Golden Football Magazine
AAFC Championship Games
1946: New York Yankees @ Cleveland Browns
This series covers the history of the AAFC through the prism of its yearly championship games.
Note: The gray boxes contain asides that provide interesting material but could be skipped without losing the continuity of the article.

Arch Ward
Arch Ward

Paul Brown

Browns QB Otto Graham
Otto Graham

Browns T Bill Willis
Bill Willis

Browns FB Marion Motley
Marion Motley

Browns T Jim Daniell
Jim Daniell

Yankees Owner Dan Topping
Dan Topping

Yankees Coach Ray Flaherty
Ray Flaherty

Yankees TB Ace Parker
Ace Parker

Yankees TB Spec Sanders
Spec Sanders

Browns HB Edgar Jones
Edgar "Special Delivery" Jones

Browns K Lou Groza
Lou Groza

1946 AAFC Championship Game Program

The All-America Football Conference played its first season in 1946. Why did this league endure for four years until some of its teams merged into the NFL when earlier leagues had failed?
  1. The AAFC was the brainchild of Arch Ward, the Chicago Tribune sports editor who had begun the baseball All-Star Game in 1933 and the College All-Stars vs NFL Champion game the following year. He assembled a group of owners with deep pockets. In fact, some of them were wealthier than their NFL counterparts.
  2. Although Ward announced the league June 4, 1944, two days before D-Day, he was wise enough to postpone the opening season to 1946. So when the war ended in August 1945, numerous former NFL players as well as college stars whose pro aspirations had been postponed by military service, returned to civilian life as free agents.
So the lineup of franchises for the AAFC for its maiden voyage looked like this.
Team Coach Stadium Top Players
Brooklyn Dodgers Mal Stevens Ebbets Field Glenn Dobbs, Dub Jones
Buffalo Bisons Red Dawson Civic Stadium George Terlep, Vic Kulbitski
Chicago Rockets Dick Hanley Soldier Field B. Hoernschemeyer, E. Hirsch
Cleveland Browns Paul Brown Municipal Stadium Otto Graham, Dante Lavelli
Los Angeles Dons Dud DeGroot Los Angeles Coliseum Charley O'Rourke, Harry Clark
Miami Seahawks Jack Meagher Burdine Stadium Marion Pugh, Jimmy Nelson
New York Yankees Ray Flaherty Yankee Stadium Spec Sanders, Ace Parker
San Francisco 49ers Buck Shaw Kezar Stadium Frankie Albert, Norm Standlee
The transfer of an NFL franchise before the '46 season benefitted one AAFC franchise and harmed another.
  • Having lost $50,000 in the '45 season despite winning the NFL championship in 1945, Cleveland Rams owner Dan Reeves decided to move his team to Los Angeles where his QB Bob Waterfield had played for UCLA.
  • The fact that an AAFC team would begin play in Cleveland in '46 bolstered Reeves' resolve to bolt for sunny Southern California.
  • But that put the Rams in direct competition with the Dons.
Not surprisingly for a league conceived by a Chicago sportswriter, the AAFC had a strong Notre Dame influence. Seventeen of the original players were former Fighting Irish. In addition, 49ers coach Buck Shaw was an alum, as was the commissioner, Jim Crowley. Jim and his NFL counterpart, Elmer Layden, had been two of Knute Rockne's famed Four Horsemen of the 1920s. However, Layden's term didn't last much longer. The NFL selected Eagles owner Bert Bell to replace the ineffective Layden in January 1946.

It didn't take long to determine the AAFC's best and worst franchises.

  • At the bottom was Miami, the least funded. After their opening 44-0 rout, the Seahawks left Cleveland without paying their hotel bill. Management needed help from other clubs to meet payroll throughout the season.
  • Bad luck also struck the team in the form of several hurricanes that hit South Florida on weeks when Miami was to play at home.
  • The Seahawks finished 3-11, slightly worse than the Bisons and Dodgers at 3-10-1.
  • With owner Harvey Hester broke, the league expelled the Seahawks just before Christmas. The Baltimore Colts replaced them for 1947.

At the opposite end of the spectrum were the Cleveland Browns.

