By Doug Koztoski
Although it came wrapped in a gray sky with a crisp wind chill in the low 20s, a late December 1964 day in Cleveland still generates the warmest of holiday-like memories for Browns’ fans. The reason? On that Sunday, the Browns won their most recent championship.
“BROWNS CAPTURE CROWN, 27-0” read Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper headline the next day. It was one of the biggest upsets in NFL title game history. A shutout – a blowout against the Johnny Unitas-led Colts, no less. Who would have guessed that outcome?
Iconic Browns’ running back Jim Brown ran for more than 100 yards in the contest at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, but the biggest stars on offense that day were quarterback Frank Ryan and flanker Gary Collins, who teamed up for three touchdown passes. A Lou “The Toe” Groza field goal broke the ice for scoring in the third quarter; he added another in the final frame.
The Cleveland defense, meanwhile, picked off two of Unitas’ passes, recovered a pair of Baltimore fumbles and generally shut down the Colts, who were heavily favored to win.
All of this happened in front of some 79,000 fans, one of the largest crowds in NFL title game annals to that point. A front-page Plain Dealer article from back then informed readers that $8 tickets were being scalped for, yikes, $10!
At that time local games, even sellouts, were not televised, so a fan had to either take in the action via radio or drive 75 miles or so to watch it on TV.
The party continues
Just as the 2014 NFL season began, Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) opened an exhibit celebrating the half-century anniversary of the victory, the most recent professional sports team crown for the city, with “1964: When Browns Town was Title Town.”
The exhibit features game-worn equipment from the contest, as well as running back Jim Brown’s 1964 Cleveland contract, the team’s playbook from that year, game programs, tickets, rare photos and film from the championship, along with a variety of vintage trading cards and several other items.
The exhibit runs through February 2015, and so far, WRHS President and CEO Kelly Falcone-Hall is pleased with the reception.
“Based on the feedback thus far, guests are absolutely delighted that we are marking the 50th anniversary of the Cleveland Browns championship season,” she said.
A handful of the ’64 Browns attended the preview event in early September, including linebackers Ed Bettridge and Jim Houston and left tackle Dick Schafrath.
Falcone-Hall said her favorite story so far with the exhibit centers on Schafrath.
“He has 23 grandchildren and he said his family never had the chance to see him play,” noted the CEO. “The fact that we can give him and his family the opportunity to watch the game films from the ’64 season is very powerful. In fact, the emotional connection between not only the players but the people of Cleveland, and really all of northern Ohio, to the Browns is so incredibly strong.”
The WRHS executive added that in her experience, this exhibit spot-welds people to local history much more “than any other exhibit in recent memory.”
Another point she emphasized is that the display is “primarily populated with loans (of items) from private collectors.” And although it is rare for the Historical Society to partner in this way, since WRHS has so many items in their archives, Falcone-Hall said, “In this case it was the collectors telling the story and we gave them the space to do it.”
Thank guest curators and longtime Browns’ fans Kermit and Joyce Pike for sparking the idea for the exhibit. Kermit, a WRHS employee for 44 years until his retirement in 2008, loaned a few items, including some of his extensive card collection (see sidebar below), to the display of memorabilia.
“Top notch” is how Kermit described “1964: When Browns Town was Title Town.” Pike said late additions to the exhibit were Jim Brown’s championship game shoes and a 1964 NFL title ring presented to Bob Gries, one of the team’s former minority owners.
Two-minute drill, of sorts
“I am very pleased with the exhibit,” said Ed Pershey, director of Special Projects and Exhibits for WRHS, who noted that it took two to three weeks of solid installation with his team to get everything in place for the grand opening. Pershey, who also designed the display, said the exhibit was “fast-tracked” and it was about six months from “conception to installation.”
What is Pershey’s favorite part of the Browns exhibit? “Everybody’s favorite, the shoes Jim Brown wore in the championship game. They still have the mud on it from the old stadium.”
Pike said many people were so appreciative of the exhibit and they thanked him for making it take place.
“All I did was lend some memorabilia,” said the humble guest curator. “But that’s Browns’ fans for you. We are bound together by a love for the team, past, present and future.”
Pike’s pasteboard peak, plus
A sports card collector in his youth and a lifelong Browns fan, Kermit Pike’s passion for the card hobby reignited about a decade ago when he spotted a Jim Brown pasteboard at a sports memorabilia auction.
The 1961 National City Bank card, Pike said, jogged his memory.
“It occurred to me that I had the same picture (from a local newspaper) in my scrapbook (compiled years before),” he said.
Sure enough, it was the identical photo. “The picture is awesome,” he said. “Jim Brown is kneeling with his hand resting on a football.”
Pike won that card via the auction and a 1964 championship program, as well. The enthusiast has since assembled the top-ranked Jim Brown Master Set on the PSA Set Registry, and many Browns team card collections from that era, too.
He added that his cardboard accumulation “just keeps growing.” The Cleveland Browns connoisseur noted his favorite card of the team’s legendary running back is the ’61 National City Bank, “because that got me started collecting (again).”
Also in his scrapbook, Pike had ticket stubs from the famed ’64 title game, which he attended.
In the summer of that year, Pike got married. With a little bit of leftover wedding money, he ran an idea past his new bride.
“I literally begged my wife to let me spend the princely sum of $100 for two season tickets and tickets to the preseason doubleheader.” Joyce said “I do (or the basic equivalent),” and the purchase took place.
The couple enjoyed the historic season, but they passed on purchasing 1965 season tickets. Why?
“I felt there would never be a year as thrilling as 1964,” he said.
Pike’s peek into the future, of course, has been right for a half-century.
Editor’s note: Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to SCD. He welcomes comments and questions related to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.