For the second time in NFL history, the Rams are relocating to Los Angeles. But for those on the West Coast jumping to “welcome home” the franchise they passively supported for 50 years, it’s worth remembering that before the blue-and-gold ever played in L.A., they were the Cleveland Rams. And while St. Louis is losing a long-scuffling team coming off a 7-9 season, Cleveland—improbably—watched its newly crowned 1945 World Champions skip town in a wake of confetti. The saga of the Cleveland Rams, that first move, and the team’s eventual showdown with its successors—the Cleveland Browns—makes for one of the great, rarely told epics in football history. The tale includes stunning twists, Hall of Famers, and A-list celebrities, and it’s book-ended by two of the greatest games ever played: the 1945 and 1950 NFL Championships.
Northeast Ohioans have a long recurring pipe dream in which today’s lowly, expansion model of the Cleveland Browns miraculously take the AFC Championship over their former selves—the Baltimore Ravens—in a transcendental battle of good vs. evil and ego vs. id, thus restoring balance to the force and glory to Cleveland, etc etc. What most of us fail to realize, however, is that this seemingly far-fetched scenario actually DID play out—under almost identical circumstances—during the Truman administration. There was a beloved Cleveland team, a controversial exodus, a new beginning, and— for the lucky fans of that bygone era—a thrilling and satisfying final showdown. But to fully appreciate what the Browns helped Cleveland regain in 1950, you have to start by looking back at what the city had lost. It’s first true NFL love…
Nearly a decade before Paul Brown’s legendary squad made its debut in the upstart All-America Football Conference, the Rams had already been introduced as Cleveland’s shiny new representative in the well-established National Football League. From 1937 to 1945, the cavernous (and relatively new) Municipal Stadium would serve as the primary home of the Rams and the headquarters for a vital era in Cleveland football that now seems largely forgotten— a painful memory better left repressed, perhaps.
In many respects, the odds were stacked against the Cleveland Rams from the get-go. While professional football was on the rise in the ‘30s, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression and on the doorstep of World War II. Even in the NFL—the most stable pro football league by a wide margin—it was hardly unusual for teams to fold overnight under the strain of mounting debts. The Rams themselves had actually played their first season, 1936, in an early version of the American Football League. But as a good indicator of the times, their scheduled Championship Game match-up with the Boston Shamrocks was canceled when the Boston players refused to step on the field, citing unreceived paychecks. As a result, the Rams won the title by default, even though the Shamrocks (owners of the best record in the league) are usually credited as the league champs in most subsequent records. Meanwhile, there were several other AFL teams that actually moved or shut down operations in the middle of that 1936 season, which tells you about all you need to know.
Fortunately, the following year saw Cleveland lawyer Homer Marshman and his business associates pay $10,000 to retain ownership of the Rams franchise and jump to the legitimacy of the NFL, replacing (sort of retroactively ironically) the departed St. Louis Gunners in the league’s Western Division.
Only four players were carried over from the original Rams, and the team got off to a predictably inauspicious start, finishing 1-10 while splitting its games between League Park and Cleveland Stadium. In 1938 (a 4-7 season) they were forced to play several home games on Shaw High School’s field, and in 1939—despite the best efforts of MVP halfback Parker Hall—the Rams still managed no better than third in the division. After another mediocre campaign in 1940, Marshman claimed to be hemorrhaging money trying to keep the franchise afloat, and he finally sold the Rams to grocery magnate Daniel Reeves and Fred Levy, Jr. for $100,000 (an ROI that looked pretty good at the time). The new ownership quickly showed signs of awakening the sleeping giant that was Cleveland’s football fan-base, as the Rams stirred up some interest with a pair of wins to open the 1941 season. But by December, the team had dropped nine straight, and thanks to a day in Hawaii that would live in infamy, the public’s attention had shifted to far more pressing matters.
Many of the Rams (including owners Reeves and Levy) were enlisted in the military by 1942, and in ’43, the team was so undermanned that it was actually forced to sit out the entire season. The organization regrouped for another disappointing effort in 1944, but a year later, Reeves (now as principal owner) would celebrate VJ Day with as much renewed hope as anyone. The end of the war had also marked a new beginning for his football team, highlighted by the addition of first round draft pick Bob Waterfield— a former star quarterback at UCLA and another in a long line of anointed saviors for a beleaguered Cleveland franchise.
By 1945, the Rams had narrowly survived a depression, a world war, an ownership change, and seven consecutive losing seasons. Now, at the dawning of a new golden era in football and America as a whole, Bob Waterfield and Co. were poised to deliver Cleveland to the top of the NFL. Incredibly, they achieved their goal. But even more incredibly, it’s a feat that would be almost instantly jettisoned from Cleveland’s supposedly elephantine sports memory—replaced instead with visions of an infant franchise from a rebel league with a local coaching legend at the helm.
