When Did the Rams Franchise Enter the American Football League?

It’s a question I don’t directly address in my book The Cleveland Rams, and yet, there it was posed to me via e-mail by Leciana “Lee” Gabor of Texas: What is the exact date that the Rams entered not the National Football League but the American Football League—their first home?

Turns out Lee’s son is a huge fan of the Los Angeles Rams, so she’s been doing some research on his behalf (what a great mom!). Lee wrote:

“The website is wonderful and, especially, the photos of the buildings important in the Cleveland Rams history.

“I have been searching for the exact date of the AFL franchise that Attorney Marshman and his friends established.

“I found in the building descriptions the date of the NFL franchise and previously had found that Mr. Marshman had met with Mr. Carr in Chicago in December, 1936, so was thrilled to find that date of 2-12-1937 for the actual franchise.

“Do you know the AFL franchise date? Please let me know one way or the other. I found the team schedule with games starting in October of 1936, but everything I find online simply says 1936 with no month or day.”

Homer H. Marshman and Damon "Buzz" Wetzel
Homer H. Marshman and Damon “Buzz” Wetzel are forever united as co-founders of today’s Los Angeles Rams franchise.

A-ha! I’m pleased to report the Cleveland Rams’ entry to the American Football League can be pinpointed to … August 1, 1936. This was just six-and-a-half months before a near-championship in the AFL’s botched premiere season prompted the team to seek asylum in the more financially stable NFL. On that day the New York Times ran a small item reporting that “Harold D. Paddock, manager, said tonight the recently incorporated Cleveland Football Club would sponsor a Cleveland entry in the new American Professional League this Fall.”

But here’s where we run into a few wrinkles. It was not “Attorney Marshman”—i.e., Homer H. Marshman, widely and correctly considered to be one of the true fathers of the Rams and later a minority owner of the Cleveland Browns—who funded the endeavor. Instead it was the trio of Paddock, a gentleman named Reuel A. Lang, and the mysterious but equally important Damon “Buzz” Wetzel who were “incorporators of the Cleveland club.” As I take pains to note in my book, Buzz Wetzel is a somewhat tragic figure whose contributions as co-founder of today’s billion-dollar Rams franchise have been largely lost to history.

Here’s where I pick up the strand of the story in The Cleveland Rams. By September 6, just five weeks after gaining entry to the AFL, Wetzel announced that he had given up hope for the team due to “lack of sound financial backing.” Apparently Mssrs. Paddock and Lang were not up to the task.

But then, thanks to Paul Thurlow—owner of the competing Boston Shamrocks, and coincidentally a Harvard Law School classmate of Marshman’s—Wetzel gained access to a bevy of Cleveland money men including Marshman and newspaper magnate Dan Hanna. Newly infused with cash, the Rams were up and running, and while the rest of the AFL commenced play elsewhere, the Cleveland team hastily assembled a roster that included Wetzel as player-coach and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Sid Gillman at end. The team conducted practice at a Cleveland-area golf course, then on October 11, 1936, the Rams franchise debuted to the world at Cleveland’s League Park with a 26–0 shutout of the Syracuse Braves.

Though Marshman and Wetzel are forever linked as co-founders of the Rams, they came to different ends.

Marshman was a member of the Cleveland consortium that sold the Rams in 1941 to New Yorker Daniel F. Reeves, who ultimately moved the franchise to L.A. Twenty years later Marshman again was a member of a consortium, this time selling the Browns to New Yorker Arthur B. Modell, who ultimately moved that team to Baltimore—thereby achieving the singular distinction of having sold not one but two NFL franchises to out-of-towners who eventually moved them out of Cleveland. Not that this seemed to trouble Marshman much. Wealthy and a member of high society, he in the fullness of time moved to Palm Beach, Florida, where he died in 1989—a half-dozen years before Modell transferred the Browns.

In contrast, Wetzel was fired as Rams general manager by Marshman & Company in 1938 after the team lost 11 of its first 12 games in the NFL. He drifted into minor league baseball, served in the Navy in World War II, and died in Texas in 1985. After the Rams released him, he never held another position in pro football.

And that, as they say, is the rest of the story.

 

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