Largely by dint of intercepting four passes and recovering two fumbles the Los Angeles Rams won a lackadaisical victory over the Cleveland Browns in their first exhibition game last weekend. The score, if that means anything—and it does not—was 13-3. Tommy Prothro, the chess-and bridge-playing coach of the Rams, enjoyed long and searching looks at people like John Walton, who has been a taxi-squad quarterback for three years—and after completing two of 12 for 12 yards seems to be doomed to a fourth—while Nick Skorich, the vegetable-raising coach of the Browns, looked at some of his equally obscure personnel.
But in one sense the game was historic. For the first time, a team which had been traded, in toto, for another team, was playing for its new owner. Sitting in the second deck of the press box, in an area previously reserved for freeloaders, was Carroll Rosenbloom, who acquired the Rams by trading with the new owners of the Baltimore Colts, a team he had just sold.
A fine judge of assets fiscal and football, Rosenbloom must have been pleased with what he saw on the field—and in the stands. While Prothro had his quality players in the game, the Rams played brisk, crisp football. Neither team used its No. 1 quarterback; Roman Gabriel is recovering from a collapsed lung, and the Browns, for one reason or another, are trying again to determine whether Mike Phipps can replace Bill Nelsen. Phipps looked O.K., but if his knees hold up, Nelsen needn't worry. Neither, for that matter, should Gabriel, with his reinflated lung.
Rosenbloom had been trying to get out of Baltimore for a long time, but expecially after three exhibition games there last season drew an average paying crowd—if that's the right word—of 16,000. By contrast, last week's exhibition drew 64,803.
The original suggestion that Rosen-bloom should take over the Rams came in 1968 from Dan Reeves, who then owned the club. The Colts had gone to Los Angeles, leading the Rams by a game and a half and needing only a tie to clinch the division title. Reeves and Rosenbloom, old and close friends, met on the field while the teams were warming up. Reeves was wan and drawn, suffering from the terminal cancer that was to kill him in 1971. They chatted a while, then walked to the sideline and sat on the Los Angeles bench.
"One of the tough things about this business," Reeves said, "is when you come to an important game like this against a good friend. You don't like to beat your friends, but you sure as hell don't want to lose."
Reeves was quiet for a moment, then said, "My number can come up any time now. The Rams are an important franchise and I don't think my family will keep the club after I'm gone."
"You'll be here a long time after I will," Rosenbloom said. "You're too mean to go now. Only the good die young."
Reeves smiled and went on. "I don't think you belong in Baltimore anymore," he said. "If I do go before you do, I hope you will give serious thought to acquiring this franchise."
The Colts won the game 28-24, and Rosenbloom forgot about the conversation, even though Reeves had been right in saying that he no longer belonged in Baltimore. Rosenbloom had bought the Colts in 1953 at the urging of Bert Bell, an old friend and the NFL commissioner. Rosenbloom did not particularly want a pro franchise, but he gave in to Bell. In the next 19 years he built the Colts into a powerhouse but, in the late '60s, the fans and some writers grew restless and critical.
"I had a special lunch for the sports-writers this past year," Rosenbloom said last week. "I told them I had only one question to ask. I said, 'What's wrong? Where have we failed? We used to have a good relationship here and now we don't. What can we do?' "
There was a long silence before Neal Eskridge of the Baltimore News American stood up and said, "I guess it's just that we're so used to winning."
"You mean it would be better if we lost?" Rosenbloom said, and there was no answer.
For some time Rosenbloom had been unhappy with the Baltimore Memorial Stadium and even offered to build his own $10 million plant on the outskirts of the city. "The city fathers didn't want that," he said. "They wanted the Colts in the city because they thought it would be a knock on Baltimore if we moved out. For years they made innumerable promises about fixing up the stadium but nothing happened."
The city fathers did something only when Rosenbloom threatened to move to Tampa, a scheme that was thwarted when Commissioner Pete Rozelle came out against it. Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel, a strong Colt fan, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaeffer and Bill Boucher, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Organization, combined to push through plans for the stadium, but it was too late.
