How the origin story of the billion-dollar NFL Rams franchise now based in the nation’s second largest market could have been so forgotten is one of many topics covered in James C. Sulecki’s recent interview with Tim Hanlon, host and producer of Good Seats Still Available.
Through the course of the 80-minute podcast, the Cleveland Rams author notes professional football is far less inclined than Major League Baseball to honor its early history, and that the NFL tends to trace its modern-era beginnings to the 1960s when it became the most popular pro sport in America. Unfortunately, this inclination leaves nearly a half-century of important early innovation mostly unforgotten In 2020 the NFL will mark the centennial of its founding in Canton, OH.
“Good Seats Still Available” is a Chicago-based podcast “devoted to the exploration of what used-to-be in professional sports.”
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.
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.
We’ve just passed the 80th anniversary of the Rams’ entry into the National Football League, when on February 12, 1937, at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago the league’s owners voted to award Cleveland a franchise.
Franchise founders Homer H. Marshman and Damon “Buzz” Wetzel, along with a handful of players from the team’s sole season in the rival American Football League, picked up stakes and moved to the NFL, just to endure years of hardship on and off the field before breaking through with a championship in 1945.
What was the Rams franchise’s greatest era now that we have the perspective gained from 80 years of operation?
In a piece for the fan website RamsTalk.net, I assert the Rams’ final year in Cleveland before moving to Los Angeles was the springboard for the most glorious decade in the team’s long history.
James C. Sulecki, author of The Cleveland Rams, recently talked with Joshua Neuman, host of the L.A.-based Rams podcast “The Greatest Show on Grass.” Their conversation centered on the historical parallels between young coach Art “Pappy” Lewis in 1938 and young coach Sean McVay in 2017—but other interesting connections between the Rams of today and the Rams of yesteryear also arose. Listen in …
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.
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.”
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.