How A ‘Little Group’ In a Cleveland Hotel Became the National Football League

NFL draft 1943

For decades the NFL’s owners met in hotels in Midwestern cities like Cleveland and Chicago, often to conduct player drafts. On April 18, 1943, Cleveland’s Charles (Chile) Walsh (right) prepares to make draft selections at the Palmer House in Chicago for a Rams team that would sit out that season due to World War II. At left: Fred Mandel, president of the Detroit Lions. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Post)

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

“Ohio was the anvil,” Los Angeles sportswriter Bob Oates once lyrically observed, “on which professional football was hammered.” It was not an overstatement.

Charter NFL FranchisesThe National Football League was founded in 1920 in Canton, 60 miles south of Cleveland down the Cuyahoga River valley, just past Akron and the overland portage that links the Cuyahoga with the Tuscarawas River.

So it is no surprise that among the 14 teams gathered inside Ralph Hay’s legendary Hupmobile showroom in Canton to form the American Professional Football Association (APFA) in 1920, five were from Ohio (see table). These included charter franchises the Cleveland Tigers, a mostly forgettable squad that posted an inaugural record of 1-4-2, and the Akron Pros, the league’s first champions, led by Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard, who later became the NFL’s first African-American coach.

Two years later the Cleveland Tigers were a financial failure and were gone from the NFL. But the league hardly was gone from Cleveland. The owners, meeting in Cleveland’s downtown Hollenden Hotel on June 18, 1922, acted on Chicago Bears owner George Halas’ recommendation to strike the word professional from the organization’s name (the word was “superfluous,” Halas said), and to use league instead of association, which in baseball usually applied to second-class teams – and “we were first class,” said the supremely confident Halas.

The “little group” of the AFPA became, in the course of one meeting in Cleveland, the “National Football League.”

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The Last (And Only) Attempts To Make Old Cleveland Stadium Hospitable For Football

Cleveland Municipal Stadium 1964

Cleveland Stadium in its usual gridiron configuration, with vast acreages of empty space separating the sidelines from the stands, save for two short-lived experiments: one in 1937, the other in 1941.

The Cleveland Indians just have reduced capacity and reconfigured Progressive Field to make it more accommodating to smaller crowds than it originally was intended for. But it’s not the first time a pro sports team in Cleveland has done this.

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Cleveland Football: Leading the League in Management Meddling Since 1937

Cleveland Rams president Edward Bruch

Cleveland Rams president Edward Bruch (far right) at Cleveland Stadium in 1940, the last season the team was held by local ownership. Bruch had his own management meddling moment a few years earlier while wintering in Arizona: He stepped on a practice field at the University of Arizona to evaluate a Rams prospect personally and was ejected “bodily, and with scant ceremony” from the campus. (Photo courtesy Cleveland Press Archives at Cleveland State University)

Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer has drawn headlines (and the threat of league penalties) for texting plays to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — during games!

Unprecedented, right?

Well, maybe it was unprecedented in the use of technology. But the NFL’s tenure in Cleveland has an inglorious history of management meddling, and it didn’t start with Jimmy Haslam and the drafting of Johnny Manziel, or even Art Modell and his firing of Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown.

Let’s go all the way back to 1937 and the inaugural NFL season of the Cleveland (—> Los Angeles —> St. Louis —> Los Angeles?) Rams. Legendary college coach Hugo Bezdek, on the sidelines for the Rams at age 53, was so hectored by the team’s nine investor-directors that simply calling him onto the carpet every Monday morning after a loss was not enough: One of them actually took to sitting on the bench next to Bezdek during a game to advise him on use of personnel.

If texting had been available in 1937, the interfering Rams directors may well have used that too.

Appropriately, Cleveland Press columnist Ben Williamson took to calling the Rams directors “downtown coaches”: All of them carried out successful law or business careers in imposing brick or stone edifices in downtown Cleveland. But only two had played football in college, and not a one had ever tugged a leather helmet on for a pro game.

Firing Bezdek and hiring a proven NFL player-coach in Dutch Clark from the 1935 NFL champion Detroit Lions did not bring this second-guessing to an end. Just before the 1939 season began, the downtown coaches informed Clark and assistant Art “Pappy” Lewis of a new arrangement: The directors would divide responsibility among themselves for various aspects of the Rams operation — offensive line, backfield, etc. — and helpfully offer the coaches advice on player assignments and play calling. It was management texting writ large.

