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.

Advertisements

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.

Rams History Trail >> Cleveland Municipal Stadium

Cleveland Municipal StadiumWhere: Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

WhyThe Rams won the 1945 NFL Championship Game here 27 days before owner Daniel F. Reeves announced the franchise was moving to Los Angeles.

Now: First Energy Stadium, 100 Alfred Lerner Way, Cleveland.

What: From their American Football League debut in 1936 through the 1945 title game, the Cleveland Rams played 20 of their 41 home games here. Much like the baseball Cleveland Indians of the era, the Rams toggled between Cleveland Stadium and League Park—treasuring the potential for a larger gate at the former (78,000 capacity) but comfortable with the intimacy of the latter (23,000). The Stadium was the natural choice to host the 1945 title game, yet only 32,178 fans shivered through near-zero-degree weather to watch the Rams down the Washington Redskins on a patchy field insulated with 9,000 bales of straw. Precisely 50 years and one day later, the Cleveland Browns played their last game at Cleveland Stadium before moving to Baltimore, and the structure was razed soon thereafter. Today, no recognition of the Cleveland Rams or the history of Cleveland Stadium exists anywhere on the site.

<< Central Armory

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.
Featured

Rams History Trail >> Central Armory

Cleveland Central Armory

Where: Central Armory, at the corner of Lakeside Avenue and East 6th Street in downtown Cleveland.

Why: Site of the Washington Redskins’ “brief workout” just before the 1945 NFL championship game.

Now: The Armory was demolished in 1965 and replaced by a plaza adjacent to the Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building.

What: The Washington Redskins arrived by train with owner George Preston Marshall and their 120-piece marching band the day before the title game, intending to practice on an available open field somewhere in Cleveland, possibly at Baldwin Wallace College. “But they evidently don’t understand,” wrote the Plain Dealer’s John Dietrich, “that for the moment the local landscape looks like that of the North Pole.” Instead the Redskins were forced indoors to a “cavalry stable” just up a lakefront slope from Cleveland Municipal Stadium. There they went through a “brief workout” on December 15, 1945. They would have no such sanctuary the next day, however, as the elements would play a key role and lead to their undoing in their fateful championship-game matchup with the Cleveland Rams.

<< 107th Cavalry Armory

Cleveland Municipal Stadium >>