By 1945, former Massillon High School and Ohio State coach Paul Brown had already been named head coach and general manager of a new professional team that would serve as a founding franchise of the All-America Football Conference in 1946. The as-yet unnamed club would be playing its home games in Municipal Stadium and theoretically making a direct run at the dwindling fan-base of the hard-luck Rams. By most accounts, the Rams would need a miracle season to turn the tide and fend off the demise of the franchise. By the fall of ’45, it seemed as though their miracle had arrived in the form of Waterfield—a player not only strong-armed and skilled enough to turn around the Rams’ fortunes, but marketable enough to transcend his sport and expand the local fan-base like no one before him.
Waterfield was the classic California pretty boy, fresh out of UCLA and already married to a Hollywood starlet (his high school sweetheart Jane Russell). But unlike many of the QBs cut in his mold, he had the talents to warrant his celebrity.
Waterfield led the Rams to four straight wins out of the gate in 1945, and in an era when the aerial attack was still a novel concept, he and star receiver Jim Benton were emerging as a lethal combination, terrorizing opposing defenses and earning the devotion of the Cleveland faithful. Together, they overwhelmed the Bears at Wrigley Field 41-21, upended the Packers twice by 13-point margins, and rewrote the record book on Thanksgiving Day at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, as Waterfield connected with Benton 10 times for 303 yards and a touchdown in a 28-21 Rams win. The rejuvenated Rams would finish the season a league-best 9-1, setting up a showdown with the East Division Champion Washington Redskins.
The Rams’ Adam Walsh had been named Coach of the Year, Waterfield was the first unanimous MVP of the league, and Municipal Stadium was going to play host to its first ever NFL Championship Game on December 16, 1945. Not surprisingly, the Rams were the talk of Cleveland, but sadly, it wasn’t for all the right reasons. By now, it had become almost a foregone conclusion—despite the success of the team– that owner Dan Reeves (no relation to the equally unlikable Broncos coach) would move the Rams 2,000 miles away to Los Angeles for the following season, creating one of the first major pro sports franchises west of St. Louis (the Rams pre-dated the Dodgers and Lakers by more than a decade). This inevitability was the dark cloud hanging over the icebox that was Cleveland Stadium, as 32,000 shivering fans filed in for a funeral march in the guise of a holiday party.
The game itself would go down as one of the most memorable of the era. With a field temperature hovering around -8 degrees, the confident rookie Waterfield squared off with another future Hall of Fame QB in the form of Washington’s already legendary Sammy Baugh. Unfortunately for Baugh, the 1945 Championship Game would be remembered as a career low point.
In the first quarter, with the game scoreless and the Redskins backed up at their own five yard-line, Baugh (who was also Washington’s punter) was forced into the endzone to scoop up a botched snap on fourth down. Thinking on his toes, he then went back into QB mode, trying to spin something from nothing, but his off-balance pass ricocheted off the crossbar (remember the goal posts were on the goal line back then) and plopped back down on the frozen turf. By rule, such a play automatically resulted in a safety, giving Cleveland a 2-0 lead. In a game that was eventually decided by just a single point, the controversial rule became a hot topic over the offseason, and the NFL elected to identify all future crossbar deflections in the endzone as deadball imcompletions rather than safeties. Most people would call it the “Baugh Rule.”
Of course, this was of no help to Baugh at the time, and by the second quarter, a 1-for-6 passing performance and badly bruised ribs landed the Skins captain on the bench. Backup Frank Filchock filled in admirably, tossing a 38-yard TD pass to put Washington ahead. But Cleveland reclaimed the edge just before the half when Waterfield and Benton answered with a 37-yard TD hookup of their own, topped off by a Waterfield extra-point kick that some say hit the crossbar twice before tumbling over. Halftime score: 9-7 for the home team.
In the third quarter, Waterfield connected with halfback Jim Gillette for a 44-yard touchdown strike. Bob shanked the extra point this time, though, making it a 15-7 Rams lead. Filchock remained in for Baugh and led the Skins on another touchdown drive to get within a point at 15-14 heading into the fourth quarter. But after Washington kicker Joe Aguirre failed to convert two separate go-ahead field goals on the slippery Cleveland Stadium sod, the Rams ran out the clock and celebrated their first NFL Championship, sending the wind-whipped, bundled-up Cleveland fans into a frenzy—albeit it a bittersweet one. A bittersweet frenzy? Sure, why not?
