Tuesday, October 26, 1999

Browns winners in print

Four new books celebrate team's return

Enquirer contributor

        The football equivalent of the Brooklyn Dodgers' infamous relocation to Los Angeles after the 1957 season was the Cleveland Browns' move to Baltimore (where they were renamed the Ravens) after the 1995 season.

        Because the Dodgers and Browns were supported by fans as loyal as any team could have, the moves were incomprehensible from a human, if not a financial, standpoint.

        Just as Dodgers' owner Walter O'Malley became the most vilified man in Brooklyn, Browns' owner Art Modell became anathema in Cleveland.

        Unlike the Brooklyn Dodgers saga, however, the Cleveland Browns story has a happy ending. Recognizing a public relations disaster in the making, the National Football League granted Cleveland an expansion team. But not just another new team, this team would be the reincarnation of the Browns — a team with the same name and uniform colors as the original team.

        Publishers are celebrating this inaugural season of the reborn Cleveland Browns with books that look back at a history as rich as that of any other professional sports team.

        Of the many reasons for the fanaticism of Browns' afficionados is that the Browns were instant and consistent winners. This is made abundantly clear in The Browns: Cleveland's Team by Richard Shmelter (Sports Publishing Inc.; $19.95), which is a review of “Great Moments.” The Browns and their fans enjoyed plenty of great moments, particularly in the beginning. Led by coaching genius Paul Brown and Hall of Fame players Otto Graham, Marion Motley and Dante Lavelli, the Browns dominated professional football from the beginning of their existence for more than a decade.

        The Browns romped to the All-American Football Conference championship all four years of the league's existence (1946-49); shocked the NFL by winning that league's championship in 1950; then went on to play in the NFL championship game six of the next seven years. For anyone interested in detailed accounts of key games from these glorious seasons, as well as accounts of other memorable Browns games, this easy-to-read book is a handy guide.

        Russell Schneider, a former sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer for 32 years, also reviews memorable Browns contests (20 of them), but he mainly takes a biographical approach to Browns history in The Best of the Cleveland Browns Memories: Players, Coaches and Games (Moonlight Publishing; $14.95).

        Combining nifty career summaries with insights into the subjects' personalities, Mr. Schneider's one-page vignettes of close to 120 Browns define the essence of each player's character and his football contributions.

        All the big names are included, but so are lesser-knowns, such as Bill Willis, “football's Jackie Robinson,” and Milt Plum, the QB whose “legacy always will be that he's the guy — perhaps the only one — who had the audacity to criticize the great Paul Brown.” Mr. Plum was traded to Detroit 40 days after his criticism of Brown hit the Cleveland papers.

        Even Mr. Plum would be hard pressed to find anything to criticize about Cleveland Browns: The Official Illustrated History produced by The Sporting News ($29.95). The variety, quality and comprehensiveness of the photos is impressive. Every step in Browns history is shown, from the days when players wore high-top sneakers (for better traction on frozen turf) to the last tearful moments of communion between the players and the Browns' rabid fans in the Dawg Pound at the final game in Cleveland Stadium.

        In addition to almost 300 photos, the book includes “features” on special topics (the Browns' biggest rivalries, great Browns running backs) and “Memorable Moments” (accounts of special games, such as the great Jim Brown's finale and the Browns' debut on Monday Night Football).

        Especially useful is the season-by-season rundown, the heart of the text. Each Browns season from 1946 to 1995 is encapsulated by weekly highlights and “Season at a Glance” boxes that list head coach, regular-season record, top draft choices, etc.

        The book is as gorgeous and evocative as one can make a book about football.

        On the opposite end of the publishing spectrum is On Being Brown: What It Means to Be a Cleveland Browns Fan (Gray & Co.; $18.95). It's an understated little book but extremely well done.

        The absorbing collection of 33 essays and interviews by Cleveland native Scott Huler is presented thoughtfully. Browns uniform colors are used for the dust jacket, cover and end papers. The average chapter length of two to three pages is well suited to looking at the subject from several angles.

        In trying to understand and explain the nature of Browns fans, Mr. Huler begins with the love of the Browns that his father and uncle handed down to him. “There were lots of things my father told me to do — homework, listen to my mother, the list goes on,” he writes. “But loving the Browns was the opposite: Something he never told me to do, something he merely did. ... My dad didn't have to say the Browns were important — my dad lived the Browns being important. And so I learned how to be a Browns fan.”

        Mr. Huler recounts how his own appreciation for the team went through a maturation process, and points out that while a fan becomes infatuated with a team that wins, he falls in love with a team that breaks his heart.

        When Mr. Huler, as an adult, moved from Cleveland, he tried to give up the Browns but always returned, the prodigal fan. The Browns symbolized the pride he took in his rejuvenated hometown, once the nation's laughingstock. He came to realize that the team and his relationship with it were always there for him — even when other relationships, such as his marriage, failed.

        There was one more key ingredient: players who reciprocated fans' affection and took pride in representing the city. All the players interviewed articulated these sentiments, but none as eloquently as former Browns defensive tackle Jerry Sherk, whom Mr. Huler allows the last word in the final chapter.

        In describing the Browns' pre-game trek from the locker room to the field, Mr. Sherk says: “I will never experience another feeling like that as long as I live. Going slowly down into that dark tunnel, pressed together in unison with my teammates, hearing only the echoing footsteps, feeling powerful and scared at the same time. Now, ready for battle, we quickly rise three or four steps straight up onto the floor of Cleveland Stadium where we are surrounded by 85,000 screaming fans.

        “The adrenaline, the pride, the glory. There were no others like us — we were the Cleveland Browns!”


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