Sulecki, James C. The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champions Who Left Too Soon. Jefferson: McFarland, 2016. Pp. vii+288. Appendix, notes, bibliography, index, and black and white photos.
Reviewed by Russ Crawford
Long before LeBron James briefly abandoned the Cavaliers, and the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens, another major sports franchise bailed on the Ohio city. According to James Sulecki, the author of The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champions Who Left Too Soon, few remember that the well travelled Los Angeles Rams began in Cleveland (p. 1). This was even true in Cleveland, where the Rams became the only team to relocate in the season after winning a National Football League Championship. As evidence of that, Sulecki points to a 1979 article titled “Who Remembers the Cleveland Rams?” by Hal Lebovitz of the Cleveland Plain Dealer (4). Sulecki also spent time in St. Louis doing research and found few people who could identify Cleveland, rather than Los Angeles, as the original location of what was at that time, their NFL team.
Sulecki, who works as a corporate content director for an Ohio business media company, begins the preface with his personal connections to the story of how the Rams left for warmer climes. Both his father and grandfather were present for the Rams 15-14 victory over the Washington Redskins in 1945, although all that Sulecki’s father, who was only 10 at the time, remembered was the cold (p. 2). Sulecki’s research included speaking with others whose fathers had also been in attendance, as players, on that day. He also conducted interviews with journalists, did research at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and in the Rams’ archives to write a solid history of the Rams’ seasons in Cleveland.
Sulecki’s Introduction provides an overview of the story of the Rams, and introduces the main players such as team owner Dan Reeves (not the same man as the later NFL coach), and quarterback Bob Waterfield, who won the championship in his rookie season. He also explores the team’s influence upon the development of the NFL. Sulecki mentions that Fred Gehrke, the man who decorated the team’s helmet with the now iconic ram horns, began his career in Cleveland. Likewise, he tells the story of how the NFL reintegrated as a result of the team’s move to Los Angeles. In perhaps something of a stretch, he also gives credit to the one season that Sid Gillman spent with the team as providing the impetus that made Gillman, as a coach, the “father of the modern passing game” (p. 12-13).
With that overview complete, Sulecki then begins a year-by-year chronicling of the Rams’
years in Cleveland. In Chapter 1 “We Became the Rams,” he tells the story of how Damon “Buzz” Wetzel first brought the Rams to Cleveland. Wetzel was a former Ohio State and professional football player-turned promoter who had the idea of building a team with Ohio talent in Cleveland after other professional football teams had ceded the city to the wildly popular Indians baseball team. He attracted the financial backing of a group led by Homer H. Marshman, a wealthy businessman. A group of potential investors met in Marshman’s home in Waite Hill, a suburb of Cleveland. Marshman, who had never seen a professional football game, was nevertheless enthusiastic about the project as a chance to promote Cleveland. The group bought into Wetzel’s idea, and the best story from this chapter surrounds the origin of the team name. There are likely few mountain goats in northeastern Ohio, outside of the Cleveland zoo, but the name was suggested by a newspaper writer present, who argued that a shorter name was ideal to make it easier for newspaper editors to use in their headlines. And so the Rams were born as an American Football League (1936-1937) team.
Chapter 2, “Start-Up,” furnishes more interesting stories of the early days of professional football. The Rams’ first opponent, the Syracuse Braves, had much of their team equipment stolen during their train trip to Ohio, so players had to share jerseys as they substituted in and out of the game. The chapter also provides some historical background for the city, and mentions the Torso Murders – a string of murders that left the bodies dismembered, and that embarrassed Eliot Ness, then the safety director of the city, who never solved the case (p. 32). It also explores the biographies of some of the businessmen, such as Robert H. Gries, who hosted a weekly lunch for the ownership group, and who would later become a minority owner of the Browns. After the team’s first season in the AFL, which saw the owners lose their share of gate money from one game when the check bounced, and as a result lose out on the chance to win the league championship, the ownership group decided to make the jump to the more-stable NFL.
The effort to join the NFL is the subject of Chapter 3, “This Time Pro Football Was Going to Work in Cleveland.” Though the league had started in Canton, Ohio, the organization was not in a hurry to expand, and the leadership group led by Marshman had to find more money to demonstrate their financial stability. They did have the support of NFL president Joe Carr, which eased their transition.
