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Strange case of the 1964 champion Browns football cards

Fans of the Cleveland Browns are often grudgingly reminded of the drought since their team’s last season as National Football League champions in 1964. Even young fans have mostly heard of the exploits of legendary running back Jim Brown from that team and era. And many know that quarterback Frank Ryan threw three touchdown passes to wide receiver Gary Collins in that 1964 championship game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, as the Browns shut out the Baltimore Colts 27-0 for the crown.

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But few know what a pink Cadillac and a largely shuttered and demolished ballpark have to do with that team and its legacy. So, 55 years hence, it is time to sort out this oddity of that title season. That is, the strange story of perhaps the most common and readily available piece of memorabilia from that team and year, its football “bubble gum” cards.

Hobby publications have long speculated about the 12 Cleveland player cards among the complete 198-card set from that season. Those cards live on as perhaps the oddest-looking trading cards ever printed. From the pink Cadillac that prominently appears in the background of 10 of the cards to the previously unidentified location where the player photos were taken.

The story begins when the Topps Gum Company, already the dominant force in card manufacturing for over a decade by the mid-1960s, lost out on the contract to produce NFL cards for 1964 to the Philadelphia Gum Company, better known as “Fleer” of Havertown, Pa., in suburban Philly.

Having won the contract, sometime in the midst of the 1963 season, Fleer dispatched a photographer to get pictures of the Cleveland players for the next season’s set of cards. At the time, the Browns primarily utilized the old League Park field as its in-season practice site. Yep, the same location where the Indians had won the World Series in 1920 was where many champion Browns teams practiced. The venue had become a City of Cleveland park in 1951 and the Browns often used it after preseason training camp at Hiram College had ended.

This was hardly the heyday of League Park. All but one small portion of the lower deck grandstand had been demolished, that located behind the Indians old first-base dugout and where the old team clubhouses still existed beneath the stands. In fact, that space is what made the League Park field a viable choice for the team to hold practice…the availability of the old locker space, although small even by the standards of the NFL at that time. But at least it had bathrooms, locker stalls and showers, as well as room for the trainers to tape and attend to the players.

And the surrounding Hough neighborhood, crowded and struggling, was, much like the ballpark, a mere shell of the thriving area that it had been when the Major League Baseball games were being played there up through 1946. The Cleveland Rams had also played many football games there, including their regular-season contests in their 1945 championship season, before vacating the city for Los Angeles with the imminent entry of the new Browns into Cleveland for the next year. Many high school and college football games, as well as other professional contests, had been played at the site over the years, and Western Reserve University continued to call it home through the 1949 season. Much of the stands were removed in the winter of 1950-51 with most of the rest torn down in 1961.

Browns head coach and founder Paul Brown had been known to drive his car onto the League Park field and observe practice from inside, letting his assistants run practice. This, by the way, supposedly infuriated owner Art Modell, who had controversially dispensed of the famous coach in favor of Blanton Collier for the 1963 season. As for the players’ cars, they would be parked on the surrounding streets of Linwood, Lexington and East 66th. And stories exist about vehicles being broken into, vandalized or stolen.

So on this apparently wet, mid-season practice day at League Park in 1963, the Fleer photographer set up for posed shots of players in the area behind the old home plate, paved but now with no ballpark structure remaining. Photos of Brown and Ryan, along with John Brewer, Vince Costello, Galen Fiss, Bill Glass, Ernie Green, Rich Kreitling, John Morrow and Charley Scales taken from that spot made the cut into the set of cards that would be distributed the next fall.

But what made those cards notable and memorable to this day was their unusual background. No goalposts, stadium seats, or even grass. Just a pink Cadillac, confirmed to be that of superstar Jim Brown, parked along the East side of East 66th. It was likely strategically parked there where it would have been visible from the practice field rather than hidden by the remnant walls of League Park (and possible tampering), and it was not too far from the clubhouse/locker room. Certainly it was a spot worthy of an all-time great and his fancy new ride.

Across the street, and more visible in some of the shots than others, was a multi-residence, “row house” type structure that ran from the Southwest corner of 66th and Linwood southward along the west side of 66th. The continuous awning/porch across its front was the building’s signature feature.

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The only player cards without the Caddy and the building in the background are those of championship game hero Collins and offensive lineman Dick Schafrath. Collins may have been on the practice field longer and missed the original camera setup looking at the car and across 66th Street. So for whatever reason, his mug shot is taken from a different angle, but a similar location and pointed south. The chimney from the old Indians office building is clearly visible over Collins’ left shoulder. That chimney and building still exist as home to the Baseball Heritage Museum at the League Park field, which was completely renovated in 2014.

Schafrath’s card was probably a late addition to the 1964 set, as he had earned Pro Bowl status during the 1963 season. Perhaps no shot of him was taken at League Park that day. The card clearly appears to be a colorized version of a black and white mug shot, with only a blue sky appearing in the background.

Two other cards round out the Cleveland portion of the set.

First, a team picture card with the players lined up on those remaining concrete risers from behind the old first-base dugout. The top of League Park’s brick exterior wall along 66th Street is clearly visible just above and behind the top row of players. This shot also confirms the 1963 photo shoot date, as evidenced by backup quarterback Jim Ninowski’s front and center appearance wearing uniform number 15. He switched to number 11 in 1964.

Second is a “Play of the Year” diagram card of a Jim Brown sweep around left end. In the corners are a mug shot of coach Collier and view of the team’s venerable gameday home, Municipal Stadium. Both inset photos are smaller than a postage stamp.

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Also, oddly, the “checklist” cards for the 1964 set are mistakenly labeled as for 1963, a glaring error that got by proofreaders, leading to some confusion for collectors to this day. Being Philadelphia Gum’s first card set, the error likely came from the fact that the photos for the 1964 set were of course taken in 1963.

It is safe to say that if Nick Chubb, Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham become the Jim Brown, Frank Ryan and Gary Collins of the next Browns championship team, 55 years from now, their digitized images will certainly not produce any comparable wonderment, as those of their 1964 predecessors!