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."
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."