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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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. 

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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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