A Baseball Man in the NFL? Here’s What Happened the Last Time a Cleveland Team Did That

Billy Evans

Billy Evans was a success as general manager of the Cleveland Indians but knew next to nothing about pro football when he came to the NFL’s Cleveland Rams in 1941. He lasted six months. (Photo courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame)

With the Cleveland Browns making news this week by hiring baseball analytics guru Paul DePodesta of Moneyball fame, their fans may be interested to know this is not the first time the NFL in Cleveland has reached out to America’s pastime for help in running a team.

In 1941 the Cleveland Rams were doing a reasonable impersonation of the contemporary Browns by posting consecutive losing seasons and cycling through head coaches in search of the right formula. Then Daniel F. Reeves and Fred Levy Jr. bought the team and almost immediately made a high-profile hire: bringing in future Baseball Hall-of-Famer Billy Evans as Rams general manager.

Like DePodesta, Evans had worked in the Cleveland Indians’ front office. As general manager from 1928 to 1935 he signed stars Hal Trosky and Bob Feller and brought the Indians back to the first division of the American League.

Evans, however, had no practical experience in pro football. This didn’t seem to trouble Reeves and Levy. They teamed him up with Rams head coach Earl “Dutch” Clark, a future Hall of Famer in his own right.

The Rams won their first two games — and proceeded to lose all the rest of them to finish 2–9 and in the basement of the Western Division.

The Rams may have had Hall-of-Fame caliber men in the front office, but their talent on the field was middling at best. The Cleveland Rams, Franklin Lewis of the Cleveland Press noted with words that may sting with familiarity to today’s Browns fans, had “some good players, some inefficient players. Some of the time they had teams good enough to play close games with the league leaders.”

Not good enough. But Evans apparently thought more highly of his own abilities than the owners did. On New Year’s Eve 1941 he abruptly resigned because he and Reeves were too far apart on 1942 salary teams. After only six months in the NFL, Evans returned to baseball.

Was the signing of Evans mostly for show? At one least one sports writer at the time thought it was. With the hiring of Evans the Rams owners had “won the wholehearted support of the city’s football fans,” the Plain Dealer editorialized. But it was just as likely a shrewder motive was at work. Reeves and Levy — the former from New York City, the latter from Kentucky — were “outsiders,” Plain Dealer sports editor Sam Otis noted just before Evans’ resignation, who were “strongly suspected when they first took over” of moving the Rams franchise out of Cleveland. Otis thought hiring Evans, a local favorite, “went a long way toward allaying this fear.”

Time would show that the Rams already had in their organization a far superior assessor of football talent than Evans had been. Charles “Chile” Walsh, toiling at the time as an assistant coach under Clark, soon would be elevated to succeed Evans as GM, then would draft future Hall-of-Famers Bob Waterfield, Tom Fears, and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch as he pointed the Rams toward two NFL championships in seven years — and a new home in Los Angeles.

Browns fans likely will be praying that baseball man DePodesta is a far more assured path to winning in the NFL than Evans had been.

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Cleveland Rams Scour for a Wartime Team

Reeves in office.web

Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves (at desk) and general manager Chile Walsh (directly in front of him) were the architects of the team’s transformation from losers to winners. Joining Reeves and Walsh in the Rams’ offices in downtown Cleveland in December 1941 are head coach Dutch Clark (left) and business manager Mannie Eisner (right). (Photo: Cleveland News, courtesy of Donald Gries collection)

It’s December 16, 1941, and the National Football League is reckoning with the reality that with the United States now involved in World War II, player rosters are about to be decimated by a draft of a different kind: Uncle Sam’s.

Cleveland Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves, six months into his tenure, generally didn’t spend much time in Cleveland. He preferred instead to operate out of his home and office in Manhattan. But a measure of the urgency of the situation is suggested by this informal pre-Christmas meeting of the Rams’ brass in the team’s offices in the Union Commerce building (now the Huntington Bank Building) in downtown Cleveland.