Not too many players go out on a high note, let alone whole teams, but in this rare instance, the ’45 Championship would indeed be the Rams swansong in Cleveland. By the start of the 1946 season, the defending champs would call L.A. home— transforming their image and expectations in the process—while a scorned Cleveland football community would quickly rally around its new team, the Browns, and a new goldenboy QB, Otto Graham.
As it turned out, however, Cleveland’s AWOL ex-idol Bob Waterfield had not yet played his final game in Municipal Stadium. Instead, he was five years away from a fateful date with bizarro déjà vu—that rarest of human events in which one re-experiences a key moment in their life from the polar opposite vantage point. For Bob, it would come in the form of the 1950 NFL Championship Game—arguably the greatest game ever played in Cleveland, Ohio. Seriously. We ain’t tossin’ hyperbole here.
On December 17, 1945, Northeast Ohio toasted its world champion Cleveland Rams in a celebration that doubled as a mournful farewell. As many fans already knew, the team would soon be relocating to Los Angeles. Exactly 50 years later—December 17, 1995— the franchise that had once replaced those Rams now faced an eerily similar fate, as the original Cleveland Browns played and won their final game before a grieving crowd at Municipal Stadium. Clearly, those who don’t learn their history are doomed to repeat it [perhaps that goes for the people of St. Louis, as well, who are now losing the Rams nearly 30 years after watching the Cardinals move to Phoenix].
We’ve already looked at the Cleveland Rams’ rise from pro football’s Depression-era doormat to its dominant, post-war champs, as rookie QB Bob Waterfield finally delivered Cleveland its long-sought NFL Championship in 1945. In typical Cleveland fashion, though, that’s where the story turns dark and complicated. Rams owner Dan Reeves, threatened by the arrival of a second Cleveland pro team in 1946 (Mickey McBride’s buzz-worthy Browns of the AAFC), decided to pick up stakes and start his franchise’s title defense anew in sunny California. Abandoned by the NFL, Cleveland football fans quickly turned their heartache into an unhealthy devotion to their new team, and the seeds were thus planted for an unforgettable showdown and the final act of this little Shakespearian drama: the 1950 NFL Championship Game.
Like all good dramas, there was a slow buildup. Between 1946 and 1949, the Rams and their former city existed in completely separate worlds, as far away professionally as they were geographically—kind of like a bitterly divorced couple. Out on the west coast, UCLA grad Bob Waterfield was back in his old comfort zone, but the L.A. Rams had no luck defending their title. The team would scuffle for several years and turn over most of its roster before getting back to the NFL Championship in 1949—a game in which the Philadelphia Eagles clubbed them by a 14-0 count.
Meanwhile, Cleveland had its new love: Otto Graham’s unstoppable Browns—winners of a Tom Emanski-esque back-to-back-to-back-to-back AAFC Championships. In 1950, the NFL finally took notice and swallowed up the AAFC, taking on the 49ers, Colts, and Browns as new franchises in the process. Despite Cleveland’s nice resume and star power, most national observers wrote them off as small fish from a tiny pond. The skeptics were abruptly silenced in the first week of the 1950 season, however, when Paul Brown’s boys shocked the world and massacred the defending champion Eagles 35-10 behind Graham’s 3 TDs and 346 yards passing.
A week later, on the other side of the country, the Los Angeles Rams pistol-whipped the New York Yanks 45-28. They were led not by Waterfield on this occasion, but by his much ballyhooed 24 year-old understudy, Norm Van Brocklin.
Far apart as they’d been all these years, the Rams and Browns had developed a curiously similar philosophy for winning. Rams head coach Joe Stydahar, much like Paul Brown, saw the passing game as the future of football. And like Brown, he had the guns to carry out his plans, as Waterfield and Van Brocklin would throw for over 3,500 combined yards by season’s end, with standout receivers Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch catching over 120 balls and 14 touchdowns between them (numbers even superior to the Browns’ great Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie).
The Browns and Rams were also both at the forefront of integration. A year before Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, Paul Brown had already signed the great Marion Motley and Bill Willis to join the inaugural Browns, saying he wanted the best players, regardless of race. The 1946 Rams also added two black players in the form of UCLA stars Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, but in that instance, the integration had actually been part of Dan Reeves’ contractual obligation with his team’s new home, the Los Angeles Coliseum.
In any case, with the NFL’s more traditionally-minded teams stuck in the lurch, the Rams and Browns each enjoyed six-game winning streaks during the fall of 1950. And more amazingly, when forced into tie-breaking divisional playoff games, both teams managed to upset opponents that had defeated them twice during the regular season (the Browns over the Giants, the Rams over the Bears). This set up the NFL Championship match-up that Clevelanders had been dreaming of—the Browns (11-2) against the Rams (10-3). Today vs. Yesterday, for all the marbles, on Christmas Eve.