  • Owner Mickey McBride had made his fortune from his Yellow Cab fleet and the newspaper business. After being rebuffed by Frank Leahy, who returned to Notre Dame when he left the military, McBride chose 38-year-old former Ohio State coach Paul Brown to head his franchise.
  • Given carte blanche by his owner, who chose his team's nickname in honor of his new coach/GM, Brown took advantage of the postwar situation to show the NFL and AAFC how to build a football team.
  • Not only did he sign the deepest roster in the league, he also hired the first staff of full-time assistants.
  • He created the first playbook and gave his players regular tests on the game plans.
  • Brown also was the first coach to sign two black players, Bill Willis and Marion Motley.
  • It is not an exaggeration to say that Paul Brown professionalized pro football and lifted the sport to the level of baseball.
Brown ruled his team with an iron hand. His QB, Otto Graham, recalled: When Paul started in pro football, the image of the players was that of fat bellies, big cigars, foul mouths, and hard drinking. Paul would tell us that we were the New York Yankees of pro football. No drinking. No smoking. No swearing. No getting in trouble. Wear sport coats and ties in public. He really did trade players who were drunks and chased women.
The team captain for 1946 was T Jim Daniell, who played at Ohio State just before Brown took over there. Graham: Daniell ... went out on the town. He'd had a few drinks, then pulled up his car behind a police car. I don't know about you, but when I'm behind a police car, I don't honk the horn and tell the guy to get out of the way - but Jim did. ... there was a confrontation. The policeman took Jim to the station. Jim said he wasn't drunk and demanded a sobriety test. They gave him one, and he'd had enough alcohol to be considered legally drunk, and he was arrested.
Brown read the police report in the newspaper the next day and immediately dismissed his captain from the team. If the other players didn't take their coach's rules seriously before, they did now. (Daniell's dismissal reduced the number of former Buckeyes on the Browns to six.)

The Browns opened the season with seven straight wins.

  • Then they lost to the 49ers at home, 34-20, before heading to the West Coast and losing to the Dons 17-16.
  • The next week, the Browns moved up the coast and got revenge in San Francisco 14-7.
  • They won the remaining four games to finish 12-2 and three games ahead of the Niners.
  • Brown's team led the league in most points scored (423) and fewest points allowed (137).

In the East, the Yankees had the division sewed up halfway through the season since the other three teams, Buffalo, Brooklyn, and Miami, had a combined nine wins, six of which came against each other.

