Pro Football and the Los Angeles Market
Pro football has returned to Los Angeles. And the Hall of Fame has the ball to prove it.
The Rams are back and LA fans are excited. It is, however, a little bittersweet since it does come at the expense of another city’s loss. But, not too surprisingly, I have a somewhat different perspective on this historic franchise shift. It probably won’t ease the separation anxiety being felt by St. Louis football fans right now, but, hey, maybe it’ll help.
In a convoluted way the Rams shift back to LA is not just linked to St. Louis, it’s interrelated to Chicago, Phoenix, Cleveland, the Buccaneers, the Raiders, and seven pro football leagues; the National Football League, the American Football League (1926), the American Football League (1936-37), the All-America Football Conference (1946-49), the American Football League (1960-69), the World Football League (1974-75) and the United States Football League (1983-85).
Okay, let’s start with Phoenix. As you may recall, the reason the St. Louis market was available for the LA Rams in the first place was that following the 1987 season, the St. Louis Cardinals left for greener – or should I say browner pastures – by relocating to Phoenix. While the team did abandon St. Louis, it wasn’t a franchise born in that city. The Cardinals actually can trace their roots to Chicago, where they came into being in 1898 and remained until 1960. It was after losing the venerable Cardinals to Arizona in 1987 that St. Louis struck again and enticed the Los Angeles Rams to Missouri.
So, if you’re keeping score, St. Louis “invited” two NFL teams to abandon their longtime home cities and relocate to their fair city. Hmmm, an inconvenient truth? Well, that’s probably little unfair, but worth noting.
Okay, so that covers the Chicago and Phoenix connections.
Now, let’s talk about the Cleveland correlation. This time it’s LA that sends the moving vans to another city. Following the 1945 season, the Cleveland Rams, fresh off their 15-14 win over the Washington Redskins in the NFL Championship Game, announced they were moving to Los Angeles.
Wow, think about that. The Rams win the NFL title and then move to another city. Unbelievable. But there’s more. This wasn’t the Rams first shift. The Rams franchise actually began in 1936 as a member of the then-rival American Football League. However, after one season in the AFL the Rams shifted to the more popular NFL.
Ironically, when the Rams left the AFL, it opened the door for the Los Angeles Bulldogs, an independent pro team to join the fledgling AFL. The Bulldogs, thus became the first major league pro football team to play its home games in Los Angeles. A good team, the Bulldogs went undefeated and won the 1937 AFL title. Unfortunately, the AFL folded at season's end and the Bulldogs returned to independent “minor league” play.
In 1946, the All-America Football Conference, another competitor to the NFL emerged. The most formidable challenge to the NFL to date, the AAFC gave birth to the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers. A charter member of AAFC was the Los Angeles Dons. Interestingly, both the Dons and the relocated Rams called the LA Coliseum home in 1946. Officially, the Dons were the first to play in the Coliseum beating the NFL’s Rams by two weeks.
The AAFC played only four seasons before being absorbed by the NFL. The Browns, 49ers and a team called the Baltimore Colts – not to be confused by the 1953 NFL entry Baltimore Colts – merged with the NFL. The remainder of the AAFC players, including the Dons, were distributed through a confusing player allocation plan to the various NFL teams.
With the dissolution of the Dons following the 1949 season, the Rams were the sole major pro football entry in Los Angeles. Then, in 1960 a fourth iteration of a league called the American Football League, placed a franchise in the Southern California city. While this AFL was here to stay, the new Los Angeles Chargers franchise was not. After just one season Chargers owner Baron Hilton relocated his team to San Diego where – at least for now – it remains.
In an effort to be inclusive and accurately depict the long and storied history of failed LA football franchises, I need to mention the short-lived World Football League (1974-75) and it’s Southern California Sun franchise. There, I mentioned it!
My hesitancy to make too much of that team is that technically, they played in Anaheim, not LA. But, in reality, I guess we all know the market they really sought.
Similarly, we have the LA Express of the equally ill-fated United States Football League (1983-85). Although the Express left no lasting impact, two players, Steve Young and Gary Zimmerman found their way to the NFL and eventual election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
A more serious foray into LA market occurred in 1982 when the Oakland Raiders decided they’d move south to what appeared to be a better market. Like the others, however, this shift didn’t fare too well either, as the Raiders returned to the East Bay in 1995, creating the pro football void that is now about to end.
Finally, I suspect and hope, some of you may have noticed, I haven’t explained my earlier reference to the Buccaneers as another team linked to the Rams shift to LA. Actually, that was just to throw you off a bit. I was not referring to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but rather the Los Angeles Buccaneers. That Buccaneers team was a one-year-wonder as a 1926 NFL franchise. And as a good sport historian might point out, there was also a team in the 1926 AFL known as the Los Angeles Wildcats. Actually, both the Los Angeles Buccaneers and the Los Angeles Tigers were travelling teams for their respective leagues. Both teams played out of Chicago, never playing a home game in the much sought after Los Angeles market.
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