In 1954, long before the Cavaliers even existed, CLEVELAND was at the center of the sports world, with the Browns and the Indians on title marches. The attention only intensified when the city’s biggest star became embroiled in a sensational murder trial that riveted the nation
In the early hours of Independence Day, 1954, Don and Nancy Ahern left the Lake Drive home of their hosts, Sam and Marilyn Sheppard. The couples, who lived just a few houses from each other in Bay Village, a tony suburb 15 miles west of Cleveland, had spent the evening socializing over dinner and drinks. Sam was, with good reason, exhausted. An osteopathic surgeon, he had performed a routine operation at Bay View Hospital that afternoon. Shortly after it ended, a young boy was brought into the emergency room after being hit by a telephone company truck. Sheppard cut open the boy’s chest, which was covered with tire marks, and massaged his heart until he lost feeling in his fingers, trying in vain to get it beating again.
Sheppard returned to the dinner party but was later called back to the hospital to consult on a broken leg, so—after chewing on cloves to mask the two martinis on his breath—he returned to Bay View. When he finally got home for good, Sheppard was subdued. After dinner and a dessert of blueberry pie, the couples settled into the living room. Don listened to the Indians–White Sox game on WERE, while the others watched the movie Strange Holiday, in which Claude Rains returns from a camping trip to find that the U.S. government has been overthrown by fascists. Sam sat in a chair with Marilyn in his lap for a bit, then he moved to a daybed, where he dozed off.
Around that time, another neighborhood couple from the Sheppards’ social circle was attending a party. Otto and Beverly Graham were arguably the most recognizable pair in Cleveland. As quarterback, Otto had led the Browns to a championship game appearance in each of his eight pro seasons. The popular 15-minute television show he and Beverly hosted three nights a week at 6:45 on WXEL, At Home with the Grahams, had just aired its last episode. They were handsome and graceful—but even that grace couldn’t keep Otto from splitting the seat of his pants during their night out. He returned to Winston Drive to get a new pair, then got sidetracked by the TV and was late returning to the party.
A mile away Marilyn saw the Aherns out the front door at 12:30 a.m., almost the precise moment that Hank Majeski delivered a walk-off single in the bottom of the 15th inning, giving the Tribe a 5–4 win and preserving their 41⁄2-game lead over the Yankees in the American League. Marilyn locked the door and went to bed, leaving Sam on the sofa.
The morning of July 4, Otto was up early. He was driving in search of a newspaper when he saw several police cars outside the Sheppards’ house. Asking an officer what happened, he received a staggering reply: Marilyn had been murdered, bludgeoned to death in the night.
Graham being Graham, he was let into the house and taken to the upstairs bedroom where the crime occurred, even though the scene hadn’t been secured. “If you had stood there with a brush and splattered a can of red paint at the walls, you would have some idea of what the room looked like,” Graham said in the 2004 book OttoMatic, written by his son Duey. “Only the outline on the bed where Marilyn’s body had lain and the spot of wall sheltered by her killer were bloodless.”
The nature of the murder—the Sheppards were a good-looking couple, junior high sweethearts expecting their second child—lent itself to sensationalism, as did the setting. Bay Village, at least the lakefront area, was a posh enclave with a hint of a seamy side. In a chapter of her memoir subtitled “Summer, Sex, Suburbia,” Cleveland News reporter and Bay Village native Doris O’Donnell mentioned talk of “couple swapping,” a rumor both my parents, who lived in the decidedly non-swinging part of the town when I was born, also said was prevalent.
Sheppard would ultimately be charged with his wife’s murder. He said that a “bushy-haired” man had broken in and committed the crime, much like Dr. Richard Kimble would blame his wife’s death on a one-armed intruder when The Fugitive premiered on TV, in 1963. (While the show’s creator claimed that the events in Bay Village weren’t the basis of the show, Daniel Melnick, the ABC executive who was responsible for bringing The Fugitive to the network, said in 1993, “There’s no question about it. . . . [The] inspiration was the Sam Sheppard case.”)