  • Owner Dan Topping, who was also part owner and president of the baseball Yankees, hired an experienced coach in Ray Flaherty, who had guided the Washington Redskins to three NFL titles during his six-year reign from 1937-42.
  • The core of Topping's team was a group of eight players he had salvaged from his NFL franchise, which played as the Boston Yanks the year before. Included were the Kinard brothers, Bruiser and George, a pair of linemen from Ole Miss, TB Ace Parker, FB Pug Manders, and E Bob Masterson and Perry Schwartz.
  • The rest of the squad were primarily first-year players led by Spec Sanders, whom Flaherty used at TB in his single wing offense. Like many players in the post-war years, Sanders was an old rookie - age 28. Not that good a passer (just a 41.8 completion %), Spec was a shifty runner woh led the AAFC in rushing with 709y and also caught 17 passes for another 259y. Add his return yardage, and he accounted for over 2,000 all-purpose yards.
  • The Yanks feasted on their weak Eastern rivals, winning all six games. They also defeated San Francisco twice. They lost both games to the Browns, 24-7 and 7-0. The other loss and their only tie came against the Rockets.
So the Browns would have to defeat the Yankees a third time to win the league championship.
  • Graham would be throwing both short and long to receivers Dante Lavelli and the aptly-named Mac Speedie, who had 64 catches between them. The best testimony to Otto's all-around skill was the fact that he ended the season with as many INTs, five, as he threw himself.
  • But the receiver with the highest yardage per catch was HB Edgar "Special Delivery" Jones, who averaged 30y per reception.
  • "Big Negro FB" Motley (as writers described him), running the FB draw play that Brown created for him, averaged 8.2y per carry (73/601).
  • Cleveland had several injuries to contend with. Lou "The Toe" Groza, the kicking specialist who led the AAFC with 84 points but had a sprained ankle, and first string WB Don Greenwood, one of five former Rams who stayed in Cleveland for the '46 season, might miss the action because of injuries. One of Don's backups, Ray Terrell, would definitely not play, and the other WB, Al Akins, was also ailing.
  • Still, oddsmakers favored the home team by 13.5 points based on the Browns' two regular season victories over the Yanks.
  • On the other hand, the Big Apple club took hope from the fact that they had been without key players in both defeats. Parker and FB Eddie Prokop didn't appear in either contest while Sanders saw only limited action.
  • For the third meeting of the teams, the Yankees listed only one man on the unable to perform list - HB Dewey Proctor, who had been on the shelf most of the season.
  • Many observers gave the Yankees' line the edge over the Browns front wall.
  • But what reporters didn't know was that Paul Brown and his team felt that Flaherty gave them no respect despite the fact that they had beaten his team three times if you included an exhibition game. A veteran of the NFL, Red considered the AAFC vastly inferior to the older circuit. So after suffering a 24-7 defeat at the hands of the Browns September 29, the Yankee coach upbraided his squad for losing to a bunch of podunks coached by a high school coach. When Brown heard about the remarks, he began referring to the New York coach as Ray "Flattery."
Cleveland Plain Dealer Cartoon
Cartoon in Cleveland Plain Dealer day of championship game
Cleveland Municipal Stadium hosted its second pro championship game in as many years.
  • This one was in a new league and in better weather than the single-digit conditions of the 1945 NFL Championship between the departed Rams and the Washington Redskins.
  • Still, with Cleveland in the throes of its first snowstorm of the winter, conditions weren't exactly balmly. The forecast called for clear skies and a high temperature around the freezing mark, about as good as you could ask for on the south shore of Lake Erie in mid-December.
