January 21, 2019

The call of the Rams to Jewish fans

With a giant headline usually reserved for declarations of war, the Los Angeles Times announced on Jan. 13 that the Rams were bringing pro football back to L.A. But perhaps a shofar should have been sounded instead, considering the Jewish heritage of the team’s former owner — not to mention a former coach and multiple players. And don’t forget the team’s sheep-related name.

When the Cleveland Rams moved to L.A. in 1946, under then-owner Dan Reeves (not to be confused with the NFL player and coach of the same name), there was no Jewish Community Day scheduled for the season, yet there were other plays for a Jewish fan’s attention. That inaugural year featured one Jewish player, Len “Butch” Levy, who was part of the Rams’ championship team the previous year. A versatile player who played guard and tackle, the 250-pound Levy was able to boost his earnings in the offseason, as well as after his football career, by wrestling professionally.

Another Jewish player, Mel Bleeker, signed with the team for the ’47 season and played halfback. Raised in Los Angeles, Bleeker attended Fremont High School, and then USC, recalled Ephraim Moxson, co-editor of the Jewish Sports Review, a bimonthly publication that covers Jewish athletes. 

According to the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, into which Bleeker was inducted in 2014, the player was USC’s quarterback, halfback and fullback from 1940 to 1942. He also was captain of the track team in 1942, and his speed helped him to lead the NFL in receiving yards in his rookie season in 1944. His final NFL season was his only one with the Rams, and he rushed 23 times for 111 yards.

Coming to the Rams in 1951 was former Vanderbilt star Herb Rich, who arrived in Los Angeles after playing for the Baltimore Colts. (He later would play for the New York Giants.) He had a successful seven-year career, playing defensive back and returning punts, and helped the Rams win the 1951 championship game over the Cleveland Browns.

Four years later, Jewish Rams fans cheered at the hiring of a Jewish coach — Sid Gillman, who in 1936 played for the Cleveland Rams. In his first season, he took the Rams back to the NFL championship game, where they lost to the Browns. For the 1960 season, he jumped to the Los Angeles Chargers (another team that is now considering a return to L.A.), where he established his reputation as an innovative, offensive-minded coach, and was one of the first to study game footage. Gillman, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983, died in 2003 at age 91.

A new owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, took over the team in the ’70s. (He wasn’t the first Jewish owner in the team’s history, though; former Cleveland Rams co-owner Fred Levy became the NFL’s first Jewish owner in 1940.) Rosenbloom was the owner of the Baltimore Colts — winners of two NFL titles and a Super Bowl under his control — when he traded his franchise for the Rams in 1972. The team played at the Coliseum, but Jewish fans and passersby could hardly miss the team’s offices located at 10271 W. Pico Boulevard, close to Hillcrest Country Club and Temple Isaiah.

Born in Baltimore in 1907 to Anna and Solomon Rosenbloom, Carroll Rosenbloom was the eighth of nine children. His father, an immigrant from Russia, founded a successful work-clothing manufacturing company. In 1926, Carroll attended the University of Pennsylvania and played halfback for the football team. Eventually, he returned home and began working with his five brothers in the family business first called S. Rosenbloom Inc., then named Blue Ridge Manufacturers. Rosenbloom focused on sales for the company, whose main customers included Sears, JC Penney and Montgomery Ward.

After his father’s death in 1942, Rosenbloom sold the business, which had grown substantially, and used the proceeds to invest in other enterprises, including the Baltimore Colts in 1953. In the 1960 draft, the Colts picked Jewish player Ron Mix, who had grown up without a father in Boyle Heights and was an All-American at USC, but lost him to the upstart Los Angeles Chargers. In “Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Jewish Hall of Fame,” Mix — who went on to become a Hall of Famer — is said to have recounted how Rosenbloom confided to fellow Jewish owner Al Davis that “he would have stopped at nothing to sign Mix” — whose father had changed the family name from Rabinowitz upon immigrating from Russia — if his surname had reflected his heritage.

Rosenbloom was able to sign a Jewish player in 1973, according to Moxson. Bob Stein played two seasons as linebacker for the Rams during a six-year career that also included stops in Kansas City, Minnesota and San Diego. He was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Commack, N.Y., in 2005.

The Rams owner was “a hard-driving businessman,” John Eisenberg wrote in the column, “Carroll Rosenbloom: Man of Mystery,” which appeared on Pressbox, a sports website. To this description, in the piece, Gene Klein, late owner of the San Diego Chargers, is quoted as writing “Carroll was one complex individual. Very smart, very tough, often very nasty. He always gave you the feeling that, if you crossed him, he was capable of slitting your throat, then donating your blood to the Red Cross blood drive.” Rosenbloom was also known to help his players set up businesses.

Although Rosenbloom once told a United Press International reporter, “I make no claim to be a religious man,” his feelings about Jewish observance were tossed into the middle of a scheduling dispute with the league in 1976. It happened when a Rams away game with the Miami Dolphins was scheduled for 4 p.m. on Erev Yom Kippur. Rosenbloom felt the timing would cause Jewish fans to leave at halftime so they could go to synagogue, UPI reported. “This is a thing that was done with malice aforethought,” he said. The quote continued, according to “Rozelle: A Biography,” about Pete Rozelle, the league commissioner at the time, “They say, ‘Let’s put the Jew in Miami for Yom Kippur and see how he likes it.’ I just know Rozelle and his stooges were giggling about it the day they released the schedule.” Rosenbloom lost his argument, and the game went on as scheduled.

Sadly, Rosenbloom drowned in 1979 while swimming in Florida. His widow, Georgia Frontiere, with whom he had two children, moved the team to Anaheim in 1980, and eventually St. Louis. Two years after Frontiere’s death in 2008, her children sold the team to current owner Stan Kroenke.

Today, Jewish football fans can rejoice at the return of the Rams, a team with a strong Jewish legacy, to Los Angeles, a city with a Jewish population large enough to fill the Coliseum six times over. 

But what if the NFL schedules a Rams game on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah? In 2016, with the eve of Rosh Hashanah falling on a Sunday, what will a team with shofars printed on the side of their helmets do? Will they butt heads with Rosenbloom’s memory, or heed his call?