The investigation and subsequent trial, a media circus that drew reporters from all over the country, dominated nationwide headlines for the rest of 1954. It was a six-month period during which the Indians made a run at baseball history and Graham—the bushy-haired quarterback who was briefly a suspect in the slaying—made a run at gridiron redemption. Imagine the scene in Cleveland now: the Cavs shooting for a repeat and the Indians off to a first-place start on their quest for another pennant, all with a trial the magnitude of O.J. Simpson’s taking place at the Cuyahoga County Courthouse on Lakeside Avenue. That was Cleveland in the last half of 1954.
There’s one more significant player in this story: the city itself. In the 1950 census Cleveland was the seventh-largest city in America, a once-thriving rust belt metropolis. But its population was trending downward, as citizens—and industry—headed for the suburbs and points beyond. There was a palpable sense that the city was on the brink of decline, a darkness encroaching.
Two days after the murder, a 15-year-old named Raymond A. Kuchenmeister Jr. forced his way onto a DC-6 at Cleveland’s Hopkins Airport with a gun. Disillusioned by the dwindling opportunities available in his town, Kuchenmeister figured he’d be better off in Mexico City, where the flight was headed. “This is my ticket,” he said, and then brandished an unloaded, broken .38 pistol at Capt. William F. Bonnell, the pilot. Bonnell reached into his bag and pulled out his own .38 and shot Kuchen-meister twice, killing him. (The flight took off after a 90-minute delay.) The shooting briefly knocked the Sheppard case out of the top slot in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Farther back in the paper was another story about a Clevelander—one who played a key role in forging the town’s identity—who had become convinced that his brightest future existed elsewhere. Alan Freed, who was raised in northeast Ohio, was the first person to truly tap into the region’s rock ’n’ roll ethic. As a disc jockey at WJW in 1952, he staged an event generally regarded as both the first rock concert and the first rock-related riot, the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, an affair that ended when 14,000 ticketholders showed up to a venue that accomodated 11,000. Three decades later his influence would be the basis for Cleveland’s successful bid to become the home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but in 1954 the lure of the big city—a gig at New York City’s WINS—was too strong. Citing Billboard, the Plain Dealer reported that Freed’s $75,000 new base salary at WINS “may involve the biggest sum of money ever paid to a rhythm and blues jockey by an independent radio station.”
Looming on the horizon was another departure: Graham’s. The quarterback had been ready to end his career following the 1953 season after taking a brutal elbow to the jaw in a late-season win over the 49ers. The next night on WXEL, he was reading the first commercial spot when blood began oozing from his mouth mid-pitch. (He ad-libbed that he was the first TV host to bleed for his sponsor.) Graham was only 32, but he had long been planning his post-football career. He was a top salesman for Manufacturers Life Insurance Company, a stockholder in a jelly-and-jam business and, with Indians catcher Jim Hegan, the owner of a store that sold everything from watches to washing machines.
In what was to have been his final game, the 1953 NFL championship against the Lions—who had beaten Cleveland in the title game the year before—Graham was 2-of-15 passing for 20 yards. Despite his miserable performance, the Browns inexplicably led until Detroit scored on a Bobby Layne pass to Jim Doran with 2:15 left to take a 17–16 lead. On the first play of the ensuing last-gasp drive, Graham was picked off. “I was lousy and I’ll admit it,” he said after the game. “I know we’re better than they are. They played a lousy game, but we stunk the joint out.”
So it was that Graham shelved his plans to retire, deciding to take a one-year, $22,500 deal for the chance go out on top.
The media predictably went all-in on the Sheppard murder. The front page of the July 5 Plain Dealer led with a graphic description of the crime: “Chopped in the head and face by 25 savage blows, Mrs. Marilyn R. Sheppard, 31, was found murdered in bed yesterday in her home, 28924 West Lake Road, Bay Village.” Above a hand-drawn sketch of the “murder house,” the story continued, “The ransacking of Dr. Sheppard’s medical bag and his desk in a study led detectives to theorize that someone might have been after narcotics.”
