The story of the Cleveland Rams might be deservedly obscure if not for the franchise’s signing of quarterback Bob Waterfield in 1945 and the team’s NFL championship that fall. If you’re a podcast fan you’ll want to spend a fast-moving hour with Cleveland Rams author Jim Sulecki and “Sports’ Forgotten Heroes” host Warren Rogan as they trace the career arc of Waterfield, one of the best all-around athletes ever to play in the NFL.
In 1965, the very last NFL season that would not end with the playing of a spectacular called the Super Bowl was completed.
Between those two events lie the approximate number of seasons—45—that have gone down the memory hole of NFL history.
If the NFL encompassed the entire universe—and sometimes it seems to think it does—the Big Bang would have occurred in 1958 with the TV sensation called the “greatest game ever played.”
But the present-day NFL emerged from stardust in 1967 when the Super Bowl was born. Prior to that, pro football was . . . misty and mostly unknowable. Primitive, prehistoric.
Or so the NFL might have you believe.
Counting Years Since It Became #1 with America
For some time I’ve puzzled over why pro football has a blinkered view of its own past. Then the primary reason clicked into place as I conducted an interview for mybook The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champs Who Left Too Soon.
“What the NFL has done to itself,” Joe Horrigan, Executive Director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, told me in an interview Canton in May 2015, “is to kind of mark time from when they became America’s No. 1 sport”—roughly coinciding with the creation of the grandiloquently titled Super Bowl.
This, he says, “is kind of baloney, but it’s an easy milestone to point to. I can’t begin to tell you how little institutional knowledge the NFL actually has.”
Imagine if Major League Baseball ignored its own early heritage. Baseball as we know it would begin roughly with Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals beating Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. But Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle? All largely forgotten.
Taking such a small-minded stance means the NFL players and coaches of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s have disappeared into relative obscurity. And the 1950s and early 1960s? On a dusty shelf in the league’s back bedroom.
Only with the dawning of the liberated middle ’60s and ’70s does the NFL emerge, shiny and new, TV-ready—a sport with no past.
Lingering Misperceptions About the Early Days
The popular perception of early pro football usually conjures images of the deadly “flying wedge” play …leather helmets … grown men missing teeth … three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust.
Yet the NFL’s scrum-like formative years were remarkably brief, perhaps a dozen or so in duration. Within a decade of the league’s founding in 1920, Cleveland native Benny Friedman became a sensation by tossing 20 touchdown passes in a single season with the New York Giants, four in just one game against the Chicago Bears.
By the mid-1930s the pass had become de rigueur for nearly every NFL team, and was ably exploited by some of the league’s earliest star receivers including Don Hutson of the Green Bay Packers and Jim Benton of the Cleveland Rams. (Hutson is a rarity in being much remembered — Benton not so much, even though he still ranks #4 all time in most receiving yards in a game.)
The T-Formation: NFL’s ‘Big Bang’
But modern football as we know it—truly, the current-day NFL’s Big Bang, not the coming of TV—began in 1940 when the Chicago Bears’ deployed the T-formation offense designed by the visionary Clark Shaughnessy.
“[…B]y positioning the quarterback directly behind the center for a hand-to-hand exchange, and by making the position the undeniable focus of an offense instead of merely a glorified blocker in the single wing, Shaughnessy forever altered the game. He conjured up the man in motion, misdirection, the counter play and the three-wide-receiver formation. Shaughnessy prioritized deft ballhandling and intelligent decision-making by quarterbacks, and made the ground game more viable and modern by drawing up quick hitters and eliminating much of the backfield traffic that slowed the run and previously rendered the game a ponderous exercise in physical superiority.”
Using the T, the Bears dismantled the Washington Redskins 73-0 that year in the most lopsided NFL championship game in history. Within a few years nearly every NFL team was hastily assembling some version of the T-formation. And it’s still with us today.
To watch rare footage of an NFL game from the 1940s is to witness the emergence of swaggering modern football. Cleveland/Los Angeles Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield in particular embodied the confident presence behind center, the backfield misdirections and rollouts and downfield arcs miraculously speared with acrobatic catches that we’ve come to expect from NFL football.
By the time American servicemen arrived home from World War II in 1945 and 1946, “hungry for rest and relaxation and distraction” as Horrigan put it, pro football had emerged from a 25-year experiment with a product that was engineered for postwar popularity.
Dishonoring the Game’s Early Stars
But what of the players who brought the NFL to that magical moment?
Many fans seem to see the league’s early era as a novelty and even a source of some amusement. Yet most players of the early era were not just college-educated but college graduates, usually forestalling their inevitable business or professional careers for sheer love of the game. Many were certain Americans would one day embrace the pro game as they had the collegiate version.
Friedman committed suicide in 1982, in ill health and reportedly in despair that he never would be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (He finally was—in 2005.) Waterfield died a year later, his place in the Hall secure but his legend already fading.
“I look at the guys from that era … my dad played a game with four broken ribs,” Waterfield’s son Buck Waterfield told me. “How many guys today would go into a game with four broken ribs? I think you could take a team from the 1940s or 1950s, play with rules from the 1940s and 1950s, and teams from then would just kill teams from today. [The early players] were just tougher. The wide receivers [today] would never get off the line of scrimmage; they would get a bloody nose. Toughness? I don’t think so. I grew up with all those guys. They played football because they loved it, not because of the money. Money was secondary.”
Still More to Uncover
With the NFL’s coming centennial in 2020, I asked Horrigan whether the league and the Hall had some festivities up their sleeves. He said there are “lots of things to cover” but that “the challenge will always be, what is significant versus interesting. Unfortunately the significant tends to lose out to the interesting.”
