New Arrival: 1954 Cleveland Browns Team Signed Program

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1954 marked the 5th season of the Browns in the NFL.

When the Browns made the jump to the NFL from the AAFC, most thought that they would struggle.  Cleveland was the preeminent AAFC team, winning the league Championship every season from 1946 to 1949. But it was believed that the talent level was lesser in the AAFC, and that a championship caliber club there was tantamount to a mid-tier club in the NFL.  A sentiment that, somewhat ridiculously, still remains. (hence why nobody counts those pre-NFL championship seasons of the Browns in the NFL record books)

So it was a little bit of a surprise when the Browns, in their inaugural NFL season, went 10-2 and beat the LA Rams 30-28 in the 1950 championship game.

From 1951-1953 the Browns would continue to be one of the most dominant teams in the NFL, going 30-6 and advancing to the league championship game every season–though never winning.

In 1954 the Browns would actually have their worst season in franchise history, going 9-3. But that 9-3 record was still good enough to finish first and onto their fourth straight championship game.

The 1954 team started the season off slowly, losing two of its first three games. One of those defeats was particularly humiliating–a 55-27 drubbing from the Pittsburgh Steelers who, in nine tries, had never been able to defeat the Browns.

But after this slow start, the Browns would tighten up and win their next eight in a row, and would only lose one more game the entire season. To illustrate how dominant this team was: they would win by an average score of 32.3 to 7.3 — a whopping 25-point spread. They also surrendered an average of just 13.5 points per game on the season.

The 1954 Cleveland squad was all about defense, and was the first defense in the history of the NFL to lead the league in fewest rushing yards allowed, fewest passing yards allowed and fewest total yards allowed.

Offensively, the team was solid. Quarterback Otto Graham had a poor season (rating of 73.5), but with a genius of a coach (Paul Brown), a solid receiving corp and an excellent running back in Maurice Bassett, the offense would still be able to hold up its side of the game.

The Browns played the Detroit Lions in the championship game. This would be the third straight meeting of these two clubs in the championship, with the Lions winning the previous two.  Not this season.  The Browns would steamroll their way to a 56-10 win.  This was their second NFL crown, their first since 1950, and their sixth league championship overall dating back to their days in the All-America Football Conference from 1946-49.

So there you go.  1954 Browns.

Autographs of this team, on the spectrum, run from super easy to near impossible to find. The most expensive, by a wide margin, is DE Len Ford.

Ford was a two way player in the AAFC, but when he joined the Browns joined the NFL in 1950 he moved to defensive end. This was not a reflection of his skills, but of his team; that Cleveland squad had Dante Lavelli (HOF), Mac Speedie and Dub Jones at wide reciever, all of whom were top tier players.

For would play from 1948-1958, and was with the Browns from 1950-1957. He would retire a three time NFL Champion, be selected to four Pro-Bowls, four First Team Pro-Bowls, was one the NFL All-Decade Team. was was part of the 1947 National Champions while playing at Michigan State.

Ford later years where…unfortunate. After retiring, he fell into poor health and became an alcoholic. His friend, Don Newcombe, said that Ford’s life was “decimated” because of alcohol. “He became a wino, stumbling around in alleys. He gave up his life for alcohol.”

Ford died in 1972.  He was enshrined in the HOF in 1976.

So if you want his autograph, you have a couple things working against you.  First, he is a Hall Fame player. So there will always be a premium on his autograph.  A significant one.

Second. Time.  Its a little thing, and all vintage autograph collectors remember it.  People get autographs…most of the time not collectors…and time can do a number on them. Rips, creased, fading, water and sun damage. The older the player, the more you have to deal with all those issues. So finding a piece you like will be tougher.

Third. His personal life made opportunities to get his autograph in his post playing years difficult, and since he was not in the HOF yet…

Fourth.  He was a good player, but not a skill player. Which means people asked for his autograph less. And since he was not known nationally–football on TV did not take off until the 1960’s–he was probably not asked often.

Fifth. In the 60’s and 70’s people did not collect autographs as much as they do now, and especially with football. So when coupled with all the circumstanced above…you got yourself an expensive autographs.

How expensive?  Most Ford autographs that I watch don’t even sell, since people want $1,000 or more–which is high for what they are offering (normally faded or pencil autographs). PSA lists signed cards at $650, photos at $1,000 and index cards at $500. But I think those numbers low. I bet a nice signed index card would go over 1K easily.

So there you go, Len Ford. Most expensive.

So the point of this post.

I have an ebay search set up, and it queries not only new auction titles but descriptions. Week ago I got a note saying that an auction popped up with an Abe Gibron autograph…another tough Cleveland Brown.  I clicked on it, and saw that an auction was posted for a signed 1954 Browns program.  I assumed it was just signed by Gibron. But no. It was signed by half of the 1954 team.  As I dug into the listing I was preparing to be disappointed–as much as I love signed programs, they often don’t come out nice, especially back them. Lots of pencil or crappy pen signatures on black and white pictures.

But nope. Most of the autographs were fantastic looking.

I guess people did not notice it…I am not sure how, since the listing was pretty detailed…and I got it for about a quarter what I would have expected to pay.

While Lend Ford is the highlight, Warren Lahr, Abe Gibron, Chuck Noll and Lou Groza are also huge. And the scans don’t do this justice–the autographs are bold and clean as can be. I think the Dub Jones and Otto Graham are the only ones that are not perfect.

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Warren Lahr, Frank Gatski, Don King

Warren Lahr – DB and saftey. Played from 1949-1959. 1953 Pro Bowler, two first team All-Pro selection (1951, 1956), four time second team All-Pro (1952-1955). Died young, at the age of 45.