As if there weren’t enough drama already, the Rams had lost Van Brocklin to broken ribs in the Bears game, meaning that Bob Waterfield would be under center and center-stage for his first game at Municipal Stadium since he’d gone out a champion five years earlier. He was in Cleveland again, it was Christmas time again, the title was on the line again, and he was wearing the same uniform. But this time, Waterfield and the Rams would be the villains. That surreal shift in the storyline wasn’t lost on anyone, but the prodigal son’s return was just one of a dozen reasons why this game was every bit as epic as the Ice Bowl, Super Bowl XXV, or any other more commonly referenced NFL classic.
The problem is, this was 1950, and football was still decidedly the nation’s second love. Case in point, just two years after piling 86,000 people into Cleveland Stadium for one game in the 1948 World Series, only 30,000 passed through the turnstiles at the same venue to see the Browns meet their predecessors for the NFL title. Still, those in attendance would have a story to tell for generations to come—about the day Bob Waterfield came back to town and Automatic Otto was up to the challenge.
“Looking back on it, it was the greatest game I ever saw,” Paul Brown later said. “Not just because of the game itself, but because of the tremendous exhibition of passing both teams put on. Both of us were the leaders in a modern day revolution of switching the emphasis from running to passing.”
For his part, Waterfield quickly silenced the Cleveland hecklers much like LeBron in a Heat uniform, connecting with Glenn Davis for an 82-yard touchdown strike on the Rams’ opening possession. Predictably, Graham responded swiftly, finding Dub Jones for a 27-yard score to even things up. But a banged-up Cleveland defense broke down again, as Rams running back Dick Hoerner capped a long drive with a 3-yard touchdown run to make it 14-7 Los Angeles after one quarter. Graham would hit Dante Lavelli for six before the half, but Lou Groza missed the extra point, giving L.A. a narrow 14-13 edge at the break. Groza would eventually redeem himself.
For Cleveland, the real highlight of the first half didn’t even involve a specific play, but a player. In a game stacked with future Hall of Famers (8 Browns and 4 Rams, to be exact), Browns defensive end Len Ford was easily the most heroic. Still feeling the effects of a career-threatening hit he’d taken from the Cardinals’ Pat Harder back in October, Ford was finally back in uniform (though 20 pounds below his playing weight) and begged Paul Brown to put him in the game. A frustrated Brown finally relented, and Ford wouldn’t let him regret it. In one series alone, Ford sacked Waterfield and crushed Ram runners in the backfield for two other big losses. His efforts also helped pressure a flustered Waterfield into four interceptions on the day, compared to just one for Graham.
Still, the Browns found their own ways to shoot themselves in the foot, nearly choking the whole game away in a matter of minutes late in the third quarter. Leading 20-14 after another long Graham-to-Lavelli touchdown, Cleveland failed to stop Hoerner on a fourth and goal run, putting L.A. back on top. Then, on the Browns next play from scrimmage, Marion Motley was stripped of the ball inside the Cleveland 10 yard-line, and the Rams Larry Brink was Johnny-on-the-spot, scooping it up and jogging in for another score: 28-20 Rams.
The restless crowd now turned to Graham to save the day, and he did so in creative fashion. With Motley mostly relegated to blocking duties by the tough Ram line, and L.A.’s defensive backs playing deep to cut off Lavelli and Jones, Graham found himself with plenty of real estate to put his own legs to use. While Otto went 22-33 for 298 yards and 4 touchdowns on the day, his most impressive stat may have been his Michael Vick-ian 99 rushing yards on just 12 carries. Forced to adapt to this added wrinkle in the Cleveland offense, the Rams looked helpless during the Browns final crunch-time drives. After Graham found Rex Bumgardner for a 14-yard score to make it 28-27, he quickly had his team deep into Ram territory again with just minutes to play and the title on the line.
The Browns were already within Lou Groza’s kicking range when Graham, not seeing any open receivers, tucked the ball under his arm and looked to scrape together some extra yards. The next thing he knew, he was face-first in the turf, and Bill Lazetich—one of just a handful of Ram players left from the Cleveland days—had fallen on the football. This was 30 years before “Red Right 88” or “The Fumble,” but Graham was only too aware of the potential long-term consequences of what he’d just done.
“I wanted to dig a hole right in the middle of the stadium, crawl into it, and bury myself forever,” he later said.
