With the Cleveland Browns making news this week by hiring baseball analytics guru Paul DePodesta of Moneyball fame, their fans may be interested to know this is not the first time the NFL in Cleveland has reached out to America’s pastime for help in running a team.
In 1941 the Cleveland Rams were doing a reasonable impersonation of the contemporary Browns by posting consecutive losing seasons and cycling through head coaches in search of the right formula. Then Daniel F. Reeves and Fred Levy Jr. bought the team and almost immediately made a high-profile hire: bringing in future Baseball Hall-of-Famer Billy Evans as Rams general manager.
Like DePodesta, Evans had worked in the Cleveland Indians’ front office. As general manager from 1928 to 1935 he signed stars Hal Trosky and Bob Feller and brought the Indians back to the first division of the American League.
Evans, however, had no practical experience in pro football. This didn’t seem to trouble Reeves and Levy. They teamed him up with Rams head coach Earl “Dutch” Clark, a future Hall of Famer in his own right.
The Rams won their first two games — and proceeded to lose all the rest of them to finish 2–9 and in the basement of the Western Division.
The Rams may have had Hall-of-Fame caliber men in the front office, but their talent on the field was middling at best. The Cleveland Rams, Franklin Lewis of the Cleveland Press noted with words that may sting with familiarity to today’s Browns fans, had “some good players, some inefficient players. Some of the time they had teams good enough to play close games with the league leaders.”
Not good enough. But Evans apparently thought more highly of his own abilities than the owners did. On New Year’s Eve 1941 he abruptly resigned because he and Reeves were too far apart on 1942 salary teams. After only six months in the NFL, Evans returned to baseball.
Was the signing of Evans mostly for show? At one least one sports writer at the time thought it was. With the hiring of Evans the Rams owners had “won the wholehearted support of the city’s football fans,” the Plain Dealer editorialized. But it was just as likely a shrewder motive was at work. Reeves and Levy — the former from New York City, the latter from Kentucky — were “outsiders,” Plain Dealer sports editor Sam Otis noted just before Evans’ resignation, who were “strongly suspected when they first took over” of moving the Rams franchise out of Cleveland. Otis thought hiring Evans, a local favorite, “went a long way toward allaying this fear.”
Time would show that the Rams already had in their organization a far superior assessor of football talent than Evans had been. Charles “Chile” Walsh, toiling at the time as an assistant coach under Clark, soon would be elevated to succeed Evans as GM, then would draft future Hall-of-Famers Bob Waterfield, Tom Fears, and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch as he pointed the Rams toward two NFL championships in seven years — and a new home in Los Angeles.
Browns fans likely will be praying that baseball man DePodesta is a far more assured path to winning in the NFL than Evans had been.