Word that the Rams will return to Los Angeles has me temporarily unstuck in time and briefly suspended from cynicism.
November 2, 1958. My 12th birthday. The substantial gift from my father was to accompany him, no sports fan but a steadfast parent, to the Los Angeles Coliseum to attend my first NFL game, between the Rams and Chicago Bears.
To a sixth-grader, this was a magnificent thing, and the occasion began to take on enormous heft when my father and I found ourselves stranded, moments before kickoff, on the 110 Freeway as we approached the stadium exit. There were 100,470 souls about to squeeze into the substantially roomy Coliseum, one of the grand American sporting venues. The Rams were 2-3 at the time, the Bears 4-1, yet that crowd remains the second-largest in the history of the franchise—founded in 1936 in Cleveland before spending 49 seasons in L.A. and the last 21 in St. Louis.
What ensued that afternoon was a wild 41-35 Rams’ victory and an audacious one-man performance by the Rams’ 5-foot-11 running back Jon Arnett, whose weaving, breathtaking journeys across the floor of the Coliseum—repeatedly leaving Bears defenders grasping at air—accounted for 298 yards. Arnett ran 72 yards with a screen pass; returned a punt 36 yards through traffic; brought back another punt 24 yards and another 58 yards; launched runs from scrimmage of 52 and 38 yards.
Back then, before there was video, the Los Angeles Times regularly published a series of birds-eye photos of consequential plays, employing little dots to illustrate the progression of a ball carrier’s trek downfield. It’s possible that those day-after newspaper recreations of Arnett’s forays were a factor in propelling me toward an interest in sports journalism.
Anyway. My family left L.A. in 1962—not for a bigger stadium, corporate suites or naming rights—so my geographical distance accelerated the natural process of outgrowing a young lad’s starry-eyed fandom. But as a sports reporter for almost a half-century, I crossed paths with the Rams several times before they left California in 1995; in fact, I interviewed their relentlessly hands-on owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, just months before he died in 1979.
And what I learned then has echoed through the years: Fabulously wealthy team owners regularly threaten to move as a ploy to wangle political support for more palatial stadiums, better financial breaks from the local authorities and the helpless taxpayers.
Rosenbloom had owned the Colts in 1971 when they won the Super Bowl, but he became unhappy with the stadium deal in Baltimore and made a franchise-for-franchise trade with then-Rams owner Robert Irsay the next year. By 1979, the season the Rams at last qualified for the Super Bowl in their sixth consecutive trip to the playoffs, Rosenbloom had arranged for the team to play in nearby Anaheim the next season, complaining about the 77-year-old L.A. Coliseum’s amenities—“Even in the press box, I can’t get to a toilet without walking for seven minutes. I take an empty tennis ball can with me so I can take a leak without missing seven minutes of the game.”
What prompted Rosenbloom’s widow, Georgia, to pack the Rams off to St. Louis in 1995 was her failure to get a new stadium arrangement in L.A. (NFL owners attempted to block the move but Georgia Frontiere, by then married for a sixth time, prevailed by threatening to sue.)
She died in 2008 and Stan Kroenke, the Missouri native who had helped her manipulate the transfer to St. Louis, went from minority to majority ownership. And now it is Kroenke, who married into the massive wealth of the Walmart Waltons, who has burned a bridge with the St. Louis community in search of greater riches in L.A.
In his application to the league requesting the move, he declared a new St. Louis stadium proposal would put him “on the road to financial ruin.” And on the road to Southern California, because “home,” to these people, is where the money is.
Fans, the folks so emotionally (as well as monetarily) involved in all this, naturally have no power in such decisions, as a recent New Yorker magazine spoof by satirist Andy Borowitz reminded:
Two days after their team completed a losing season for the 15th time in 17 years, a consortium of Cleveland Browns fans has formally applied to relocate the NFL franchise to Los Angeles. Unlike other teams vying to move to L.A….the Browns’ application is believed to be the only one submitted entirely by fans.
According to Butch Rydzewski, the Browns fan who is masterminding the relocation effort, Los Angeles is the ideal destination for the team “because it is two thousand miles away and someplace most of us have no intention of ever visiting.”
Meanwhile, awaiting the construction of the gold-digging Kroenke’s luxurious new stadium in Inglewood (which is a “suburb” essentially surrounded by the sprawling Los Angeles city limits), the Rams will play next season in the venerable Coliseum.
That, to my 12-year-old self—oblivious to the robber-baron bent of professional sports fat cats—is where they belong.