The transition, discussed in Chapter 4 “Rams to the Slaughter,” also called for reorganization at the coaching level and Buzz Wetzel was replaced by Hugo Bezdek, who had previous experience coaching college football and basketball, and who had also served a manager of Major League Baseball’s Pittsburg Pirates. Sulecki also argues that Bezdek was the man responsible for giving the University of Arkansas their Razorback nickname (p. 46). Bezdek brought a more conservative running game-based attack to the Rams, whose first season had been marked by a crowd-pleasing razzle-dazzle style of offense. Hampered by a late start – Carr ended up choosing the team’s draft picks, the team, with its somewhat boring offense, finished with a dismal 1-10 record, and was lowest in league attendance.
The 1938 season, which is the subject of chapter of Chapter 5, “Race Wrecking Rams,” saw some improvement, but progress was hindered by the leadership group, also known as the “downtown coaches,” for their tendency to mettle in football matters. That meddling led to the dismissal of Bezdek, who was replaced by Art “Pappy” Lewis as interim coach. The team finished with a 4-7 record, and brighter days seemed to be in the offing after Earl “Dutch” Clark became the new head coach.
Clark, a hall of fame player and coach, took over the head coaching position with Lewis as his assistant. The “The Rams’ Lewis and Clark Expedition,” as Sulecki names Chapter 6, showed promise on the field, as the Rams finished 5-5-1 for the season. That season, in an interesting note about the state of football during that era, Parker “Bullet” Hall set a new NFL record for pass completions in a season with 106 (p. 83). In the contemporary NFL, that total is likely passed by most quarterbacks in the third or fourth game. The team, with Hall somewhat slipping, finished 4-6-1 in 1940. It was beginning to lose players to the military, as the situation in Europe and Asia continued to worsen, and the U.S. instituted the first peacetime draft.
The Rams’ ownership group had ballooned to forty five men, which still included Wetzel and Bezdek, but that changed in 1941. New York businessman Dan Reeves, who had made his money with a grocery chain, bought out the downtown coaches. Reeves’ was joined by Fred Levy, Jr. in a much smaller ownership team. Reeves eventually bought out Levy and would own the team outright for a time. The story of how the New Yorker took control makes up Chapter 7, “The Public Be Pleased.” The title refers to Reeves’ new slogan for the team. He brought the sensibility of what made his stores successful to the operation of the Rams. The results that season were not pleasing to fans as the team fell to 2-9. There was also the concern that Reeves, lacking any local ties – he usually only came to Cleveland briefly for games – would try to move the team. To allay those fears, Reeves indicated that the team would stay in Cleveland.
Chapter 8, “The War Year, the Lost Year,” tells of the 1942 season, and the cancelled 1943 season. The Rams improved to 5-6 in 1942, and after Lewis left the team the year before, the team hired Charles “Chile” Walsh. By 1944, Walsh had moved up to general manager, and would help put together the team that won the title in 1945. Concerned over the ability to draw fans and staff a team during wartime, Reeves suspended the team in 1943, perhaps thinking that the rest of the league would follow his lead. That did not happen, and some teams – the Stealers and the Eagles, and then the Cardinals and the Stealers, became the Steagles and the Card Pitts, respectively. Reeves hastily changed his mind and announced that the team would play again during the 1944 season.
With football operations back on, Walsh began building a solid team in Cleveland. They finished 4-6, hindered by the NFL schedule that gave the team just three home games. Still, they started off 3-0 before faltering at the end of the season, but there were signs of improvement. There were also signs of difficulty ahead. The Rams still struggled to attract a large fan base, and played some of their games in smaller venues rather in the cavernous Cleveland Stadium. Chapter 9, “Twenty Months to a Title,” chronicles that season, the personnel that Walsh was assembling, but also discusses the creation of the Browns, which would start play in the All American Football Conference in 1946.
The Rams had improved, but lacked the marquee player to put them over the top. Bob Waterfield became that player when he joined the team for the 1945 season. Chapter 10, “A Hero’s Journey to Cleveland,” provides a biography of the quarterback who would lead the team to its first championship. Waterfield played college football for the University of California Los Angeles, with a year off for military service, during which he played football and basketball for a military team. The Rams drafted him while he was serving and when he finished his college career, he joined the team. Waterfield brought talent to the quarterback position, and he also brought notoriety in the form of his wife Jane Russell, who was a major film star of the time.
