Ewbank, Donovan and McCormack common threads in shared history
By By Mike Klingaman
Nov 10, 1995 at 3:00 AM
Art Donovan? A Cleveland Brown? It happened, in 1951.
Donovan spent that summer in the Browns' training camp. Why Cleveland? Baltimore was between franchises in the NFL, and when the old Colts folded after the 1950 season, Donovan needed a job.
He didn't make the team. The Browns, defending NFL champs, were rich in linemen. Donovan got hurt in practice. And then there was his relationship with coach Paul Brown.
"I don't think he liked me," Donovan says.
"I played three exhibition games, but never really got a chance. All their tackles were back; I was odd man out. I thought I was better than most, but they [Browns] didn't."
Worse, Donovan was badly injured in a scrimmage when a teammate accidentally stepped on his face. "I was trying to make a tackle, and here comes a shoe," he recalls. Fifty-eight stitches closed the wound, but during Donovan's recovery, the Browns tried to lose him.
Weeb Ewbank, then an assistant coach for Cleveland, urged Paul Brown to reconsider.
"You can't cut Donovan now," Ewbank said. "Wait until he gets well, and can fight for his position."
Ewbank remembers another reason for postponing Donovan's departure: "Arthur was cut up pretty badly. I couldn't send him home to his mother with a face like that."
In the end, the Browns peddled Donovan and another ex-Colt, Sisto Averno, to the New York Yanks, who became the Dallas Texans, who became the Baltimore Colts in 1953.
A year later, Donovan made All-Pro, en route to the Hall of Fame.
"The Browns did me a favor," he says. "That trade was the best thing that ever happened to me."
News of the Browns' move to Baltimore sent shock waves coursing through Donovan, who is in China, vacationing with his wife.
"What's with Art Modell? Is he starving in Cleveland? He's doing to them what [Bob] Irsay did to Baltimore," he says. "I never thought the NFL would come to this. The crack is in the dam, and it's not going to get any better.
"How are you going to start rooting for the Browns? They've got Vinny Testaverde; he'll take them to the championship -- in 2010.
"What happens to the Stallions? Are they moving to Harrisburg?
"This is hard to believe. Modell is going to charge people thousands of dollars so they can buy season tickets. I can't find a cheeseburger. And the beds here [in China] are half my size.
"I think everybody's gone nuts."
Ewbank as double agent
It's Draft Day 1954, and Paul Brown is seething. Another NFL team appears to be bugging his thoughts. Stealing his notes. Reading his mind.
That team is Baltimore. All day, the Colts have been turning over the same rocks and beating the same bushes as Cleveland, which prides itself on its sophisticated preparation of the draft.
Yet the Colts, a fledgling organization, seem interested in some of the same obscure names on the Browns' top-secret list. And it's really getting to Brown, the Cleveland coach.
There's a leak in his command, and Brown can't find it.
He glances suspiciously at Ewbank, his longtime assistant, who helped plan Cleveland's draft. Ewbank is a lame-duck Brown, having agreed to coach the Colts in 1954. He should be huddling with the Colts' brass, but Paul Brown insisted that Ewbank sit beside him on draft day. Ewbank knows all the Browns' secrets.
Is he the source of the leaks?
In the 20th round, the Colts pick a myopic, pigeon-toed receiver from Southern Methodist University -- an underclassman, to boot. Cleveland is stunned; how did Baltimore learn of Raymond Berry?
In the 21st round, the Colts choose Robert Lade, a heretofore unknown lineman from Nebraska State Teachers College. . . . and Brown hits the roof. He turns red, clenches his fist and slams it on the table, interrupting the draft. Lade was his find, a sleeper, now gone.
"I'd never seen Brown so mad," says The Sun's John Steadman, then a reporter for the Baltimore News Post.
Lade proved a bust. Brown never confronted his Deep Throat. And Ewbank, now 88, never has admitted to stealing Cleveland's thunder. But that's what happened, says Steadman.
"I carried his messages to the Colts' table myself," Steadman says.
"I don't remember passing notes," he says. "I might have winked, or something like that. But I never did anything that Paul Brown wouldn't have done."
Stock in trade
In 1953, the Browns and Colts rocked the NFL with a 15-man trade, still the biggest player exchange in league history. The deal served both clubs: the new Colts (Art Spinney, Carl Taseff, Bert Rechichar) would help Baltimore to back-to-back championships in 1958-59. Cleveland's acquisitions (Tom Catlin, Don Colo and John Petitbon, Ritchie's brother) did the same for the Browns, NFL champs in 1954-55.
The key figure in the trade for the Colts, a rookie quarterback named Harry "The Golden Greek" Agganis, would never play pro football. Agganis, a top Cleveland draft choice from Boston University, chose baseball instead, signing with the Red Sox for a lofty $25,000. The Colts acquired Agganis, hoping to change his mind. They failed. Shortly thereafter, Agganis became ill with pneumonia and died.
Two of those involved in the trade later would boss the Colts. Baltimore landed Don Shula, a 23-year-old halfback who'd prove to be a better coach than player. The Browns got Mike McCormack, a young tackle who blossomed in Cleveland, made it to the Hall of Fame and returned here in 1980 as Colts head coach.
McCormack learned of the swap while in the military. He was standing on a wind-swept airstrip in Missouri when a serviceman in a Jeep approached.
"Armed Forces Radio says you've been traded to Cleveland," he was told. McCormack shrugged; he'd never even been to Baltimore, which, in 1953, was a new team in the league.
"I never set foot there, as a Colt, until I became coach," he says.
At Cleveland, McCormack quickly became a starter on the Otto Graham-led championship teams of the mid-'50s. He relishes memories of the aftermath of the 1954 title game, a 56-10 thrashing of Detroit at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium.
"The fans crowded onto the field and went berserk," he says. "Players had no police escorts then; it took us one-half hour to get off the field. People were asking, begging, for souvenirs. I gave my helmet to one kid, the chin strap to another. All I kept was my jersey."
McCormack is now general manager of the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., the city that beat Baltimore in the expansion race of 1993. He spoke about the cyclical nature of pro football.
"Fifty years ago, the Cleveland Rams won the world championship and moved to Los Angeles, which allowed the Browns to come into existence. Now, the Rams have moved again -- and Cleveland is without a team again," he says. "What goes around, comes around."
Snapshot of the city
Creaky old hotels. Narrow, cobbled roads. Superb seafood.
Dante "Gluefingers" Lavelli, the Browns' 72-year-old Hall of Fame receiver, has fond memories of post-war Baltimore. Why not? Cleveland clobbered the Colts seven straight times between 1947 and 1950, while outscoring them, 192-37.
For Lavelli, who had 62 career touchdown receptions -- six fewer than the Colts' Raymond Berry -- a trip to Baltimore meant carousing in Little Italy, where the Browns went for their post-game repast.
"The lobster tails were terrific at a place on South High Street," Lavelli recalls. "We'd go there Sunday nights, after [beating] the Colts.
"The downtown area was old. The Lord Baltimore, where we stayed, was really old. I remember the motorcycle charlies [police] would escort our bus from the hotel to the stadium. The streets weren't real wide then."
If the Colts couldn't beat Cleveland, neither could most other clubs. In 1948, the Browns won 15 straight in the All-America Football Conference, including three games in one week on the road.
Lavelli speaks of those days with pride.
"We beat the Yanks in New York on Sunday, then flew to Los Angeles and beat the Dons on Thanksgiving," he says. The cross-country fight took 24 hours, with three stops for refueling.
"Then we flew to San Francisco and beat the 49ers on Sunday, without any practice."