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Why Does the NFL Ignore Its Early History?

Ever heard of Jim Benton? Don’t worry; most football fans haven’t. Yet the Cleveland/Los Angeles Rams star of the 1930s and 1940s still ranks #4 all time in most receiving yards in a single game.

On this day 97 years ago—August 20, 1920—the National Football League was founded in that legendary Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio.

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.

Why?

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 my book 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.

“I can’t begin to tell you how little institutional knowledge the NFL actually has.” — Joe Horrigan

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.

Benny Friedman of the New York Giants threw four TD passes in one game in 1929.

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.

ESPN recounts that

“[…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.

Bob Waterfield: a prototype of the modern NFL quarterback.

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.

Did the AAFC Try to Block the Rams’ Move to the Coliseum?

la-coliseum-commission-minutes
The minutes of a meeting of the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission in January 1946 capture an attempt by the AAFC’s Los Angeles Dons’ to undermine the Rams’ arrival in L.A.

It’s well documented—in the book The Cleveland Rams and elsewhere—that the intense rivalry between the established NFL and the brand-new All-America Football Conference was a key factor in the Cleveland Rams moving west to become the Los Angeles Rams. For one, the AAFC’s Browns were encroaching on the Rams’ Cleveland market just as the latter had won a championship. For another, the flag the AAFC was about to plant in both L.A. with the Dons and San Francisco with the 49ers gave NFL owners added urgency to approve Daniel F. Reeves’s proposed move west and establish their own foothold in booming postwar California.

But what isn’t always so well known is how nasty the NFL–AAFC rivalry could get. This is revealed, for example, in a little-seen document posted this weekend by the Los Angeles Times: minutes from a meeting of the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission on January 29, 1946, only 16 days after Reeves had announced he was moving the Rams west.

To set the stage: Vying for use of the Coliseum—off limits to pro football for two decades—are the Rams’ Charles “Chile” Walsh, and the Dons’ Slip Madigan and Al Wesson. In time, both teams would be granted access to the publicly owned facility, with the Rams doing so by signing African American players Kenny Washington and Woody Strode and thereby igniting the reintegration of the NFL.

Not if the Dons had had their way, however. Wesson in particular attempted to undermine the Rams’ reputation and with it the West Coast city’s eagerness to accommodate the inbound NFL champions. In fact, throughout the proceedings he insisted on hopefully calling the team the “Cleveland” Rams, even though all others already had taken to calling them the “Los Angeles” Rams.

Wesson started (p. 27) by saying:

“… If you think you are forced to give this lease because it is the only way you can get the Cleveland Rams in here you are being misled.”

This is true. Reeves and Walsh absolutely longed for the 103,000-seat Coliseum, but if need be they were fully prepared to play in L.A.’s Wrigley Field (capacity 21,850) or Gilmore Stadium (18,000).

Wesson also attempted (p. 32) to disabuse the Commission’s Leonard Roach of a notion that the Rams—9–1 in 1945 and victors in the NFL Championship Game—were “the outstanding aggregation of outstanding football players in America”:

“I believe, gentlemen, you have been a little bit oversold on the Cleveland Rams. [Their 1945 title notwithstanding] … the record of the Cleveland Rams since they have been in existence, in only one year have they ever finished over 500 per cent.”

Which also was true. The season of 1945 brought the Rams their first-ever winning record.

Then Wesson went for the jugular (p. 32) by asterisking even that one championship because it had been earned during a wartime player shortage:

“This last year I think we all agree that football reached its lowest ebb, college and professional football. That was the one year they won the championship.”

This is only partially true. It could be argued that the seasons of 1942, 1943, and 1944—during which the perennially powerful Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears, and Green Bay Packers won championships—were the lowest wartime ebb of football. By May 1945 the Allied Powers had won the war in Europe; by August, World War II was over, and many players already had received honorable discharges and were stateside by the time the 1945 season began in September.

Even Wesson seemed to acknowledge this (p. 32) as he pressed on:

“Next year when good football players are back—and there are still a lot of good football players left—next year and the following years the competition will be much tougher, and if Cleveland seeks its own level, the level it established before last year, it will be next to the last in its division of the league. I think of five teams in its division it finished fourth three times and fifth once and third once. That is an average of fourth out of five [teams] which is the level of the Cleveland Rams.”