Sheppard’s version of events came out: He woke up on the daybed when he heard Marilyn’s voice. He ran upstairs and was knocked out by an intruder. Sheppard then regained consciousness and chased the assailant outside, onto the adjacent beach, where they wrestled along the shore. Sheppard was knocked out again—sustaining injuries that would require him to be hospitalized and wear a neck brace—then woke up and went back to the house, where he discovered Marilyn. A bag was later found in the bushes, containing jewelry from the house and Sheppard’s waterlogged watch, which had stopped at 4:15. Notably absent were the murder weapon and the T-shirt that Sheppard had been wearing that night.
The city was mesmerized by the crime—curious onlookers paraded past the house—and it dominated daily conversation. A distant relative of mine was in Bay View Hospital for back surgery in the days after murder. The family joke was that when they opened Norm up, they’d find Sheppard’s T-shirt inside.
Among the three local papers—the News, the Plain Dealer and the Press—the Press quickly took the lead, especially as the cloud of suspicion settled over Sam Sheppard. Dr. Sam, as the papers called him, vehemently denied involvement, but privately, those in his circle didn’t know what to think. A few nights after the murder several friends, including Graham, summoned the doctor’s brother Steve to the home of Bay Village mayor Spencer Houk. The men argued to Steve that Sam should confess, that he would only be charged with manslaughter. “Everyone can understand how any man might lose his head in a fit of temper and strike out,” Graham said, as recounted in James Neff’s book The Wrong Man.
Sheppard came under increasing scrutiny after the papers reported on a “mystery woman.” She was later identified as Susan Hayes, a former Bay View medical technician with whom Sheppard had been having an affair. The revelation of a mistress coupled with Sheppard’s refusal to take a lie detector test made the Press pounce—on Sheppard, on the Bay Village investigators and on the Cuyahoga County coroner, Samuel Gerber.
On July 16, the Press enlisted a Cleveland detective to analyze evidence under the screaming headline: DID PROBERS BUNGLE? Among the inconsistencies he found: that the Sheppards’ seven-year-old son, Chip, didn’t wake up during the attack, nor did the family’s dog, Koko, bark; that Sam’s desk, which was supposedly ransacked by a fiend looking for drugs, was so tidy, “it appears this was the neatest burglar ever”; and that the high number of blows Marilyn suffered seemed more in line with a crime of passion than a botched burglary.
Four days later the Press ran a front-page editorial under the headline SOMEBODY IS GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER, proclaiming, “If ever a murder case was studded with fumbling, halting, stupid, uncooperative bungling . . . the Sheppard case has them all.” The next day the Press led with: WHY NO INQUEST? DO IT NOW, DR. GERBER. That evening Gerber called an inquest. Such was the power of the Press—specifically its editor in chief, Louis Seltzer.
Seltzer’s first regular writing job came when he was 13 and the Cleveland Leader gave him a column called “Luee, The Offis Boy.” He tackled meatier topics as he aged and acquired influence. A Saturday Evening Post profile that came out the week of the murder described him as “a slight and balding man who has spent the last 40 years studying, criticizing, praising and harassing, nagging, encouraging and loving his hometown.” The Post noted the issues he had previously thrown his weight behind, including warning judges to work harder, telling the city where to build bridges and “[explaining], patiently but firmly, to the Cleveland major league baseball team why it is playing the wrong man at first base.”