In the meantime Reeves had died, and his heirs were looking for someone to buy the franchise. At one point Rosenbloom suggested that he turn over the Colts to his son, Steve, and buy the Rams, but Rozelle vetoed that plan, too. No one can own parts of two franchises in the NFL, and a father-and-son tandem seemed uncomfortably close to dual ownership.
In Miami, Joe Robbie of the Dolphins, no friend of Rosenbloom's, had fired Joe Thomas, his capable director of player personnel. Rosenbloom called Thomas to see how he could help him. The call, eventually, had far-reaching results. "Joe said the only other owner who called him was Al Davis," Rosenbloom said. "I respect Al for that. I think Thomas has talent and all I wanted to do was see that he would stay in pro football. I suggested he start his own scouting group and that the Colts and Raiders would use his services."
A dozen or so groups had approached Rosenbloom hoping to buy the Colts, but each deal had fallen through. Rozelle suggested that Rosenbloom sell the Colts and buy the Rams, but the tax picture was not a happy one. A straight cash sale would have meant that Rosenbloom would have had to pay on the order of $4.4 million in capital gains. "That wouldn't have been fair to my family," he said. "If something happened to me after the sale, they would have been taxed again on the estate—a tax on a tax,"
Finally, Rozelle suggested that Thomas, who had been instrumental in the Dolphin purchase, might have buyers available for the Colts, and indeed he did. One was Willard Keland, who had been squeezed out of the Dolphin franchise by Robbie. Keland and an associate, Clem Ryan, agreed to buy the Rams for $19 million, then trade the team to Rosenbloom for the Colts.
Late in the negotiation Keland and Ryan were shy of money so Thomas came up with Robert F. Isray, a heating and air-conditioning executive from Skokie, Ill. Isray met with the negotiators in the coffee shop of the Lombardy Hotel in New York. None of them knew him well and the first question asked was whether or not he had $5 million to clinch the deal, since another buyer had made an offer for the Rams. Isray, a big, quiet man, said, "I could have." As it turned out, he did have—and more. Keland and Ryan dropped out, leaving Isray with the entire $19 million bill.
The deal was reported in detail in The Tax Coordinator, a pamphlet that deals in income-tax matters for large investors. "A three-way deal for a tax-free switch of two football teams may point the way to possible similar switches of other businesses," the article stated.
When Rosenbloom arrived in Los Angeles to take over his new franchise, he ran into trouble. "I was just sitting down to lunch with some city officials when Don Klosterman called me," he said. Klosterman was Rosenbloom's general manager with the Colts and is his assistant with the Rams. "He told me Roman Gabriel had just been carried off the practice field in Long Beach with a collapsed lung."
Gabriel's lung collapsed while he was warming up, a bleb on the surface rupturing. John Unitas had come back in three weeks after a shattered rib punctured a lung during a game, so Rosenbloom was not unduly concerned.
"I went by the hospital to see Gabe, but he was asleep," he said. "The nurse said he left word to be awakened when I came by, but I told her he needed sleep more. I left him a note: 'It was refreshing to see you as I remember you, sound asleep and on your back.' "
One of Rosenbloom's major assets as an owner is an unusual sympathy for and rapport with his players. He established this almost immediately with the Rams. Lamar Lundy, a longtime Los Angeles defensive end, has been gravely ill with myasthenia gravis for a year and is almost totally paralyzed. Soon after Rosenbloom got the club, the Ram veterans met to take up a collection for Lundy. Rosenbloom attended the meeting. "I think it is wonderful that you fellows want to help Lamar," he said. "The Colt club was a family and I hope this one will be. We take care of our own. I just want you to know that all of Lamar's expenses, medical and otherwise, will be taken care of."
Later, Rosenbloom visited Lundy in his home, collected all outstanding bills from his wife, established a bank account for her and put Lundy on the club payroll as a scouting consultant.
When Rosenbloom left Baltimore, there was an unusual outpouring of affection from the Colt players. Said Linebacker Mike Curtis: "I hate to see Carroll go. He was a damn good owner. It wasn't the coaches who made Baltimore a winner for 14 years." The Rams appreciate Rosenbloom, too. They gave him the game ball after beating Cleveland.