  • A huge tarpaulin costing $8,000 covered the field since the first part of the week.
  • The Browns wanted to surpass the attendance of 35,305 the year before at the NFL title game.
1946 New York Yankees
# Player Pos. Hgt. Wgt. College Exp.
21 Jack Baldwin G 6-3 225 Centenary 1
22 Tom Robertson C 6-0 225 Kansas 3
25 Lou Sossamon C 6-1 207 South Carolina 1
30 Mike Karmazin G 5-11 210 Duke 1
31 George Kinard G 6-1 205 Ole Miss 3
32 Joe Yackanich G 5-10 215 Fordham 1
35 Charley Riffle G 6-0 215 Notre Dame 2
40 Derrell Palmer T 6-2 245 TCU 1
41 Roman Piskor T 6-0 245 Niagara 1
43 Nate Johnson T 5-11 240 Illinois 1
44 Frank Kinard T 6-1 218 Ole Miss 8
45 Roman Bentz T 6-2 230 Tulane 1
50 Harry Burrus E 6-1 195 Hardin-Simmons 1
51 Bruce Alford E 6-0 220 TCU 1
52 Mel Conger E 6-2 225 Georgia 1
53 Jack Russell E 6-1 215 Baylor 1
55 Bob Masterson E 6-1 225 Miami (FL) 9
56 Henry Stanton E 6-2 200 Arizona 1
57 Perry Schwartz E 6-2 215 California 6
60 Lloyd Cheatham QB 6-2 205 Auburn 2
61 Bob Morrow B 6-0 220 Illinois-Wesleyan 5
70 Bob Kennedy B 5-11 195 Washington State 1
72 Eddie Prokop FB 5-11 200 Georgia Tech 1
73 Dewey Proctor FB 5-11 215 Furman 1
75 Harvey Johnson B 5-11 210 William & Mary 1
76 Pug Manders B 6-0 200 Drake 8
80 Bob Sweiger B 6-0 200 Minnesota 1
81 Spec Sanders HB 6-1 195 Texas 1
83 Bob Perina B 6-1 205 Princeton 1
87 Lowell Wagner HB 6-0 193 USC 1
88 Ace Parker TB 6-0 180 Duke 7
1946 Cleveland Browns
# Player Pos. Hgt. Wgt. College Exp.
20 Mike Scarry C 6-0 208 Waynesburg 3
22 Frank Gatski C 6-3 210 Marshall 1
24 Mel Maceau C 6-0 205 Marquette 1
30 Bill Willis G 6-2 206 Ohio State 1
32 Lin Houston G 6-0 205 Ohio State 1
34 George Cheroke G 5-9 200 Ohio State 1
36 Ed Ulinski G 5-11 200 Marshall 1
39 Alex Kapter G 6-0 205 Northwestern 1
42 Chet Adams T 6-3 228 Ohio 6
44 Lou Rymkus T 6-4 229 Notre Dame 2
46 Lou Groza T 6-3 225 Ohio State 1
48 Ernie Blandin T 6-4 248 Tulane 1
50 John Yonaker E 6-5 218 Notre Dame 1
52 George Young E 6-3 202 Baldwin-Wallace 1
56 Dante Lavelli E 6-0 194 Ohio State 1
58 Mac Speedie E 6-3 192 Utah 1
60 Otto Graham QB 6-1 190 Northwestern 1
62 Cliff Lewis B 5-11 170 Duke 1
64 Bud Schwenk B 6-2 205 Washington (MO) 2
66 Lou Saban B 6-0 200 Indiana 1
70 Gene Fekete FB 6-0 205 Ohio State 1
74 Gaylon Smith B 5-11 200 Rhodes 5
74 Ray Terrell HB 6-0 180 Ole Miss 1
76 Marion Motley FB 6-1 218 South Carollina St. 1
80 Al Akins HB 6-1 192 Washington 1
82 Bill Lund B 5-10 176 Case Western Reserve 1
85 Don Greenwood B 6-0 190 Missouri 2
90 Edgar Jones HB 5-10 192 Pittsburgh 2
92 Tom Colella HB 6-0 182 Canisius 3
99 Fred Evans HB 5-11 184 Notre Dame 1
  • The temperature prediction for Sunday, December 22 was right on target but not the clear skies. Fine, wet flakes of snow drifted lazily into the stands during most of the game, and a damp wind off the lake penetrated every corner of the horseshoe.
  • Snow from earlier in the week was piled along the sidelines. Some sections of the field were muddy because of melted snow.
  • The weather kept the crowd down to 40,469, the second smallest of the season in Cleveland. But that figure still topped the '45 title game attendance of 32,178. The crowd was inflated by 4,000 high school youngsters admitted for 25 cents each.
  • A Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter described the overwhelmingly masculine audience like this: It was a young crowd, a crowd dressed in G.I. hoods and parkas, in hunting caps and olive-drab mufflers, in combat boots and four-buckle antics, wrapped in army blankets and gay plaids. Many were obviously home from school for the holidays and in a holiday mood.
  • Two Notre Dame players occupied ringside seats for the contest. QB Johnny Lujack and E Jack Zilly sat on the Cleveland bench attired in their Sunday-best clothes. Drafted by the Chicago Rockets, Lujack said he would not play pro ball until 1948 when his college eligibility ended.

