Ah, the Los Angeles Rams. Splendid memories. All those great names—Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, Crazylegs Hirsch, Les Richter, Deacon Dan Towler, Tank Younger, Night Train Lane, Vitamin T. Smith, so many others that the mind explodes with tiny pictures of them, in gold and blue, romping through sunlit afternoons like figures in a highlights film. Ah, the Los Angeles Coliseum filled with 102,000 Angelenos yelling for the Rams in the days before nearby Watts became a fighting word. Ah, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, the lights on Wilshire Boulevard, black limousines and white convertibles, ladies in shorts and ankle-strap shoes, leopards on leashes, Bill Holden face down in the pool on Sunset Boulevard, Humphrey Bogart winning the Oscar, Jane Russell in a haystack, the hills on fire. Ah, the Brown Derby, Romanoff's, Ciro's, Harry James at the Cocoanut Grove, Crazylegs playing his own real true-life story in the movies, Lana Turner discovered drinking a milkshake in a drugstore, sinister doings at beach houses, bongo drums, muscle boys, dinner jackets, champagne, sandals, dark glasses, nobody's breath stinks.
We all recall that, and much of it is still there although one must peer through the smog to find it. But where did they go—those Rams? Those crowds of 100,000 or more? Those great names? Did the Rams really happen, or did we invent them as we invented Jack Carson and Vera Hruba Ralston? The answer is the Rams happened. They are happening yet. One does not hear so much about them, because they have stopped winning championships, not because they have stopped trying. Even today they have literally dozens of loyal fans.
To comprehend the puzzling Rams of today it is necessary to know something of the Rams of the past. Such a time that was, when they had the names and the ability to win three divisional championships in a row and tie for a fourth. It was glorious—testimonial dinners for sports writers, Bob married Jane, Van Brocklin was on the bench, Ron Waller married the breakfast-food heiress, Bob Hope never missed a game unless he was off cheering up the troops in Korea, Glenn Davis got engaged to Liz. Everybody had fun. Too much fun. Things were going too well. Power corrupts, and the Rams were so powerful that they were sinking under the weight of it. In pro football, power goes in cycles and not merely because of the college draft.
The Rams began humbly enough. They were organized in Cleveland in 1937 and lost 10 of their first 11 games. When Daniel F. Reeves and Fred Levy Jr.—names to remember in understanding the cycle of the Rams—bought the franchise in 1941, the team had risen to a 2-9 record. The next year Lieutenant Reeves and Major Levy went into the armed forces, and in 1943 Reeves bought out Levy's interest while the Rams were skipping a season because of the war. Reeves had already decided that the scouting of collegiate players should be done on a more substantial basis than by relying on the opinions of friends and football magazines. "There were four teams—New York, Green Bay, Chicago and Washington—that had been very successful and were getting a lot of information from their alumni," says Reeves. "So I determined that the information was worth something and I started paying money for it. I also hired a full-time scout."
October 2, 1966
Thus began professional football's scouting systems, which today employ hundreds of scouts, cost as much as $200,000 for one team in one year and occupy enough computers to do all the calculus homework in North America.
The Reeves system produced quickly. In 1945 Bob Waterfield, who had been a third-round draft choice as a future, became the Rams' T-formation rookie quarterback and won the NFL championship. In 1946 Reeves perceived that the population was moving westward—partly because of the industry that went west during the war and partly because of California's pre-smog and pre-motor-mania beauty—and he moved the Rams to Los Angeles to compete with the Dons of the now-defunct All-America Conference.
Perhaps one does not move from Cleveland to Los Angeles without being profoundly affected. One does not give up Lake Erie, Euclid Avenue, eight feet of snow, an occasional visit to Shaker Heights and accept instead the crashing Pacific, sunshine, orange trees, ladies pushing lawn mowers, Bing Crosby asking for a locker-room pass, without being penalized in one way or another. The West Coast was an entirely new way of looking at things. No chains on the tires. No antifreeze. Rather, one rolled over and staggered outdoors into the scent of oleander, crawled into the convertible and cruised among the palms, chummed with movie actors instead of the cop next door and became a different man, a Los Angeles Ram, not a Cleveland football player.
But if that so-called Hollywood influence—which Reeves says does not exist—contributed to any decadence of the Rams, it was not evident on the field. The Rams knocked people's teeth out on Sundays. The trouble began in another form. In 1947 Reeves was fighting the Dons for customers, and to raise money he sold two-thirds of the Rams to Levy, who was his closest friend, and to Edwin and Harold Pauley and Hal Seley for $1 each and their promise to share in any losses. Reeves and Levy were inseparable companions, and their combined holding in the club was enough to control it. Neither man could foresee the time when their interests might not be mutual.
