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.

Featured

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).

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

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.

<< Shaw Stadium

Union Commerce Building >>