The professional American football
team now known as the Los Angeles Rams
was established in Cleveland
as the Cleveland Rams, and played there from 1936 to 1945. The Rams competed in the second American Football League
(AFL) for the 1936 season and the National Football League
(NFL) from 1937 to 1945, winning the NFL championship
in 1945, before moving to Los Angeles
in 1946 to become the only NFL champion ever to play the following season in another city. The move of the team to Los Angeles helped to jump-start the reintegration of pro football by African-American players and opened up the West Coast to professional sports. After being based in Los Angeles for 49 years, the Rams franchise moved again after the 1994 NFL season
to St. Louis
where the franchise stayed for 21 seasons before moving back to Los Angeles after the 2015 NFL season
1936: Founding in the AFL
The Rams franchise, founded in 1936 by attorney/businessman Homer Marshman
and player-coach Damon "Buzz" Wetzel
, was named for the then-powerhouse Fordham Rams
and because the name was short and would fit easily into a newspaper headline.
Coached by Wetzel, and featuring future Hall-of-Fame coach Sid Gillman
as a receiver, the team finished 5–2–2 in its first season in 1936, good for second place behind the Boston Shamrocks
. The team might have hosted an AFL championship game at Cleveland's League Park
; however, the Boston team canceled because its unpaid players refused to participate. The Rams then moved from the poorly managed AFL to the National Football League in February 1937. Marshman and the other Rams stockholders paid $10,000 for an NFL franchise, then put up $55,000 to capitalize the new club, and Wetzel became general manager.
Under head coach Hugo Bezdek
and with sole star Johnny Drake
, the team's first-round draft pick, the Rams struggled in an era of little league parity to a 1–10 record in 1937 under heavy competition from the NFL's "big four": the Chicago Bears
, Green Bay Packers
, New York Giants
, and the Washington Redskins
. After the team dropped its first three games of 1938, Wetzel was fired, then Bezdek. Art Lewis
became coach, and guided the team to four victories in its last eight games and a 4–7 record.
Future Hall-of-Famer Dutch Clark
was named head coach for the 1939 season, and with Lewis as his assistant and with star back Parker Hall
on the squad, the Rams improved to 5–5–1 in 1939 and 4–6–1 in 1940 before falling back to 2–9 in 1941, the year that Dan Reeves
, a New Yorker with family wealth in the grocery business, acquired the team.
The Rams bounced back to 5–6 and a third-place finish in 1942, but in the heavy war year of 1943, when many NFL personnel including Rams majority owner Reeves had been drafted into the military, they suspended play for one season.
The franchise began to rebound in 1944 under the direction of general manager Chile Walsh
and head coach Aldo Donelli
, the only man both to participate in a FIFA World Cup
game and coach an NFL team. With servicemen beginning to return home, and with the makings of a championship team that included ends Jim Benton
and Steve Pritko
, backs Jim Gillette
and Tommy Colella
, and linemen Riley Matheson
and Mike Scarry
, the team improved to 4–6 in 1944, defeating the Bears in League Park and the Detroit Lions
in Briggs Stadium
1945 NFL Champions
With the arrival of star quarterback Bob Waterfield
, the drafting of Pat West
and the return of back Fred Gehrke
, who would go on to create the first ever designed and painted helmet in NFL history, the team finally gelled into championship calibre. Donelli was drafted into the Navy, but Chile Walsh's brother Adam Walsh
quickly took over as head coach.
Waterfield-to-Benton became an aerial threat to opposing teams, with Benton becoming the NFL's first 300-yard receiver by hauling in 10 passes for 303 yards against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day 1945. Benton's performance shattered the mark set by Green Bay Packers legend Don Hutson
(237 yards) two years earlier in a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers
. The record stood for a remarkable 40 years, until it was broken by the Kansas City Chiefs' Stephone Paige
in 1985. It still stands as the fourth-most receiving yards in a single game.
The only loss on the Rams' 9-1 regular-season record came to the Philadelphia Eagles
. Otherwise Cleveland plowed through the powers that had held a championship hegemony in the NFL since the early 1930s—the Bears, Giants, Packers, and Lions—and defeated the Washington Redskins, 15–14, in the 1945 NFL Championship Game
in near-zero degree weather at Cleveland Stadium
The Rams, led by Waterfield, who was married to Hollywood star Jane Russell
, were described as "sport’s first spectacular postwar team."
Relocation to Los Angeles
Only one month after winning the championship, Reeves overcame initial objections of his fellow NFL owners and announced he would be moving the Rams to Los Angeles. He cited financial losses and poor attendance in Cleveland - even the 1945 championship game had drawn a crowd of less than half capacity, which undoubtedly was not helped by the sub-zero weather. In all likelihood, the only thing that had kept the team in Cleveland until 1945 was wartime travel restrictions that had been eased with the end of hostilities - Reeves had his eye on the booming (and much warmer) L.A. market since buying the team in 1941. He also was leery of competition in the Cleveland market from the incoming Cleveland Browns
of the All-America Football Conference
, who would be stocked with many Ohio players and coached by former Ohio State coach Paul Brown
. The Rams' move opened up the Cleveland market to the new Browns, who would meet with a high degree of initial success in the AAFC and the NFL. At the same time the Rams and their championship were soon forgotten in Cleveland, in part due to a month-long, citywide newspaper strike that paralleled the team's departure, delayed coverage, and muted the public outcry, which was further mollified by the immediate replacement of the Rams with a team under the popular Brown, even if they would be playing in a fledgling, upstart league.
Once in L.A., the Rams were forced to integrate their team with African-American players as a condition for renting the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
[Gretchen Atwood, "Unsung Heroes of Rams Football Integration," LA Weekly, June 10, 2009. http://www.laweekly.com/2009-06-11/news/unsung-heroes-of-rams-football-integration/]
In doing so, the Rams (along with the Cleveland Browns) reintegrated pro football, and Reeves's move also opened the West Coast to pro sports teams that later included the westward moves of five franchises and establishments of additional pro sports teams in California and Los Angeles from the major sports leagues
Hall of Famers
Category:American Football League (1936) teams