Art Donovan, Master Storyteller
In the early 1990’s a friend asked me to join him for a round of golf at an iconic Baltimore course where he was a member. Sparrows Point Country Club was originally a 9-hole course built in 1952 by Bethlehem Steel on a 250-acre waterfront parcel in Southeast Baltimore. Designed and created by renowned golf course architect William Gordon, the club had 27 holes by 1961 and was sold to the membership in 1985. Immaculate, challenging, and unique are the words I’d use to describe the layout. Hot was the way I’d describe the weather and the 19th hole appeared like a mirage as we came off the final green.
As we neared the patio outside the clubhouse it was clear that, like the course that day, we had the place largely to ourselves. There was only one table occupied and the occupants were chatting with the club pro who my friend immediately greeted. What the two guests lacked in number, they made up in girth and volume. One loud accent was distinctly from Brooklyn and when I turned from the pro toward the table, I realized that it belonged to none other than Art Donovan. For those not native “Balamorean”, Art or “Fatso” as he was affectionately called, was the All-Pro Defensive Tackle for the Baltimore Colts from 1953 until 1961. He played in the 1958 and 1959 Championship games for the Colts and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968.
Even if you are not a football fan, you might have seen Art on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, or Late Night with David Letterman. Both hosts were fans of Art’s unintentionally hilarious story telling and would bend over with laughter when he'd stumble across a punch line. He was to football what Yogi Berra was to baseball.
If that weren’t enough, Art's sole table mate was Jim Mutscheller, who played tight end for the Colts for nine seasons and was Donovan’s teammate on those two iconic championship teams. On that summer’s day Jim was in his early 60’s and Art was pushing 70 years of age. They had finished their round well before us and had clearly enjoyed a few beers before our arrival.
When we addressed them by name, they immediately suggested we join them and as a lifetime Colts fan, they didn’t have to ask me twice. We got a couple beers, ordered a couple burgers, and sat back for the travelling show that was Arthur James “Fatso” Donovan, Jr.
His theme of the day was what a whining bunch of prima donnas the current batch of NFL players are and the stark contrast to his and Jim’s playing days. His funniest and most illustrative story had to do with fan relations and PR back in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.
These days you’ve got big, expensive PR departments and the teams spend a lotta bucks on promoting the sport to the local fans. The players get paid extra just to show up, smile, and sign a few autographs for the kids. Gimme a break. Back in the day, we were the damned PR department and didn’t get a dime extra for it. Carol (Rosenbloom, team owner) called the shots and we followed.
“Was it every week?” (Donovan asked Jim who hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about)
“Was what every week?” Mutscheller asked.
“You know the Colt Corrals, the game films.”
“Well not every week, but each of us had to do it pretty often.” Mutscheller answered.
(Note: Colts Corrals was an organization of local Colts Fan Clubs, organized by neighborhood throughout the city and nearby suburbs. Founded by Colts #1 Fan, Hurst “Loudy” Loudenslager in 1957, they even survived the years without a Baltimore franchise and are now called Raven’s Roosts some 65 years later.)
Ya see, Donovan continued, each player was expected to drive to the Colt’s office on Charles Street, pickup a 16mm projector and a film from the previous Sunday game, and drive to some guy’s house to show it in his club basement. (Art judges from our amazed faces that we can’t wrap our heads around this fact, so feels the need to add, "That's no shit").
Beer was usually involved, so that was good, but ya see these? (Art holds up his ham-hock-like hands: fat, bent and gnarled by years of abuse) They ain’t made to thread no 16mm projector, and after a few beers, fuggedaboutit. That was the hardest part of the night.
Ya think Kelly (presumably Jim Kelly), Rice (Jerry), or White (Reggie) are gonna do that? No way. They’d think the owner was smokin’ something even to suggest it.
At that point Art turned toward the restaurant door and said in a loud voice. "Hey, can we get some more beers out here? A guy could die of thirst."
In retirement Art Donovan owned liquor stores and the Valley Country Club in Towson, MD which he ran with his wife, Dorothy. Ever the blue-collar guy, he was as likely to be seen painting walls or scrubbing pots as he was telling stories in the bar.
He passed away at Stella Maris Hospice in August of 2013 from a respiratory disease. He was 89. The Washington Post said of Donovan:
With the death of Art Donovan this past week, sports lost one of its last genuine characters, in every sense of the word. A lot of guys try to get our attention. Donovan was that rare guy who didn’t have to try.