The City of Cleveland has had numerous pro football teams.
The Cleveland Tigers were charter members of the American Professional Football Association, two years removed from being renamed the National Football League. This was followed by the Cleveland Indians (1931), Cleveland Bulldogs (1924-1925, 1927), Cleveland Panthers (1926) and the Cleveland Rams (1936-1945).
The Rams were born in the American Football League of 1936. Over the course of history, there have been four leagues named this, as this one is referred to as AFL2. It was an NFL-rival league with eight teams that lasted only two seasons. It was also home to the very first club on the West Coast named the Los Angeles Bulldogs.
Most of the AFL teams had rosters which were raided from NFL rosters and promised huge paydays that never materialized.
Before the league’s formation, there were 15 ownership groups which applied for a franchise to which Cleveland was awarded one. The majority owner was Homer Marshman and he called his club the Rams because he was a big Fordham Rams fan plus he thought the short name would fit nicely into any newspaper headline. The official name was Cleveland Rams Football Club, Inc.
The 1936 Rams finished 5-2-2 just behind the Boston Shamrocks, which were declared league champions. But the 1936 season was anything but organized and stable. Four of the eight teams had a good foundation and operated well, but several franchises folded or moved during the course of the season which provided unstable paydays. Often a club would travel to play a game and find out the contest had been canceled. Media coverage was sparse and attendance was horrid for most games. Several teams stopped paying their players and the whole atmosphere was chaotic.
After one season, Marshman and his minority owners had enough of unpaid guarantees, empty stands and empty promises.
Meanwhile in the NFL, they had just completed a full season with only nine clubs for the second year in a row. An odd number of clubs wasn’t favorable for a lot of reasons one being an uneven schedule in which each week one team didn’t play. And so after 1936 the NFL owners decided to add one more franchise for balance.
In a December meeting in Chicago, three ownership groups from Houston, Los Angeles and Marshman of Cleveland arrived at the NFL offices to pitch their franchise as the league’s 10th club.
Marshman was instructed to wait inside the conference room with the other owners while the other two groups made their presentations one-by-one. As soon as both groups were excused, a motion was made to give the franchise to Cleveland even though Marshman had not uttered a word regarding Cleveland. The motion was seconded and agreed upon. The entry fee was $10,000.
It seems the owners had already picked Cleveland beforehand on the premise that they wanted the league to remain in the east and Midwest. The Rams had one season behind them already and were the geographic favorite plus played in the 71,000-seat Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
The Rams are sold
Marshman was ecstatic to be a part of the well-oiled machine known as the NFL. And the City of Cleveland was once again back into the fold of the established league. NFL teams already had solid fan bases and many stadiums in Chicago, New York and Washington attracted large crowds.
It was a time when professional football was gathering favor with the American public.
In their first year, the Rams were mightily out-matched going as they finished 1-10-0 and struggled at the gate. This continued for the next few seasons as the best the Rams finished was third place. With financial losses each year, finally Marshman decided to sell.
In June 1941, negotiations began with Frederick Levy, Jr. and Dan Reeves. Reeves owned a chain of grocery stores that his father and uncle started and built into a financial empire with 750 stores before selling out to Safeway Stores. At the age of 29, Reeves made $11 million off the sale. Levy had ties to movie theaters and movie distribution.
For the sum of $140,000, the Rams were sold to Reeves. He would hold 60% ownership as Levy had 30% while three others owned the balance. Initially, it was announced that the Rams would remain in Cleveland for one more season and then be relocated to Boston because crowds had never been favorable to this point.
Levy had ties to the movie industry in California and he and Reeves visited the area on occasion.
New owner - same fan base
The 1941 season finished with the Rams going 2-9-0. The following year with a 5-6-0 record, the most the Rams drew for a home game was 23,850 against the mighty Chicago Bears. At season’s end, the franchise was dead last in attendance with an average crowd of just 15,242 per game.
The 1942 season concluded with Cleveland winning three of their last four games, including demolishing Detroit 27-7 before a home crowd. Shortly after the final game, the club collected $4,000 in advance ticket sales.
The thought of moving to Boston would have to wait. World War II was escalating. Reeves was called into service and with few players remaining, he made the decision to close down the franchise for a year.
That decision would prove to be a disaster for the club.
Upon his return in 1943, there were rumors the Rams might be for sale, or relocated to Cincinnati, Boston or Baltimore. Reeves issued a statement that the Rams would remain in
Cleveland, but would play all games at the 22,500-seat League Park, former home of the baseball Indians. Reeves then bought out Levy and the other minority owners to become sole owner.
The Rams got back their 11 players that had been dispersed among the other clubs as the NFL re-instated the franchise. Reeves had lost just over $100,000 since owning the Rams but a move to Boston was now gone as another NFL club, the Boston Yanks, had been granted a franchise.
At first, the NFL wanted Cleveland to play all of their games on the road since their shutdown. But in the end Cleveland was allowed just three home games for the 1944 season.
All of this angered Reeves and he felt the league was punishing him for shutting down for a year. When the motion went to a vote for the Rams to have an equal amount of road and home games as always, the other owners stonewalled him in a 10-1 vote against and then set in motion just three home games.
Having to fill a roster, Reeves had just 11 players plus the athletes selected in the NFL draft. He sought out lesser known names of men who played college football and were coming back from the war as free agents and was able to sign 14 players.
After starting 3-0, the 1944 Rams finished 4-6-0. The most any of their home games drew was 17,166.
During this time period, it was announced that a new pro football league would be formed starting in 1945 called the All-American Football Conference. That was shelved for one season as the war effort was winding down.
Of the announced cities, Cleveland was one of them. And to make things worse, former Ohio State head coach Paul Browns was hired as head coach. At the time, Brown was the most famous sports person in the State of Ohio having won six high school championships and the National Championship squad he coached while at Ohio State.
Reeves made it known to the other owners that he wanted to relocate his Rams to California after not being able to create a good fan base in Cleveland, the mounting losses plus Coach Brown’s new team moving in. The Chicago Tribune published a story about the possibility of the Rams moving west.
It was noted that the new Cleveland AAFC club had already leased Cleveland Municipal Stadium which meant the new team would be playing in the city’s largest venue while the established Rams would be regulated to operating out of the much smaller League Park.
Plainly put, the Rams were not going to have the Cleveland market to themselves any longer.
The 1945 Rams began undefeated just like the year before this time going 4-0. After a Week 6 loss to Philadelphia, they finished the year with five wins to finish 9-1-0. This included a 20-7 win over Green Bay in front of over 28,000 at League Park. Head coach Adam Walsh was named Coach of the Year while QB Bob Waterfield was the league’s MVP.
In the NFL Championship Game in Cleveland in sub-zero temperatures, the Rams defeated the Washington Redskins 15-14.
For 1945, the Cleveland Rams were NFL Champions.
Next up in Part 2, the Rams leave the NFL.