Not only were the downtown coaches unable to help — Clark suffered his only losing seasons ever in four years with the Rams — they couldn’t even agree with one another, their multiple voices clashing in a cacophony of conflicting direction. So in 1941 the Rams’ Hydra-headed ownership, self-described civic boosters all, decided the best course of action for the franchise — for the city too, they felt, and well worth the financial losses they had sustained — was an unselfish one: extract themselves completely and sell the team to a single majority owner with a singular direction. Then perhaps the team would win.

That buyer was Daniel F. Reeves, a New York City grocery magnate who thanked the Cleveland city fathers for the sale and paid them in full. And five years later when the team finally did win — their first victorious season in eight NFL seasons in Cleveland — he hijacked the newly crowned champions out of Cleveland and moved them to L.A.

The upshot? Management meddling didn’t lose just games, it cost Cleveland its NFL franchise — twice. (For more, see “Modell, Arthur B.” and “Ravens, Baltimore.”)

So amid all the current losing, there is at least one thing Clevelanders can say of contemporary Browns’ management: It hasn’t cost the city its NFL franchise.

Yet.

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Lombardi Artifact Unexpectedly Reappears

Lombardi jacket

I would be remiss if I did not repeat the news that a long-lost artifact of (Flying) Vince Lombardi, the ever-vigilant patron of this site, unexpectedly reappeared in a Goodwill Thrift Store in West Asherville, NC.

Yes, for only 58 cents a hipster couple from Tennessee purchased what turned out to be a jacket Lombardi wore while a coach at West Point, with “Lombardi 46″ still inscribed on the tag. The Pro Football Hall of Fame asked the couple to donate the sweater for its archives — but no dice. The pair is holding out for the dough, and at auction the item could fetch as much as $20,000.

That’s the American spirit!

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“The Perfect Football Face”: Dutch Clark, Cleveland Rams Head Coach (1939-1942)

Dutch Clark

THE PERFECT FOOTBALL FACE: Dutch Clark in gladiatorial profile,1934. (Photo courtesy LIFE magazine)

Imaging missing play in an NFL Championship Game so you can tend to your offseason job — then, decades later, being inducted into the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Lewis and Clark

LEWIS AND CLARK: Cleveland Rams head coach Dutch Clark (left) and assistant coach Art “Pappy” Lewis in 1941, probably at training camp in Berea, Ohio. (Photo courtesy Cleveland Press Archives at Cleveland State University)

Impossible, you say?

Not for Earl “Dutch” Clark.

For a time in the 1930s Clark was the highest-scoring and best-paid player in the National Football League, quarterbacking the Portsmouth Spartans and (after the team had moved to the big city) the Detroit Lions.

In December 1932 the Spartans and the Chicago Bears tied for first place, so a playoff game was arranged — indoors, at Chicago Stadium, due to inclement winter weather. No one, least of all Clark, anticipated the NFL season was going to extend an extra week. Can’t make it, Clark told Portsmouth coach Potsy Clark. Have to get back to my offseason job as head basketball coach at Colorado College. 

Without Clark’s offensive spark the Bears blanked the Spartans 9-0 in what turned out to be the first NFL playoff game ever. The public liked the idea so much that the following season the league split into two divisions and formalized a playoff between the division winners. The NFL Championship Game was born.

Clark overcame his absence at the Chicago game. In 1935 he led the Lions to the NFL championship. A year later LIFE magazine, inspired by a photo taken by the Detroit News‘ head photographer William Kuenzel, said Clark had “the perfect football face” — reminiscent of a Roman gladiator’s (a little ironic in that Clark had very poor eyesight and wore eyeglasses off the field). Prints of the Kuenzel profile were prized by the likes of actress Bette Davis, singer Bing Crosby, and automaker Walter P. Chrysler.

At the end of 1938 Clark officially retired as a player, left the Lions and became head coach of the Cleveland Rams, one of the worst teams in the league. With the Rams, Clark got his first dose of mediocrity in football, posting records of 5-5-1 (1939), 4-6-1 (1940), and 2-9 (1941). When the Rams again finished under .500 in 1942 at 5-6, Clark decided he had had enough. He had never particularly liked coaching, he later admitted, and he had not been particularly good at drafting impact players.

Besides, Clark said, the Rams never were going to be able to compete with the established powers of the Western Division: the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. He retired from the NFL completely.

Just three seasons later the Cleveland Rams swept their season series with both the Bears and Packers, won the Western Division, and defeated the Washington Redskins to claim the 1945 NFL Championship.

Dutch Clark is forgotten by many today, though interestingly three of the Ohio fields where he once plied his trade still are in existence and continue to host sports events: League Park and Shaw Stadium in Cleveland, and Universal Stadium (now Spartan Municipal Stadium) in Portsmouth.

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5 Myths About the NFL in Cleveland: It’s Not Quite the Football Town You Think It Is (Or Was)

1948 AAFC Championship Game.CLE

See those empty seats in the background? This is a Browns championship game. A scant 22,891 at the 1948 AAFC title game in Cleveland watch as Marion Motley and the 14-0 Browns down the 7-7 Buffalo Bills, 49-7. Three years earlier the supposedly less-liked Cleveland Rams drew 50% more fans to a taut 1945 NFL Championship Game, in arctic weather that was nearly 30 degrees colder and as servicemen were returning from World War II.

Historical facts often are no match for the selective memories of football fans and the relentless myth-making machine of the National Football League. Think Cleveland is a football town nonpareil, conceived by a sainted Browns playoff juggernaut of long ago? After debunking these 5 myths about the NFL in Cleveland you may think the real story is a little more…uh, complicated.

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The Cleveland Rams’ Hugo Bezdek: The Original Hellraising Would-Be Reformer of College Football

Bezdek with the Rams

Hugo Bezdek (far right) opens training camp with the 1937 Cleveland Rams in Painesville, Ohio. (Photo courtesy the Cleveland Plain Dealer)

Hugo Bezdek

Stockily built, Bezdek was at heart an academician, a pedagogical purist, and a creative thinker. (Photo courtesy National Football Foundation)

Like sex, outrage over the high financial stakes of college football is something every generation seems to think it invented.

The latest example comes from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, whose football program has been deemed not financially unsustainable and so will be dismantled. Public reaction to this news has been predictable: university president Dr. Ray Watts is persona non grata in Birmingham.

But it always has been thus. Concern that college football has become too money-soaked and untethered from a university’s academic mission dates at least to the 1920s. So do attempts to reform it.

Among the most notable and earliest would-be reformers of college football was Hugo Bezdek, the NFL Rams franchise’s first-ever head coach. As a college athletic director and coach, Bezdek nearly single-handedly attempted to “de-emphasize” football at powerhouse Penn State University in the late 1920s and 1930s by eliminating player scholarships, returning to the university an athletic building that had been built by and for the football team, and drawing his player roster from the general student population.

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9 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the NFL’s Rams Franchise

Rams banner

The Rams are the only NFL team to win championships in three different cities: Cleveland (1945), Los Angeles (1951) and St. Louis (1999). (Photo courtesy Sports Road Trips)

In doing research for my book on the Cleveland Rams I repeatedly come across an old, amusing sports column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s archives titled “It’s New to Most of You” — as in, this may not be a world-beating exclusive but here you are. In the spirit of that unpretentious name, here are 9 things you may not have known about the Rams, one of the NFL’s oldest and most nomadic franchises. It begins with the biggest one: where the team actually was founded.

Rams letterhead

A distinctive Rams logo appeared on letterhead within days of the team’s acceptance into the NFL in February 1937. (Courtesy Pro Football Hall of Fame)

1. The Rams did not start in Los Angeles. And they certainly didn’t originate in St. Louis where they currently reside. The Rams began in Cleveland in 1936 as an American Football League team, joined the NFL in 1937, moved to Los Angeles in 1946, and moved again in 1995 to St. Louis. (And they may well move again, back to L.A.)

2. The Rams originated the NFL’s first helmet logo. Thank Cleveland / L.A. running back Fred Gehrke for that; he had an art degree and worked as an aircraft illustrator before he designed, and personally painted on every single Rams helmet, the iconic ram’s-horn logo.

3. The Rams are the only franchise to win NFL championships in three different cities: Cleveland (1945), Los Angeles (1951) and St. Louis (1999). Continue reading

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Seeing Red: What the Uniforms of the 1936 Cleveland Rams Probably Looked Like (Including ‘Butt Stripes’)

AFL 1936 CLE A (1)

The Cleveland Rams’ 1936 uniforms likely included a color scheme of red, black, gold/yellow and white. (Image courtesy of the Gridiron Uniform Database)


Drat that old black-and-white film!

An important strain of sports history is teasing out what the uniforms of proto pro football teams looked like before color film and printing captured this information for posterity. No easy task. Turns out the togs of the early pioneers were far more colorful and daring than the stereotype of the drab leather-helmet era that seems to persist.

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