The sport’s restless forgetfulness, its disregard for its own provenance, seem to weigh a bit on Horrigan, who is charged with preserving its past.
“Baseball has always had its history. There’s always been a following,” he said. “But football—it’s still virgin territory. There’s a lot of territory that can still be investigated and reported.”
Is football history inherently just not all that interesting?
Hey, I say that if the NFL can get the American public excited about its player draft, it certainly can get its fans excited about the sport’s long and glorious past.
Until 2016, the answer would have been yes. In 1937 the debut edition of the Cleveland Rams and their 0–10 (.090) record put in a performance of on-field futility that surpassed even the inaugural Cleveland Browns II of 1999 (2–14, .125).
And then along came the Browns of 2016 and their 1–15 (.067) record.
Yes, Cleveland football fans—not just Browns fans but fans of all Cleveland NFL teams through the decades—have never seen an NFL season more awful than the one they’ve just witnessed. And that’s saying a lot.
You see, Cleveland was a charter member of the American Professional Football Association (APFA) all the way back in 1920—just shy of a century ago. We now know the APFA as the National Football League, born of man in that famous manger Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio; and believe it or not, it actually took some time for NFL football to take hold in what was then baseball- and boxing- and college-football-mad Cleveland.
Three NFL teams predate the Rams and the Browns in Cleveland: an NFL charter franchise called first the Tigers then the Indians in 1920 and 1921; a Canton Bulldogs / Cleveland Indians blend (1923-1927) newly christened the Cleveland Bulldogs in time to become NFL champs in 1924; then, for one single season that was underwritten by the league in hopes of getting something started in Cleveland, a second version of the Indians. But that team was was disbanded after compiling a 2-10 record, thereby qualifying it for fifth on Cleveland’s all-time infamy list.
In terms of losing percentages the 2016 Browns have beaten ’em all—the debut rosters of four different expansion teams included.
Optimistic Browns fans might choose to derive some hope from the Rams’ rags-to-riches story. And it is indeed true that after cycling through four head coaches and turning over their entire roster between 1937 and 1944, the Rams dove deep into the 1944 NFL draft and selected, with the 42nd overall pick, a dark-horse quarterback out of UCLA who hadn’t even earned All-American status. The very next season, 1945, Bob Waterfield passed the Rams to a 9–1 record and the NFL championship.
The Browns can only hope the 2017 player draft in April brings much the same result. They currently hold the number-one pick.
Take heart, Cleveland. As the new book “The Cleveland Rams” recounts, the city’s previous all-time losers went from worst to first in seven seasons.
January 8, 2017 | Cleveland —For 79 years, the 1937 Cleveland Rams and their 1–10 record (.090) stood as an exemplar of futility for NFL football in Cleveland.
No more. The Browns’ just-completed 1–15 season (.067) not only is the worst for the franchise, it also set an all-time new low among Cleveland NFL franchises dating back nearly 100 years.
Yet for the historically minded football fan, the Rams and their turnaround should offer some hope.
Admitted to the NFL as an expansion team, the Rams did even worse in their inaugural year than did the Browns of 1999 (2–14, .125). To make matters worse, they started the following season by going 0–3. It was a dismal 1–13 beginning for today’s L.A. Rams franchise.
But then in just seven seasons pockmarked by World War II, the Rams went from worst to first, winning the 1945 NFL Championship Game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium behind Bob Waterfield, who to this day is the only quarterback ever to win an NFL title in his rookie year.
Yet even then, there was a very Cleveland-like reversal of fortune. Only 27 days after the title game, Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves announced he was transferring his franchise to L.A. under circumstances not unlike Art Modell’s move of the Browns to Baltimore precisely 50 years later.
Cleveland-area author James C. Sulecki recounts these astounding stories and others in his newly published football history book,The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champs Who Left Too Soon, 1936–1945(McFarland, 2016)—the first full accounting of the origins of today’s billion-dollar Rams franchise in 1930s and 1940s industrial Cleveland. It’s a story whose tragedies and lessons still resonate today.
Why: Site of the Cleveland Rams’ practices the week before they won the 1945 NFL championship.
Now: Fairhill Place Apartments at the corner of Fairhill and Kemper roads in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
What: The weather was so cold and snowy leading up to the 1945 NFL championship game that the Rams had to set up camp in this brick-and-steel, two-story armory in suburban Shaker Heights in order to conduct their practices. “How do you like this spot?” star quarterback Bob Waterfield was asked by a newspaper reporter. “Can’t kick,” the always-laconic Waterfield replied, “but, otherwise, it’s all right.”
What: Waterfield and his new wife, movie star Jane Russell, were immediate—if brief—sensations in Cleveland when they alighted here in 1945. Both newly wealthy from their booming careers, they took up residence in this eight-story brick edifice that at one time had been a grand home to residents including a Rockefeller of the Standard Oil Company and the president of the old Cleveland Spiders pro baseball team. But since then, the building had been remodeled into apartments, and Waterfield and Russell shared a humble pull-down bed and cooked on a “tiny stove on top of the fridge” as they slowly grew homesick for their native southern California.
In late October 1945 the Rams’ PR rep received a request from LIFE magazine to publish a story about the couple. Russell’s movie studio initially was hesitant to provide permission, fearful of exposing the sex symbol’s marital status, but Russell was game. “I’ll cooperate with you on anything that’s good for Robert and (the) Rams,” she told him. A photographer arrived to capture the couple at home in the St. Regis and at League Park, with Russell at the latter daringly holding a staged placekick for her fully uniformed husband. The celebrity duo and their homespun lifestyle in Cleveland would be introduced to a national audience in the LIFE issue dated December 17, 1945—the day after the Rams had been crowned world champions.