The year was 1950 and Philadelphia was the epicenter of all that was good in the world of sports. The Phillies “Whiz Kids” were the pride of Major League Baseball and well on their way to the World Series, the Syracuse Nationals (pre-Philadelphia 76ers) were in the finals again and the Eagles were two-time defending NFL Champions, three-time division Champions.
De Benneville “Bert” Bell had served as NFL Commissioner from 1945 until his death in 1959. He had successfully transformed the pro sport of football into a competitive parity and a commercial success while transforming pro football into the most prominent sports league in America. In addition, Mr. Bell was also co-founder and co-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles were the powerhouse of the NFL, fielding a staunch defense that had held opponents to seven points or less in fourteen of twenty-six games from 1948 through 1949, including eight shut-outs in that time, with two shut-outs in each of their NFL Championship games.
On the other side of the ball was featured a high-powered offense led by Steve Van Buren, Pete Pihos and Tiny Thompson, who’s offense averaged 28.5 points per game during that stretch, which saw the Eagles record at 22-3-1.
For the four-time AAFC Champion Cleveland Browns, winning was a way of life and their winning ways did not go unnoticed by NFL Commissioner Bert Bell, who took full advantage of every opportunity to publicly berate the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns had won the AAFC title each year of the leagues’ young existence; 1946, 1947, 1948 and 1949. During that run, the Browns had posted an impressive record of fifty-two wins, four losses and three ties, being the first pro football team to post a perfect season, 16-0-0 in 1948, including the post-season.
The All-American Football Conference was founded by Arch Ward, Chicago Tribune sports editor, who had also originated baseball’s All-Star Game and college football’s All-Star Game. Ward was able to convince a number of wealthy sports enthusiasts to create the All-American Football Conference. The first AAFC Commissioner was Jim Crowley, a member of the infamous Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. A year later, he would step aside to purchase the Chicago Rockets, and Admiral Jonas H. Ingram would become the league’s new Commissioner. At the conclusion of the 1948 AAFC season, Ingram would step down and Oliver O. Kessing would be the last Commissioner for the AAFC.
Bert Bell perceived the AAFC to be the lesser of the two leagues, despite the AAFC having recruited forty of the top sixty-six college superstars in 1946 and being more competitive in every phase of the game than NFL teams. In fact, everyone not a fan of the AAFC frowned upon that league as inferior.
Mr. Bell, and other NFL executives would often state to anyone listening, or with pen and paper in hand; “The weakest team in our league could beat the best in the All-American league any day of the week’.
At the conclusion of each season, Paul Brown challenged the NFL to a match-up of the NFL champion and his Cleveland Browns. These requests were answered with silence and Brown became increasingly frustrated. Bell’s insistent ridicule of the Browns so inflamed Paul Brown, he had once traveled to NFL headquarters to issue a face-to-face challenge to Bert, saying, “I will play your best team on your field, in front of your crowd!”. Still, Bell turned away the challenge.
However, destiny had other plans.
The success of the AAFC was hurting the NFL financially, while the success of the Cleveland Browns was hurting the AAFC. As the Browns continued to pile up one championship after another, attendances began to decline.
Bell and representatives from both leagues attempted a merger in 1949, but both sides couldn’t find common ground so the talks stalled and the concept scrapped. But as fate would have it, the financial stress to the AAFC had persuaded officials to re-visit the merger.
On December 9, 1949, the two leagues put aside their differences and the merge was official. The NFL agreed to absorb three AAFC teams into the NFL; the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and the Baltimore Colts.
The stage was now set: Bert Bell was in charge of scheduling games and he wasn’t about to let his opportunity to set-up the Cleveland Browns and put them in their place to pass him by. This was the NFL’s chance to prove to the sports world the Cleveland Browns did not belong in the “league of men”.
The World Series of Football; the game every football aficionado had dreamed about was now scheduled – Saturday, September 16, 1950, the first game of the regular season.
Four-time AAFC Champions Cleveland Browns versus two-time defending NFL Champions Philadelphia Eagles. Paul Brown versus Earl “Greasy” Neale.
This would be no ordinary game, and it wasn’t going to be handled as one.
