Cleveland Rams
Cleveland Rams logo
Founded1936
Based inCleveland, Ohio
LeagueAmerican Football League (1936)
National Football League (1937–1945)
Team historyCleveland Rams (1936–1942)
Suspended operations (1943)
Cleveland Rams (1944–1945)
Los Angeles Rams (1946–1994, 2016–present)
St. Louis Rams (1995–2015)
Team colorsRed, dark blue (1936–1937)
   
Royal blue, gold (1938–1945)
   
Home field(s)League Park
Shaw Stadium
Cleveland Stadium

The Cleveland Rams were a professional American football team that played in Cleveland from 1936 to 1945. The Rams competed in the second American Football League (AFL) for the 1936 season and the National Football League (NFL) from 1937 to 1945, winning the NFL championship in 1945, before moving to Los Angeles in 1946 to become the first of only two professional football champions to play the following season in another city. [1][2]

The move of the team to Los Angeles helped to jump-start the reintegration of pro football by African-American players and opened up the West Coast to professional sports. After being based in Los Angeles for 49 years, the Rams franchise moved again after the 1994 NFL season to St. Louis where the franchise stayed for 21 seasons before moving back to Los Angeles after the 2015 NFL season.[3]

Early days

1936: Founding in the AFL

The Rams franchise, founded in 1936 by attorney/businessman Homer Marshman and player-coach Damon "Buzz" Wetzel, was named for the then-powerhouse Fordham Rams and because the name was short and would fit easily into a newspaper headline.[4]

Coached by Wetzel, and featuring future Hall-of-Fame coach Sid Gillman as a receiver, the team went 5–2–2 in its first season, finishing in second place, behind the Boston Shamrocks. The team might have hosted an AFL championship game at Cleveland's League Park; however, the Boston team canceled because its unpaid players refused to participate.[5] The Rams then moved from the poorly managed AFL to the National Football League in February 1937. Marshman and the other Rams stockholders paid $10,000 for an NFL franchise, then put up $55,000 to capitalize the new club, and Wetzel became general manager.[6]

1937–1943: Struggles

Under head coach Hugo Bezdek and with sole star Johnny Drake, the team's first-round draft pick, the Rams struggled in an era of little league parity to a 1–10 record in 1937 under heavy competition from the NFL's "big four": the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, and the Washington Redskins. After the team dropped its first three games of 1938, Wetzel was fired, then Bezdek. Art Lewis became coach, and guided the team to four victories in its last eight games and a 4–7 record.

Future Hall-of-Famer Dutch Clark was named head coach for the 1939 season, and with Lewis as his assistant and with star back Parker Hall on the squad, the Rams improved to 5–5–1 in 1939 and 4–6–1 in 1940 before falling back to 2–9 in 1941, the year that Dan Reeves, a New Yorker with family wealth in the grocery business, acquired the team.

The Rams bounced back to 5–6 and a third-place finish in 1942, but in the heavy war year of 1943, when many NFL personnel, including Rams' majority owner Reeves, had been drafted into the military, they suspended play for one season.

1944: Rebound

The franchise began to rebound in 1944 under the direction of general manager Chile Walsh and head coach Aldo Donelli, the only man both to participate in a FIFA World Cup game and coach an NFL team. With servicemen beginning to return home, and with the makings of a championship team that included ends Jim Benton and Steve Pritko, backs Jim Gillette and Tommy Colella, and linemen Riley Matheson and Mike Scarry, the team improved to 4–6 in 1944, defeating the Bears in League Park and the Detroit Lions in Briggs Stadium.[7]

1945 NFL Champions

Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield led the Cleveland Rams to the 1945 NFL Championship.
Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield led the Cleveland Rams to the 1945 NFL Championship.

With the arrival of star quarterback Bob Waterfield, the drafting of Pat West and the return of back Fred Gehrke, who would go on to create the first ever designed and painted helmet in NFL history, the team finally gelled into championship calibre. Donelli was drafted into the Navy, but Chile Walsh's brother Adam Walsh quickly took over as head coach.

Waterfield-to-Benton became an aerial threat to opposing teams, with Benton becoming the NFL's first 300-yard receiver by hauling in 10 passes for 303 yards against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day 1945. Benton's performance shattered the mark set by Green Bay Packers legend Don Hutson (237 yards) two years earlier in a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The record stood for a remarkable 40 years, until it was broken by the Kansas City Chiefs' Stephone Paige in 1985. It still stands as the fourth-most receiving yards in a single game.[8]

The only loss on the Rams' 9–1 regular-season record came against the Philadelphia Eagles. Otherwise Cleveland plowed through the powers that had held a championship hegemony in the NFL since the early 1930s—the Bears, Giants, Packers, and Lions—and defeated the Washington Redskins, 15–14, in the 1945 NFL Championship Game in near-zero degree weather at Cleveland Stadium.