In a famous bit of Browns mythology, though, Paul Brown was not concerned (despite the fact that the Rams could wrap up the game by converting a first down and running out the clock). “Don’t worry,” he supposedly told Graham after the play. “We’ll get it back. We’ll win this thing yet.”
Meanwhile, Bob Waterfield was entering the deepest stage of his bizarro déjà vu, trotting back on to the field on the verge of his second championship triumph in Cleveland, but being perceived now more as an angel of death than a savior. The Rams led 28-27 and Waterfield’s stat line had verified his greatness in the absence of Van Brocklin: 18 of 31 for 312 yards and a touchdown. Bob had also missed a very short field goal back in the second quarter, but it looked irrelevant now.
That’s when Rams coach Joe Stydahar did what many coaches today would do in the same situation. He got conservative. More concerned about Waterfield’s four picks than his numerous successes, Stydahar called three consecutive straight-ahead run plays, each easily snuffed out by Len Ford and the Browns defense. With less than two minutes to play, Waterfield was finally permitted to move the ball down field… via the punt. Graham and the Browns would now have it at their own 32 yard-line with 1:50 on the clock, trailing by a single point.
It was time for Otto Graham to cement his legend. On the first play of the drive, he scrambled loose for 14 yards and a first down. Next came a 15-yard laser to Rex Bumgardner to move the Browns into Ram territory. Then, a 16-yard strike to Dub Jones, putting Cleveland at L.A.’s 23 yard-line with under a minute to go. Lou “The Toe” Groza wasn’t warming his leg up on the sidelines, but that’s only because he was playing left tackle throughout the drive. Graham knew they were already well within Groza’s range, but he confidently kept up the attack, hitting Bumgardner again on a sideline pattern to the 11, then keeping it himself for a one-yard dive to set up Lou for an optimal chip shot.
With 28 seconds left, Groza planted himself right about where Waterfield had missed his field goal earlier, and with a gusting December wind at his back, calmly pendulum punched the ball through the center of the uprights to give the Browns a 30-28 lead.
As they had done five years earlier for the Rams, the Cleveland Stadium fans went ballistic, many rushing the field despite the ample time still remaining. When Groza finally did kickoff, Los Angeles advanced the ball to their own 46, with only time enough for a heave or two down the field. For reasons only Stydahar could explain, he chose this moment to insert Van Brocklin, broken ribs and all, into the game for the first time. Maybe Norm had the better arm or the golden touch. In any case, the roll of the dice failed, as the Browns Warren Lahr leaped up and picked off Van Brocklin’s wounded duck to seal the game and bring the NFL Championship back to Cleveland— along with exorcising a few demons in the process.
Amid the celebratory madness in the locker room after the win, coach Paul Brown was pleasantly out of character. “This is the gamest bunch of guys in the world,” he said. “Next to my wife and family, these guys are my life. What a Merry Christmas they’ve made it!”
Bob Waterfield’s comment was considerably less merry but maybe even more telling. “It was just one of those things,” he said, still trying to make sense of it all.
The cover of the Plain Dealer on Christmas morning, 1950, featured a photo of Groza’s game-winning kick—its trajectory traced by a dotted line. “Bravo Browns!” read one headline. “All Cleveland Proudly Salutes Our New World Champions.” The Rams were L.A.’s problem now. Cleveland was more than happy with its consolation prize.
–Though it’d be great for the story to end there, the Rams actually got their revenge one year later, with Van Brocklin at the helm, beating the Browns 24-17 at the L.A. Coliseum for the 1951 NFL Championship. It would be the last championship the Rams would ever win for Los Angeles, although I suppose that stat isn’t written in stone any longer. In any case, in a weird bit of trivia, the Ram franchise has won exactly one title in each city it’s been in: Cleveland (1945), Los Angeles (1951), and St. Louis (1999).
–Ex-Clevelander Daniel Reeves remained the principal owner of the L.A. Rams up until his death in 1971, after which Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom assumed control of the franchise. In turn, Rosenbloom passed the Colts along to Robert Irsay—the man who would eventually move the franchise to Indianapolis, turning the city of Baltimore into any disgruntled NFL owner’s ideal bargaining chip.
–And here’s the best nugget of all. In 1953, the Rams’ original owner—Cleveland lawyer Homer Marshman—wanted to make up for the mistake of selling the Rams to Dan Reeves 12 years earlier. So he got some investors together and bought the Browns from Mickey McBride (who was losing his patience with Paul Brown) for a reasonable $600K. Then, in 1961—twenty years after selling the Rams to the man who wound up moving the team out of Cleveland—Marshman agreed to sell the Browns for $4.3 million to a young businessman by the name of Modell.
Again, those who don’t learn their history…