Excerpted with permission from Hollywood’s Team: Grit, Glamour, and the 1950s Los Angeles Rams by Jim Hock, published by Rare Bird Books.
The NFL in the 1950s was no way for anyone to get rich—not the owners and especially not the players. Most didn’t earn anywhere near the five figures Van Brocklin made in 1953. Linemen like John Hock made five or six thousand dollars. Most needed off-season jobs to get by. Duane Putnam threw kegs in trucks for a Budweiser distributor. Woodley Lewis worked with juvenile delinquents through the LA police department. Andy Robustelli owned a sporting goods store in his native Connecticut. Because they were young men and athletic, some Rams showed up as extras in Hollywood films; Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch even starred in a couple (including a biopic of his own life and a prison flick that introduced the world to the famous ballad, “Unchained Melody”). New York Giant Hall of Famer Frank Gifford grew up in Los Angeles and spoke of his off-season routine, “You know, I wasn’t even going to play pro football. I mean I could have made more money working as an extra and doing stunt work in the movies, which I did while I was at USC.” Former Redskin and Giant Sam Huff was employed by the J. P. Stevens Textile Company selling men’s fabrics, reporting, “I was there to learn how to deal and succeed in business. I learned how to maximize profit and such.”
Fred Gehrke, a halfback with the Rams until 1949, had worked as an industrial illustrator for an aviation company. Putting paint on metal all day gave him the idea to paint sleek yellow Rams’ horns on the players’ helmets. Owner Reeves liked what he saw and paid Gehrke a dollar per helmet for his paint job—the first time any pro football team put an insignia on its hard hat. Creating an iconic logo, it was years before the rest of the NFL caught up.
At training camp in Redlands that summer, no player earned any money. That’s how the contracts were structured. No pay until you play. Practice didn’t count. Neither did those half a dozen or more games called “exhibitions,” warm-ups that pit the Rams against other teams before the start of the real thing, the “regular” season.
So what happened if a coach says a guy’s not good enough and sends him home from training camp? Sorry, Charlie. No money for you. What if a fella gets hurt in practice or an exhibition? It happened that summer to a rookie guard from the University of Houston. Rams players visited Frank James at Redlands Community Hospital, but if Frank got a penny for his troubles it was an aberration. Only those who made the roster for the regular season’s opening kickoff could expect to get paid their contract salary.
Heading into the first exhibition game, John Hock was healthy and scheduled to start at left guard, a good sign even if not yet earning a paycheck. The Rams would face Fort Ord’s football squad in a game to be played in Long Beach, a short drive southeast of Los Angeles. Fort Ord’s defense didn’t intimidate the Rams, but its offense featured Ollie Matson, a renowned running back who had led the nation in rushing yards as a college senior, then gone on to win a bronze medal in the four hundred meter and a silver in the four-by-four-hundred-meter relay at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
That night at Long Beach, the Rams offense performed as if cockeyed, but Fort Ord and Matson didn’t offer much of a threat, either, never getting closer to the end zone than the Rams’ twenty-one-yard line. The Rams beat the soldiers, 24–0, before a small crowd of twelve thousand. The warm-up showed that the Rams were still a few spark plugs short of an engine. Even six days later, in a 72–19 rout of Navy and Marine all-stars, the pros didn’t dazzle.
Probably the coaches would have liked a few more easy exhibitions to help new guys find their way and veterans shake the off-season stupor. But it didn’t matter what anyone wanted. The next exhibition would be the Rams’ first true test, less a simulation and more of a donnybrook.
The game had become an annual grudge match. Always, it was played for charity, but nothing charitable happened on the field. Always, it was the Rams’ debut at LA Memorial Coliseum, one of football’s historic palaces. Fans filled the stadium, wanting to be impressed by that year’s team. Rookies hoped to impress coaches and coaches hoped to impress Reeves. For the first time, the Rams would match up against another NFL team. Always it was the same opponent: Washington’s Redskins. Seven times the Rams and Redskins had met this way, and the Rams had won four.
Even without pay, players on each team hit each other as if this exhibition were the real thing. To heck with waiting for the regular season. This game was the real thing. In the previous year’s match-up, Washington’s star running back suffered a broken arm.
For John Hock, the Times Charities Football Game would be, in the words of TV personality Ed Sullivan, “a really big show.” For the first time in two years, he’d be tested by a professional defensive line, pitting himself against players heavier, taller, faster, and meaner than those the Far Eastern teams had offered. Those boys across the line would be fighting for their jobs, too, wanting to knock Hock on his backside and crush Van Brocklin or any running back daring to carry the ball. That night, Hock would need to prove to Hamp Pool that he’d learned his plays, that he could hand out licks and take ‘em too.
And there was this, a tender rick to however much sentimentality resided in Hock’s Irish Catholic heart: for the first time he would dress out in the uniform of a professional football player, then run onto a grassy field under the lights in his hometown. He’d hear cheers from a crowd of eighty thousand fans welcoming its team, and maybe there’d be a few faces among them he’d recognize: his father, Harry, or a priest from St. Brigid’s, maybe old high school chums. He’d look up into the blackness beyond the lights and know the particular thrill of game time. Feel how different it was from games in any other city, like Pittsburgh or Chicago, where he’d played his rookie year. This was Los Angeles in 1953. Maybe Los Angeles wasn’t so special to merit Major League Baseball, but the Rams were still the best pro game in town—Hollywood’s team and worthy of a five-star premiere, with celebrities on hand to make fans laugh, and a five-ring circus featuring aerialists and trampolinists and performing elephants and Hap Henry with his trick dogs.
John Hock, aka the Hooker, would fit his helmet with its golden horns over his head, snap in place the chin strap that stretched across his impressive jaw, then take the field and crouch in a three-point stance at the line—legs bent at the knees, fingers of his right hand in the grass and soft dirt. For a moment he’d become all heart and muscle, awaiting the “hut!” that would launch him like a rocket, his whole self exploding up and onward…
A night, as the shills like to say, to remember.