(Excerpt from the forthcoming book, CLEVELAND RAMS: Forgotten NFL Champions)
It was the spring of 1944, just weeks before the Allied invasion of Normandy and the liberation of Europe, and the Cleveland Rams franchise felt set upon by the “open animosity” of the rest of the National Football League. Discontinuing play for the 1943 season due to the war had been a mistake, Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves admitted, and he wanted back in for 1944. The other NFL owners acceded but, by the Rams’ accounts, seemed intent on making the Rams pay for their one-year lapse in operation.
Their severity would provoke the Rams into a nearly manic quest for survival and success.
NFL commissioner Elmer Layden set aside the owners’ initial preference that, as the Cleveland Plain Dealer put it, Cleveland remain “out of the picture for this year—and probably for good,” especially with Ted Collins’ expansion Boston Yanks bringing in an eleventh franchise and unbalancing the league’s schedule. So Layden tendered the Rams their patchwork slate of games: In 1944 the Cleveland team was to play three games in Akron, six elsewhere—and exactly one in Cleveland.
When Rams general manager Chile Walsh objected, league officials moved to option two: They suggested the Rams merge with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Rams then could play two of their ten games at home. After Walsh again objected, Layden engineered a merger of Pittsburgh with the Chicago Cardinals into the temporary “Card-Pitt” squad of 1944, “perhaps the most hapless football team in league history,” and asked the Rams to become a “roving” team to accommodate the hybrid team’s schedule—with no home games of their own at all.
This, too, was odious to Walsh, and a “stormy” league meeting broke out in Philadelphia on April 22, 1944, continuing into the early hours of April 23. The final offer was that the Rams would play three of their ten league games in Cleveland in 1944. Negotiations remained deadlocked until three-thirty in the morning, when a vote was taken. The Rams said nay to the unbalanced schedule.
They were outvoted, ten to one.
Walsh was defiant and angry. He vowed the Rams were in the league to stay and told a press-radio group in Cleveland, “I will promise that in one year after the war we’ll have a fighting, slashing, smart team capable of giving anyone a run for their money.”
He would be true to his word, and months ahead of schedule. By the end of the following season, four months after the conclusion of the Second World War and twenty months after the league’s other owners were surprised to see the team return, the Cleveland Rams were world champions.