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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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