With a team that could potentially outperform all previous efforts, the Rams went into the 1945 season with high hopes. In a change for a Cleveland football team, those high hopes became reality. Chapter 11, “A New Power Rises in the West,” tells how, under new head coach Adam Walsh, brother of Chile, they finished 9-1, losing only to the Philadelphia Eagles. Still, they averaged only a little over 19,000 fans per game playing in League Park, and despite success on the field, Reeves continued to lose money.
Their championship game, the subject of Chapter 12, “’An even zero’: The Title Game,” was a triumph on the field, aided by an unusual safety against the Rams, was still a bust at the gate. This time the Cleveland weather and its lake effect snow was a main culprit for the low attendance. In one of the coldest games in NFL history, the temperature at game time was the even zero of the chapter title. Hundreds of temporary and city workers pressed into service had tried to keep the field from freezing by buying up much of the hay in northern Ohio, but their efforts were unsuccessful. The game was played in Cleveland Stadium, which could hold 81,000 fans, was more than half empty, and some fans tried to keep warm by starting hay fires in the stands. The game turned when Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh threw a pass from his own end zone that hit the goal post, which was then located on the goal line. Under NFL rules, which would be changed the next year, the play was ruled as a safety and earned two points for the Rams. They held on to win by one point, and finally became league champions.
The Rams had reached the pinnacle of the NFL, but all was not well in Cleveland. Rumors that the Rams might leave for California swirled like the wind through Cleveland Stadium, but they gained little traction since all of the city’s newspapers were on strike. Behind the scenes, Reeves and Chile Walsh were already planning for the move, motivated by the possibility of escaping both the Cleveland weather and the upstart Browns. Chapter 13, “The Public be Damned,” explores how the removal of the Rams took place with nearly no news of it reaching the Cleveland public. After Reeves threatened to leave the NFL, the other owners finally capitulated. The owners were concerned with the cost and bother of traveling to the West Coast in an era when travel by railroad took considerable time, and air travel was in its infancy.
The final chapter, Chapter 14, “The Cleveland Rams ceased to exist,” discusses how the team established itself on the West Coast, and moves the story forward to how the teams contended with each other into the 1950s. The loss of the team was not the crushing blow that the Brown’s abandonment of the city in 1995, since the presence of those same Browns, who dominated the AAFC before joining the NFL, softened the departure. The Rams became, however, a unique team in NFL history as the only intact team to leave its city in the year after winning the championship. The Rams would also eventually become the only team to win a championship in three different cities.
Sulecki includes an appendix that follows the lives of some of the Rams after they left Cleveland and football behind. Several of the players, including Chet Adams, jumped from the Rams to the Browns. Adams was sued by Reeves, but successfully argued in court that he had signed a contract to play in Cleveland, not to play for the Rams. Perhaps the city of Cleveland should have a statue in honor of a man who actually went to court to continue playing football in Cleveland…
Throughout the book, Sulecki provides interesting and often amusing stories about the Rams and football in Cleveland. Contemporary Browns fans who are frustrated with the team’s draft woes might find recognition of those troubles in the story of how, during the war, the Rams drafted Tony Butkovich, an All American from Purdue, that they later learned had been killed at Okinawa (p. 119). There is also the odd story of how, when the team started winning, Reeves refused to allow his wife to sit with him at games, claiming that “She is a lovely wife and lovely mother, but when it comes to football, she is anathema” (p. 153-54).
Sulecki has written a readable account of the Cleveland Rams that flows nicely, and is often hard to put down. It is an interesting story, and is filled with fascinating details. One feature I could live without is his constant use of foreshadowing, and he takes for granted that the NFL would become, as it has, the most popular sport in America. He seems to argue that it was destiny, rather than the product of a number of individual decisions and chances offered by new technologies.
That being said, this is a well researched and well written account of the Rams years in Cleveland and beyond. It will be interesting for both the casual reader and the sport historian.
Russ Crawford is a Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, with an evolving focus on nontraditional practitioners of gridiron football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published one book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, and another, Le Football: The History of American Football in France was recently published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016.