March 5, 1923|
|Died||January 14, 1997
|Known for||owner of the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts|
|Spouse(s)||Harriet Pogorzelski (1946–1988; divorced)
Nancy Clifford (1989–1997; his death)
--Thomas Irsay (deceased)
--Roberta Irsay (deceased)
Robert Irsay (March 5, 1923 – January 14, 1997) was an American professional football team owner. He owned the National Football League's Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts franchise from 1972 until his death in 1997, and the Los Angeles Rams briefly in 1972.
Irsay was born on March 5, 1923 in Chicago, the son of Charles Irsay (born Charles Israel) and Elaine Nyitrai, Jewish immigrants from Hungary. In 1942 he joined the United States Marine Corps. In 1946 he was hired by his father's heating and ventilation business. In 1951 Irsay founded his own business, the Robert Irsay Co., and sold the business to Zurn Industries about a year before purchasing the Colts in 1972.
Irsay assumed ownership of the Baltimore Colts on July 13, 1972 after acquiring the Los Angeles Rams from the estate of Dan Reeves and swapping franchises with Carroll Rosenbloom, all made official on the same day. His last-minute US $19 million bid for the Rams was $2 million more than that of Hugh Culverhouse. Irsay's majority share in the Colts was initially 51%, with Willard Keland of Racine, Wisconsin owning the rest. He additionally announced the appointment of Joe Thomas as Baltimore's new general manager, succeeding Don Klosterman who accompanied Rosenbloom to Los Angeles.
In a controversial decision Irsay moved the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis, in the early morning hours of March 28, 1984, to become the Indianapolis Colts. Many fans of the Baltimore Colts continue to harbor resentment at Irsay, for perceived theft of the Colts and associated memorabilia, despite Baltimore gaining a new franchise, the Baltimore Ravens, by way of Art Modell and the Cleveland Browns, many years later.
In January 1984 Irsay appeared before the Baltimore media and exclaimed, "This is my team!" He reiterated that, despite problems, the rumors that he was moving the team were untrue. With negotiations over improvements to Memorial Stadium at an impasse, one of the chambers of the Maryland state legislature passed a law on March 27, 1984, allowing the city of Baltimore to seize the Colts under eminent domain, which city and county officials had threatened to do. Irsay claimed the city promised him a new football stadium, something they later denied, citing the team's poor attendance. The next day, fearing a dawn raid on the team's Owings Mills headquarters, Irsay accepted a deal offered by the city of Indianapolis.
[The state legislature and the city of Baltimore] not only threw down the gauntlet, but they put a gun to his head and cocked it and asked, 'want to see if it's loaded?' They forced him to make a decision that day.— Michael Chernoff, the team's general counsel, after the move.
Indianapolis Mayor, William H. Hudnut III, contacted John Burnside Smith, then CEO of the Mayflower Transit Company, who arranged for fifteen trucks to pack the team's property hurriedly and transport it to Indianapolis in the early hours of the morning of March 29. An ecstatic crowd in Indianapolis greeted the arrival of its new NFL team, and the team received 143,000 season ticket requests in just two weeks.
After Irsay's death in Indianapolis on January 14, 1997, the Colts were inherited by his son, Jim, who serves as CEO. Bill Polian handled the day-to-day operations of the team as vice-chairman until his dismissal after the 2011 season.
In 1946, Irsay married Harriet Pogorzelski, the daughter of Polish Catholic immigrants. They raised their children Catholic. They had three children – Thomas, Roberta and Jim. Roberta was killed in an automobile accident in 1971 on I-294 outside Chicago. Thomas, who lived with a severe mental disability, lived in a Florida facility until his death in 1999 at the age of 45. Jim is now the CEO and principal owner of the Colts. Irsay, who had divorced from Harriet, married Nancy Clifford on June 17, 1989, at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis; Hudnut officiated the ceremony. Nancy Irsay died November 7, 2015 at the age of 65.
Irsay is one of the members of the Indianapolis Colts Ring of Honor, being inducted on September 23, 1996.
Irsay suffered a stroke in November 1995 and was in intensive care at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital for several months. After his release he developed pneumonia, heart and kidney problems, for which he was transferred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He died in Indianapolis on January 14, 1997. He is interred at Crown Hill Cemetery.