In 1948 the Rams opened the exhibition season with Bob Snyder as coach. He was a hearty and robust fellow who had such confidence in his players that he sometimes slept through team meetings. By half time of their final exhibition game that year, the Rams were not doing at all well. Snyder aroused himself to make a speech in the locker room.
"I can promise you one thing," he said, banging on the table. ' "If you don't do better in the second half, there are some people in this room who won't be on this club by tomorrow."
As a seer, Snyder showed genius. Reeves fired him that night. The new coach was Clark Shaughnessy, who installed a complicated offense, won a divisional championship in 1949———and got fired. At first press and public were outraged by the dismissal of a man who had seemed kind and fatherly. But then Shaughnessy was overheard saying of his successor, Jumbo Joe Stydahar, "I could beat Stydahar with a high school team."
The remark got into the newspapers in type no larger than that on the ordinary billboard, and public opinion reversed itself. Stydahar won divisional championships in 1950 (the year the All-America Conference was absorbed by the NFL) and 1951, when the Rams set 22 league records. However, by the beginning of the 1952 season Stydahar became suspicious that his players were going Hollywood—which is to say they were less than dedicated to football. Losing three straight exhibition games convinced him the players were crawling out the windows after curfew. While in Little Rock for a preseason game he fined a number of them but suspected they were not cured. Sneaking down the hall of their hotel, he suddenly burst into a room and shone his flashlight on an empty bed. "Now I've got one!" Stydahar shouted.
It was his own bed. Stydahar did not think that called for a great amount of hilarity and, after the Rams lost their opener by 30 points in Cleveland, he quit. Under his former chief assistant, Hamp Pool, the Rams won their last eight games that year to tie Detroit but lost the playoff. Keeping busy, though, the Rams traded 11 players to the old Dallas Texans for Linebacker Les Richter, who promptly went into the Army for two years.
In 1953 the Rams finished 8-3-1 for third place, but the three losses were by a total of eight points and they beat the world champion Lions twice. The next season brought The Great Player Revolt, an occurrence Reeves says was primarily a concoction by the newspapers. It was more than that. Although they were due for two more good seasons before they collapsed, the Rams were deeply in trouble as a result of what had seemed a sound idea in 1947—the acceptance by Reeves of Levy, Pauley and Seley as partners. The Rams were prospering. Pauley and Seley decided they, as businessmen, should be operating the club and convinced Levy he should help them.
It is axiomatic in pro football that an organization is no stronger than the command that comes from its coach and general manager. When the Rams' owners began their open squabble, the players sensed that Pool and Tex Schramm, who had the duties, if not the title, of general manager, lacked authority. A team will never take responsibility for its own failure. Whenever the Rams lost a game, the players told any owner or sportswriter who would listen that it was Pool's fault. How much of it was Pool's fault is debatable, but failure bred failure and discontent bred discontent. Out went Pool. In came the sure decline of the Rams, but there was such a load of talent on the roster that it was 1959 before it was obvious that the Rams had lost their edge.
In 1955 Sid Gillman took over as coach and won the division championship again despite a decaying situation. Levy had notified Reeves by letter that he was voting the Pauley ticket. Every decision became a dispute. Schramm had to play politics and try to prevent chaos. According to the terms of the partnership, if an ultimate disagreement was reached the partnership had to be dissolved and the team sold to the highest bidder. None of the partners wanted that. In 1956 they decided Bert Bell, the NFL commissioner, would enter to arbitrate the decisions. That was too much for Schramm to swallow, and he resigned after the season.
The feud of the owners was the major cause of the disintegration of the Rams, but not the only one. The scouting system had provided so many good players that the Rams began swapping them off by the truckload for draft choices, which in turn provided more good players. Riches appeared unlimited. But a fundamental and fatal error was being made. The Rams were not getting a chance to settle down with maturing veterans who could work together with consistency. Last year's prize rookie was replaced by this year's, who would be replaced by next year's, so that there was hardly any point in saying hello in the locker room. While the Giants, for example, were holding on to veterans and winning, the Rams, with better players, were losing.
Pete Rozelle, who had been the Rams' publicity man, took Schramm's job. Rozelle is a good politician and a wizard at the tactic of talking all around a problem until it resolves itself. He got plenty of practice in Los Angeles. But Rozelle was not as devoted to scouting as Schramm had been and, under the pressures of his new position, allowed the scouting system to slide a bit. In scouting, a small slide is a suicide leap.
