the second in professional football, after that of the Washington Redskins) and fan club, remained in operation and worked for the team's revival. Three years later a new team was given to Baltimore.

Donovan and Y.A. Tittle were on that 1950 Baltimore Colts team. After the Colts folded, Tittle went to San Francisco, where he would first compete with QB Frankie Albert for playing time and then later be the star QB under head coach Frankie Albert. Blanda went back to the Bears, and Donovan signed with the New York Yanks.

Hopefully Donovan wasn't taking it personally, because his new football team -- owned by Ted Collins -- couldn't make any money, either. After a 1-9-2 1951 season, Collins sold his team back to the NFL. Here's what happened next:

A few months later, a Dallas-based group led by Giles Miller bought the franchise and moved it to Dallas--the first-ever major league team to be based in Texas. Home games were scheduled to be played at the Cotton Bowl.

Miller thought that Texas, with its longstanding support of college football, would be a natural fit for the NFL, and NFL owners approved the move with an 11-1 vote. However, they proved to be one of the worst teams in NFL history.... Only 17,499 fans showed up at the Cotton Bowl (capacity 75,000) for [the opener], and attendance continued to dwindle as the losses piled up. Unable to meet payroll, Miller returned the team to the league with five games to go in the season.

The Texans played their last home game of the season at the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio, the site of the team's only win. Don't confuse this failed 1-11 Dallas Texans team with Lamar Hunt's AFL Dallas Texans, who after 1962 moved to Kansas City and exist today as the Chiefs. And while the NFL considered the Texans a new team, consider that of the 37 players on the 1951 New York Yanks, 20 were out of the NFL in 1952, 14 were on the Dallas Texans, two went to the Browns and one to the Eagles. So it makes sense to view the Dallas Texans as an extension of the New York Yanks, and Donovan of course played for both teams.

1952 was also Gino Marchetti's rookie year. Here are some quotes from him and Donovan about those Texans, as told by Tom Callahan in the book Johnny U:

Donovan: We were horse####. [Head Coach Jimmy] Phelan was the only coach I ever knew who hated practice more than the players did. He would say, "Aw, the hell with it, let's go to the racetrack."

Marchetti: After the team declared bankruptcy, and we went out on the road for eight straight weeks, the older guys started quitting. They didn't try anymore. We were playing a game in Los Angeles, and Dan Edwards, a good tight end from Georgia, got hurt. "Who can play tight end?' Phelan yelled out on the sideline. "We need somebody in there right now!" I ran into the huddle and, just teasing, said, "Hit me for six!" Probably that was the first Hail Mary pass in the history of the game. I caught it, believe it or not, and scored my first touchdown. [It was a 17 yard touchdown pass, the only reception in the Hall of Fame defensive end's career.] I remember feeling great until I heard the announcer say, "L.A. forty-two, Dallas six." ####.

After three years, Donovan had seen his team fold after every season of his career and he had compiled a sparkling 3-31-2 record. After the 1952 season, the NFL sold the Dallas Texans franchise (formerly the New York Yanks franchise) to Carroll Rosenbloom and four other investors who wanted to bring football back to Baltimore. Starting in 1953, there was again a Baltimore Colts in the NFL, and Art Donovan had come back home. Of the 41 players on the '52 Dallas Texans, 25 were out of the league in '53, with twelve players going to the Baltimore Colts and five other players going to five different teams. The Colts would keep the Texans' team colors of blue and white. Two months after moving to Baltimore, the team traded for a cornerback named Don Shula.

Seven players in total played for the New York Yanks in 1951, the Dallas Texans in 1952 and the Baltimore Colts in 1953: Sisto Averno, Art Donovan, Brad Ecklund, Dan Edwards, Barney Poole, George Taliaferro and Buddy Young. Ironically, Averno, like Donovan, also played for version one of the Baltimore Colts in 1950. And that's how Art Donovan played for just two franchises, two Baltimore Colts franchises and only switched teams once in his career, despite wearing four different jerseys.


After the 1971 season, Carroll Rosenbloom exchanged franchises with Bob Irsay, with Rosenbloom receiving the L.A. Rams and Irsay the Colts. Irsay moved the Colts out of Baltimore in 1984 and the team has been in Indianapolis ever since. His son Jim is the current owner and CEO of the franchise. Rosenbloom died quite famously in 1979, leaving the team to his wife Georgia Frontiere. She moved the Colts out of California and to St. Louis in 1995, and died in January 2008. Chip Rosenbloom, the son of Georgia and Carroll, is the current owner of the Rams.

The Colts officially began playing in 1953, but if you look carefully, you can arguably trace their history back to 1913. A founding member of the NFL, the Dayton Triangles, were sold to William Dwyer and John Depler, who renamed the team the Brooklyn Tigers. Four years later they sold the team to Topping, and in '45 Topping merged teams with Collins, creating the Boston Yanks/Brooklyn Tigers. Topping gave up his team to go to the AAFC, leaving the merger permanent. So the team that was the Dayton Triangles became the Brooklyn Tigers who became the Brooklyn Yanks who became the Boston Yanks who became the New York Bulldogs who became the New York Yanks who became the Dallas Texans who became the Baltimore Colts.

The NFL, of course, doesn't recognize the connection between the Yanks/Texans/Colts, and neither the Dallas Cowboys or Houston Texans chose recognize the old Dallas Texans. That makes the 1952 Texans the last NFL franchise to permanently cease operations and not be included in the lineage of any current team.