Tag Archives: Daniel F. Reeves

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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Cleveland Football: Leading the League in Management Meddling Since 1937

Cleveland Rams president Edward Bruch

Cleveland Rams president Edward Bruch (far right) at Cleveland Stadium in 1940, the last season the team was held by local ownership. Bruch had his own management meddling moment a few years earlier while wintering in Arizona: He stepped on a practice field at the University of Arizona to evaluate a Rams prospect personally and was ejected “bodily, and with scant ceremony” from the campus. (Photo courtesy Cleveland Press Archives at Cleveland State University)

Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer has drawn headlines (and the threat of league penalties) for texting plays to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — during games!

Unprecedented, right?

Well, maybe it was unprecedented in the use of technology. But the NFL’s tenure in Cleveland has an inglorious history of management meddling, and it didn’t start with Jimmy Haslam and the drafting of Johnny Manziel, or even Art Modell and his firing of Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown.

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