Category Archives: Cleveland Rams

The Saga of Dutch Clark and the Cleveland Rams

dutch-clarkIn 1943, Earl “Dutch” Clark resigned as the third head coach of the Cleveland Rams, ending his National Football League career under far less auspicious circumstances than had attended his highly successful entry to the league as an explosive back for the Portsmouth Spartans / Detroit Lions. The following is excerpted from the newly published book The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champs Who Left Too Soon, 1936–1945, by James C. Sulecki.

The Cleveland Rams were so confident they were on the cusp of something promising in 1939 that they scheduled every one of their National Football League home games for huge Cleveland Stadium, the yellow-bricked, tarnished-aluminum wonder on the city’s waterfront. Lying empty and locked on Sundays the autumn before, the stadium silently mocked the Rams as they played to small houses at Shaw High School in East Cleveland and at Cleveland’s League Park. But now the team had notches on its belt marked Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, vanquished foes in 1938 who could testify that the Cleveland franchise, after only two seasons with the big boys, was capable of holding its own in the NFL. The Rams’ roster was studded with budding stars in backs Johnny Drake and Corby Davis; receiver Jim Benton; and rookie Parker Hall, a passer with great promise. And after several false starts the team was led by an experienced and championship-winning head coach in Earl “Dutch” Clark, who in turn was bolstered by a more than capable assistant in his predecessor Art “Pappy” Lewis. The Rams’ aspirations at last seemed equal to the Stadium in which they seemed destined to play.

But when Clark, in a suit and sporting a jaunty fedora, took his Rams to the stadium field on September 6, 1939 for his debut game as Rams head coach—a preseason 28–0 triumph over the Ohio College All-Stars—he likely felt the implicit expectations of the structure’s massive capacity. The crowd of 21,442 barely filled more than one-quarter of Cleveland Stadium’s seats. Clearly, Clark intuited, it was going to take a lot more player talent and on-field success to come even close to filling that grandstand. Until that day, the largely empty stadium would echo with unfulfilled promise. The ballpark’s playing surface, furthermore, was inordinately enormous. Clark no doubt would have nodded in recognition with Babe Ruth’s observation that “you’d have to have a horse to play outfield” there. Staging a game in the center of such a huge structure “made the players feel as if they were performing before empty stands,” Clark would say a few years later. Spectators were “just too far away, not only for themselves, but the players also.”

Spartan grandstand

This was something quite new for Clark. University of Detroit Stadium, capacity 25,000 and home of his prior team the Lions, was more his accustomed habitat. But his pro career had begun in a venue even more humble than a university field. In 1930 Clark graduated from small Colorado College and came east to Ohio, to a Depression-stricken shoe-manufacturing town hard against the charging waters of the Ohio River and a stone’s throw from Kentucky. The Portsmouth Spartans’ Universal Stadium (above, photographed in spring 2014) was a brusquely art deco edifice of grand archways and graceful curves, of special grandstand boxes and obelisk-shaped light standards, but it held only 8,200 at its capacity. This did not deter the Spartans from tearing through the young NFL as one of the powerhouse teams of their era—runners-up to the Bears as league champions in 1932 before they broke through with their own title as the renamed Detroit Lions in 1935. Like future Ram Bob Waterfield, Clark wore number 7, became the highest-paid player in the league, and eventually was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But never in his many circuits through the NFL had he played in a venue quite the size of Cleveland Stadium, nor had he been handed a shortage of talent such as he had inherited with the woebegone Rams …

__________

Dutch Clark had enough. Enough losing. Enough frustration. Rams owners Daniel F. Reeves and Fred Levy Jr. wanted him back as head coach for the 1943 season, but after the holidays Clark allowed his contract to expire and returned home to Colorado Springs. Then on March 10, 1943 he sent word to the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he had “advised Mr. Reeves not to consider renewal of my contract due to uncertain conditions. Possibilities elsewhere seem greater.” It was cryptic, but Clark definitely was through. He never was much of a believer in the pro game; he thought most players peaked in their junior years in college and rarely improved after that. He confided to friends that he “found the coaching job irksome”and greatly missed his playing days with the Spartans and Lions. But perhaps as much as anything he despaired of the Rams ever truly challenging the Bears and Green Bay Packers for the Western Division title. With a final overall record of 16-26-2 he bowed out of the Rams’ head coaching position under his own power rather than be removed against his will as his predecessors Lewis and Hugo Bezdek had been. He recommended Charles “Chile” Walsh as his replacement, then departed for military service. Beyond his pickup of free agent Riley “Rattlesnake” Matheson, his “ultimate failure in Cleveland came down to his inability to draft good players,” wrote Clark biographer Chris Willis. Like Lewis and Bezdek—indeed like Rams founder Damon “Buzz” Wetzel before them—Clark never coached in the NFL again …