Gillman and Quarterback Van Brocklin did not have the same notion as to which of them was the coach and Gillman got Van Brocklin traded to Philadelphia, where he won an NFL championship under the loose rein of Buck Shaw in 1960. Bill Wade became the Ram quarterback in 1958 and the team soared to a tie for second. During the off season Rozelle worked out a trade with the Cardinals, herding off nine players for Running Back Ollie Matson. The trade got much of the blame for the subsequent flop of the Rams, but that was like blaming polio on a headache. The Rams gave up only two quality players, Frank Fuller and Ken Panfil. It is a fact, though, that since the 8-4 season of 1958, the Rams have not had a winning year. In the past seven seasons they have won 25, lost 65 and tied four.
Rozelle became NFL commissioner in 1960 and turned over his Los Angeles office to Elroy Hirsch. Bob Waterfield stepped in as coach, bringing back Hamp Pool as assistant. Waterfield was an enigma. "We couldn't figure out if that mask he wore was to hide a brilliant mind or if the mask was all there was," says a Los Angeles columnist. Waterfield twice finished sixth in the West, and in 1962 he departed in favor of Harland Svare, who rode down with the Rams to a 1-12-1 record and seventh place. The decline was complete. The Rams had hit bottom.
But on December 27, 1962, in a closed auction, the Rams may have begun their comeback.
With Rozelle acting as referee, Reeves and Pauley met to see who would buy out the other. Pauley submitted a sealed bid of $6,100,000. Reeves presented his high bid of $7,100,000. By the rules, Pauley would have had to bid 20% more, or $8,520,000 to continue. The most ever paid for a pro franchise had been $4 million for the Cleveland Browns in 1961. Pauley thought it over for 15 minutes, shook hands with Reeves and walked out of the room.
All it would have cost the Pauley group (which had grown to include Bob Hope) to get the Rams was $2,800,000, since Pauley already controlled two-thirds of the club. Reeves, who had one-third, had to produce $4,800,000. He did it by selling 49% to seven new owners—Gene Autry, Bob Reynolds, Leonard Firestone, Paul O'Bryan, Robert Lehman, J. D. Stetson Coleman and Joseph A. Thomas—for $350,000 each, a total sum of $2,450,000, and then raising the remainder on his own. Today the Rams are worth at least $12 million. A $350,000 share bought less than four years ago is now valued at twice that amount.
After gaining control, Reeves entered a troika scouting arrangement with Dallas and San Francisco and flew to Dallas to study the system Schramm had set up as the Cowboys' president and general manager. The Rams wallowed on for three more seasons under Svare, finishing sixth, fifth and seventh and inspiring Svare to become a Beverly Hills stockbroker. His replacement is George Allen, who was an assistant coach with the Rams in 1957 and then spent the next eight years with the Bears.
Nobody does anything in Los Angeles without some degree of splash. Allen could not come in until a lawsuit had been threatened by his old boss, George Halas. Like Halas, Allen has a reputation as a master spy. Any proper spy knows he is likely to be spied upon, and when the Rams moved their field headquarters to Long Beach, where they train in a baseball park (and where this week's cover photograph was taken of an intrasquad scrimmage), they set up a security system. They hired Ed Boynton, a 25-year veteran of the Long Beach police force, as chief counterspy. Boynton has nailed plywood over any cracks and draped the outfield fences with canvas. He patrols with binoculars and searches the trees beyond the fence. He even has the authority to inspect the teachers' rest rooms at Wilson High School, whose windows look out on the practice field. A couple of weeks ago a workman was drilling holes in the fence to install some equipment for Allen and found that Boynton, the counterspy, had filled in the holes as fast as they were drilled. When the workman began drilling again he heard Boynton yell, "Hey, look out! You almost got me in the eye!"
Such antics are more show business than serious business. Allen was defensive coach of the Bears and it is unlikely he has changed his style so much with the Rams. The Bears, in fact, got Allen his job by presenting him the game ball on television and singing a little song about him after they won the NFL championship in 1963. "That's how I spotted Allen," says Reeves. "I'm being half facetious about that, since we did have Allen on our staff in 1957. But it was such an unheard-of thing to give the game ball to an assistant coach, and it showed me Allen can get along with players. They like him. That's very important. Pro football players are just kids, after all. Allen always has time for them, talks to them as individuals as well as in meetings, always lets them know he's thinking about them."
