Today we take it as a given: A professional sports team will play an even number of games at home and on the road across the course of a regular season.
Not so the National Football League in the 1930s and 1940s. This was an era in which there were distinct winners and losers both on the field and at the box office and when actions by the league office had a way of widening the divide.
On the wealthy side were the so-called big four:
- The Washington Redskins were a sensation in the nation’s capital as soon as they landed there from Boston in 1937, consistently selling out their games to a fan base made up in no small part of young professionals drawn to town to help implement FDR’s New Deal.
- The Green Bay Packers were a success on the field from the start and had a built-in fan base of locals who also were the team’s owners. Both the town and the team sailed relatively untouched through the Depression thanks to the local industry — paper products. People, then as now, tended to buy toilet paper even when money was tight.
- The Chicago Bears were the dominant franchise of the time and also the most innovative, introducing the quarterback- and passing-centric T-formation offense that’s still with us today.
- The New York Giants were…well, located in New York, far and away the nation’s largest market. And owner Tim Mara saw to it that they remained the only team in NYC, repelling attempts by other owners to encroach on either Manhattan or the Bronx.
The Detroit Lions did meet with some success, winning the 1935 championship. But six other teams of the era — the Cleveland Rams, the Chicago Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Pirates-Steelers, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Brooklyn Dodgers-Tigers, and the Boston Yanks — essentially were left to scrape and fend for themselves.
The Rams were struck particularly hard. When they joined the NFL in 1937 from the rival American Football League as essentially an expansion franchise, they were given the LAST selection in the player draft. (First pick would have been nice: future Hall-of-Famer Sammy Baugh was available.) When they rejoined the league for the 1944 season after taking a one-year hiatus due to the war, they AGAIN received the final pick in each round of the draft. (First or even second pick would have been nice: the rights to future Hall-of-Famers Otto Graham or Steve Van Buren would have awaited them.)
Nowhere, however, was the NFL’s inequity more apparent than in game scheduling. During the Rams’ time in Cleveland, only the Chicago Cardinals — stepchildren to the Bears in the Windy City — played more games on the road (see table). The Rams played a remarkable sixty-two percent of their contests either on their opponents’ home fields or at so-called neutral sites in Colorado Springs, New Orleans, and Akron.
While the league loaded up on games in the more lucrative markets — the Giants especially were recipients of this largesse, playing sixty percent of their games in New York — it sent teams like the Rams and Steelers to other parts of the country, often the West, to test fan interest and smooth the way for a possible franchise relocation.
None of this was agreeable even then to officials of the Rams or to the newspaper writers who covered them. Both well noted that by playing most of their games on the road the Rams were failing to build a home base that might spur ticket sales, make them financially stable, allow them to sign and keep better players (underpaid players then often simply retired), and win — thereby increasing revenue and closing the virtuous circle to longer-term viability.
In short, the Cleveland Rams were caught in a vicious catch-22. They couldn’t become a viable home team until they could win and make money, and they couldn’t win and make money until they became a viable home team.
They finally broke the stalemate by using a mostly inexperienced but talented roster to plow through the Bears, Packers, and Redskins and win a totally unexpected championship in 1945. Poised — finally! — to increase ticket sales to increasingly credulous Clevelanders, the Rams…
Gave up on Cleveland and moved to Los Angeles.
In the wake of the team’s departure, several prominent sportswriters laid the finger for the team’s lack of success in Cleveland squarely on the heavy road schedule with which the league had saddled it. This point of historical fact largely has been forgotten but will be detailed in my forthcoming book, CLEVELAND RAMS: Forgotten NFL Champions.
Eventually the NFL found religion, so to speak, and established league parity so that any team theoretically could beat any other team “on any given Sunday.” The league has enjoyed great riches and popularity since, but it was a long time coming. The Rams’ numbered days in Cleveland were among the most notable casualties of the have-and-have-not strategy of the NFL’s early days. And the Rams (Cleveland, Los Angeles, St. Louis) and Cardinals (Chicago, St. Louis, Arizona) even now seem to have wandering in their very DNA as the most itinerant franchises of the modern era.