© 2016 James C. Sulecki

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A Baseball Man in the NFL? Here’s What Happened the Last Time a Cleveland Team Did That

Billy Evans

Billy Evans was a success as general manager of the Cleveland Indians but knew next to nothing about pro football when he came to the NFL’s Cleveland Rams in 1941. He lasted six months. (Photo courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame)

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.

 

 

 

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The Cleveland Rams Scour for a Wartime Team

Reeves in office.web

Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves (at desk) and general manager Chile Walsh (directly in front of him) were the architects of the team’s transformation from losers to winners. Joining Reeves and Walsh in the Rams’ offices in downtown Cleveland in December 1941 are head coach Dutch Clark (left) and business manager Mannie Eisner (right). (Photo: Cleveland News, courtesy of Donald Gries collection)

It’s December 16, 1941, and the National Football League is reckoning with the reality that with the United States now involved in World War II, player rosters are about to be decimated by a draft of a different kind: Uncle Sam’s.

Cleveland Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves, six months into his tenure, generally didn’t spend much time in Cleveland. He preferred instead to operate out of his home and office in Manhattan. But a measure of the urgency of the situation is suggested by this informal pre-Christmas meeting of the Rams’ brass in the team’s offices in the Union Commerce building (now the Huntington Bank Building) in downtown Cleveland.

General manager Charles (Chile) Walsh (middle) and business manager Mannie Eisner are engrossed in their work. But head coach Dutch Clark (far left) looks the most consumed by the task at hand, which almost certainly was reviewing the Rams’ scouting reports and tendering contracts through the mail to any graduating collegian not immediately committed to the military. The Rams had finished 2–9 and in last place in the Western Division that season, and Clark wasn’t accustomed to losing. In fact, he had never had a losing season in the NFL until joining the Rams two years earlier. He would stay just one more year before resigning his post, despairing that the Rams never would get past division foes the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.

Reeves and Walsh would stick around, however. With Reeves’ money and Walsh’s expert scouting, Cleveland would transform from losers to winners. On December 16, 1945 — four years to the day after this photo was taken — the Rams would defeat the Washington Redskins 15–14 to win the NFL championship.

Here’s a view into what the four men were working on that day. The day after Christmas, Clark went back to the office to issue the following letter to a prospective player, Francis Logan of Michigan:

December 26, 1941

Dear Mr. Logan:-

Recently I have received several letters from your former coach, Mr. Hal Shields, who was a good friend of mine during the time I was connected with the Detroit Lions. He has been good enough to recommend you to me as a fine prospect for our Cleveland Club with the thought that you might be interested in playing big league football. We are tendering you a contract at a figure in keeping with the salary that is usually paid a first year man just out of college.

From the letter which Hal Shields wrote me I take it for granted that you have already graduated from Detroit Tech or that you are graduating this year. If this is correct you are eligible to play for our team. Frankly, I feel that if you care to continue your football career you could make no better tie-up than with the Cleveland Club. The new owners are desirous of rebuilding the team and making it over into a pennant contender just as quickly as possible.

The Cleveland Club would like your reactions to our contract. We have no idea as to your status in reference to Army service and would appreciate some word from you. If you are not interested in a big league career and do not care to sign the enclosed contract, please be good enough to return it in the enclosed envelope. Naturally, we will be all the more pleased if it comes back properly signed. If that is the case, retain the white contract and return the other two.

Cordially yours,
Dutch Clark
Head Coach

Logan never played in the NFL.

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This Pins the 1945 Cleveland Rams As NFL Champs

Rams pin

Press pin from the 1945 NFL Championship Game, which the Cleveland Rams won over the Washington Redskins, 15-14. (Courtesy Donald Gries Collection)

It may not be the Lombardi Trophy, but seventy years ago this was about as close as you got to NFL-championship swag and bling. This is a press pin issued by the Cleveland Rams, who won the 1945 NFL Championship Game over the Washington Redskins in a near-zero-degree nail-biter at Cleveland Stadium.