Before Marilyn Sheppard’s murder, the biggest topics in Cleveland were, in fact, sports-related: the Browns’ quest to avenge consecutive title-game defeats and the Indians’ attempt to break the Yankees’ stranglehold on the American League—which was going to require figuring out the first base situation. The Indians won the World Series in 1948, but the turnover in the ensuing six years was significant. Among the regulars, only Hegan and centerfielder Larry Doby remained. Al Rosen, who missed winning the AL Triple Crown on the last day of the 1953 season, was entrenched at third and Bobby Avila, on his way to the ’54 AL batting title, was at second. George Strickland was the good-glove, no-stick shortstop. But first base was an issue. Bill Glynn had a hot first week, but when he slumped in late April, Rosen moved across the diamond, ceding the hot corner to reserves Al Smith and Rudy Regalado, a less than ideal situation.
There was little need to panic, though. After a shaky first two weeks, the Indians were playing .700 ball by the middle of June. At the start of the month the team had made what seemed like a minor trade, sending young reliever Bob Chakales—who had made three appearances in two months—to the Orioles for outfielder Vic Wertz.
The 29-year-old Wertz was a three-time All-Star with the Tigers but lost his stroke after being dealt late in 1952 to Baltimore. With the O’s in ’54 he was hitting just .202—a far cry from the .533 slugging percentage he’d put up in 1950. “I hate to be a big old spoilsport, but the Vic Wertz deal is one I don’t get,” Plain Dealer sports editor Gordon Cobbledick wrote. He then quoted an unnamed Indian as saying, “Wertz sure won’t hurt us—unless we have to use him.”
The day Wertz joined the team in New York City was the day the Indians found out that Rosen had broken a finger. One of the Cleveland coaches asked Wertz if he’d ever played first. “I said not enough to count,” said Wertz. “That was the end of the conversation, but a couple days later I was a first baseman.”
Wertz turned out to be a serviceable one at that. More important, he found his bat again. On July 22, as Sheppard’s inquest began, the Indians hosted a doubleheader with the Red Sox. Wertz homered in the opener, and he knocked in another run in the nightcap as the Indians took a pair. The next day Cleveland won in New York in front of 61,446, and the Yankees never got within a game and a half the rest of the season.
Sheppard’s inquest devolved into a sideshow. It was held at the Normandy elementary school gymnasium in front of a packed crowd consisting largely of curious women. Early in the proceedings William J. Corrigan, one of Sheppard’s lawyers, began sparring with Gerber, the coroner. Corrigan repeatedly insisted on having remarks read into the record and refused to listen when Gerber told him to stop. Things came to a head on the third and final day, July 26, when Corrigan approached the court reporter while Sheppard’s sister was being questioned. According to the Plain Dealer, he wanted entered into the record “something about the inquest scene being something like a hippodrome.”
Gerber, unmoved by Corrigan’s argument that he was paying for the stenographer and therefore could tell him anything he liked, ordered two deputies to remove the lawyer from the premises. “The veteran of many courtroom battles stiffened in their grasp,” the paper reported, “and had to be half dragged out of the room” as the onlookers broke into applause. Once outside, Corrigan began walking away until he noticed the crowd filing out of the gym. He returned, to be “besieged by reporters and excited, giggling women.”
Sheppard insisted at the inquest that he had not had an affair with Hayes. The following day she provided a sworn statement to the police to the contrary.
Bay Village had ceded control of the Sheppard investigation, but not jurisdiction, to the Cleveland police. By week’s end the big city cops had seen enough. Mayor Anthony Celebrezze told the Bay Village police to arrest Sheppard or the CPD was going to drop the case. The final nudge came on Friday, July 30. Seltzer’s editorial on page 1 of the Press blared bring him in! That evening the Bay police obliged. Sam Sheppard was arrested for his wife’s murder.
On the last Sunday before the Browns opened their exhibition slate, Graham made the 30-mile trip from the team’s training camp at Hiram (Ohio) College to the Cleveland Central Police Station, where he and Beverly met with detectives. Just because Sheppard had been charged didn’t mean that the police weren’t looking at other parties. Steve Sheppard leveled an accusation at Mayor Houk, who was also dragged to the station for questioning. The details of the accusation were not made public, but the Press’s report that Steve had “splashed serious aspersions on the reputation of his murdered sister-in-law” left little to the imagination. In OttoMatic, Beverly Graham would say Houk “was very enamored with Marilyn and always found excuses to be near her.” She also recalled an incident during which Sam Sheppard “chewed [Beverly] out” during a waterskiing lesson. “Something in his eyes really scared me that day.”
