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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Were the Rams Locked out of a Stadium in Cleveland?

cleveland-stadium
Cleveland Stadium in 1995, just before it was razed. A half-century earlier the stadium was at the center of the Cleveland Rams’ collision with the incoming Cleveland Browns. (Photo courtesy Christopher Noice)

Gerald Reynolds of southern California raised this question in a comment posted to a podcast interview I conducted a few months ago with the fan website Rams Talk:

… The one thing I do know is one huge motivating factor for the Rams to move to LA in 1946 was the city of Cleveland leased out the only stadium in the city to the Browns of the AAFL [sic] and the Rams who had just won the NFL title didn’t have a place to play. How do you lockout a team that just brought a title to your city?

First, I’m glad and flattered Gerald took the time to listen in on the podcast and to comment. However, a tendency to “blame the victim” seems to strike nearly every city with the misfortune of losing a major-league sports franchise, including Gerald’s own Los Angeles.

Browns owner Arthur “Mickey” McBride expressed the team’s willingness to share Cleveland Stadium with the Rams …
… but Rams general manager Charles “Chile” Walsh, probably on orders from owner Daniel F. Reeves, signaled a wish to stay at League Park.

Maybe I’m just a bit touchy on this subject. Like all native Greater Clevelanders, I watched Art Modell spirit the original Browns franchise out of Cleveland, then remain conspiratorially silent as many in the media and football fandom at large laid the blame for the move on a jilted region that had only supported the team for a half-century.

So … let’s look at a few facts from 1945 and 1946.

First, the Browns of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) had no exclusive lock on Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Just like the L.A. Coliseum—which in 1946 became home to both the NFL’s Rams and the AAFC’s Dons—Cleveland Stadium was a taxpayer-owned facility. Baseball’s Indians shared it with the Browns for many years. The Rams could have used it too, if they had been interested.

Browns owner Arthur “Mickey” McBride was quoted in considerable detail on this topic. Here’s a passage from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 30, 1945 (which incidentally, was precisely two weeks before the media announced Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves was moving his team out of Cleveland):

“I’m even willing to share the Stadium with the Rams,” said McBride. “If they want to play down there on Sunday afternoon’s [sic] we’ll be glad to play our games on Friday nights.

 “In fact, we’re arranging our schedule so that we’ll play most of our home games early in the season and finish up in the West and South. We don’t plan to play here in November or December unless we play the Rams.”

At League Park By Choice?

Were the Rams outmaneuvered by the Browns as the Stadium’s primary tenant? Sure. But they were not blocked out. By the end of 1945 the Rams hadn’t played their regular-season schedule in Cleveland Stadium for three years. Instead they had opted for League Park, the city’s other NFL-ready stadium. Rams general manager Charles “Chile” Walsh insisted the Rams were beholden to a lease at League Park. But in early 1945 he also had said that lease was for five years, and ten months later the Rams departed for L.A. So the lease may not have been as ironclad as Walsh portrayed it.

The stadium issue came to a head when an over-capacity crowd in the Rams’ championship season of 1945 caused a temporary grandstand at League Park to collapse and break a limb of a paying fan. Why hadn’t the game been moved to Cleveland Stadium? The lease issue again was raised. “Besides,” Rams PR man Nate Wallack said later, Walsh “was stubborn.”

And he was shrewd too, as was Reeves. Both were adroit businessmen who probably could have found a way to move a game from League Park to Cleveland Stadium if they really had wanted to. Perhaps playing to a very large crowd would have eroded a running argument Reeves was waging with his fellow NFL owners: that Cleveland did not support his team, and hence he needed to move.

Not surprisingly, when the Rams remained at League Park while the far larger and newer Cleveland Stadium sat empty just miles away—the Rams, after all, had willingly signed the League Park lease—it did not help the team’s cause. John Dietrich of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who was highly influential in local football circles, had covered the Rams through their entire tenure in Cleveland, and probably had extensive knowledge of the team’s inner workings, wrote just after the Rams had left town:

From the standpoint of public good will, it was a decisive blunder when the game with the Packers here last November—a feature that might have pulled 50,000 into Cleveland Stadium­—was crammed into League Park. I believe the confusion of that afternoon cost the Rams thousands of patrons, permanently.

Instead of moving, Reeves—like Modell 50 years after him—told the media he wanted to stay where he was and fix the place up, “intimating” to the Chicago Daily Tribune in the immediate afterglow of the Rams’ championship-game victory over the Washington Redskins that he might expand League Park’s 23,000 capacity by 10,000 seats. This surely would have been problematic, however, with League Park being controlled by the Indians.

So why not give the Rams access to Cleveland Stadium? The city fathers were trying to maximize payback on an expensive 15-year-old stadium that was a terrible place to watch a football game and already was beginning to look like a white elephant.

Stadiums As a Political Football

So it should surprise no one that publicly owned stadiums were used as a political “football” even then. The City of Cleveland charged the Rams $10,000 to use Cleveland Stadium for the 1945 championship game (then had to make an unexpected outlay of additional labor and cost to clear the place of snow following a freak early-winter storm). This was a sweet deal for the Rams. In the 1940s the customary stadium payment in the NFL was 15 percent of the gross gate. After a take of $164,542 (which was a league record to that point), the city should have collected close to $25,000—two-and-a-half times what it actually pocketed.