It actually was even worse: The Rams finished fourth four times and fifth twice. But about the future, Wesson was decidedly wrong. The Rams were about to embark on the most successful stretch in their history by posting 10 consecutive winning seasons and playing in four NFL championship games, winning one.

Wesson concluded (p. 32-33):

“I believe, gentlemen, you have been a little oversold on this championship idea and that they were to bring us, to quote you, ‘an outstanding football club, financially outstanding.’ Mr. Walsh himself said they always lost money.”

Generally true. And the Rams would continue to lose even bigger gobs of money in Los Angeles—but only until the early 1950s, when surpluses began to roll in in ever-increasing sizes.

Here Wesson was stopped cold by Commission member Roger Jessup, who said: “Mr Chairman, I don’t think that is germane to the subject.”

So who was this Al Wesson, who had argued so vigorously, and unsuccessfully, to keep the Rams out of the Coliseum? Turns out he held a disappointingly small “one-half of one percent” of the Dons—a team that would be thwarted in its own four-time quest for an AAFC championship by the dynastic Browns.

And naturally, as evident by Wesson’s persuasiveness, he was a publicist for Hollywood Park—now the forthcoming site, in one final posthumous insult, of a brand-new stadium for … yes, the Los Angeles Rams.

Rams History Trail >> Shaw Stadium

ShawStadium

Where: Shaw Stadium

Why: The Rams hosted two regular-season games here in 1938

Now: Still located at 14305 Shaw Avenue, East Cleveland, though now painted in the black-and-red of the Shaw High School Cardinals rather than the white of 1938

WhatNothing seemed to better symbolize the Rams’ futility in their early years than their sharing of Shaw Stadium in East Cleveland, if only briefly, with the Shaw High School Cardinals. Yet the Rams’ decision to host two games there in 1938—a 7–6 loss to the Chicago Cardinals on September 17, and a 21–17 victory over the Detroit Lions on October 2—made some sense. Shaw Stadium just had been renovated and enlarged and was lavishly maintained, off limits to high-school practices but available for game-day use by colleges and other high schools. The stadium furthermore was among the best illuminated in Ohio, its lighting designed and installed by General Electric, whose NELA Park, one of the nation’s first planned industrial research facilities, was just a mile-and-a-half away. And its 15,500 capacity was well suited to the team’s small but growing fan base. But by October 9, 1938 the team had returned to the fifty-percent-larger League Park for a stunning 14–7 upset of the Chicago Bears, and the Rams—and NFL football—never returned to Shaw Stadium.

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Rams History Trail >> Hollenden Hotel

Cleveland Rams, Hollenden Hotel

Where: The Hollenden Hotel

Why: The National Football League as we know it began here

Now: Fifth Third Bank Building, 600 Superior Avenue, Cleveland

What: The Rams franchise probably would not be here today had the American Professional Football Association not been founded in Canton, Ohio in 1920, then changed its name to the National Football League at an owners meeting at Cleveland’s Hollenden Hotel on June 18, 1922. The new NFL moniker was championed by Chicago Bears founder George Halas, who thought “professional” was “superfluous” and that the term “association” connoted second-division baseball. “And we were first class,” he said. The NFL, destined to be called “America’s Game,” was underway …

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Home of Damon “Buzz” Wetzel >>

Rams History Trail >> Damon “Buzz” Wetzel’s House

Damon "Buzz" Wetzel house, Cleveland

Where: Home of Damon “Buzz” Wetzel

Why: The true founder of the Rams franchise lived here while coaching the team in its inaugural season of 1936

Now: A semi-rehabbed but abandoned residence at 7609 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland

What: The founding of the Rams usually is attributed to lawyer-businessman Homer H. Marshman, and indeed it was at Marshman’s house in the exclusive Cleveland suburb of Waite Hill that funding was lined up to launch the team in the American Football League in 1936. But it was young Damon “Buzz” Wetzel—barely out of The Ohio State University, son of a Cleveland Indians scout, and with one season under his belt as an NFL player for the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Pirates (now Steelers)—who prevailed on Marshman and other Cleveland moneymen to invest. Wetzel recruited future Hall-of-Fame coach Sid Gillman to play for the Rams, became the team’s first head coach, and served as its general manager when the team entered the NFL in 1937. In 1938 he was pushed out by many of the same investors he had brought in and never worked in the NFL again.

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