The initial suspicion around Otto was based on his bushy hair and his extended disappearance from the party the night of the crime, as well as small-town gossip. Beverly had been seen riding with Sam in his new Jaguar and dancing with him at their club, which set Bay Village tongues wagging. “There is no truth to it at all,” Graham told the Plain Dealer after talking to the police. “Beverly was never out alone with Dr. Sam at all.” For the record, Otto and Marilyn were behind them in Otto’s car, and Otto was at the dances sitting on the sidelines.
Of most interest to the police was the information Graham had about Sheppard’s watch. He confirmed that the doctor’s timepiece had become waterlogged not on the beach the night of the murder—presumably while grappling with the intruder—but a few days earlier, when their families went to stock car races together in a driving rainstorm.
It was another surreal episode in a bizarre training camp for Graham. In January the Browns had acquired the man they thought would eventually replace him. In a strange practice of the day, the No. 1 pick in the draft went not to the team with the worst record, but to the winner of a lottery that took place minutes before the draft. Only teams that hadn’t previously won the lottery were eligible. The Browns had a one-in-five chance of pulling the bonus slip out of the hat. They did, and took quarterback Bobby Garrett of Stanford.
There were two problems: Garrett had an impending two-year military ROTC commitment and a stutter so severe that he could barely call plays in the huddle. Whether coach Paul Brown knew either of these things is uncertain. To make matters worse, Cleveland’s other first-round pick, lineman John Bauer of Illinois, declared in July that he wouldn’t play unless he got a contract that guaranteed he wouldn’t be cut. Brown refused. Bauer relented and came to camp, but Brown wasn’t the forgive-and-forget type. He sent his two top choices to the Packers for a quarterback, Babe Parilli, who was on active duty in the Army and wouldn’t be available until 1956. It was a staggering implicit admission that the draft, intended to restock an aging team, was a failure—and failure was not something the franchise was used to.
With eight games left in the season, the Indians held an eight-game lead, so clinching the pennant—and ending the Yankees’ five-year reign in the AL—felt inevitable. That didn’t mean the Tribe wasn’t eager to lock up their first pennant since 1948. Cleveland and the Tigers sat through a rain delay before the game, and when it did get underway, the Tigers took a 1–0 lead on All-Star Early Wynn. With a man on first in the bottom of the seventh, manager Al Lopez called Strickland, his light-hitting shortstop, back to the dugout and sent up Dale Mitchell. One of the holdovers from the ’48 World Series champs, the 33-year-old had been relegated to a pinch-hitting role. He knocked Steve Gromek’s second pitch into the upper deck in rightfield, and the next batter, Hegan, his ’48 teammate (and Graham’s business partner), sent a ball just inside the foul pole in left, and the Indians were on their way to a 3–2 win.
The enduring image of the celebration was provided by Wertz—or rather, his bald pate, where someone had scrawled WE'RE ON IT. The front page of the next day’s Plain Dealer carried a picture of Wertz, his head bowed, between GM Hank Greenberg, the man who traded for him, and Lopez, the man who put him in the lineup. “I’m the first baseman on a pennant winner,” Wertz said. “Three months ago I wouldn’t have believed it. Sometimes even now it feels like a dream.”
The promise of a World Series brought fans out of the woodwork. Bob Hope, who owned a small piece of the team, lamented, “Everyone in Hollywood except Crosby has hit me for tickets.”
The Press reported that the team’s celebratory bash was disappointingly tame: “Nobody got drunk, nor even nearly drunk.” That stood in contrast to the party in 1948, at which “some of the boys imbibed too much” and “punches flew.” The wildest moment of the ’54 fete was when Doby “drew a rousing round of applause with an exhibition of jitterbugging.”
