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Browns very first NFL game: The complete story - Part 1

The established league wanted to embarrass Paul Brown and belittle his “championship teams”

Bettmann Archive

The Cleveland Browns merged into the National Football League (NFL) in 1950 along with the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Colts. All three clubs had previously been part of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), an NFL rival league.

The AAFC lasted four years, and the Browns had won every year’s championship.

Cleveland was now set to compete in the NFL beginning with the 1950 season. Everybody who followed the NFL or worked within their clubs believed that the three AAFC franchises were simply minor league teams that would fade pretty quickly and could even fold sooner than later because they just couldn’t compete at a higher level. The feeling was bad teams who lose most of their games consistently never draw good gates, which means they cannot continue to exist.

But it took absorbing the three AAFC teams in order to dissolve the rest of the other clubs plus their league. This meant that now player salaries would finally level out and there would finally be some financial stability for every NFL club to finally enjoy since player leverage was now eliminated.

But the Browns did not have any friends in the NFL. In fact, those owners had a huge distain for Cleveland and touted them as bullies taking advantage of bush league teams along their championship domination quest.

The NFL wanted to display just how “minor league” these champions were. And they wanted to prove this sooner than later. In fact, right away.

For the Browns very first NFL contest in their new setting, right out of the gate the NFL and its schedule makers pitted them against their own league title holder – the NFL Two-Time Champion Philadelphia Eagles.

On the surface it appeared it would be a pre-Super Bowl matchup pitting the NFL champions against the AAFC champions. And it was.

But it was also something else that was very, very important to the NFL and their owners: an opportunity to embarrass the Browns.

Birth of the AAFC

Before the narrative about this historic game in Cleveland’s history is told, let’s back up a bit. Like, five years beforehand. To understand the magnitude of this match-up the NFL had concocted for its own vanity, there are details that lead up to this moment.

In 1945 as World War II was winding down, there were literally hundreds of American men who wanted to play professional football. Some had gone into the war before their final college years were concluded. Others came from NFL rosters and joined the war effort while many had been college seniors about to begin their pro football careers but were sucked into the military instead.

And then there were the remaining athletes who were about to graduate and were NFL draft ready.

The NFL was just a 10-team entity at this time. It was an amazing accomplishment that the league had survived at all during war time. So many players, coaches and even franchise owners had seen some sort of service during these years, and many teams suffered for players and even merged together in order to field squads. In 1943, Chicago Bears owner/head coach signed anyone who could run around the track two times.

The Cleveland Rams completely shut down for the 1943 season. Pittsburgh was forced to merge rosters with Philadelphia in 1943 and then the Chicago Cardinals in 1944 just to have seasons or else they too would have folded. In 1945. the Boston Yanks and Brooklyn Tigers merged rosters.

Before the war, there were several wealthy men who had tried unsuccessfully to purchase an NFL franchise but were rebuffed. Expansion was not in the plans for the NFL either.

So in 1944, plans were being laid for a second league founded by Arch Ward, the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune and father of the annual College All-Star Game against the NFL Champions. He had a long list of wealthy men ready and willing to take on a new league in order to become pro football owners.

Back in those days, pro baseball was the king of sports and was very successful - which meant they made money. And with a blueprint for success, others simply followed what baseball did.

Baseball had a National League and an American League. At season’s end, the winners of each league participated in a string of championship games called the World Series.

The promoters of professional football wanted the same type of set-up with a National league (the NFL) plus an American league (the AAFC) whose champions could play in a single playoff championship game for the world title.

Well, promoters of the American league side saw it that way. The NFL didn’t want any part of a championship between two leagues. In fact, they didn’t want any part of another league period. It was tough enough to make money as it was without others honing in on their heritage. No other league had built the sport of professional football like the NFL had and made the sacrifices for decades; so nobody else needed to gain whatever menial profits the established league could generate instead and cash in on their efforts just by simply existing.

The AAFC began play in 1946 with eight cities. Four of those teams were located in NFL cities in direct competition for fans, sponsors, press coverage and money with established NFL clubs: New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers (New York Football Giants), Los Angeles Dons (Los Angeles Rams) and the Chicago Rockets (Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals).

The other clubs were the Cleveland Browns, Miami Seahawks and the Buffalo Bisons.

The following season, the Miami franchise relocated to Baltimore which was in close proximity of the Washington Redskins and renamed the Colts.

Needless to say, the NFL did not welcome the AAFC. In fact, NFL commissioner Elmer Layden had remarked to the press, “First get a ball, then make a schedule, and then play a game.” That would later be paraphrased famously as “Tell them to get a ball first.” Layden’s successor, Bert Bell, would not even discuss the AAFC when questioned and would simply reply, “No comment” when asked.

Redskins’ owner George Preston Marshall at one point stated, “The worst team in our league could beat the best team in theirs.”

As far as the NFL was concerned, there wasn’t any such thing as the AAFC.

