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.

About the Author

James C. Sulecki is a Cleveland-area author of the book The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champs Who Left Too Soon, 1936–1945 (McFarland, 2016). He is winner of the Professional Football Researchers Association’s 2016 Nelson Ross Award for “outstanding achievement in pro football research and historiography.” Learn more at www.CleRams.com.

Images

"Buzz" Wetzel and Rams Players, 1936

"Buzz" Wetzel and Rams Players, 1936

Damon “Buzz” Wetzel (10), co-founder with Homer H. Marshman of today's NFL Los Angeles Rams franchise, and three teammates from the American Football League team's 1936 inaugural season in Cleveland: Harry “Horse” Mattos (7), Mike Sebastian (4), and Bill Cooper (6). | Source: Family of Mike Sebastian/Wikipedia View File Details Page

Robert H. Gries

Robert H. Gries

Robert H. Gries, a member of the oldest Jewish family in Cleveland, was a charter investor in both the startup Cleveland Rams and the startup Cleveland Browns. As general manager of the May Company department store in downtown Cleveland, Gries in 1936 hosted the other owners of the American Football League for weekly lunches at which they toted up expenses on a napkin, then pitched in cash to cover the team's debts. | Source: Donald Gries Collection View File Details Page

Late '30s Rams Pennant

Late '30s Rams Pennant

A Cleveland Rams pennant circa late 1930s. Though the franchise was well backed financially by Cleveland businessmen, civic leaders, and sportsmen, the team struggled on the field and at the box office. | Source: Donald Gries View File Details Page

Parker Hall

Parker Hall

Cleveland Rams tailback Parker Hall bursts through the line in a 1939 game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Hall won the NFL's Joe F. Carr Trophy that season, to be joined in 1945 by Bob Waterfield as the Rams' two league MVPs in only eight seasons in Cleveland. | Source: Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library View File Details Page

Rams Head Logo

Rams Head Logo

The Rams franchise featured a distinctive logo almost immediately upon its acceptance into the National Football League in 1937. The rightward-facing ram's head in profile, still in use by the franchise today, was evident as early as this financial document from January 1940. Note the address for the “Office of the Manager” was for the Cleveland Arena and its main occupant, the minor-league hockey team Cleveland Barons—both owned by Rams shareholder Albert C. Sutphin. | Source: Donald Gries Collection View File Details Page

1941 Rams Management

1941 Rams Management

In mid-December 1941, with their roster newly decimated by the entry of the U.S. to World War II, Rams executives gathered in their offices in Cleveland's Union Commerce Building (now the 925 Building) to review player scouting reports. From left: Earl “Dutch” Clark, head coach; Daniel F. Reeves (at desk), who had bought the team just seven months earlier; Charles “Chile” Walsh, assistant coach; and Manny Eisner, business manager. | Source: Donald Gries Collection/Cleveland News, Cleveland Press Collection View File Details Page

1945 Waterfield Letter

1945 Waterfield Letter

On the eve of their 1945 NFL championship season, Rams general manager Charles “Chile” Walsh sent this letter to Frances Waterfield, mother of rookie quarterback Bob Waterfield, assuring her of her son's outstanding performance and predicting he would develop into one of the league “greats.” Twenty years later Waterfield was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Note the Rams logo in the letterhead; it would follow the team to Los Angeles. | Source: Buck Waterfield Collection View File Details Page

Cleveland Rams Dinner Program

Cleveland Rams Dinner Program

As if aware of the Rams' imminent parting, Cleveland civic leaders presciently hosted a celebratory dinner for the Western Division champion Rams four days before they played their final game as the home team in Cleveland — a 15–14 victory over the Washington Redskins in the NFL championship at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Rams players Steve Nemeth, Fred Gehrke, George Koch, and Pat West signed this program, which was the personal copy of Rams halfback Jim Gillette. | Source: Walker Gillette Collection View File Details Page

Cleveland Rams Game Program

Cleveland Rams Game Program

Official program for the 1945 NFL Championship Game—just the thirteenth such playoff in NFL history and a record-setter to that time for gross gate, net gate, and radio broadcast rights in spite of the extreme cold and snow in Cleveland Municipal Stadium. | Source: Walker Gillette Collection View File Details Page

Cleveland Rams Pin

Cleveland Rams Pin

Representatives of news media covering the 1945 NFL Championship Game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium were housed in a barely heated press box or else were relegated to outside seats set up with makeshift planks as writing tables. For their troubles they received blue-and-gold press pins festooned with the Rams logo and the words “N.F.L. World Championship Playoff: 1945.” | Source: Donald Gries Collection View File Details Page

Four Champ Rams

Four Champ Rams

“You were great all the way!” shouted Cleveland Rams head coach Adam Walsh (far right) to his victorious players in the team's Cleveland Municipal Stadium locker room after the Rams defeated the Washington Redskins 15–14 to win the 1945 NFL championship. From left, the three stars of the game accounting for all of the Rams' scoring: Jim Gillette, halfback; Bob Waterfield, quarterback; and Jim Benton, end. | Source: Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library View File Details Page

Reeves Denies Rams Will Move

Reeves Denies Rams Will Move

This January 12, 1946 Cleveland Press article was pasted up but never printed or distributed due a month-long, citywide pressmen's strike that had started just a few days into the new year. One day after this dateline, and 27 days after the Cleveland Rams had won the 1945 NFL championship at the Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves announced the franchise was moving to Los Angeles. | Source: Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

James C. Sulecki, “The Cleveland Rams,” Cleveland Historical, accessed July 20, 2017, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/781.

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