Were the Cleveland Browns named after boxer Joe Louis?
FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: The Cleveland Browns were named after boxer Joe "The Brown Bomber" Louis.
The Cleveland Browns opened shop in 1946 as one of the inaugural teams in a new professional football league designed to compete with the National Football League (NFL), the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). They were led by coach (and part-owner) Paul Brown, who was one of the most famous sporting figures in the state of Ohio at the time, having coached Ohio State to a shared national championship earlier in the decade (following years of dominance in Ohio High School football). So it would seem logical that the team was named after Coach Brown, right?
Well, from a 1995 Washington Post article when the announcement was made that Browns owner Art Modell was moving the team to Baltimore (where they became the Baltimore Ravens):
Contrary to popular belief, the Browns were not named for their famous coach Paul Brown. Rather, they were called the Brown Bombers, after the nickname of the revered boxer of that era, Joe Louis. The name later was shortened to the Browns.
So, is the popular belief true or not? Read on to find out!
While Paul Brown certainly enjoyed the respect that came with being such a successful coach, he did not care as much for the hoopla that surrounded it. When Arthur "Mickey" McBride agreed to form the Cleveland franchise for the AAFC, McBride was not particularly versed in the world of football. He was more concerned with owning a sports franchise in Cleveland, it just happened that football was the one that was available. He first tried to buy the NFL team, the Cleveland Rams. They turned him down so he was "forced" to be a part of a new league instead (read here for an earlier Sports Legends Revealed column about the strange reaction the Cleveland Rams, the 1945 NFL Champions, had to the news that a rival team was opening up shop in their city). So when it came to naming his coach, he went with the one thing he did know about football - Notre Dame. He offered a contract to the pre-World War II coach of Notre Dame, Frank Leahey. The President of Notre Dame, though, convinced McBride to choose someone else, as the school did not want to lose their coach. A Cleveland sports reporter suggested Brown, and McBride went for him big time, seemingly more because of his popularity in the area than for his actual coaching resume. Brown (who was serving in the military as a football coach for the Great Lakes Naval Training Center) received a substantial salary, a percentage ownership of the team and complete control over personnel decisions. In effect, the new team was Brown's team.
That much would be made evident by the results of a 1946 Cleveland Plains-Dealer poll to name the new franchise (with a $1,000 War Bond offered up as a prize for the fan who suggested the winning name). There is some dispute over the exact timeline of the naming of the franchise. What is clear is that after the poll, the team was going to be named the Cleveland Panthers, which was the nickname of a failed American Football League (AFL) franchise in Cleveland that only lasted a single season in 1926. The team was owned by General C. X. Zimmerman, who was the Vice-President of the AFL. The dispute is over how the Panthers was chosen. It was either that they simply were the highest vote-getter in the poll or that they were the second highest, with the highest vote-getter being "The Browns," chosen for Coach Brown.
Coach Brown did not like the idea of the team being named after him, so either way, the team was going to be named the Panthers (either because it was the top vote-getter or because Brown refused to have the team named after him). However, Zimmerman chimed in, noting that he still owned the name and that he would have to be compensated for its usage. The new franchise declined (I've seen some reports argue that Brown was not a fan of the team being named after a failed franchise anyways, which could be true, but I find it a bit hard to believe, since Brown later named the Cincinnati Bengals after a...wait for it...failed AFL franchise).
So Brown eventually bowed to popular sentiment and went with the Browns (I believe that there was the formality of having a second poll, but it was clear what was going to be the #1 choice). For years, though, Brown played it coy over whether the team was named after him, publicly offering up the Joe Louis suggestion. Also, after Brown left the organization in the 1960s after a dispute with new owner Art Modell, the Browns (under Modell) supported the Joe Louis version of the story (which would almost certainly be why the Washington Post reported as such in 1995, since that was the official position of the Browns organization at the time). Brown, though, never really held fast to the Louis position and late in his life he would cop to the fact that the team was named after him.
The Browns, meanwhile, support the "Named after Paul Brown" position. From the Browns' media guide:
Not a single entry in the contest listed Louis or his nickname as a reason for choosing ‘Browns.'
When you add in the fact that while yes, Jou Louis was quite famous at the time, he was not particularly associated with Cleveland at all (Louis was born in Alabama and became a famous boxer out of Detroit), then I think there's enough evidence to support the assertion (that both the Browns and the NFL itself both agree with now) that the team was, in fact, named after Paul Brown.
So for this legend, I say...
Thanks to Charles Babington and Ken Denlinger for the initial Washington Post article, Cleveland Browns.com writer Matt Florjancic for the Browns' media guide take on the topic, the NFL for their official take on the subject, legendary Cleveland sports reporter, the late Chuck Heaton (for his take on the situation in a Baltimore Sun article in 1991. Heaton supported the "Browns named after Brown" story) and Frank M. Henkel for his book Cleveland Browns History.
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Photo: Joe Louis. Credit: Associated Press.