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?

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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.