Football 101: No. 27, Marion Motley
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Before we get to the story of Marion Motley, yes, it’s about time for a rabbit hole in this series, right?
OK, let’s take a few moments and talk about the integration of the NFL.
While the story of Jackie Robinson breaking through the color barrier in baseball is relatively straightforward — “relatively” because people do oversimplify things — the NFL story is much more complicated and bewildering. This is because there is no singular figure, like Jackie Robinson or Branch Rickey, to give the story clarity and power.
The story of integration in pro football actually revolves around a city rather than a player. It revolves around the city of Cleveland.
In mid-1946, a Cleveland sports fan named Arthur McBride — who had become a millionaire mainly by organizing the newsboys who delivered the Cleveland News — decided to bring an All-American Football Conference team to Cleveland. The league had just formed to challenge the NFL, which was not exactly a powerhouse in those days. Still, it was a bold move by McBride because Cleveland already had a professional football team, the Cleveland Rams. Not only that, the Rams were the best team in the NFL. They won the championship in 1945, 15-14 over Washington.*
*The point differential in the game was a safety that was scored because Washington quarterback Sammy Baugh threw a pass from his own end zone … and it hit the goal post — back then the goal post was in front of the end zone not in the back.
Still, McBride was determined. He paid a record price for the coach who had just won a national championship at Ohio State, a guy by the name of Paul Brown. Then he named the team after Brown. Then he gave Paul Brown free rein (and all the money he needed) to do whatever was necessary to build a champion.
The Rams’ young owner, Dan Reeves, meanwhile, was looking to get out of Cleveland. The city seemed to have lost interest in the Rams, plus he’d had his eye on putting a team in Los Angeles for years. Now, with the Browns invading Cleveland, he had just the excuse he needed to make the move. It was messy. The commissioner of the NFL was a man named Elmer Layden, and he was skeptical of the Rams’ move. Reeves and his allies decided it was easier to simply fire Layden than work around him; Layden was replaced by another owner, Bert Bell, who was very much in Reeves’ corner. The Rams moved to Los Angeles in January of 1946.*
“I can understand why the Rams are willing to leave Cleveland,” said John L. Keeshen, who ran the All-American Football Conference. “I would not be anxious to face the competition … Arthur McBride’s Cleveland Browns look like one of the greatest professional teams ever recruited, and it wouldn’t do to have the National league’s championship club running second in its hometown.”
**When he heard the news that the Rams were moving to his hometown of Los Angeles, quarterback Bob Waterfield said, “Oh boy, that’s swell!”