The AAFC offered players more money and went after the college seniors more vigorously. This meant that player salaries, which at the time had been averaging around $4,500-$6,000 a season, were now on the rise. The AAFC paid about $7,000 a year. Cleveland head coach Paul Brown offered contracts of $7,500 plus a $2,500 signing bonus.

This began an upward spiral with player contracts in both leagues. At one point, AAFC commissioner Jim Crowley sent a letter to NFL commish Bell seeking a meeting that would offer a common college draft, set limits on player contracts and play a championship game between the two league champions. When this was brought before the NFL owners, they told Bell to round-file the letter and not respond.

From there, an all-out assault was launched from both leagues raiding each other’s club rosters and going after the most favorable rookies. Player salaries reached an all-time high. QB Angelo Bertelli of Notre Dame signed a $10,000 contract to play for the Dons. Arkansas wide receiver was inked to a $13,000 deal with the Rams.

By the end of 1948, only a few clubs in both leagues had made a slim profit.

Cleveland Browns back story (short version)

When Paul Brown was hired to coach the Cleveland entry in the AAFC, he was the most famous sports figure in the State of Ohio.

Coach Brown
Head coach Paul Brown
Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images

Before World War II, he coached Ohio State to a National Championship. While head coach at Massillon Washington High School, his squads won six state titles plus was named National Champions four times.

The AAFC did not have any guidelines in which the eight-member clubs would form their rosters. Initially, there wasn’t a college draft nor any system put in place that would fairly dispense the talent among its clubs. Basically, each team was on their own.

Cleveland owner Mickey McBride hired Brown to be the head coach while Brown was still a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. Since Brown had coached at Massillon, Ohio State and then the Great Lakes Bluejackets Navy football team, he knew of his own former players, plus had the advantage of knowledge of every player that his teams had played and what their skill levels were.

This was a huge advantage. Not to mention the fact that 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.

Detroit Lions v Cleveland Browns
Kicker Lou Groza #76 of the Cleveland Browns was signed by Coach Brown while stationed in the Philippines during World War II
Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

Brown compiled a list of targeted athletes. McBride was very wealthy and gave Brown a green light financially with signing players. Obviously, this was another instant advantage for the new coach. Unknown to most, a lot of players were signed while still in the military (just as Brown had been) and were paid monthly retainers.

Brown sent out in the standard military mail to prospective players 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.

This meant that before any NFL club or any AAFC team had access to these hand-picked players, Paul Brown had them already under contract.

The Cleveland Browns dominated the AAFC all four years. In 1948, the Browns became the very first pro football team to finish their season unbeaten and untied with a sterling 14-0-0 record. At one point, Cleveland had gone 23-games without a loss in the course of three seasons.

Before the 1949 season, the NFL and AAFC were in negotiations for a possible merger. Player salaries had gone completely out-of-hand and the bleeding needed to cease. Both leagues were financially exhausted.

It was agreed upon that beginning in 1950, the Browns, 49ers and Colts would become merged into the NFL while the other AAFC clubs, now just seven teams, would be disbanded.

Embarrass the AAFC Champion Browns

The NFL had all along contended that the AAFC was nothing more than minor league football. Rarely did the established league even identify that they existed, until the profit margins began to shrink.

The NFL knew that Cleveland had dominated the AAFC, but so what? Beat up other minor league teams wasn’t exactly a gleaming accolade.

Because the AAFC had given the NFL owners so much grief and cost them unknown profits, the established league decided to humiliate the Browns. Right off. During league merger talks, Redskins’ owner Marshall and Coach Brown had developed a mutual disdain for each other.

First, the 10-member NFL was aligned with five equal teams divided into two divisions: Eastern and Western. For 1950, these would be renamed the National Conference (seven teams) and American Conference (six teams). San Francisco and Baltimore were placed into the National Conference which were all former Western Division clubs. Cleveland was slotted into the American Conference – all eastern teams.

Instead of placing the Browns into the conference with all of the other more westerly teams, the NFL decided to let them play in the same division that consisted of their league’s most fiercest competition such as the Giants, Eagles and Redskins. It made zero sense to shove Baltimore in a division with other more-western cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Green Bay.

Next, since the league now had an odd number of clubs with 13, Marshall pushed the NFL owners for Cleveland to play a “swing schedule” which meant it had to compete against every other team in the league for one game instead of just the clubs in their division.

Paul Brown was livid with the schedule arrangement. Not only was his team placed geographically in the most difficult division with increased travel conditions plus added travel expenses, now the league wanted him to participate in the idea to play an unfamiliar opponent each and every week. Coach Brown fought this idea imperiously, and in the end, Baltimore was designated as the swing club.

The idea was to finally expose the Browns as what they were: truly minor league. And to place an exclamation mark on this quest, the NFL broke out its ace in the hole.

For the Browns first-ever NFL game, they were pitted against the current NFL champs – the Eagles. Not just the Eagles, but the Two-Time reigning defending league champs Eagles.

Stay tuned for Part Two.

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