What did the Cleveland Rams do after winning the 1945 NFL Championship? They up and moved.
After a stellar 9-1-0 campaign and a Western Division crown, the Rams were pitted against the Eastern Division champion Washington Redskins in the NFL title game. On-the-field, everything was roses for the Rams. Away from the gridiron was an entirely different matter.
The Rams’ owner, Dan Reeves, served in World War II until just before the 1945 season. Gas rationing was widespread all across the United States. The Rams had a rookie quarterback and unknown pro talent in Bob Waterfield. Their home field, the cramped 30,000 seat League Park, was built in 1921 and still equipped with wooden seating. It was more famous for being the home field of the Negro League World Series Champions Cleveland Buckeyes rather than the Rams’ home turf.
The Rams had only one winning season (1936) and that was a member of another pro football entity with the second American Football League. Since joining the NFL, the only thing Cleveland fans were accustomed to were bad squads, a coaching carousel, abandonment of the entire 1943 season (due to World War II) and horrid draft choices.
Finally a winner
But for 1945, the franchise took a turn for the best. Adam Walsh, who had developed under Knute Rockne, was named head coach. The club introduced the league’s very first logos on helmets. Waterfield was an elite college athlete albeit just a rookie. The offensive line had finally gelled. The roster had two excellent offensive weapons in wide receiver Steve Pritko and halfback Fred Gehrke.
1945 was also the year that the hash marks were brought in 3 1/2 yards closer to the center of the field which gave the offense more room to maneuver. Touchdowns had dropped considerably the past few seasons while defensive units were larger and with better athletes than decades before so the owners decided to give the offensive units more area in which to work.
And more room for the offense to operate was exactly what the Rams needed.
After capturing the Eastern Division crown, the Rams were set to host the NFL Championship Game against the 8-2-0 Redskins. The Rams decided to move the game to the 80,000 seat Cleveland Stadium, home of the baseball Indians in anticipation of the prospect of Waterfield, who won the league MVP award, vs. Sammy Baugh, Washington’s flashy quarterback better known as Slingin’ Sammy.
But there were several huge issues with the title game. For starters, a massive cold front dropped on the city of Cleveland all week with a forecast of snow and ice. The Rams brought in 9,000 bales of pine straw to cover the playing field to keep it from freezing. On the day before the game, 18 inches of snow descended upon the city.
The Rams were responsible for the field while the City of Cleveland was accountable for the stadium and parking lots. On game day, Reeves gathered 275 workers to remove the pine straw from the playing field, but the trucks that were to be loaded with the straw could not reach the stadium because of snow-blocked roadways. So, the ocean of pine straw was pushed against the walls all around the stadium. Also, none of the parking lots were shoveled or cleared by the City for patron vehicles.
Another disadvantage was that none of the taxi services were running that day; and not because of the eight below zero temperature at game time. The Yellow Cab Company was owned by Mickey McBride, the owner of the infant Cleveland franchise in the newly formed All-America Football Conference (AAFC) slated to begin play in 1946. Only a paid crowd of 32,178 braved the weather to watch their hometown Rams win its first NFL title by a 15-14 score.
Reeves’ 60% home team revenue share did not even cover the pine straw, the delivery of the chaff nor the workers hired to remove it. But the Rams had their championship and at least the bars and restaurants that were nearby had warmth and comfort.
Financial problems still a reality
Every season in Cleveland, Reeves had lost money. Even in the championship season, his Rams lost a little over $64,000. And the following year, a new pro football team was about to hit the field, this one coached by Ohio legend Paul Brown. Reeves knew he could not keep going like this and break-even - much less prosper.
A change was needed. And Reeves knew exactly what that change should be.
For almost a decade, the NFL had received several applications for a franchise to be located in Los Angeles, but the league was based mainly in the Northeast and Midwest states and the owners liked it that way. Back then, all travel was done via railroad or bus. Many an off day was spent on a train either headed towards or coming back from another NFL city. The last thing the owners wanted was a week-long trek to the West Coast.
