In most respects, this was a straightforward throwback move — a team dusting off a look from its past, like countless other teams have done since MLB’s Chicago White Sox pioneered the throwback concept in 1990. You know how it works once a throwback is revealed: Uni geeks get the warm fuzzies, everyone gets all nostalgic about the good old days, and we all live happily ever after.
Except for one thing: In 1956, the Colts were located in Baltimore, not Indianapolis. Baltimore fans have always resented the team’s move, which was carried out in 1984 literally under the cover of darkness. Although the team has now been based in Indy longer than it was in B’More, the fans back east have neither forgiven nor forgotten. So whenever the modern-day Colts do anything that references the team’s Baltimore days — like, say, unveiling a ’56 throwback uni and promoting it with a hype video filled with Baltimore-era footage — people in Baltimore start howling. And sure enough, that’s what happened this week.
All of which brings up a sticky question that’s never really been resolved and may in fact be unresolvable: Who owns a team’s history and heritage, including its uniforms? I’m not talking here about the fine-print legalities of intellectual property law or family dynasties (the Colts are still owned by the Irsays, whose patriarch, Robert Irsay, moved the team to Indianapolis). I’m talking about ownership in a broader, more conceptual and even emotional way. Do those 1956 uniforms, and the history associated with them, belong to the Colts, or to the city and fans who rooted for them back in the day? And if the latter, is it wrong for the Colts to wear Baltimore-era uniforms, even for one game, now that they play in Indy?
For that matter, when a team moves to a new city, would it be more appropriate — or should it even be a requirement — for the franchise to shed its name and branding and create a new identity for its new location? (By coincidence, this is how Baltimore got its current NFL team, the Ravens, who used to be the Cleveland Browns until they moved to Baltimore in 1996. Although the players and coaches all moved to the new city, the team became the Ravens, complete with new colors, uniforms, and so on. All of the Browns’ intellectual property, including the team’s uniforms and statistical records, remained in Cleveland and was adopted by a new version of the Browns in 1999.)
Personally, I can see both sides of the argument. On the one hand, I like the throughline of franchise continuity. It’s fun knowing, for example, that the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams used to play in St. Louis and Cleveland, or that MLB’s Atlanta Braves played in Boston and then Milwaukee before arriving in Atlanta. It’s sort of like knowing how a bunch of different U.S. states used to be part of the Oregon Territory, or that the comic book Thor began with issue No. 83 of Journey into Mystery, or something like that. And the history from a team’s previous city is often still part of the team’s legacy: Just last season, for example, the Arizona Cardinals wore a memorial patch for defensive back Larry Wilson, who played for the Cards when they were based in St. Louis. Similarly, MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers have maintained strong ties to Jackie Robinson and other aspects of their Brooklyn roots.
On the other hand, I’ve always thought that sports teams aren’t just business entities — they’re also civic entities. And since that civic aspect lies in the bond between a team and its hometown fans, you can definitely make a case that the 1956 Colts and all their associated visuals “belong,” for lack of a better word, to Baltimore, not to Indianapolis. What will the 1956 throwbacks even mean to fans in Indy? Do they feel any connection about the team’s pre-Indy history? When they see old footage of Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, and other Baltimore Colts stars, do they feel any emotional bond, or is it just, you know, some interesting historical storytelling?
Jilted Colts fans in Baltimore probably take the prize for nursing the biggest and longest-running grudge about a departed team, but hockey fans in Hartford, Conn., are close behind. Nearly a quarter-century after their beloved Hartford Whalers moved to Raleigh, N.C., and became the Carolina Hurricanes, Whalers fans still have a passionate fan base and even a dedicated booster club. So on the few occasions when the Hurricanes have worn Whalers throwbacks in recent years, it’s been salt in the wound for fans back in Connecticut.
This question of who owns a team’s history can lead to some confusing (if amusing) situations. In 1998, for example, MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves both wore Milwaukee Braves throwbacks in the same game. The game was in Milwaukee, so the Brewers wore home white throwbacks and Atlanta wore road greys.
The Brewers also figure in another confusing situation. The franchise was founded in 1969 as the Seattle Pilots but moved to Milwaukee and became the Brewers just prior to the start of the 1970 season. In 1999, the Brew Crew acknowledged this history by wearing Pilots throwbacks. But Pilots throwbacks have also been worn on two occasions by the Seattle Mariners, who have no lineal connection to the Pilots but nonetheless claim them as part of their city’s baseball heritage.
Other potentially confounding scenarios include the following:
• In MLB, should Washington Senators throwbacks be worn by the Minnesota Twins (who used to be the original Senators before moving to Minnesota in 1961), or by the Texas Rangers (who used to be a second incarnation of the Senators before moving to Texas in 1972), or by the Washington Nationals (who currently play in Washington but used to be the Montreal Expos before moving to DC in 2005)?
• In the NFL, who should get to wear Houston Oilers throwbacks — the Tennessee Titans (who used to be the Oilers before moving to Tennessee in 1997) or the Houston Texans (an expansion team that began playing in Houston in 2002)?
• In the NHL, should Minnesota North Stars throwbacks be worn by the Dallas Stars (who used to be the North Stars before moving to Dallas in 1993) or the Minnesota Wild (an expansion team that began playing in Minnesota in 2000)?
• In the NBA, would Philadelphia Warriors throwbacks be more appropriate for the Golden State Warriors (who used to play in Philadelphia before moving to San Francisco in 1962) or the Philadelphia 76ers (who, just for added confusion, were originally the Syracuse Nationals before moving to Philly in 1963)?
My answer to all of these questions (and to countless similar ones) is basically “All of the above.” Throwbacks are history lessons, so why treat them as an either/or proposition? Let the Titans and the Texans wear Oilers throwbacks; let the Stars and the Wild wear North Stars throwbacks; and so on. Having them play against each other, à la the Brewers and Braves, might be a bit much, but when it comes to throwbacks, my basic position is “The more, the merrier.” And with all due respect to the good folks in Hartford, it would be a shame to keep those awesome Whalers uniforms permanently mothballed, don’t you think?
Paul Lukas has been writing about uniforms for over 20 years. If you like his Bulletin articles, you’ll probably like his daily Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook, and check out his podcast. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.