And yet, not long after the title game—and continuing for decades to come—a rumor circulated that Cleveland had “gouged” the Rams for opportunistically high rent which further drove the team from the city. Walsh, in fact, owned up to a newspaper reporter on Christmas Eve 1945 that this claim had all been “just a little joke.”

A few weeks later, civic officials and Rams fans in Cleveland still were not laughing when the Rams packed up and moved to the West Coast.

It only goes to prove a point that apparently has been true for some time: It’s okay to accept the business and financial claims of professional sports owners at face value. Except when their lips are moving.

The Rams at 80: Which Era Was the Team’s Greatest?

Adam Walsh, Les Horvath, Charles "Chile" Walsh
The Brothers Walsh—head coach Adam Walsh (left) and general manager Charles “Chile” Walsh (right)—kicked off the Rams’ greatest era with a championship in Cleveland in 1945. Here they’ve just signed Heisman Trophy winner Les Horvath, who ultimately would play for the Rams in Los Angeles before returning to Cleveland as a member of the Browns.

We’ve just passed the 80th anniversary of the Rams’ entry into the National Football League, when on February 12, 1937, at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago the league’s owners voted to award Cleveland a franchise.

Franchise founders Homer H. Marshman and Damon “Buzz” Wetzel, along with a handful of players from the team’s sole season in the rival American Football League, picked up stakes and moved to the NFL, just to endure years of hardship on and off the field before breaking through with a championship in 1945.

What was the Rams franchise’s greatest era now that we have the perspective gained from 80 years of operation?

In a piece for the fan website RamsTalk.net, I assert the Rams’ final year in Cleveland before moving to Los Angeles was the springboard for the most glorious decade in the team’s long history.

Read the full story at RamsTalk.

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Weren’t the Rams Cleveland’s First NFL Champions?

It’s a question that comes up a lot: Weren’t the Rams Cleveland’s first NFL champions, and the Browns the city’s second?

Actually, no. Cleveland has the singular distinction of being the only American city to win championships with three different NFL franchises.*

So, who was this team that preceded both the Rams and the Browns as Cleveland champions?

It was none other than the Cleveland Bulldogs. In 1924, in only the fifth regular season of an organization that was fresh off a name change from the American Professional Football Association to the National Football League, the Bulldogs (7-1-1, .875) picked up one more win than had the Chicago Bears (6-1-4, .857) and laid claim to the pennant.

Cleveland Browns, Cleveland Rams, Cleveland Bulldogs
A Cleveland Plain Dealer cartoon on the eve of the Browns’ first All-America Football Conference title game in 1946 bears witness to the NFL champions who preceded them: the 1924 Bulldogs and 1945 Rams.

And here’s where controversy erupted. Because the Bulldogs had edged Chicago 16-14 in an early-season match-up at Dunn Field (later League Park), the Bears challenged Cleveland to a December 7 rematch at Wrigley Field and thrashed the Bulldogs soundly, 23-0, thinking they had made their case for dominance of the league.

No dice, NFL officials said at their annual meeting in January 1925. The regular season had ended November 30. Therefore, any game played after that qualified as merely an exhibition. The Bulldogs were champions; the Bears were livid.

But, weren’t the legendary Bulldogs—also champions the previous two NFL seasons—actually from Canton? They were. But by 1924 they were so financially strapped in the future Pro Football Hall of Fame city 60 miles south of Cleveland that the organization took to canvassing the city trying to sell season tickets, to little avail. So Samuel H. Deutsch, owner of a rival NFL team called the Cleveland Indians, bought the Bulldogs and combined the best players from his 1923 Indians with the best of the Bulldogs to create the 1924 NFL champions in Cleveland. In 1925 the franchise splintered again, with several Canton businessmen buying back the rights to the Bulldogs from Deutsch and playing games in Canton, while Deutsch continued to call his Cleveland team the Bulldogs.

This is critical. Had the Bulldogs moved lock, stock, and barrel from Canton to Cleveland in 1924 after their 1923 title—or from Cleveland back to Canton in 1925 after their 1924 title—they would have become the first NFL champs to play elsewhere the next year. But they didn’t, and as a result, two decades later when the 1945 Cleveland Rams became the 1946 Los Angeles Rams, they became the first—and to this day only—NFL champions to play the following season fully intact in a completely different city.

 

* As I say, Cleveland is the only city to win NFL championships with three different franchises. Checking in with two titles each are Baltimore (Colts, Ravens) as well three major metropolises that at various times were home to two franchises simultaneously: Chicago (Bears, Cardinals), Los Angeles (Rams, Raiders), and New York (Giants, Jets).

Are the 1937 Rams the All-Time Losingest NFL Team in Cleveland?

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.

All-Time Worst NFL Teams in ClevelandYes, 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.

Hugo Bezdek
Hugo Bezdek was a fantastic Major League Baseball manager and college football coach, but as the head coach of the 1937-1938 Cleveland Rams he was an abject failure. He was fired after compiling a 1–13 record and never coached pro football again.

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.

2016 Browns Surpass the 1937 Rams As Cleveland’s All-Time Worst NFL Team. But There Is Hope

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.
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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.