Even though the Indians finished with a then AL-record 111 wins, it was the National League’s turn to have home field advantage in the World Series, so the 1954 Fall Classic began at the Polo Grounds, the home of the New York Giants.
In Cleveland, World Series fever was spreading. The Press dedicated its “Women’s Pages” section to “Girl with a World Series Job.” (“Frozen custard sells well, especially on hot days. Catherine O’Connell loves her job, works at it only during baseball season.”) Capital Airlines advertised its daily flight schedule to New York City, while The May Company touted a sale on cots “for those extra World Series guests.”
Game 1 was a matchup of veteran arms. Lopez sent out 34-year-old Bob Lemon, a 23-game winner, while Leo Durocher countered with 37-year-old Sal Maglie. The Tribe jumped on the Barber. Wertz, who had 14 home runs in 94 games after the trade, hit a 420-foot triple to right in the top of the first to drive in a pair of runs.
The ball would have been out of just about any other stadium, but the Polo Grounds was no regular park. It originally stood between Fifth and Sixth avenues and was used for polo, so it had a long, horseshoe shape. The third incarnation, in Coogan’s Bluff in upper Manhattan, kept the same dimensions. After it burned down in 1911, it was mostly being used for baseball, so rebuilding it with more traditional measurements would have made sense. But the firm that oversaw the project, Osborn Engineering—which just so happened to be based in Cleveland—decided to stick with the same general shape. As a result, the rightfield foul pole was just 258 feet from home plate, and it was only 280 down the leftfield line. But in the power alleys, the fences were 450 feet from the plate, and a nook in dead center was 483 feet away.
The score was 2–2 in the top of the eighth when, with two on, Wertz launched another rocket to right center, only to see it run down by Willie Mays 430 feet from home. Mays spun after his over-the-shoulder catch and threw a strike back to the infield, completing the most iconic play of his career and condemning Wertz to a life as the answer to a trivia question: Who hit the ball on the Catch?
The Indians were still threatening, though. The bases were loaded when Hegan launched a high shot to left. Not only was the fence short, but the upper deck at the Polo Grounds also hung over the field, making for a ridiculously short porch. Arnold Hano, who wrote A Day in the Bleachers about his experience watching Game 1, was convinced the seats were going to eat the ball up for a grand slam. “The little breeze—so soft for so long—had developed backbone, and Hegan’s fly ball was ever so slightly pushed by it, away from the beckoning overhang.” Monte Irvin gloved Hegan’s blast, and the score remained tied.
In the top of the 10th, Wertz led off with another 400--footer, this one a double, but he was stranded at third. In the bottom of the inning, the Giants put two runners on for pinch-hitting specialist Dusty Rhodes, who hit a pitch from Lemon into the seats in right. It traveled 270 feet—thanks, Osborn!—but it gave the Giants the win and momen-tum they never ceded.
Three days later they completed their sweep.
A fledgling weekly national publication launched in August: Sports Illustrated. Its arrival was heralded by a full-page ad in the Plain Dealer that featured blurbs from a rather eclectic who’s who of boldface names, including Joan Crawford (“sensational”), Audrey Hepburn (“delightful”) and Undersecretary of State Gen. Walter Bedell Smith (“first-class”).
The ninth issue featured a first-person story by Graham, who explained the reason for his planned retirement: the vicious nature of the game. “There’s just no room for the kind of roughhouse tactics that increasingly mar the good name of football,” he wrote. It was a glum piece, which matched the mood around the Browns. Six days after the issue date, Cleveland was pummeled by the Steelers 55–27. It was the second-most points the Browns had ever surrendered, and the loss dropped them to 1–2.
After two months of relative inactivity, the Sheppard case bubbled back to life as jury selection began. No effort was made to protect the identities of the jurors. The papers ran their names, pictures and home addresses. Judge Edward Blythin denied motions by Sheppard’s lawyers to move the trial out of Cleveland or to delay it until the frenzy subsided.
