I have a friend who is a baseball fan. He once told me talking about baseball is more enjoyable than watching it. His premise was that the eras, not necessarily ERAs, allowed fans to compare statistics, unlike football where the game keeps changing.
Despite the new way we look at statistics and analytics, the game still relies on home runs, RBIs and batting averages to determine who the best players are. In talking about an all-time team, it would be hard to keep guys like Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente out of the discussion, even though their best years were well over 60 seasons ago. And that doesn’t even count Babe Ruth, whose legend continues to grow, even though he retired some 85 years ago.
The reason I bring this up is before even putting on a Cleveland Browns uniform for an exhibition game, Odell Beckham, Jr., is being considered as one of the team’s all-time greats, another friend was telling me.
Currently, four receivers are enshrined in Canton, three of whom were either considered something other than a wide receiver or spent much of their career elsewhere. Dante “Glue Fingers” Lavelli, from the 1940s and 1950s, played his entire career in Cleveland; Ozzie Newsome, was a tight end. Paul Warfield was remembered by most national fans and media as a member of the Miami Dolphins despite being drafted by the Browns. That is probably true because of his place with the undefeated Dolphins team of the 1970s. And Bobby Mitchell, who played here mostly in Jim Brown’s shadow as a running back, flourished as a wide receiver after a trade to Washington, which sent the signing rights of Ernie Davis to the Browns. That trade is cited as the final straw in the rift between legendary coach Paul Brown, for whom the team is named after, and new owner Art Modell.
It is a little too early to anoint Beckham as the greatest Browns receiver, but my friend makes a point. While there isn’t great depth in the all-time Browns receiver group, can you guess which position or positions are historically the deepest? Take your choice of either left tackle or place kicker. New Browns fans might be surprised that tackle was pretty well taken care of before Joe Thomas got here. It started with Lou Groza, who made the Hall of Fame at tackle and place kicker, then Dick Schafrath, Doug Dieken, Paul Farren, Tony Jones, Ross Verba and, of course, Thomas, all who played well and long for the Cleveland Browns.
The team has struggled at the place kicking spot after Phil Dawson left, but the team has been solid at that position, with Groza, Don Cockroft, Matt Bahr, Matt Stover, along with Dawson playing long and successfully at that important position.
Thinking of Lavelli, whom I got to know long after his retirement, I’d like to relate a story to show how he was regarded by his fellow players. Several years ago, I did some shows from the Hall of Fame. We did some taping at the hotel, where the Hall of Famers stayed. I was talking to “Glue” for 10 or 15 minutes as the former players checked in. Watching me do the interview from about 20 feet away was Steelers great Terry Bradshaw. I assumed every Hall of Famer knew each other, but when it was over, Bradshaw, whom I never met before, came up to me and introduced himself. He told me he would be honored if I could introduce him to Lavelli. He knew the history and reputation of Lavelli, but their paths never crossed.
What a cool moment that was. I’m just hoping that on his way to becoming the greatest Browns receiver of all-time, Beckham will know this history of this once- great franchise.