Meet Joe DeLuca, Super Fan of the Rams (and Browns)

Jim Sulecki, Joe DeLuca
Joe DeLuca with author Jim Sulecki. Joe is wearing the no. 92 jersey of his favorite player, Tommy Colella, one of just a handful of men who played for both the Cleveland Rams and the Cleveland Browns.

Joe DeLuca doesn’t just remember the Cleveland Rams, he remembers the Cleveland Rams vividly.

No surprise. When Joe was a wide-eyed kid, his dad and his uncles took him to many Rams games at League Park in the 1930s and ’40s—”back when it was not fashionable to watch pro football,” he says with a mix of pride and nostalgia.

For years he carried his memories of the Rams and Browns franchises’ early years in Cleveland with the same care and pride as the mail he delivered for 35 years as a postal employee. And this fall, Joe, an energetic sprite of a man, arrived with his daughter and grandson at my Cleveland Rams book talk at the Parma (OH) Public Library eager to share his first-hand accounts. Some of them he’d committed to paper. Others burst out of him like a quarterback cadence at the line of scrimmage.

More Than Seventy Years Ago …

Joe’s recollections,  he says, have been “boiling in my gut for a long time.”

The Rams’ impact in Cleveland? “By the time 1945 came I was a die-hard Rams fan. We did not have much to cheer about in Cleveland since the 1920 Cleveland Indians won the World Series.”

The NFL championship game on December 16, 1945, claimed by the Rams over the Washington Redskins? “It was the coldest sporting event I have ever been to in my life. The next day I told my sixth-grade teacher that I went to the game. She said, ‘You are a real lunatic!'”

So it was worth it? “I was extremely, deliriously happy that day. The Cleveland Rams had finally put Cleveland on the professional sports map. Little did we know what was in store for us”—the debut of the even more successful Cleveland Browns the following year.

The goalposts that Joe DeLuca recalled being carried by two men through Public Square later that evening.

Joe recalls that in the gathering dusk of that mid-December day, exuberant fans pulled down a goal post on the Cleveland Stadium field. Later, “I saw a couple of fans carrying parts of the pipe through Public Square and I wondered for years how they got it home on a streetcar, or whose yard that pipe is rotting in today, not knowing what it is.”

Joe solved the mystery decades later when he came into contact with a fellow Rams fan named Bob Priest. Joe wondered aloud about those men in Public Square, and Priest told him it had been him and his brother, and that the police had confiscated the pipe and dropped the brothers in a jail cell for a few hours.

Joe now imagines the goalpost ended up in a police impound lot, anonymous and forgotten.

Rams, Browns; Reeves, Modell: History Repeats

Joe was not among the Cleveland fans whom most historical accounts say greeted the Rams’ departure with indifference. When Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves announced on January 12, 1946, that he was moving the champion Rams to Los Angeles, “upset wasn’t the word” that described how Joe felt. “We hated Dan Reeves as much as people hated Art Modell for moving the Browns. There are not as many of us left today who remember that deep feeling. I personally have been through it twice.”

Joe recalls that he and his friends believed for some time that actress Jane Russell was all to blame for the team moving. “We thought she told her husband [Rams star quarterback] Bob Waterfield: ‘I don’t want to live in this hick town.’ We were so wrong!” The factors that moved the Rams were far more complex than the preferences of a rookie quarterback and his wife, but they did center primarily on Reeves’s desire to increase his revenue in a larger city with a larger stadium.

With the Rams gone, Joe at first resisted the fledgling Browns. “My friends were all excited about the Browns, and they asked me if I wanted to go with them to see the first game. I said ‘No.’ I was still pining for the Rams.”

Like nearly all pro football fans in Cleveland, however, Joe eventually placed his allegiance with the Browns. Yet the Rams never strayed far from his mind. He believes the immediate hold the Browns took on Cleveland was due not just to that unique time in history—servicemen were back from World War II, and the public was ready to distract itself with newly found leisure time and money—but also because “the Rams leaving town gave people a feeling of revenge for their loyalties being let down.”

How better to explain the fervor with which Clevelanders support the “new” Browns of today, even after the departure of a second franchise now called the Ravens? “History has a way of repeating itself,” Joe said.

Amid yet another dismal Browns campaign, DeLuca came to the library decked out in the Browns jersey of 1940s star running back Tommy Colella, his favorite all-time player. Colella was among an elite handful of players who donned uniforms of both the Cleveland Rams and the Cleveland Browns.

How fitting that Colella should be remembered with such fondness by one of the few remaining fans of both Cleveland teams.

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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.