The Cleveland Browns owned the 1940’s, 1950’s and parts of the 1960’s in the canvas of pro football. Like clockwork, those squads were dominant year-after-year.
Head coach Paul Brown had an open checkbook from millionaire owner Mickey McBride to do what he thought was best for the franchise, and Coach Brown built a dynasty in his own image. His players were sharply dressed, excellent citizens, high-character, possessed team-first attitudes, and most importantly, they were all gifted football players.
And one of the great ones was a gangling receiver named Mac Speedie who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (HOF) Class of 2020.
There are 29 players inducted into the HOF which played for various Cleveland franchises: Bulldogs (4), Rams (3), Indians (2) while Speedie is the Browns’ 21st inductee. Speedie played for the Browns from 1946-1952, then spent three seasons in the Canadian Football League (CFL). For his career, he gained 7,006 yards on 443 receptions, scored 45 touchdowns with a 15.8 average.
Speedie (6’, 3”, 203 pounds) was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 15th round of the NFL college draft out of Utah where he also excelled in track as a hurdler. In football, he was All-Mountain States Conference three straight years. As did a flood of American athletes, after graduation he joined the Army with the nation’s efforts in World War II.
From college to the Army to the Browns
He was stationed at Fort Warren (Wyoming) when Lions’ owner Fred Mandel made a visit via train and offered Speedie a contract for $2,800 a season. Speedie wanted to sign a long-term deal that would allow him to play once his military stint was completed and allow his some stability, but Mandel only wanted him to sign a one-year contract that would enable him to retain his rights. Mandel left Wyoming without an inked contract at all.
Most military bases had athletic teams in various sports. Speedie played for the Fort Warren Broncos base football and basketball squads which played other military bases and several colleges. In 1944, Fort Warren was the number one military football team during the war. The following year, he was approached by the Chicago Rockets of the brand new All-America Football Conference (AAFC), an NFL rival league, to play on their roster for the maiden season of 1946 after their owner had seen him play against a base team in El Toro, California.
Coach Brown was also serving in the Navy after coaching Ohio State University to its first national championship. He was commissioned as a lieutenant and stationed near Chicago at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Brown was also the coach of the base football squad whose schedule included many top college teams. In 1944, Great Lakes went 9-2-1 as an independent and was ranked number 17 in the final AP poll. Along with other base teams, their schedule included Notre Dame, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Illinois.
And, Fort Warren.
Right away, the AAFC would become a rival to the NFL and compete for established and rookie players, fans, sponsors, veteran players and media coverage. They announced they had placed teams in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Cleveland – cities which already had an NFL club. The other franchises were located in Miami, Brooklyn, San Francisco and Buffalo.
The existing Cleveland Rams had just captured the 1945 NFL Championship, but for many years their owner had petitioned the other owners to allow him to relocate the Rams to Los Angeles. The owners had objected because of the added travel expenses which was by train or bus. However, commercial air travel had just become available which made the pitch to move west more plausible. At the time, Paul Brown was one of the most popular and influential men in all of the State of Ohio. When the NFL discovered the AAFC had placed a new club in Cleveland and they had hired Brown as their head coach, the Rams relocated to Los Angeles for 1946.
Coach Brown was still employed with the Navy when McBride hired him. Upon his acceptance of the Cleveland head coaching position, Brown was still in the Navy drawing a paycheck; and at the same time an employee of a pro football club that was in its infancy without any players, front office, assistant coaches, equipment, colors, uniforms or even a team name. And being paid for that, too.
Brown used two things to his advantage in building the Browns: 1) the AAFC did not have any guidelines in which the eight member clubs could form their rosters so each club could sign whoever they wanted without any thought of parity, and 2) he was an officer in the military and had access to information of former NFL and college players that were currently serving, which branch they were in, where they were stationed and how to contact them.
And Brown had seen Speedie play in a 28-7 loss to Great Lakes.
Brown sent out in the standard military mail to Speedie a personal letter, an offer of $250 per month until the war ceased, a signing bonus of $2,500 and when they arrived at Cleveland’s training camp, a $7,500 salary to play professional football with the new Cleveland ballclub.
A new league, a new Cleveland franchise
In 1946 as a rookie at the ripe age of 26, Speedie was the starting receiver opposite Dante Lavelli for the Browns. At quarterback was Otto Graham, whom Coach Brown had played against while at Ohio State. Marion Motley was the running back behind tackle Lou Rymkus and center Mike Scarry. Like his name, Speedie was fast and difficult to cover and became an integral part of the Browns offensive success. He also caught the very first touchdown in Browns’ history.