The Rams, led by Waterfield, who was married to Hollywood star Jane Russell, were described as "sport's first spectacular postwar team."[9]

Relocation to Los Angeles

Only one month after winning the championship, Reeves overcame the initial objections of his fellow NFL owners, and announced he would be moving the Rams to Los Angeles, citing five years of sustained financial losses, including $64,000 in 1945, and poor home attendance in Cleveland: the Rams had finished second to last in home attendance in 1945, ahead of only the long-struggling Cardinals. Even the championship game had drawn a crowd of less than half capacity, undoubtedly not helped by the sub-zero weather.

Reeves had also realized his Rams would not be able to compete in the Cleveland market against the incoming Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference. The Browns not only had an owner (taxi-cab and real estate baron Mickey McBride) with far more resources than Reeves could ever hope to match, but they would have many Ohio players on their roster, and they would be coached by legendary former Ohio State head coach Paul Brown.

In all likelihood, the only thing that had kept the team in Cleveland until 1945 was wartime travel restrictions, that had been eased with the end of hostilities. Reeves had an eye on the booming and much warmer Los Angeles market since he had bought the team in 1941.[10]

The Rams' relocation opened up the Cleveland market to the new Browns, who would be highly successful over the next decade. In the AAFC and the NFL, they won seven championships with ten consecutive championship game appearances between 1946 and 1955, including five championships in succession in 1946–1950.

At the same time, the Rams and their 1945 championship were soon forgotten in Cleveland, in part due to a month-long citywide newspaper strike that paralleled the team's departure. The strike not only delayed coverage, but also muted any public outcry, which was further mollified by the immediate replacement of the Rams with a team under the popular Brown, despite the fact it would be playing in a fledgling upstart league.[11]

Once in Los Angeles, the Rams were required to integrate their team with African-American players as a condition to rent the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.[12] In doing so, the Rams (along with the Cleveland Browns) reintegrated pro football after 20 years. Reeves' move also opened up the west coast to pro sports teams, including westward moves of five franchises and the awarding of expansion teams in California and Los Angeles in the major pro sports leagues.

Notable players

Hall of Famers

Cleveland Rams Hall of Famers
Players
No. Name Inducted Position(s) Tenure
7 Bob Waterfield 1965 QB, DB, K, P 1945
Coaches and Contributors
Name Inducted Position(s) Tenure
Dan Reeves 1967 Owner 1941–1945

Retired numbers

Cleveland Rams retired numbers
No. Player Position Tenure Retired
7 Bob Waterfield QB 1945 1952

References

  1. ^ The other occasion was in 1962 with the Dallas Texans of the American Football League. Five months after winning the championship, franchise owner Lamar Hunt, realizing he had no prospect of the Texans competing with the NFL's Cowboys in Dallas, relocated the Texans to Kansas City and rebranded them as the Chiefs.
  2. ^ "1946 – The First African-Americans are Signed to Play in the NFL". Pro Football Hall of Fame. Retrieved March 30, 2022.
  3. ^ SI Wire (October 20, 2014). "Report: Rams considered most likely team to move to Los Angeles". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved January 16, 2016.
  4. ^ Hal Lebovitz, "Remember the Cleveland Rams?", Coffin Corner 7 (1985), Professional Football Researchers Association.
  5. ^ "Cleveland Rams". Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
  6. ^ Joe F. Carr, ed. (1937). Official Guide of the National Football League: 1937. New York: American Sports Publishing Co. 43.
  7. ^ "Cleveland/St. Louis/LA Rams Franchise Encyclopedia". Pro-Football-Reference.com.
  8. ^ "Thanksgiving 1945: NFL's first 300-yd receiver". Pro Football Hall of Fame. Retrieved March 30, 2022.
  9. ^ Gietschier, Steve (January 23, 1995). "Go west, young Rams". The Sporting News, 7.
  10. ^ Guerrieri, Vince (September 21, 2014). "Documentary documents Browns' pro football integration". Telegraph-Forum. Bucyrus, Ohio. Retrieved March 30, 2022.
  11. ^ Sulecki, James C. (2016). The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champs Who Left Too Soon, 1936–1945. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-9943-4.
  12. ^ Atwood, Gretchen (June 10, 2009). "Unsung Heroes of Rams Football Integration". LA Weekly. Retrieved March 30, 2022.