That is certainly true. It often takes the 44-year-old Allen, author of four books on football, 45 minutes to walk the two blocks from the workout arena, Blair Field, to the coaching offices in a golf-course clubhouse. He is continually thinking of something more he has to say to some player or other. He is so thoughtful, so concerned, that it almost seems a suspicious quality. "Every time I see George Allen he asks me how is my wife and then writes me a note saying how great it was to see me. I don't trust guys who do that," says one NFL official. But if Allen's behavior is more like that of a college recruiter than a pro coach, his teams do play for him. And with Reeves running the Rams again, with the title of general manager, the organization appears to be getting stronger. "The general manager and the coach have to have complementary personalities," Reeves says. "But the general manager has to counterbalance the coach. The coach knows he must be objective in order to win, but a player can do something in a game that affects the coach in such an emotional way that he can never be objective about that player again. The coach must have the final word on personnel. But the general manager can stall for time, try to reason with the coach, hope for objectivity to return."
Whereas Svare had embarked on a long-term building program, Allen has adopted a policy of immediacy. He has traded off eight of the Rams' draft choices and several players and has come up with veterans like Maxie Baughan, Bill George, Earl Leggett, Myron Pottios, Dan Currie, Tom Moore and Irv Cross and talked Jack Pardee out of retirement. Of those, all but Moore are on the defensive unit, and it is there that the Rams are toughest. With Lamar Lundy at right end, Baughan at right linebacker, Cross at right corner back and Ed Meador at right safety, the Rams claim with justification that they have the best right-side defense in the game. The entire defense is good and experienced, as it needs to be in order to overcome the deficiencies of the Rams' offense.
Roman Gabriel has emerged as the quarterback with Bill Munson as his backup man. Gabriel, who at 6 feet 4 has been called the world's tallest Filipino, is a strong thrower, and the receivers as a unit are about average for an NFL team. Little Tommy McDonald caught 67 passes last year, his first with the Rams, and ranks among the leaders in NFL history. Split End Jack Snow has enough speed to have outrun Bennie McRae, a former Big Ten hurdles champion, for the last 40 yards of an 84-yard touchdown against the Bears two weeks ago. Tight End Marlin McKeever is a fine one, although he has been out for a long time after losing a finger in an auto accident. Bucky Pope, whose nickname, the Catawba Claw, puts him right up there with Crazylegs or Deacon Dan or Night Train, caught 10 touchdown passes and averaged 31.4 yards on 25 receptions as a rookie, but missed all of last season with a knee injury. He should return soon. But the Rams do not have the running game to make the pass effective. The most outstanding thing they do is get close enough for Bruce Gossett to kick a field goal.
Dick Bass, a good blocker and a squirming runner with good balance, is one of the best backs in the league. After Bass, the Rams are just routine. Their offense is patterned after Green Bay's—which would be grand if the Rams had Green Bay's players. That is the sort of players, and successes, the Rams must have if they are ever to regain their days of glory. However, that may be a vain hope no matter how good the Rams become. In those wonderful old days, those days of splendid memory when they drew 21 crowds of more than 80,000 from 1950 through 1958, the Rams did not have ticket competition with the Dodgers, the Angels, the Blades and the Lakers. And then the Coliseum held more people. Now it has been cut back to a seating capacity of 72,000—with customers who, in the early autumn, let out shouts at what seem odd times until one realizes they have transistor radios plugged into their ears and are listening to the baseball game.
And, too, Los Angeles is an odd town—not, as has been said, eight suburbs in search of a city, but rather a collection of towns, as though Ardmore, Albuquerque, Birmingham, Austin, Darien. East Orange, Boulder and a few others had been jammed together in a smoke bowl between mountains and ocean. 'There is no such place as Hollywood," says Reeves, meaning the Hollywood of symbol does not match up to the Hollywood of fact. But the Hollywood of symbol helped supply glamour to the winning Rams of the '50s. Now the stars are identified more with the Dodgers and Lakers than with the Rams. Says Movie Producer-Director Jimmy Harris (Lolita, The Bedford Incident), who feels his life has been misspent because he is not a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds: "Most people in Los Angeles don't know anything about sports, anyway. You go to the ball game and instead of giving batting averages the message board says, 'Welcome Cucamonga Kiwanis." But a star who wants to be identified with a team can sit down front at the baseball or basketball game night after night and everybody sees him. The Rams play only seven league games at home and the stands are way back from the field, so who sees him there?" Actor Norman Alden says, "You go see the Dodgers and nothing happens. It's always 1-0 after five innings, but the Dodgers win. You go see the Rams and nothing happens, either. There's plenty of professionalism down on the field, but the Rams lose."
This year the Rams won their first two games, albeit shakily, before losing 24-13 to the champion Packers on Sunday. The cycle has advanced again and the Rams are improving. Except in a few instances, however, the other teams have not been standing and waiting. Ah, the Los Angeles Rams! Sic transit gloria de haven.