Big Art Donovan Is Making It Real Big Once Again
Growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s, we knew these were the best of times: We had good food on the table (it has always been important there which butcher to use and where to buy the crabs), a grass lot to play on, The Diner where we ate the fries and dreamed American dreams and, most of all, the Colts. Our beloved Colts. On a Sunday at 2 o’clock in the stadium, the roar would swallow the introductions: Gino Marchetti, Art Donovan, Big Daddy Lipscomb . . . One after the other. (To say nothing of Unitas.) They were the greatest. You can argue, but they were.
You know the rest, and you don’t know the rest.
Unitas let his crew cut grow, Marchetti went into hamburgers, Big Daddy died, The Diner (the real one) was torn down, the Colts were taken to Indianapolis. Most of it figured: The trolley barn is Johnny’s Auto Body and Fender, and Sam and Elmer’s barber shop (What a duo! One tall and bald, one short and round, they did a soft-shoe, and had a calendar girl over the cash register)--Sam and Elmer’s . . . vacant. But the Colts move?
“I says, you’re nuts, they’re never gonna leave. First thing I know, I was watchin’ TV, the 11 o’clock news and they have the Orioles packin’ up in Miami and comin’ north, and the next thing I know I see a Mayflower van and it’s snowin’. Well, I said, it don’t snow in Miami. I think, hey, maybe I better change the brand I’m drinkin’ here.
“No, they were talkin’ about the Colts, movin’ out. In the dead of the night. They rode off into the dark, into the dead of night.”
Art Donovan, old No. 70, is talking about his Colts as he drives his Chevy truck past Sam and Elmer’s empty storefront, past what was the trolley barn, less than a mile from where The Diner was. Art Donovan--constant in a world of turmoil--adopted Baltimorean and civic bedrock.
“Little Arthur” of the Bronx, son of the boxing referee, Art Donovan, “Big Arthur,” the third man in the ring for 18 of Joe Louis’ fights, including the 1938 rematch with Max Schmeling. “Little Arthur” was the kid on the subway from the Bronx who carried his father’s small bag with his gray referee’s uniform in it downtown to him on fight nights. Then, grown up to be one of the Colts (champions in 1958 and 1959) and their “Magnificent Seven” (Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Jim Parker, Marchetti, Weeb Ewbank and Donovan).
And today, at 62, in what he calls his “twilight years,” marking his third epoch as an ‘80s media figure who has spawned a cult on David Letterman and another of squealy teen-age girls who saw him as “a big cutie"--a 325-pound crew-cut dumpling-diving into the goal-line pileup of hot dogs on the recent Maryland State Lottery “Instant Baseball Game” commercial that, as a lottery official put it, “sold out almost instantly.”
Maybe there’ll be another game with Donovan because Donovan’ll be around. He has always been around. Owner of a tennis and swim club, into the empty pool of which he once slipped and dropped 23 feet--no joke, he didn’t crack the pool bottom, like some say, he lay in agony for an hour until someone found him in a broken heap. A bushwhacked blimp.
And a beer salesman. Schlitz. A man made for Miller Lite who always drank Schlitz, 12 to 18 cans a night. (And 20 to 30 hot dogs a sitting.) He doesn’t need the money, he just likes the beer. That’s why he goes to these liquor stores, pushing the brand he has drunk forever. Twenty-one years he owned a liquor store--that’s where he made his big money. Until, near the end, he was stuck up five times in a month. Once, a man aimed a shotgun at him. “It felt like I was lookin’ through the Lincoln Tunnel.”
Now, among all else, he’s a two-days-a-week salesman who can get a proprietor’s attention even when he’s only semi-serious.
“Where’s the Schlitz?”
“Where’s the Schlitz? It’s in the back.”
“You told me you were goin’ to put it up front.”
“Well, do you want me personally to put it up front?”
“I’ll put it up front . . . “
This is how much he likes Schlitz: “I went to California with my wife and we drove 11 hours up to Reno and I couldn’t find Schlitz in Reno. You know what I did? I drove all the way around Lake Tahoe to California and they had Schlitz. I bought myself a case. Then I come out and a kid wants to start a fight with me. I said, I think I’m a little too big for you. ‘Nobody’s too big for me.’ He said I had him blocked in, and I didn’t. I got out of the car. I said, ‘Let’s think this over.’ I called him a name and then I left.”
Now, he has parked his truck and is walking down the sidewalk to Jim Parker’s liquor store. Jim Parker, one of the “Magnificent Seven,” old No. 77. From behind, Donovan’s form fills the horizon, shoulders sloping like mountains under a tan raincoat. Like that bent-edged, black-and-white photo of him, taken from behind, leaving the stadium in the twilight, the shoulders then covered by a cape with a Colt on the back. Art Donovan, Gladiator. On the corner, youths gape. He’s walking right at them.
“Hey, you’re . . . “
“It is. It is!”
“Hiya, fellas.” Said in a faint New York rasp, a big man with a little wave, reaching a new generation.
He never sought fame. He understands it to be not of merit but accident. Three times it has happened. Every Bronx kid knew his old man. Then, himself, a giant who trod the earth, the old Colts’ fun guy with a knack for knowing which direction a play was heading, then trundling laterally from his defensive tackle slot in plenty of time to stuff it. He made it to the pro football Hall of Fame. And now . . . Now . . .
“Now, my picture’s all over the place with this lottery. We go to all these liquor stores and my picture’s on the door--they got glasses drawn on ‘em, they got cigars stuck in my mouth . . .
“Is this going to be my claim to fame? Eating hot dogs? Seventy-two times I had to bite into the hot dog to do that commercial. Yeah, they made 72 takes. I kept biting. Cold hot dogs. Seventy-two bites.”
How did fame strike again? First, by luck, NFL Films included him in a show on the golden age of pro football. Somebody from the Letterman show saw it. Then an agent in Atlanta saw Donovan and put him on a lecture circuit. Then somebody else called about the lottery commercial. Then Schlitz called. “I can’t say no,” he says.
He was happy the way it was. He’s happy now. He’ll be happy. “I have no ax to grind. I was lucky. I played. How many guys play high school, college football never play pro football? I wouldn’t want to go back over my life. I’ve done it all. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the Marine Corps. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the war. I wouldn’t have missed college. Or playin’ for the Colts. I got all the money I need. Five children. I got a truck. I have no regrets whatsoever.”
Donovan and Parker. Behemoths. Parker embraces the visitor he calls “Fatso Fogarty.” Parker’s hair is gray and he smokes a pipe, lights it frequently. He pushes his glasses back up the bridge of his nose after every guffaw. In the center of the floor, next to the Billy Dee Williams’ Colt 45 poster, Parker tells about an old awards banquet: “We were up on the stage. The man was introducing us. He said, ‘Art Donovan.’ He stood right like this. He said, ‘Jim Parker.’ We stood like this. ‘Big Daddy Lipscomb.’ He stood up. BAMMMM! The damn stage fell. Everybody went into the basement.”
They laugh so hard their bellies almost bump. What more can a man ask? They have their memories, and they still have each other.