As the case moved closer to trial, interest in it spiked. Reporters from all over the country descended on Cleveland, none more noticeable than Dorothy Kilgallen, who was syndicated in more than 100 papers. She was also a panelist on the TV show What’s My Line? which required her to shuttle back and forth between New York City and Cleveland.
Kilgallen originally assumed that Sheppard was guilty, but as she covered the trial, she clearly began to fall for his charm. On the first day of jury selection she wrote, “Dr. Sam faces court like a movie star,” calling him “sensual and a little spoiled.” She later compared his looks to Marlon Brando’s and revealed that he had “terrible taste in underwear.” She did walk her fawning back a bit, noting that he “was a hard-working doctor, a persistent athlete, and not unkind to his wife, unless he happened to murder her.” Ernest Hemingway, who was following the trial from Cuba, called her unconventional coverage “damn good.”
As jury selection dragged on, scoops became hard to come by, perhaps explaining why the Plain Dealer dedicated 10 inches of column space to a story on Sheppard being given, and subsequently eating, a piece of Irish soda bread—with raisins. The paper also reported that a deputy sheriff was dispatched to get two aspirin for Sheppard: “At recess the defendant nodded when asked if he had a headache.”
Once the trial began, it hinged almost entirely on circumstantial evidence, with the crux of the prosecution’s case resting on the idea that Sheppard was unhappy in his marriage. Little physical evidence tied Sheppard to the crime, so his guilt or innocence would be determined in large part by how the jurors viewed his character.
On Dec. 5, before Sheppard took the stand, New York City gossip columnist Walter Winchell—who, like many in the press observing the case, was not shy about putting out salacious stories, no matter their veracity—broadcast on his radio and television shows that Sheppard had fathered a child with a woman named Carol Beasley, who had been arrested for burglary in New York City. (The claim was patently untrue.) The next morning William Corrigan asked Judge Blythin to poll the jurors to see if any of them had heard Winchell’s shows, which were broadcast at 9 p.m. Two women had. Blythin simply reminded them “to pay no atten-tion whatever to that kind of scavenging,” and moved on.
After being drubbed by the Steelers, the Browns ran off eight straight wins to sew up the Eastern Conference and set up a championship rematch with Detroit. There was still one regular-season game left, though—against the hated Lions. It was supposed to have been played on Oct. 3, but the ultimately unplayed fifth game of the World Series had been scheduled for that day, so the matchup was pushed back to the open week before the title showdown. As bad as Graham was in his last meeting with Detroit, he was even less effective in the 1954 finale. He completed just one pass (in six attempts). Yet again, the Browns led late despite a toothless attack. And again, the Lions scored the game-winner in the waning moments, this time an 11‑yard pass from Bobby Layne to Jug Girard with 50 seconds left to make it 14–10.
“The Browns?” Detroit coach Buddy Parker said in the dressing room. “Well, I’d say they’re about the same team as last year.”
The Browns’ regular-season finale had been carried on TV and radio, and the loss was given front-page treatment in the papers, but at least 12 people in Cleveland were unaware of the result: the jurors in Sheppard’s case, who were holed up downtown in the Hotel Carter, unable to take in news from the outside world—and unable to reach a verdict.
The stalemate finally broke late Tuesday afternoon. The jury, which had voted 10–2 to convict on its first ballot, finally came to a unanimous decision on its 18th. Sheppard was “not guilty of murder in the first degree, but guilty of murder in the second degree.” Sheppard, according to the Plain Dealer, “threw one last, terrible look back at the jury that had branded him a brutal murderer. His eyes burned an angry scowl. Up to now he had only turned a prayerful or interested face toward the jurors.” The paper declared, “Not since Charles A. Lindbergh have so many people been so interested in a single news story,” noting that its switchboard in the wake of the verdict “was lighted up like a Christmas tree.”
