By: Dennis Bateman
Whatever happens in the coming years will mark a definitive event in the history of the Rams franchise, and while we leave no stone, or story, unturned as it comes by, we’ve also taken the time to look back at some of the hidden history. What is remarkable is that many of the franchise’s most pivotal moments came about as the result of stadium issues, fan support (or lack thereof), and the wishes and desires of ownership at the time.
In this multi-part series, which will parallel the history of the Rams in Los Angeles, we’ll have a no-holds barred look at the issues, the decisions, and the personalities involved. There will be some hard, and unpleasant truths along the way, and it’s up to us as true L.A. Ram fans to learn from our past so that we will be able to step boldly towards our future, which we anticipate will soon be that long-awaited 50th year of the Rams in Southern California.
PART 1 – From Cleveland to Los Angeles
While the fact that the Rams franchise originally moved to Los Angeles after spending its first eight years in Cleveland, there are many misconceptions about why that historic shift even took place. After being founded as a member of the short-lived second incarnation of the American Football League in 1936, the Cleveland Rams joined the National Football League just one year later, and ironically replaced the St. Louis Gunners, who left the league.
With the pre-eminence that the NFL has enjoyed for nearly a half-century, it’s hard for some to believe that there was even a time that franchises had to fight for survival. But the Cleveland Rams were just such a team, struggling along with Cleveland and the rest of the country were slow to emerge from the lingering Great Depression. From 1937 to 1944, the Rams were unable to establish a firm fanbase in Cleveland as they shuffled from venue to venue.
After going 1-10 in their first NFL season and with attendance just as dismal, the team had to leave the cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium and moved to much smaller League Park, which had only a capacity of 21,414. Additionally, the Rams had to share the facility with the much more-established and beloved Cleveland Indians. In 1938, the Rams franchise found itself consigned to play at the stadium at Shaw High School in East Cleveland. The team moved back to Cleveland Stadium from 1939 to 1941, then again to League Park in 1942 and 1944 (team operations were suspended in 1943 due to a shortage of players). Never during this period did the Rams break the .500 mark in terms of victories.
That changed in 1945, with the arrival of rookie quarterback Bob Waterfield from UCLA. The Rams went 9-1, including a 4-0 mark in games played in Cleveland, and would beat the Washington Redskins 15-14 for the NFL championship. But even reaching the pinnacle of achievement was marred by unfortunate circumstances. A severe winter storm hit northeastern Ohio in the week leading up to the game, and attendance at Cleveland Stadium was about 29,000 out of 35,000 total tickets sold.
While the Rams were the undisputed champions of the NFL, a challenge was already on the horizon, right in their hometown. Arthur McBride, a wealthy real estate developer and the owner of most of the taxicab companies in Ohio, bought into the newly-created All-America Football Conference and announced that he would base his franchise in Cleveland. The aggressive McBride spared no expense in his efforts, hiring as his first head coach Paul Brown, who was already a state sports legend having guided Massillon Washington High School and later Ohio State University to football prominence.
Additionally, McBride succeeded in negotiating a long-term lease with Cleveland Stadium that purposely excluded any other professional football tenants. Faced with new and well-funded competition for fans and being relegated to the inadequate League Park were both unappetizing prospects for the Rams, and at a meeting of the NFL owners at the Commodore Hotel in New York on January 11, 1946, Dan Reeves made his proposal to move his franchise to Los Angeles. The NFL had resisted previous bids for new franchises west of the Mississippi River, but World War II had changed much of American society. The West Coast was now seen as an area of growth, and with the AAFC setting up franchises in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, support was much more forthcoming from Reeves’ fellow owners as well as new NFL commissioner Bert Bell.
At a press conference following the approval of his proposal, Reeves said that “Los Angeles has the greatest football future of any city in America,” and that he was applying for a long-term lease with the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which had a seating capacity of up to 103,000.
Reeves also noted at the time that he had made a proposal to move several times, including as far back as 1937. Said Reeves, “So you can see that the move has been a long-range plan so far as we are concerned. Now, my next problem is to persuade my wife and the kids to move out there.”
It did not hurt Reeves’ case that his coach Adam Walsh lived in Los Angeles and that star quarterback Bob Waterfield and his wife, a budding movie star named Jane Russell, had played his high school and college ball in southern California.
When asked whether he was turning his back on his team’s fans in Cleveland, Reeves could only say, “It is not that I love Cleveland less but that I love Los Angeles more.”
© Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams, Dennis Bateman