Those who braved the elements were rewarded with what many regarded as the best contest of the season, one that went down to the final minutes.

  • Quarter 1
    The Browns took the kickoff but were thwarted by a former Clevelander. Prokop, who attended Cathedral Latin High School, intercepted Graham's second pass of the day. The former Georgia Tech star returned the ball from midfield to the 34.
    Sanders tried the line but failed to gain, then threw a pass toward John Russell, but it was knocked down by Greenwood. Playing in his last pro game before retirement, Parker entered at this point, and, on his first try, fired a pass to Russell that gained 15 to the 19. Sanders then took a lateral from Lloyd Cheatham and whirled around LE for 12 and a first-and-goal. But the Browns stiffened and, after three plays netted only 3y, Harvey Johnson booted an 11y field goal, his sixth straight, to put NY in front 3-0.
    The Browns roared back. On the first play after the kickoff return to the 18, Graham lobbed a screen pass to Jones, who pranced all the way to the end zone. But officials ruled he stepped out on his own 35 for only a 17y gain. Passes from Graham to Speedie and Lavelli were instrumental in moving the ball to the 3. But the Yankee D emulated their Brown counterparts, holding three times. Brown decided to go for it on fourth down, but the Yanks sacked Graham for a 13y loss.

Harvey Johnson boots an 11y field goal to put the Yankees ahead 3-0.
  • Quarter 2
    Graham returned Parker's punt 13y to the 30. Otto then completed seven consecutive passes, to Jones for 4, Speedie for 8, 9, and 15, and to Lavelli for 18 to move to the 13. Then Motley shot through the C to the 1 and went over on the next snap to give the Browns the lead 7-3 after Groza's PAT.
    The Yanks couldn't produce a threat in the final two minutes before halftime.
Greenwood breaks up pass for Russell.
Don Greenwood breaks up a pass intended for Jack Russell.