Bert Bell provided all the Pomp and Circumstance of a modern-day Super Bowl, fueled by local and national newspapers, and a televised night game with kick-off scheduled at 8:45pm. Entertainment was provided by the 85-piece US Navy Band and the Eagle Band. Color Guards from the local American Legion posts, as well as convalescent World War II and Korean War veterans prominently on the infield’s edge. Also unique to this game, the NFL provided a trophy for the game’s Most Valuable Player – unheard of for a regular season game.
The magnitude of this epic battle was so large, the game had to be moved to a larger stadium, Philadelphia Municipal Stadium to accommodate the 71,237 who would be on-hand to witness history in the making, the largest crowd in the history of professional football of the time of either league.
The build up to the game had many NFL loyalists calling the Browns a “cheesy team from a cheesy league”, and calling Paul Brown an “over-glorified high school coach.”. Greasy Neale had told a reporter, “This is the best team ever put together, who could ever beat us?”, referring to his Eagles when asked about the upcoming game against the Cleveland Browns. Greasy Neale had even went as far as saying about the Browns; “The high school kids are coming to play in the pros.”
Prior to the game, Paul Brown said: “The Eagles may chase us off the gridiron, but we’ll be on hand for the game with no alibis…Truthfully, I don’t know what to expect tomorrow night. We have been told the Eagles out class us, but we will be on hand.”
The Associated Press called the showdown “the most talked-of game in the National Football League’s history.”, and it finally got underway. The Eagles drew first blood with a field-goal on their first drive, but did very little else afterwards. By half-time, the Browns were leading 14-3, and the game was already considered “over” by most sports enthusiasts.
As the much anticipated World Series of Football clock had wind down, America had witnessed the largest upset in NFL history in dominating fashion. Final score: Browns 35, Eagles 10.
The score did not reflect the lopsided affair, and deflated Eagles head coach, “Greasy” Neale would never be the same, retiring after the 1950 season, but not before ridiculing the Browns, calling them a “basketball team”, saying the Browns would not have won had they played a real football game rather than a basketball game. Once again, Paul Brown took those snide remarks as a challenge and when the two teams faced each other again later that season, refusing to throw a single pass, Paul Brown defeated the Eagles again 13-7.
In the after-math, Bert Bell had officially crowned the Cleveland Browns, the “best team ever in the history of football”…quite a compliment coming from the man who had called the Browns cheesy and inferior. Bert Bell named Otto Graham the official MVP of the game.
The game left many of the Eagles players shell-shocked years after this epic battle. Tackle Bucko Kilroy said, “It was no upset. Man for man, they were just a better team.”. “That was one of the worst lickings I ever took,” said Bednarik. “Usually I’d need only a day or two to shake off a loss. That one bothered me for a long, long time. I still relive some of the plays. If, if, if…”
While the Browns waited on the runway for their plane to take them home, an air traffic controller’s voice rasped harshly in the pilot’s ears. “You’re clear for takeoff,” he snarled. “Get those [expletive] Browns out of town.”
The New York Times described the game as follows: “Certainly, the beautifully coached Browns, with Otto Graham, as great as he ever was at Northwestern and since he became a professional, leading the attack, Greasy Neale’s Eagles were made to look bad. The Eagles’ defense against Graham’s passes was woefully weak, even if they managed to minimize the Cleveland trap plays, featuring Marion Motley. Graham went overhead thirty-eight times and completed twenty-one, good for 346 yards and three touchdowns. His was a magnificent display of aerial artistry and his was a job so well done that the difference between the elevens was greater even than the actual margin.
The Browns went on to win its fifth straight Championship title in five seasons of its existence in 1950, its first ever NFL Championship, by defeating the Los Angeles Rams 30-28 – solidifying the Browns as legitimate football legends, and arguably one of the best teams of any sport in history. No other team, of any sport, has won 5 straight league titles. The Browns had gone to ten straight Championships – winning seven. This accomplishment will never be duplicated. Imagine today, a team going to ten straight Super Bowls and winning seven, unfathomable. Otto Graham leading the way each time.
Writing about the game a half-century later, Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly described the result this way: “Rivers flow uphill. The sun sets in the East. Dogs love cats. It all makes sense after what happened.”