The Cleveland Rams
The City's Pre-Browns NFL Champions
From 1937 to 1945, Cleveland Municipal Stadium—now the site of FirstEnergy Stadium—was home to the Cleveland Rams for 20 of their 35 National Football League home games in Cleveland, including their triumph in the 1945 NFL championship game as the first Cleveland team since the 1924 Bulldogs to win a pro football title. The stadium was also at the center of the Rams’ collision with the incoming Cleveland Browns, factoring in the Rams franchise's historic decision to depart for Los Angeles in January 1946. The move was not unlike the departure of Art Modell's Browns to Baltimore 50 years later, with Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves denying persistent rumors that the team might relocate before finally citing financial difficulties and a better stadium as his reasons for moving the team to another city.
Lawyer/businessman Homer H. Marshman and former Ohio State and NFL player Damon “Buzz” Wetzel, using seed money from a host of Cleveland investors, founded the Rams in 1936 in the American Football League, with the team playing all of their home games at League Park. But when the Rams fell just short of a championship in the financially shaky AFL, Marshman and Wetzel moved the franchise the following season to the far more established NFL. From 1937 through 1942, the Rams suffered six non-winning seasons under three head coaches as they rotated home games among Municipal Stadium, League Park, and Shaw Stadium.
In 1941 the Cleveland-based owners, fearful they might lose their investments if World War II were to shut down the NFL, sold the franchise to Reeves, a New York City grocery magnate, who immediately considered and then withdrew—in the face of civic opposition and the disapproval of the other NFL owners—a proposal to move the Rams to Boston. At one point Cleveland businessman Arthur “Mickey” McBride offered to buy the team from Reeves, who rejected the offer, causing McBride to found a Cleveland franchise in the emerging All-America Football Conference (AAFC) that later was to be named the Browns. Had McBride succeeded in buying the Rams, it is very possible the team might never have left Cleveland and that the Browns might never have entered the NFL.
In 1943, Reeves and general manager Charles “Chile” Walsh, with a war-shortened roster, and after watching attendance for Cleveland Indians baseball games plummet the previous summer, became the only NFL team to elect to suspend operations because of World War II, and sent multiple players to other teams in a dispersal draft. In 1944 Reeves and Walsh, quickly recognizing their mistake, returned the Rams to NFL play and selected quarterback Bob Waterfield of UCLA in the player draft.
In 1945 the Rams—featuring stars including Waterfield, end Jim Benton, lineman Riley “Rattlesnake” Matheson, and four other players who would jump to the Cleveland Browns the following year—surged to the Western Division title and their first-ever winning season at 9–1. The resulting championship game at Municipal Stadium on December 16, 1945 was among the more unusual in NFL history. With wintry weather in the forecast, Stadium groundskeepers covered the field with straw and laid down a tarp, which subsequently was covered with heavy snow as the week before the game wore on. On game day, as temperatures hovered near zero and snow piles and stacks of straw ringed the field and the Stadium floor’s perimeter, the Rams capitalized on two Waterfield touchdown passes and a freak safety by Washington Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh to win the game and the NFL championship, 15–14.
After the game, Reeves jubilantly suggested he might expand the capacity of 23,000-seat League Park by 10,000 to create a more suitable home for his new champions. But with the Browns of the new AAFC planning to begin play in autumn 1946 at 78,000-seat Municipal Stadium, which McBride had offered to share with the Rams, Reeves instead announced on January 12, 1946—amid a citywide newspaper strike in Cleveland that lasted a month—that he would transfer the franchise 2,400 miles west to Los Angeles and its 103,000-seat Memorial Coliseum. Reeves’s fellow NFL owners initially opposed the move, arguing that the Rams would be situated an impractical 2,000-mile, 45-hour train ride from the next-closest teams in Chicago and Green Bay, Wisconsin; but Reeves countered that the move was necessary for the NFL to gain a foothold in California, where the rival AAFC’s San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Dons just were taking up residence.
Browns officials, advancing quickly to gain public favor now that they were assured of sole access to the Cleveland pro football market, positioned their new AAFC team as a way to forget the Rams. And indeed the Browns, after joining the NFL in 1950 following the disintegration of the AAFC, faced the Rams for the league championship three times in the six seasons from 1950 through 1955, with the Browns taking two. The Rams and the Browns paced pro football in attendance for years, yet their respective host cities were beginning to move in opposite directions. With Los Angeles the fifth-largest city in America at the time of the move and Cleveland just behind it as sixth largest, Los Angeles and the Sun Belt grew rapidly while Cleveland and the so-called Rust Belt continued to decline in population.
The Rams, in becoming the first major-league sports franchise west of the Mississippi, set off a westward migration of sports franchises that later included baseball’s Giants and Dodgers. The team also racially reintegrated the NFL in 1946 when it was forced to sign African American players Kenny Washington and Woody Strode as a condition for renting the publicly owned Los Angeles Coliseum. The Rams franchise was in some ways the “proto-Browns” for NFL football in Cleveland, and Reeves’s decision to relocate the team to L.A. was a falling domino whose implications continue to this day.