Since the jury’s decision was announced shortly before 5 p.m., Seltzer’s Press, an afternoon paper, missed the verdict. The next day, the Press ran the headline DR. SAM UNDER SUICIDE GUARD above pictures of jurors wrapping Christmas presents. It sold an extra 30,000 copies.
The day after Christmas was unseasonably mild, which boded well for fans and for Graham, who had conditions more conducive to passing than the previous week’s frigid weather. Of course Brown was a master tactician, and certainly not above having his quarterback play possum in a meaningless regular-season game.
Whatever the reason, the Otto Graham who showed up at Cleveland Municipal Stadium for the championship game looked nothing like the one who had demonstrated borderline incompetency on the same field seven days earlier. After an early Graham interception led to a Lions field goal, Graham floated a pass that hit Ray Renfro in stride for a 37-yard TD. He then found Pete Brewster on a quick slant for an eight-yard score. After a pair of rushing touchdowns, Graham found Renfro on a post pattern for another score, this one from 35 yards out to send Cleveland into halftime with a 35–10 lead. Three more second-half scores made the final 56–10, the second-most lopsided title game in history. “On this given day, you were the finest team I have ever coached,” Brown told his players. “I’ve got to take my hat off to you.”
With the Sheppard murder off the front page, the Press, which declared the win redemption for the Indians’ World Series loss, used its prime real estate to laud Graham. The headline in the sports section said it all: BROWNS SAVE BEST FOR LAST ON GREATEST DAY.
The darkness that loomed on the horizon in the summer and fall of 1954 had all but engulfed Cleveland by the summer of ’69. White flight continued, sending the population to levels not seen since before World War I. (By 2010, the city’s population would be barely 40% of its 1950 level.) That summer the Cuyahoga River, oozing with noxious junk, had caught fire, ushering the city into its unfortunate Punchline Era. The sports franchises were in a state of decline as well. The Browns were five years removed from what would be their last title and the Indians were beaten 10–0 at home by the expansion Kansas City Royals in front of 5,075 fans, dropping the team to 47–68. That night in Waverly, pro wrestling fans and curiosity seekers filled a high school gym to see Wild Bill Scholl take on a newcomer to the ring: Dr. Sam Sheppard.
Sheppard had been freed from prison in 1966, when the Supreme Court ruled that the media coverage prevented him from getting a fair trial. He was immediately retried, and, with F. Lee Bailey defending him, he was found not guilty.
Sheppard’s return to civilian life was predictably hard. His mother committed suicide less than a month after the guilty verdict, and his father died of natural causes 11 days later. Sheppard married a woman who’d been a prison pen pal but divorced her a few years after his release. His soon-to-be third wife, Colleen Strickland, was the daughter of a wrestling promoter who persuaded Sam to leverage the one thing he had left: his notoriety.
The Internet abounds with stories of Sheppard promoting himself in the ring as Killer, drawing upon his medical background in his shtick, jamming two fingers into Scholl’s mouth and pressing on the mandibular nerves beneath his tongue. Sheppard’s manager called it the “mandibular marvel.” Scholl claimed he couldn’t eat solid food for three days.
Sheppard’s grappling career was, if not sordid, then unquestionably sad. It didn’t last long, though. The following April he was dead of acute liver disease at 46.
As for his old neighbor, to the surprise of few, Graham came out of retirement in early September 1955, after the Browns dropped two straight exhibition games. With Graham under center, Cleveland had the league’s most potent offense and returned to the championship game, against the Los Angeles Rams. He threw for two touchdowns and rushed for a pair in a 38–14 win. It was the final game of not only his Hall of Fame career, but also the Browns’ glory days. In 1956 they would suffer through their first losing season, and they wouldn’t win another title until 1964—which remains their last.
As Graham walked off the field at the L.A. Coliseum, he said to his coach, “Thank you, Paul, but no more promises.”
Brown patted him on the shoulder and said, simply, “Thank you, Otto.”
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