YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Jim Murray

Hall of Fame Missing a Few Great Names

November 20, 1986|JIM MURRAY

Professional football, as everyone knows, was invented by George Halas, sitting on the running board of a car in a showroom in Canton, Ohio, one cold day in 1920.

He carried the game around with him in a briefcase and he ran it in partnership with the Chicago Tribune right up until the time television took it over from him.

He played his game in Wrigley Field, where the end zone was only eight yards deep, and they put the goal posts on the goal line because Halas didn't like the idea of having to go up in the stands to wrestle $5 footballs away from the paying customers.

But Halas didn't do it all alone. A lot of unsung people chipped in along the way. What is most frequently overlooked is the input of some of the "outlaw" leagues that skirmished valiantly with Halas' National Football League over the years and came away bloody but unbowed.

Everyone knows the story of the American Football League, the stepchild of the Texas big rich that forced a merger on the lordly senior league and gave the world the Super Bowl.

Less well remembered is the All America Football Conference, which flourished briefly in the late '40s but had the misfortune to phase out just as television, the savior of offshoot leagues, was coming into being.

Last weekend, Marje Everett, the owner of Hollywood Park and, with her father, the owner of the defunct Los Angeles Dons, staged a reunion of the franchise's surviving players at her race track.

It was a night of nostalgia and happy memory, but I suppose the truly lasting monument to that benighted league are the Cleveland Browns who were, by coincidence, in town to play the Raiders the same day.

It's possible the Cleveland Browns of the old AAFC were the best football squad ever assembled. They handled their own company with consummate ease--the San Francisco 49ers were the only team to give them any consistent trouble.

When they finally moved to the NFL, the senior league welcomed them by pitting them against the defending champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, in their very first game, and stepped back to witness the carnage. The carnage was all on the Eagles' side of the line of scrimmage. Final score: Browns 35, Eagles, 10.

Scholars who were shocked 19 years later when the upstart New York Jets upset the lordly Baltimore Colts in a Super Bowl need not have been. The Browns had proved conclusively all those years before that an older, bloated, fat-headed, overconfident league was well behind the times and ripe for the overtaking.

The Cleveland Browns are most often thought of as the football legacy of one man, Paul Brown. In a sense, they were.

In another sense, though, they were the contribution to football of a lot of people you never heard of. The All America Conference itself was the brainchild of Chicago newspaperman Arch Ward and his rambunctious L.A. colleague, Vincent X. Flaherty.

They enlisted the aid of a Cleveland taxi magnate, Arthur (Mickey) McBride, a former street-sales manager for a newspaper and a man who knew his way around both Cleveland's upper crust and its underworld. He tapped both to get his sports team on its way.

The upper crust was represented by a department store tycoon, Bob Gries, whose motive was not to upgrade football but to upgrade Cleveland.

Gries had earlier, for the same reasons, been instrumental in the formation of the Cleveland Rams football club. But when Dan Reeves bought the club and then transferred it to California, the Gries family was receptive to the idea of another big-time franchise for the shores of Lake Erie. When McBride came calling, they were ready with community support and money.

The Cleveland Browns' virtuosity was not happenstance. McBride's network of informants told him that Paul Brown was the nation's best football coach and he was secretly contacted for the job before he left his job at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in northern Illinois.

Between Brown and McBride, they assembled the names of most of the good football players of the era and signed them before the existing loop, the NFL, had any idea a rival was in the offing.

Among other things, Brown and McBride signed the first black players any pro team had in the modern era. Marion Motley, Horace Gillom and Bill Willis were inked to secret contracts. So was Otto Graham. The Browns were a juggernaut on paper long before they ever took the field.

Brown was to put in draw plays, screen passes and other refinements that are now staples of NFL football and he made the Cleveland Browns the synonym for football excellence that the New York Yankees were for baseball.

The Browns have changed hands many times in the intervening years--Art Modell, a New York television and advertising executive, acquired majority interest in the club in 1961, but the Gries family has been the one constant in Cleveland football.

Los Angeles Times Articles