In 1947, Speedie broke open for 1,146 yards during a 14-game season. Another 1,028 yards were gained in 1949. Meanwhile, the Browns had captured the AAFC crown all four seasons. At the time, the NFL’s perspective was that the NFL’s worst club could defeat the AAFC’s best team every year.
When the Browns merged into the NFL in 1950, Speedie’s numbers dropped despite starting every game except one in three seasons. During his tenure In those three NFL seasons, the Browns won the league in 1950 but lost in the 1951 and 1952 NFL Championship Games.
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1948 AAFC Champions that went 14-0-0 and defeated the Buffalo Bills 49-7 in the title game
1950 NFL Champions that went 10-2-0 in their first year in the NFL and beat the Los Angeles Rams 30-28 in the title game
1964 NFL Champions (10-3-1) that was 17-point underdogs to the Unitas-led dominating Baltimore Colts which won 27-0 in the title game
Speedie had been All-AAFC all four years, named to the NFL Pro Bowl two times, a three-time reception leader (AAFC), a one-time NFL reception leader, two-time receiving yards leader (AAFC), and was later named to the “NFL 1940s All-Decade Team.” When the NFL absorbed three AAFC clubs, part of the agreement was that none of their records nor statistics would be a part of the NFL. So unofficially, Speedie was the AAFC’s receptions and receiving yards leader.
With all this success though, Coach Brown had a problem by the name of Mac Speedie.
Not always half full
One of the hallmarks of Coach Brown’s philosophy was discipline. As a rookie, Speedie was arrested after getting into an argument with Cleveland police. He had an independent mindset and did not work well with domination. Brown would often berate Speedie in front of other players which drove a wedge between the two men. In 1952 - his last with the Browns - Speedie brought a skunk to training camp. The skunk was named “Paul.”
1952 was a very good year for Speedie as he gained 911 yards in a 12-game season, was named to the Pro Bowl and was the NFL’s receptions leader with 62 catches.
At the time, many CFL teams were offering much better money to existing NFL players and signing quite a few of them. The Saskatchewan Roughriders offered Speedie twice his Browns’ $11,000 a year contract which was set to expire. When Brown refused to up his contract at all, Speedie accepted the Roughriders’ offer for the 1953 season. Coach Brown threatened to sue claiming the Browns had exercised an extension option, but nothing ever became of the ordeal and Speedie had a new home. Years later, when Speedie met Brown at the East-West Shrine Game in 1977, Coach Brown referred to him as “that Canadian player.”
During his two seasons with the Roughriders, Speedie developed several injuries including a reoccurring shoulder ailment. In 1953 he had 57 receptions for 817 yards with seven touchdowns and a 14.3 average and was elected to the CFL Western All-Star squad. The following year, he caught 36 passes for 576 yards, a 16.0 average and scored five touchdowns while nursing injuries.
The following season Speedie, now 34 years old, signed with the brand new British Columbia Lions of the CFL, but tore ligaments in his left knee and ankle during the first game ever for the first-year club. The injury basically ended his career. For the season, Speedie had one reception for 11 yards.
A new career
Speedie had played his last professional football contest, but had a good football mind. He was hired as receivers coach for the Houston Oilers of the brand new American Football League (AFL) in 1960 to which the Oilers captured the league’s maiden title.
In 1962, he took the same position with the AFL Denver Broncos. Two years later when the Broncos began 0-4-0, the head coach was fired and Speedie became the interim head coach and finished out the year 2-7-1. He was ultimately signed to a two-year contract as their next head coach to which Denver posted a 4-10-0 record. After an 0-2-0 start in 1966, he resigned as head coach but became a regional scout until his retirement in 1982.
As far as his Hall of Fame status, he was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame Foundation in 1972. The University of Utah Crimson Club Hall of Fame voted him a member in 1986. He was later named to the University of Utah football “All-Centennial Team.” In 2007, cleveland.com issued the “100 Greatest Browns of All-Time” and listed Speedie at number 11.
Speedie was a finalist for the Pro Football HOF in 1970, 1972 and 1983. He was then placed on the “NFL old-timers list” of nominees beginning in the mid-1980s, but was passed over every year. Speculation was that Paul Brown had influence with voters which kept him out of the HOF. In 2011, Bleacher Report did an article on the “Five Biggest Hall of Fame Snubs” to which Speedie was listed at number 2.
On January 15, 2020, Speedie was selected by a special NFL 100th Anniversary centennial panel which voted on 10 senior candidates plus three contributors and two coaches to be inducted into the HOF.
A final tally displays Speedie won five championships as a player and one as a coach.
From those great Cleveland Browns AAFC rosters that reside in the HOF are Otto Graham, Frank Gatski, Bill Willis, Marion Motley, Coach Paul Brown, Dante Lavelli and Lou “the toe” Groza.
And finally, add Mac Speedie to that list.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association