The Rams were the original 'Hollywood's Team'

bob-waterfield-lapl.jpgBob Waterfield, an early Rams star. Photo: LA Public Library.

The return of the Rams to Southern California, after a 21-season hiatus in St. Louis, has been a disaster. Veteran coach Jeff Fisher presided over an offense that was as stale as a Dodger Dog in December; after tying the NFL mark for most losses by a head coach, Fisher was canned. With one game remaining on the schedule, the Rams’ woeful 4-11 record isn’t indicative of how underachieving they’ve been.

The first time that the Rams moved to LA, when they came from Cleveland in 1946, went much better. These Rams were ground breakers: they were the first major-league sports franchise west of the Mississippi and the first LA team to win a title (1951). They were the first to field an integrated team, and their roster teemed with Hall of Famers: Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Norm Van Brocklin, Dick “Night Train” Lane. One of their star QBs, Bob Waterfield, was married to his high-school sweetheart, actress Jane Russell, from Van Nuys High.

Author Jim Hock wasn’t alive to watch his father, John, play on the offensive line for the Rams in the 1950s. But after John Hock’s death in 2000, Jim decided to collect stories about his father and the Rams of the 1950s. The result is a winning new book entitled “Hollywood’s Team: Grit, Glamour, and the 1950s Los Angeles Rams” (Rare Bird Books), written with help from Michael Downs. Indeed, any book whose bibliography includes Michael MacCambridge’s “America’s Game,” D.J. Waldie’s “Holy Land” and Jane Russell’s “My Paths and Detours” is sure to be an entertaining read. To mark its publication, LA Observed emailed several questions about the book to Jim Hock.

LA Observed: Your father made the Pro Bowl as a lineman, but his NFL career was short-lived. Why did you decide to do a book about him?

Jim Hock: At my dad’s memorial service in 2000 in Southern California, a bunch of his teammates from the Rams were telling my siblings and me war stories about playing in that era. My brother Joe told me to write about them, and 16 years later they now come in the form of this book. We always heard the stories growing up. and I thought this was a good way to pay tribute to people like my dad and his buddies – simple people playing for little money and the love of the game -- who helped build the NFL into what it is today.

LAO: Your father passed away in 2000. How did you go about reconstructing his career with the Rams?

JH: I spent a ton of time talking to everyone from former players like Frank Gifford, Art Donovan, Andy Robustelli, Les Richter, their families and people in and around the team. Remember: I started in more than a decade ago on this project that became a labor of love. I also used source material from the Los Angeles Times, game programs, media guides, and census records. I even took a trip to the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

LAO: Your father and other NFL players didn’t make much money -- most of them had to hold down jobs in the off-season -- but they also seemed to be a integral part of the community, not separate from it. What was your father’s favorite part of living in Southern California?

JH: My dad moved from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles when he was about 9 years old. It was a classic story: my grandfather worked in a steel mill, but lost his job in the Depression and sought a better life in Southern California. My dad (and my mom) grew up just blocks from the LA Coliseum and loved the area. The weather was number one, but being close to family and a ton of friends was the most important reason. We tried to make the city of Los Angeles of the 1950s come to life as a character in the book to give readers a flavor of what it was like to live in the city at the time, a place filled with promise, glamour and innovation.

LAO: You write that the Rams were, in many respects, the first modern sports franchise. How so? What made them different from other pro sports teams from that era?

JH: The Rams of the 1950s were innovators most of all. They were pioneers in the modern passing game, with their head coach, Sid Gillman, being one of the architects of the game that lasts even today. Pete Rozelle was their PR guy and general manager. He went on to become the groundbreaking “boy commissioner” [of the NFL] at age 33 in 1960 and transformed the NFL. Bob Hope was one of the owners, and Hollywood stars flocked to the Coliseum in those days. The Rams were also the first team to integrate, one year before Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, and the first team to have its own TV contract.

LAO: In the book, you write about the specter of the Brooklyn Dodgers moving to Los Angeles in 1958. How did that move affect the Rams and their place in the community?

JH: You have to remember that Los Angeles was experiencing explosive population growth in the post-World War II 1950s. The Rams were the first team to move west of the Mississippi River, and with regular crowds topping 90,000 people they showed the Dodgers that LA was a viable professional sports town. Roz Wyman, who was a city councilwoman at the time, is a mentor of mine, and I wanted to highlight her role bringing the Dodgers to Los Angeles. The Dodgers and the Rams had a symbiotic relationship for decades before the team moved to St. Louis. Also keep in mind that the Dodgers played in the Coliseum for a few years before Dodger Stadium was built.

LAO: You live in northern Virginia these days. From your vantage point, what’s wrong with the current Rams team, and how does the franchise turn things around before moving into the new stadium in Inglewood?

JH: Growing up a Rams fan, I was devastated when the Rams moved to St. Louis. In my opinion, their former owner, Georgia Frontiere, blew it by taking a short-term gain there (as well as when she and her late husband [Carroll Rosenbloom] originally moved the team to Anaheim.) The Rams were meant to be in LA proper because of the great fans and the wide geographic land mass that is the Southland. Fans drove from the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley to get to games when the Rams played in Coliseum. I had uncles who did that. Bringing them back to Los Angeles made perfect sense. Today’s team has some great young talent. They need to hire an innovative coach who will stretch the field and capture the hearts and minds of people of the region who want a high powered and exciting offense. They have a good nucleus and should let quarterback Jared Goff develop and put some tools around him.

LAO: Since 2015 you’ve been working as Chief of Staff to Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. What are your plans for the future?

JH: I’ve been working flat out for four years in public service, so I am looking forward to spending more time with my wife and kids. Serving my country has been one of the greatest thrills of my life, but I am ready for a break. I know that sounds like the typical political answer, but it’s true. I am just finishing managing a federal department with more than 45,000 employees. The bottom line is that I’ve always been one of those people who bounced from the private sector to public service. I worked for Senator [Dianne] Feinstein earlier in my career, then started a public relations and marketing firm. I am now looking forward to taking some time off and then doing some business consulting. I am also going to continue to work on this labor of love: talking about “Hollywood’s Team,” a story about football, teammates, family, and a special place and time in history. Even though I live nearly 3,000 miles from LA, I bought Rams season tickets. I hope to go to more than the two games I made this year.

More by David Davis:
The Rams were the original 'Hollywood's Team'
Recent Sports stories on LA Observed:
Partner practice makes perfect
Local kid makes an impression at the BNP Paribas Open
Now who do I root for? World Cup down to its final eight
Yes, there will still be a World Cup. No, the USA is not playing. So what now?
Dodger Stadium announcement
The night Kirk Gibson made deadline
They said it in Indian Wells
The kids on court at Indian Wells