In the days leading up to the epic Cleveland Rams-Washington Redskins 1945 NFL Championship Game, the pundits were widely agreed: Attendance would be a record-breaker, well surpassing the headcount for the league’s dozen previous playoff games. And why not. The league’s popularity was surging, servicemen were coming home, America was ready for some entertainment, and the game would be played in 80,000-seat Cleveland Stadium.
Then a funny thing happened: Cleveland weather.
Anyone who has grown up in Cleveland knows the capriciousness of fall and winter weather. But for those who didn’t, allow me to illustrate.
Winter winds frequently are northwesterly, or come from the northwest. In Cleveland (as in most of the Great Lakes region), northwest is cold, tundra-like Canada. Then these cold, dry prairie winds load up with moisture. Turn a map upside down (right) and you’ll note cold northwesterly winds pass over much of the Great Lakes, which is sort of a watery archipelago that sends up moisture to the clouds before those winds hit the southern shore of Lake Erie. When this landfall occurs, the result is one big jet of cold, wind and precipitation — “lake effect” snow.
For most of us in Cleveland, lake effect snow is not necessarily cause to feel accursed, or to flee — it just is. Stay indoors, stoke up the fire, and ride it out.
But this weather does have a way of impinging on our sports activity. Game Four of the 1997 World Series, for instance, against (who else could it possibly be) the Florida Marlins, at which it snowed. This game is officially the coldest World Series game on record.
And, of course, the 1945 NFL Championship Game, one of the coldest NFL title games of all time.
Ironically, when the Rams clinched the Western Division and the title game was conferred on Cleveland by dint of the league’s Eastern/Western title game rotation, the weather was mild in Cleveland — an unseasonable high of 50 degrees just eight days before the championship. “We put the championship seats on sale and immediately we sold 30,000 and we had another week to go before the game,” said Nate Wallack, the Rams’ publicist then. “The weather was beautiful. It looked as though we’d sell out the Stadium.”
And then it snowed. And snowed. And snowed. “It ended our sale,” Wallack said.
By game day only 5000 more tickets had been sold — 35,305 tickets total; and then almost a tenth of those went unused as holders elected to stay home on a nearly zero-degree day and listen to the game on ABC radio. Actual game day attendance: 32,178.
“The crowd was one of the smallest [of the thirteen play-offs],” declared the New York Herald Tribune the following day, “because many persons who bought tickets had the good sense to stay home.”
Check on the staying-home part but — “one of the smallest”? Hmmm…let’s look at the attendance numbers for the 13 NFL title games, 1933 to 1945, courtesy of the fine book From Sandlots to the Super Bowl…
We discover that credit for the least-attended championship games in that era actually goes to the far more populous cities of New York, Chicago and Detroit. Get full attendance from all 35,305 tickets sold and Cleveland leaps to number five. And if the weather is decent — a record-breaker as the pundits had predicted. Wrote John Dietrich, pro football beat writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who was not given to hyperbole or sycophantism toward the Rams: “In any kind of reasonable weather conditions, this game would have packed the stadium with 80,000 fans.”
Dick McCann of the Washington Times-Herald agreed. “Pro football is definitely here to stay when you can get 32,178 men, women and children to sit through the Polar temperatures they had to endure today,” he wrote. “And, by the way, if this isn’t a good sports town, then it’s full of a lot of fools.”
As it was, the Cleveland game blew away New York’s previous-year gross gate of $146,000 and gross per attendee — $5.11 being, in today’s dollars, an average of $65 per head. That’s a lot of coin in a town full of lunch-pail factory workers.
So why is this important? Because Cleveland for a long time was thought to be a not very good pro football town. Because a supposed lack of support for the Rams was the main rationale that owner Dan Reeves used for moving the team to Los Angeles just one month later. And because the megalomaniacal New York media, then as now, often assumes that if it happened in Cleveland it must be “one of the smallest.”
And all because of one Cleveland lake effect snowstorm.