Frank Gatski – Center. Played from 1946-1956. Won eight Championship games, selected to the 1956 Pro Bowl and was a four time First Team All-Pro (1951–1953, 1955). Selected to the HOF in 1985. Bonus Points: was the in the army from 1942-1945, was part of the Normandy Invasion.

Don King – DT. Played from 1954-1960. 1954 was his only season with the Browns.

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Bill Reynolds, Don Paul, Lou Groza, Fred Morrison

Bill Reynolds – Halfback. Played from 1953-1960. Seven career TD.

Don Paul – DB. Played from 1950-1958. Was selected to four Pro Bowls (1953, 1956-58) and five All-Pro teams. Paul was one of the NFL’s premier coverage men. During his five regular seasons with Cleveland — when schedules were 12 games — Paul intercepted 22 passes and returned them for 389 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown. He had six fumble recoveries, running one back 89 yards for a touchdown, and he scored on a 60-yard punt return.

Lou Groza – One of the greatest players to ever play the game. “The Toe” was in the game for 21 seasons as a kicker and lineman. Retired with 1,608 career points, six All-Pro selections as a tackle, played in 13 league title games, played in nine Pro-Bowls and was selected to the HOF in 1974.

Fred Morrison – FB/HB/End. Played from 1950-1956. 1955 Pro-Bowl selection. Led the Browns in rushing in 1955, when they would win another championship.

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Harold Bradley, George Ratterman, John Kissell, Ken Konz, Abe Gibron

Harold Bradley – Guard. Played from 1954-1958. Father was also a football player, Harold Bradley Sr., also played football. After he retired, Bradley earned a scholarship in 1959 to study at the University for Foreigners of Perugia in Italy. He then opened an art studio in Rome named Folkstudio in 1962. During the day, Bradley used the studio to display his paintings while turning it into a jazz club in the evenings.

Bradley would break into acting in the 1960’s, going on to play in a bunch of Italian movies.

He would move back to America in 1968, and would become a teacher at the University of Illinois and later the Illinois State Board of Education.

He was still active in movies into the mid 90’s, though moved back to Italy full time. Folkstudio has since become an Italian icon of sorts, with many famous musicians getting there start there.

George Ratterman – QB, played from 1947-1956. Was the successor to Otto Graham in Cleveland–big boots to fill. Was the first player to deploy a radio in his helmet to communicate with the coaching staff while on the field.

John Kissell – DT, played from 1948-1959. Three time NFL champion, and earned a second team All-Pro selection in 1951. Was a major contributor to both the 1950 and 1954 Cleveland championship seasons.

Ken Konz – DB, played from 1953-1959. Browns 1951 first round pick out of Louisiana State. Two time NFL champion, was selected to the 1955 Pro-Bowl and was a time time First-team All-Pro (1956, 1957).

Abe Gibron – G, played from 1949 to 1959. Three time NFL champion, four Pro-Bowl selections (1952-55), two First Team All-Pro selections (1953, 1955), two Second-team All-Pro selections (1949, 1952) and AAFC Rookie Lineman of the Year (1949).

He was also a coach from 1960-1989, serving in a variety of positions. As a head coach of the Bears–his only time in that position–he would go 11–30–1

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Tom James, Chester Hanulak, Maurice Bassett, Tom Catlin, Len Ford

Tom James – DH, played from 1947-1956. Was a two time AAFC champion, three time NFL champion and was a 1953 Pro-Bowl selection. He ended his NFL career with 26 interceptions, all with the Browns, tying him for eighth place in team history.

Chester Hanulak – RB, played from 1954-1957. “The Jet” had seven career TD’s and 674 rushing yards.

Maurice Bassett – RB, played from 1954-1956.   Maurice LaFrancis “Mo” Bassett had 11 career TD’s and 891 rushing yards.

Tom Catlin – LB, C, played from 1953-1959. 1954 second team All-Pro. Despite a short career as a player, spent a total of 37 years in the NFL, including defensive coordinator stints with the Buffalo Bills (1978–82) and Seattle Seahawks (1983–92). Bonus points for being a pilot in the Air Force.

Len Ford – DB.  See above.

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Chuck Noll, Otto Graham

 

Chuck Noll – G, LB, played from 1953-1959. Coach Paul Brown used the undersized Noll as one of his “messenger guards” to send play calls to the quarterback (beginning with Otto Graham). Brown recalled that Noll soon “could have called the plays himself without any help from the bench. That’s how smart he was.” According to Art Rooney, Jr. (director of scouting for the Steelers before and during most of Noll’s tenure), however, Noll felt demeaned by Brown’s use of him in that way and “disliked the term ‘messenger boy’ so much that as coach of the Steelers he entrusted all the play calling to his quarterbacks.”

Noll retired as a player in 1959 and began coaching. From 1960-2013 he held a variety of positions, but came to prominence in 1969 when he was made head coach of the Steelers–the youngest coach in NFL history. Noll implemented a defensive system in Pittsburgh that became the legendary “Steel Curtain” defense. His coaching style earned him the nickname of The Emperor Chaz by sports announcer Myron Cope. Noll is the first head coach to win four Super Bowls, coaching the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl IX (1975), Super Bowl X (1976), Super Bowl XIII (1979), and Super Bowl XIV (1980).

Otto Graham – QB, played from 1946-1955.  One of, if not the, greatest QB of all time and was selected for the HOF in 1965.

 

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Dub JonesHB, played from 1946-1955. Three time NFL champ, two time AAFC champ, two Pro-Bowl selections (1948, 1949), and a 1951 All=Pro. Enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1982.

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