General manager Charles (Chile) Walsh (middle) and business manager Mannie Eisner are engrossed in their work. But head coach Dutch Clark (far left) looks the most consumed by the task at hand, which almost certainly was reviewing the Rams’ scouting reports and tendering contracts through the mail to any graduating collegian not immediately committed to the military. The Rams had finished 2–9 and in last place in the Western Division that season, and Clark wasn’t accustomed to losing. In fact, he had never had a losing season in the NFL until joining the Rams two years earlier. He would stay just one more year before resigning his post, despairing that the Rams never would get past division foes the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.

Reeves and Walsh would stick around, however. With Reeves’ money and Walsh’s expert scouting, Cleveland would transform from losers to winners. On December 16, 1945 — four years to the day after this photo was taken — the Rams would defeat the Washington Redskins 15–14 to win the NFL championship.

Here’s a view into what the four men were working on that day. The day after Christmas, Clark went back to the office to issue the following letter to a prospective player, Francis Logan of Michigan:

December 26, 1941

Dear Mr. Logan:-

Recently I have received several letters from your former coach, Mr. Hal Shields, who was a good friend of mine during the time I was connected with the Detroit Lions. He has been good enough to recommend you to me as a fine prospect for our Cleveland Club with the thought that you might be interested in playing big league football. We are tendering you a contract at a figure in keeping with the salary that is usually paid a first year man just out of college.

From the letter which Hal Shields wrote me I take it for granted that you have already graduated from Detroit Tech or that you are graduating this year. If this is correct you are eligible to play for our team. Frankly, I feel that if you care to continue your football career you could make no better tie-up than with the Cleveland Club. The new owners are desirous of rebuilding the team and making it over into a pennant contender just as quickly as possible.

The Cleveland Club would like your reactions to our contract. We have no idea as to your status in reference to Army service and would appreciate some word from you. If you are not interested in a big league career and do not care to sign the enclosed contract, please be good enough to return it in the enclosed envelope. Naturally, we will be all the more pleased if it comes back properly signed. If that is the case, retain the white contract and return the other two.

Cordially yours,
Dutch Clark
Head Coach

Logan never played in the NFL.

Tagged , , , , , ,

This Pins the 1945 Cleveland Rams As NFL Champs

Rams pin

Press pin from the 1945 NFL Championship Game, which the Cleveland Rams won over the Washington Redskins, 15-14. (Courtesy Donald Gries Collection)

It may not be the Lombardi Trophy, but seventy years ago this was about as close as you got to NFL-championship swag and bling. This is a press pin issued by the Cleveland Rams, who won the 1945 NFL Championship Game over the Washington Redskins in a near-zero-degree nail-biter at Cleveland Stadium.

The pin belongs to Donald Gries, who is an avid collector of Rams (and Cleveland Browns) memorabilia who also happens to be a grandson of founding Rams owner Robert H. Gries. Don generously provided me access to his collection as background for my forthcoming book about the Rams.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Put A Historical Marker On This Patch Of Cleveland Land

CLE Stadium Then and Now

The old Cleveland Municipal Stadium (left) and, today, on the very same site, First Energy Stadium.

Okay, quick quiz.

The patch of lakefront land you see in the two photos above is the current home of a benighted football franchise that habitually fails to reach the NFL playoffs. Before that it was a pile of bricks and twisted steel, remnants of a historic stadium reduced to rubble when its petulant landlord mismanaged his own finances and civic standing, failed to secure improvements to same-named stadium, and so paradoxically ended up destroying the very things he reputedly had set out to save—Cleveland Stadium, the Cleveland Browns, and the pride of an already beaten-down municipality.

(Not that I’m bitter.)

But even given all this . . . here’s the quiz:

Which of the following localities has hosted more NFL Championship Games: the site of Cleveland Municipal Stadium and now First Energy Stadium, or (say) the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum?

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

St. Louis Rams Video Highlights Team’s Brief Tenure At Cleveland’s Shaw Stadium

The St. Louis Rams delightfully acknowledge a bit of their founding history with this recently posted video. Seems especially helpful in educating a big chunk of the Rams’ current fan base who believe the team originated in Los Angeles.