But one event changed the landscape of the United States forever in 1946: air travel.
A plea to relocate
At the annual owner’s meeting at the Commodore Hotel in New York City on January 11, 1946, the first thing on the agenda was to vote on a new league commissioner. The second item on the day’s itinerary was the fact that the NFL Brooklyn Dodgers was about to leave the league to join the AAFC as a charter member club because of disputes with the Giants and home dates. Next up was Dan Reeves’ motion to relocate his Cleveland Rams to either Dallas, Texas or Los Angeles, California.
His arguments detailed how much money he had lost in Cleveland (including the championship season), the new AAFC entry which was in all likelihood set to be the best team in the new league, plus Cleveland’s fan base would not financially support two pro football squads. Another reason was that the AAFC was placing franchises in San Francisco and Los Angeles; both were large west coast cities that the NFL should not ignore as potential club regions that another league would suddenly have a foothold in.
Eight votes were needed for the relocation. The first vote was six yes votes, three votes no, and one abstention. The NFL gave Reeves the reason was the added costs of the travel. Even though air travel was now a viable option, the cost to fly was considerably more than traveling by rail.
At that point, Reeves stood up and told the owners that his club was no longer a member of the National Football League. If the Dodgers could leave and join that other new league, what was stopping him?
In the past, owners have said things that were eye-popping and controversial, but only one had actually taken their club and joined another rival league, and that was the Dodgers earlier in the same meeting.
That fact was freshly toxic in the minds of the other owners.
At Reeves’ hotel later that day, he told the trio of owners that had gathered to calm him down that it was either a relocation to Dallas or Los Angeles or his Rams would not be a member of the NFL any longer. Imagine the publicity hit that the NFL would suffer knowing their league champion had blessed that new rival league.
The following day at the owner’s meeting, they discussed how feasible the travel costs would be if the Rams did indeed relocate to Los Angeles. The owners did not want to concede virgin territory to another upstart league and decided the West Coast, and especially California, was the best vehicle to begin their “national” expansion. They presented Reeves with an offer to relocate with the stipulation that all visiting teams would receive a $5,000 stipend over and above the visitor’s gate revenue cut.
And with that, the Los Angeles Rams were born. Well, sort of.
A city with only one large football stadium
The only place big enough to play football in the Los Angeles area was the Los Angeles Coliseum, a 75,000-seat venue which was also home of the USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins football squads. Plus, the newly-formed Los Angeles Dons of the AAFC had applied to play there for their maiden season of 1946.
The Coliseum was owned by the city, county and state governments. And the governing board of the Coliseum had only one question for the Dons as well as the Rams: why do your franchises not have any black players.
At the time, the NFL was devoid of ANY black players. Not that the NFL had not had any black players before. But at this time, since 1934 there was an unwritten rule where none of the owners would hire any nor invite any to camps regardless of their college accolades and achievements. And the Coliseum wanted to know why.
At the meeting attended by representatives of the Dons and Rams, the question was raised. The Coliseum, you see, was owned by municipalities which are owned by the public. All races of the public. So the use of the facility should be for, and used, by all people. Although the Dons were just forming and may have had a built-in excuse, the Rams already had a decade of rosters devoid of black players; and a public facility was not going to be rented by an entity which excluded a certain race of people. Period.
Rams’ GM Chile Walsh then told the commission that former UCLA standout Kenny Washington was invited for a Ram's tryout as well as Illinois star running back Buddy Young; who incidentally was considered to be one of the best collegiate athletes about to graduate. The Dons also made proclamation that several black players had been invited to their training camp in order to make the roster.
The Rams did indeed sign Washington to a three-year contract along with Illinois WR Woody Strode. Two weeks later, both the Dons and Rams were approved for play at the Coliseum and both played their home games there.
One year later, baseball’s Jackie Robinson would integrate the Major Leagues.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association