Tag Archives: Chicago Bears

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

Tagged , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Selective Amnesia: Does The NFL Only Remember The 50 Years It’s Been Number One With America?

Benny Friedman

Benny Friedman: The NFL’s first star passer committed suicide in 1982, in ill health and reportedly in despair he never would make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In time he was — twenty three years later.

The National Football League turns ninety-five years old next month. Come January, the Super Bowl will be fifty. Take the difference in years between them — forty-five  — and you have the approximate number of seasons which the NFL seems disinclined to remember.

If the NFL encompassed the entire universe (and sometimes, it seems, it thinks it does), the Big Bang would have occurred in 1958 with the so-called “greatest game ever played,” and present-day Earth would have emerged from stardust in 1967 when the Super Bowl was born.

Prior to that, pro football was . . . misty and mostly unknowable. Primitive, prehistoric.

For some time I’ve puzzled over why pro football has such a blinkered view of its own past. Then the primary reason clicked into place as I conducted an interview for my upcoming book on the Cleveland Rams.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

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.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.”

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“The Perfect Football Face”: Dutch Clark, Cleveland Rams Head Coach (1939-1942)

Dutch Clark

THE PERFECT FOOTBALL FACE: Dutch Clark in gladiatorial profile,1934. (Photo courtesy LIFE magazine)

Imaging missing play in an NFL Championship Game so you can tend to your offseason job — then, decades later, being inducted into the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Lewis and Clark

LEWIS AND CLARK: Cleveland Rams head coach Dutch Clark (left) and assistant coach Art “Pappy” Lewis in 1941, probably at training camp in Berea, Ohio. (Photo courtesy Cleveland Press Archives at Cleveland State University)

Impossible, you say?

Not for Earl “Dutch” Clark.

For a time in the 1930s Clark was the highest-scoring and best-paid player in the National Football League, quarterbacking the Portsmouth Spartans and (after the team had moved to the big city) the Detroit Lions.

In December 1932 the Spartans and the Chicago Bears tied for first place, so a playoff game was arranged — indoors, at Chicago Stadium, due to inclement winter weather. No one, least of all Clark, anticipated the NFL season was going to extend an extra week. Can’t make it, Clark told Portsmouth coach Potsy Clark. Have to get back to my offseason job as head basketball coach at Colorado College. 

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: