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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.

 

Rams History Trail >> Union Commerce Building

Rams Union Commerce Building Cleveland

Where: Union Commerce Building

Why: Business operations for the fledgling Rams franchise rotated around this commanding building at Cleveland’s business crossroads: East Ninth Street and Euclid Avenue.

Now: Still located at 925 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, the edifice is now known as the 925 Building (and coincidentally was on the route of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA championship parade in June 2016).

What: Rams co-founder and lawyer Homer H. Marshman amassed paperwork pertaining to the new franchise in a “neat and orderly folder” in his desk drawer while working from an office here in 1936. New Yorker Daniel F. Reeves operated out of this location on his infrequent trips to Cleveland after he bought the team in 1941. And it was from here that Rams general manager Charles “Chile” Walsh conducted scouting and recruitment efforts during World War II that ultimately built the franchise’s 1945 NFL championship team and the franchise’s greatest sustained stretch of football success to this day.

<< League Park

St. Regis Hotel >>

Rams History Trail >> Union Club of Cleveland

Union Club of Cleveland

Where: Union Club of Cleveland

Why: One of the oldest social organizations in the city of Cleveland and gathering place for many of the Rams founding investors

Now: Still located at 1211 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland

WhatThe Rams’ beginnings as an entity in the National Football League originated here. Owners Homer H. Marshman and Dan Hanna, frustrated with the financial struggles and general second-rate operation of the American Football League, met for lunch here at the end of the Rams’ 1936 inaugural season to discuss whether to stay in the AFL. “Count me out,” Marshman told Hanna; the AFL, he said, was “a failure.” Instead the two men called Joe F. Carr—Columbus, Ohio, native and president of the NFL—who encouraged the Rams to apply for entry. A few months later, on February 12, 1937, the Cleveland Rams officially joined the NFL.

<< May Company department store

Shaw Stadium >>