The Last (And Only) Attempts To Make Old Cleveland Stadium Hospitable For Football

Cleveland Municipal Stadium 1964

Cleveland Stadium in its usual gridiron configuration, with vast acreages of empty space separating the sidelines from the stands, save for two short-lived experiments: one in 1937, the other in 1941.

The Cleveland Indians just have reduced capacity and reconfigured Progressive Field to make it more accommodating to smaller crowds than it originally was intended for. But it’s not the first time a pro sports team in Cleveland has done this.

Pity poor, long-departed Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Claimed to have the largest individual seating capacity (78,189) of any outdoor arena in the world at the time of its construction in 1931, it was designed to be an adaptable structure that could host events of all kinds – professional, collegiate, and high-school sporting contests; operas and concerts; circuses and large-scale religious revivals.

But it ended up appealing to no one.

The chief problem was its sheer enormity and near-total lack of intimacy. Earl “Dutch” Clark, head coach of the Cleveland Rams from 1939 to 1942, said playing on the gridiron in the middle of the sprawling stadium surface “made the players feel as if they were performing before empty stands. The spectators were just too far away, not only for themselves, but the players also.”

Twice the Rams attempted to do something about it.

The first came with their National Football League debut, a 28-0 pasting by the Detroit Lions in the evening drizzle of Friday, September 10, 1937. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the Rams’ ownership group, led by Homer Marshman, determined that “the stadium gridiron would be moved close to the southwest corner of the stands,” parallel to the ballpark’s first-base line, “to bring the game close to the crowd.”

It is not clear how the unique configuration was received, but the team’s subsequent absence from Cleveland Stadium may be telling: The Rams played the remainder of the 1937 season and all of 1938 in considerably smaller venues – the Indians’ League Park and Shaw Stadium in East Cleveland – because of sparse crowds and high stadium rent.

Cleveland Stadium 1941

In 1941, the Cleveland Rams tried rotating the gridiron away from its down-the middle orientation (light gray) and toward the third-base line to bring the game closer to fans in the northern end of Cleveland Stadium and protect them from wind and cold off Lake Erie. The configuration didn’t last.

The second attempt came in 1941. When new Dan Reeves and Fred Levy Jr. bought the team, they – like the ownership group before them – concluded an intimate fan setting for football in Cleveland Stadium as it was designed simply was unattainable. The stadium, the Plain Dealer thought, had “few if any bad seats” but “too few good ones.” Reeves and Levy, communicating through the inaugural edition of the team’s Ram Rumblings newsletter in September 1941, were a good bit less charitable: “[…T]he Cleveland Stadium has never been a popular or satisfactory place to watch a game of football,” they said flatly.

So characteristically (as the two new owners were mavericks of sorts) and at “considerable expense,” they moved the gridiron in the direction opposite from the 1937 experiment – toward the northwestern corner, parallel to baseball’s third-base line (see graphic), where the field would be closer to the fans, with greater warmth and protection from the winds that whipped in from Lake Erie.

It was a fairly radical departure. Logical too.

And of course it didn’t stick.

By the Rams’ NFL Championship Game in December 1945 – and certainly much sooner than that – the gridiron had returned to its familiar position: directly atop the baseball diamond, end zone parallel to the bleachers and the scoreboard. Fan comfort apparently was trumped by a compulsion for neat right angles.

For 50 years after – until the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens, and Cleveland Stadium was razed for what is now football-only FirstEnergy Field – Cleveland Browns fans watched home games “at least 50 yards removed from the gridiron sidelines […] regardless of where you sat in the vast arena,” as Ram Rumblings had it in 1941.

They might have had far better seats for many of those years if Homer Marshman, Dan Reeves, and Fred Levy Jr. had their way.

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