The Browns' all-girl marching band, the Musical Majorettes, performed at halftime in uniforms that left their legs bare while the men in the closed-in press box chattered and ordered around round of hot broth. When the ladies broke into "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," Santa appeared on an appropriately decorated float. The girls also sang "White Christmas" and led the crowd in carols.
 Cleveland Browns Musical Majorettes
  • Quarter 3
    Russell gathered in a pass from Parker but fumbled, John Yonakor pouncing on the leather for Cleveland at the NY 36. But three plays gained only 6y. So Groza, playing on a sprained ankle, tried a field goal from the 42 that was wide.
    The Yankees took the ball on their 20 and marched downfield to retake the lead. Under a strong rush most of the game, Parker had his only spell of accurate passing on this drive, which started with a toss to Russell for 17. The same combination struck on the next play for 21y to the Cleveland 42. Sanders then made 11y off tackle, and the Yankees got a gift of 5 more when the Browns were caught for defensive holding. Sanders added 6, and Parker threw in 7 to put the ball on the 13. Then Ace fired a hook pass to Russell for 2. Parker smashed through the line for 6 to the 5. Sanders toted the pigskin twice, punching in from the 2 on the second try. Johnson's streak of 36 extra points ended with his first miss of the season. New York 9 Cleveland 7.
Yankees score go-ahead TD in Q3.
Spec Sanders scores on a 2y run in Q3.
The Browns looked like they would immediately take the lead back on their next possession when Motley broke off a 51y run to the 26. The crowd was amazed when hometown boy Prokop became the first man to haul down Marion from behind all season. The TD-saving tackle proved to be crucial as Groza missed from just 20y out after the NY defense held. Lou trudged off the field disconsonately.
  • Quarter 4
    But the home team got another break a few minutes later when John Harrington partially blocked Parker's punt to give the Browns possession at the NY 32. But again they failed to advance. So Brown sent in Chet Adams to try a field goal, but he missed also. With a little over eight minutes to play, you couldn't blame fans for thinking this might not be the Browns' day.
    Starting from their 20 after the missed field goal, the Yanks gave the ball to Sanders, who broke away for 25y. But on third down, Parker got off a punt that set the Browns back to their 24.
    Frustrated because they had outgained the Yankees by a large margin and racked up more first downs but facing possibly their last possession if they failed to score, the Browns started by giving the ball to Motley, who ripped off 10. Jones picked up 1y, then Graham tried a screen pass to Motley that fell incomplete. 3rd-and-nine on your 35 trailing by two calls for a special play. Graham took to the air and, finding Speedie and Lavelli covered, fired the ball to HB Edgar Jones streaking across the middle. Special Delivery scooped up the ball at his shoe tops and fell to the ground. The 24y gain moved the ball to the NY 42. Continuing to mix his plays, Graham called for a reverse, Lavelli throwing forward to Greenwood for eight. Jones slipped off LT for seven and a first down at the 27. Tommy Colella made another first down when he took Graham's lateral and ran around RE for 11 to the 16. Otto then called for the same play that had produced the only TD in the 7-0 victory on a rainy night in Yankee Stadium in October. Known for running precise patterns, Lavelli started straight down, then cut to his right, and headed for the corner of the field. Graham hit him on the six just out of the reach of Prokop's diving effort, and Dante carried the ball and two Yankees into the end zone. Groza's boot made it 14-9 with 4:13 on the clock.
    But hold the phone. The New Yorkers started to move until Graham, inserted at safety in the prevent defense, jumped between a pair of receivers with such fury that he lost part of his shirt but came down with Parker's desperation pass to clinch the championship.
Cleveland players and fans celebrate with their coach.
Jubilant Browns carry their coach off the field.
Thousands of fans flooded the field after the gun went off.
  • Jubilant Browns became "Paul-bearers" when they carried their coach off the field on their shoulders after intercepting him as he walked across the field to shake hands with Ray Flaherty.
  • After fighting their way through the mob, Brown and his players darted up the ramp and stormed into the dressing room.
  • Headgears, pads, and soiled jerseys were hurled to all parts of the room. Someone yelled, "We did it!"
  • Owner Arthur McBride warmly congratulatd Brown and each of the players. McBride gave his coach a brand new car that Paul would use to drive his family for a vacation in Miami, where he would watch the Orange Bowl.
Final statistics:
  • First downs: Browns 18 Yankees 10
  • Yards rushing: Browns 37-112 ,Yankees 29-65
  • Passing: Browns 16-27-1/213, Yankees 8-20-1/81
  • Fumbles-Lost: Browns 3-0, Yankees 2-1
  • Penalties: Browns 5-25, Yankees 4-20
Paul Brown and Arthur McBride celebrate with their Browns. Browns celebrate with their coach.
L: Coach Brown and owner McBride celebrate with their players. R: Graham, Lavelli, Brown, and Speedie.
  • Brown: Worried? You bet I was worried! I didn't stop worrying until it was all over, and then I worried that I might not get off the field in one piece. ... They all were great - played a marvelous game. It was really a team triumph. Of course, we missed a lot of opportunities. Groza's injury could have cost us the game, but the strategy of short bullet passes when the Yankees were expecting long ones finally paid off.
    Concerning Graham, Speedie, and Lavelli, Brown said, I wouldn't trade these three boys for any six football players in the world. Otto was sharp today. I think he played the best game of his career, and that goes a long way. Lavelli had two men on him all afternoon and still caught the ball somehow. And Speedie makes catches that I don't see how he can possibly get. ... It's great to be champion in your first whirl at this professional game.
  • When Graham pulled off the remaining shreds of his jersey, he revealed an egg-shaped bump where, he said, opposing linemen were rapping him after each pass. He gave credit for his 16 completions (out of 27 attempts) to Lavelli and Speedie. All I do is throw the ball. When you have ends like that, it's simple.
  • Motley, who gained 98y on 13 carries, displayed bruises all about his face and arms. I'd like to meet up with one of them boys again. Somebody hit me on the chin, and it really did hurt. I took the ball on the next play, headed for the same spot, and looked for that fellow, but he wasn't there. He was referring to the play on which he sprinted 51y.
  • Lavelli complained that he had trouble all afternoon trying to shake Eddie Prokop off my tail. I knew he was right behind me on that touchdown pass from Otto. I turned and found the pass practically in my arms, then looked around and saw the diagonal stripe of the end zone. I thought, "Gosh, will I ever make it before Prokop gets me?" I think I must have said a few prayers.
  • Browns captain Lou Saban explained why the Browns had extra motivation on the winning drive. Most of us had spent our championship bonuses already on new cars and other things.
  • Browns assistant coach Fritz Heisler wore a forlorn look. Asked whether he was sorry it was over, he replied, Yes, it's been a lot of fun. I wish we were just starting out again.
  • Deposed captain Daniell was one of the first visitors to reach the locker room to congratulate his former teammates and thank them for voting him a full share of the proceeds.
  • Flaherty: It just wasn't our day again. The outcome may have been different had the field been dry. As it was, neither Sanders nor Prokop could break loose. Prokop gambled on the touchdown pass and lost. He had a choice of either going for the ball or hitting Lavelli after he made the catch. He took a chance on reaching the ball and just missed. We certainly didn't get the breaks today.

The AAFC rewarded the two teams in the title game the same way the NFL did.

  • The players split $60,551.32 from the receipts, which included $5,000 for radio rights.
  • The victors divvied up 60% of that or $931.57 per man.
  • The Yankees drew $645.88 each.
References: History of the All-America Football Conference, David A. Bene (2005)
When All the World Was Browns Town, Terry Pluto (1997)
Paul Brown: The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Football's Most Innovative Coach, Andrew O'Toole (2008)
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