The pin belongs to Donald Gries, who is an avid collector of Rams (and Cleveland Browns) memorabilia who also happens to be a grandson of founding Rams owner Robert H. Gries. Don generously provided me access to his collection as background for my forthcoming book about the Rams.

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St. Louis Rams Video Highlights Team’s Brief Tenure At Cleveland’s Shaw Stadium

The St. Louis Rams delightfully acknowledge a bit of their founding history with this recently posted video. Seems especially helpful in educating a big chunk of the Rams’ current fan base who believe the team originated in Los Angeles.

It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say the team played a season at Shaw Stadium, though. As I’ve written elsewhere here at the Flying Lombardi, the Rams played only two games at Shaw before returning to League Park in anticipation of increased attendance. They just had upset the Detroit Lions, NFL champions three seasons before, and thought their fortunes were on the up and up.

Also, playing at Shaw Stadium was not as quaint and homespun as one might think either. As I’ve written in the draft of my upcoming book on the Rams:

The team’s decision to play in Shaw Stadium, if only briefly, made good sense. First, Shaw just had been renovated and enlarged and was lavishly maintained, off limits to high-school practices but available for game-day use by colleges and other high schools. Second, Shaw was “one of the best equipped lighted fields in the state,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. It was “flood lighted by the finest equipment developed by the General Electric Co.,” whose world-class NELA Park electrical research facility – one of the nation’s earliest, if not first, planned industrial research parks – was just a mile-and-a-half away in East Cleveland, a symbol of the region’s industrial might at that time. Third, the stadium’s new capacity of 15,500 was well suited to the team’s small but growing fan base, whose strongest home showing the previous season was not much more than 10,000.

Compliments nevertheless to the Rams organization for digging into its archives in this, the 70th-anniversary year of the franchise’s first NFL championship.

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The Rich Got Richer, The Poor Got Poorer: The Mansions And Shantytowns Of The NFL Before It Discovered League Parity

Akron Rubber Bowl

The Cleveland Rams played several games at the so-called neutral site of the Akron Rubber Bowl, including the 1941 season opener against the Steelers and this 1942 exhibition game against the Giants. With the ball is the Rams’ Gaylon Smith, later to join the Cleveland Browns.

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.

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Cleveland Rams: From Nonentities to NFL Champions in Only Twenty Months

Card-Pitts

The Cleve-Pitts? The winless 1944 merger of the Chicago Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers into a team known as the “Card-Pitts” (and unofficially as the “Carpets”) instead would have been a Rams-Steelers hybrid if not for the vehement opposition of Cleveland general manager Chile Walsh.

(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.

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How A ‘Little Group’ In a Cleveland Hotel Became the National Football League

NFL draft 1943

For decades the NFL’s owners met in hotels in Midwestern cities like Cleveland and Chicago, often to conduct player drafts. On April 18, 1943, Cleveland’s Charles (Chile) Walsh (right) prepares to make draft selections at the Palmer House in Chicago for a Rams team that would sit out that season due to World War II. At left: Fred Mandel, president of the Detroit Lions. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Post)

(Excerpt from the forthcoming book, CLEVELAND RAMS: Forgotten NFL Champions)

“Ohio was the anvil,” Los Angeles sportswriter Bob Oates once lyrically observed, “on which professional football was hammered.” It was not an overstatement.

Charter NFL FranchisesThe National Football League was founded in 1920 in Canton, 60 miles south of Cleveland down the Cuyahoga River valley, just past Akron and the overland portage that links the Cuyahoga with the Tuscarawas River.

So it is no surprise that among the 14 teams gathered inside Ralph Hay’s legendary Hupmobile showroom in Canton to form the American Professional Football Association (APFA) in 1920, five were from Ohio (see table). These included charter franchises the Cleveland Tigers, a mostly forgettable squad that posted an inaugural record of 1-4-2, and the Akron Pros, the league’s first champions, led by Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard, who later became the NFL’s first African-American coach.

Two years later the Cleveland Tigers were a financial failure and were gone from the NFL. But the league hardly was gone from Cleveland. The owners, meeting in Cleveland’s downtown Hollenden Hotel on June 18, 1922, acted on Chicago Bears owner George Halas’ recommendation to strike the word professional from the organization’s name (the word was “superfluous,” Halas said), and to use league instead of association, which in baseball usually applied to second-class teams – and “we were first class,” said the supremely confident Halas.

The “little group” of the AFPA became, in the course of one meeting in Cleveland, the “National Football League.”

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