It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say the team played a season at Shaw Stadium, though. As I’ve written elsewhere here at the Flying Lombardi, the Rams played only two games at Shaw before returning to League Park in anticipation of increased attendance. They just had upset the Detroit Lions, NFL champions three seasons before, and thought their fortunes were on the up and up.

Also, playing at Shaw Stadium was not as quaint and homespun as one might think either. As I’ve written in the draft of my upcoming book on the Rams:

The team’s decision to play in Shaw Stadium, if only briefly, made good sense. First, Shaw just had been renovated and enlarged and was lavishly maintained, off limits to high-school practices but available for game-day use by colleges and other high schools. Second, Shaw was “one of the best equipped lighted fields in the state,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. It was “flood lighted by the finest equipment developed by the General Electric Co.,” whose world-class NELA Park electrical research facility – one of the nation’s earliest, if not first, planned industrial research parks – was just a mile-and-a-half away in East Cleveland, a symbol of the region’s industrial might at that time. Third, the stadium’s new capacity of 15,500 was well suited to the team’s small but growing fan base, whose strongest home showing the previous season was not much more than 10,000.

Compliments nevertheless to the Rams organization for digging into its archives in this, the 70th-anniversary year of the franchise’s first NFL championship.

Tagged , , , , ,

Selective Amnesia: Does The NFL Only Remember The 50 Years It’s Been Number One With America?

Benny Friedman

Benny Friedman: The NFL’s first star passer committed suicide in 1982, in ill health and reportedly in despair he never would make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In time he was — twenty three years later.

The National Football League turns ninety-five years old next month. Come January, the Super Bowl will be fifty. Take the difference in years between them — forty-five  — and you have the approximate number of seasons which the NFL seems disinclined to remember.

If the NFL encompassed the entire universe (and sometimes, it seems, it thinks it does), the Big Bang would have occurred in 1958 with the so-called “greatest game ever played,” and present-day Earth would have emerged from stardust in 1967 when the Super Bowl was born.

Prior to that, pro football was . . . misty and mostly unknowable. Primitive, prehistoric.

For some time I’ve puzzled over why pro football has such a blinkered view of its own past. Then the primary reason clicked into place as I conducted an interview for my upcoming book on the Cleveland Rams.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

The Rich Got Richer, The Poor Got Poorer: The Mansions And Shantytowns Of The NFL Before It Discovered League Parity

Akron Rubber Bowl

The Cleveland Rams played several games at the so-called neutral site of the Akron Rubber Bowl, including the 1941 season opener against the Steelers and this 1942 exhibition game against the Giants. With the ball is the Rams’ Gaylon Smith, later to join the Cleveland Browns.

Today we take it as a given: A professional sports team will play an even number of games at home and on the road across the course of a regular season.

Not so the National Football League in the 1930s and 1940s. This was an era in which there were distinct winners and losers both on the field and at the box office and when actions by the league office had a way of widening the divide.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Cleveland Rams: From Nonentities to NFL Champions in Only Twenty Months

Card-Pitts

The Cleve-Pitts? The winless 1944 merger of the Chicago Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers into a team known as the “Card-Pitts” (and unofficially as the “Carpets”) instead would have been a Rams-Steelers hybrid if not for the vehement opposition of Cleveland general manager Chile Walsh.

(Excerpt from the forthcoming book, CLEVELAND RAMS: Forgotten NFL Champions)

It was the spring of 1944, just weeks before the Allied invasion of Normandy and the liberation of Europe, and the Cleveland Rams franchise felt set upon by the “open animosity” of the rest of the National Football League. Discontinuing play for the 1943 season due to the war had been a mistake, Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves admitted, and he wanted back in for 1944. The other NFL owners acceded but, by the Rams’ accounts, seemed intent on making the Rams pay for their one-year lapse in operation.

Their severity would provoke the Rams into a nearly manic quest for survival and success.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 303 other followers

%d bloggers like this: