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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.

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.

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 >> League Park

League Park, Cleveland Rams

Where: League Park

Why: The Rams played 19 of their 41 AFL and NFL home games here while they were in Cleveland, including all four of their regular-season contests leading up to their 1945 NFL championship.

Now: A beautifully restored public baseball field, replete with a replica of League Park’s famed right-foot wall along with Cleveland’s Baseball Heritage Museum, are located on the very same site at 6601 Lexington Avenue, Cleveland.

What: Though home to baseball’s Cleveland Indians, League’s Park rectangular configuration and seating capacity of 23,000 made it a surprisingly accommodating facility for football—professional as well as collegiate. Located at a trolley stop at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 66th Street, League Park was sewn into the middle of the Hough neighborhood on the city’s East Side, with automobile parking accommodated—for a small fee, of course—by local residents and their shallow front yards. The final two NFL games there were particularly momentous. On November 11, 1945 a flash overflow crowd of 28,361 jammed into the park’s grandstands as well as a battalion of temporary bleachers erected along the right-field wall, causing the latter to collapse and injure 31—though many joyous fans engrossed in the Rams’ 20–7 victory over the hated Green Bay Packers hardly noticed. At League Park’s very last football game, on December 2, 1945, the Western Division champion Rams ran their record to 9–1 by defeating the Boston Yanks, 20–7, before 18,470. Boxing legend Jack Dempsey was on hand to help celebrate a special “day” for fan favorite, lineman Riley “Rattlesnake” Matheson. Just six weeks later, Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves announced the team was moving west to become the Los Angeles Rams.

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