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.
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.
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.
Author Jim Sulecki’s final appearance in the Cuyahoga Public Library’s “Ohio Sports History” series will bring him to the South Euclid-Lyndhurst branch on Tues., Nov. 21, 7:00 p.m.
Come and whet your appetite for a long Thanksgiving weekend of watching football by listening to Jim talk about the “The Real History of the Cleveland Rams.” Sales of his book and author signings will immediately follow.
Cleveland Rams author James C. Sulecki recently chatted with Warren Rogan, host of the Orlando, FL-based podcast “Sports’ Forgotten Heroes.” They covered the Rams’ ignominious start in the 1930s, their championship in 1945, and their stunning move to Los Angeles in early 1946. Listen in on the interview here …
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.