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 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 teamthat 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.
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).
Author James C. Sulecki recently sat down with Rams Talk managing editor Derek Ciapala to talk about his book The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champs Who Left Too Soon, 1936–1945 and how events that transpired for the Rams in just a handful of years in Cleveland shaped their long-term geographic destiny.
The Nelson Ross Award has been presented annually since 1988 for “outstanding achievement in pro football research and historiography.” Previous winners include Dan Daly for National Forgotten League (2012), Michael MacCambridge for America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation (2004), and Tod Maher and Bob Gill for The Pro Football Encyclopedia (1997).
The Cleveland Rams was published in late 2016 by McFarland.
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.
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.
Until 2016, the answer would have been yes. In 1937 the debut edition of the Cleveland Rams and their 0–10 (.090) record put in a performance of on-field futility that surpassed even the inaugural Cleveland Browns II of 1999 (2–14, .125).
And then along came the Browns of 2016 and their 1–15 (.067) record.
Yes, Cleveland football fans—not just Browns fans but fans of all Cleveland NFL teams through the decades—have never seen an NFL season more awful than the one they’ve just witnessed. And that’s saying a lot.
You see, Cleveland was a charter member of the American Professional Football Association (APFA) all the way back in 1920—just shy of a century ago. We now know the APFA as the National Football League, born of man in that famous manger Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio; and believe it or not, it actually took some time for NFL football to take hold in what was then baseball- and boxing- and college-football-mad Cleveland.
Three NFL teams predate the Rams and the Browns in Cleveland: an NFL charter franchise called first the Tigers then the Indians in 1920 and 1921; a Canton Bulldogs / Cleveland Indians blend (1923-1927) newly christened the Cleveland Bulldogs in time to become NFL champs in 1924; then, for one single season that was underwritten by the league in hopes of getting something started in Cleveland, a second version of the Indians. But that team was was disbanded after compiling a 2-10 record, thereby qualifying it for fifth on Cleveland’s all-time infamy list.
In terms of losing percentages the 2016 Browns have beaten ’em all—the debut rosters of four different expansion teams included.
Optimistic Browns fans might choose to derive some hope from the Rams’ rags-to-riches story. And it is indeed true that after cycling through four head coaches and turning over their entire roster between 1937 and 1944, the Rams dove deep into the 1944 NFL draft and selected, with the 42nd overall pick, a dark-horse quarterback out of UCLA who hadn’t even earned All-American status. The very next season, 1945, Bob Waterfield passed the Rams to a 9–1 record and the NFL championship.
The Browns can only hope the 2017 player draft in April brings much the same result. They currently hold the number-one pick.
Take heart, Cleveland. As the new book “The Cleveland Rams” recounts, the city’s previous all-time losers went from worst to first in seven seasons.
January 8, 2017 | Cleveland —For 79 years, the 1937 Cleveland Rams and their 1–10 record (.090) stood as an exemplar of futility for NFL football in Cleveland.
No more. The Browns’ just-completed 1–15 season (.067) not only is the worst for the franchise, it also set an all-time new low among Cleveland NFL franchises dating back nearly 100 years.
Yet for the historically minded football fan, the Rams and their turnaround should offer some hope.
Admitted to the NFL as an expansion team, the Rams did even worse in their inaugural year than did the Browns of 1999 (2–14, .125). To make matters worse, they started the following season by going 0–3. It was a dismal 1–13 beginning for today’s L.A. Rams franchise.
But then in just seven seasons pockmarked by World War II, the Rams went from worst to first, winning the 1945 NFL Championship Game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium behind Bob Waterfield, who to this day is the only quarterback ever to win an NFL title in his rookie year.
Yet even then, there was a very Cleveland-like reversal of fortune. Only 27 days after the title game, Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves announced he was transferring his franchise to L.A. under circumstances not unlike Art Modell’s move of the Browns to Baltimore precisely 50 years later.
Cleveland-area author James C. Sulecki recounts these astounding stories and others in his newly published football history book,The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champs Who Left Too Soon, 1936–1945(McFarland, 2016)—the first full accounting of the origins of today’s billion-dollar Rams franchise in 1930s and 1940s industrial Cleveland. It’s a story whose tragedies and lessons still resonate today.