March 26, 2012

1953: Browns and Colts Conclude 15-Player Trade

On March 26, 1953 the Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns completed one of the largest trades in NFL history. It involved 15 players, most of whom were reserves or newly-drafted rookies. Cleveland was one of the league’s best teams, having appeared in its seventh straight league title game in 1952 including a string of four consecutive All-America Football Conference championships and a NFL title in 1950. The Colts were returning to the NFL after the original team of that name (also previously in the AAFC) folded following the ’50 season - they were replacing the failed Dallas Texans franchise of 1952, which in turn had taken the place of the New York Bulldogs/Yanks of 1949-51, and thus there were players passed along from both of those clubs involved in the transaction.

Of the 15 players involved, 10 were sent by the Browns to Baltimore and included:

QB Harry Agganis, first-round draft choice in 1952 out of Boston University who had not played for the Browns while pursuing a baseball career; S Bert Rechichar (pictured above), Cleveland’s other first-round pick in ’52 out of Tennessee who intercepted six passes as a rookie; HB Don Shula (pictured below), ninth-round pick in 1951 from John Carroll, who intercepted four passes in his first year and went into the military; HB Carl Taseff, 22nd-round draft choice in ’51, also out of John Carroll and just out of the military - he ran the ball 13 times for 49 yards as a rookie on offense; G Ed Sharkey, a veteran of three AAFC seasons and two in the NFL, the most recent with the Browns; G Elmer Wilhoite, 12th-round draft choice out of USC in 1953; E Art Spinney, from Boston College who played for the original Colts in 1950 and spent two years in the military; E Gern Nagler, 14th-round draft choice from Santa Clara in ’53; T Stu Sheets, co-captain at Penn State and 17th-round pick in 1952; and T Dick Batten, 18th-round choice out of College of the Pacific for 1953.

The Colts, building upon the carcass of the Texans franchise and desperate for new talent, gave up five players:

C Tom Catlin, All-American from Oklahoma drafted in the fourth-round for 1953; DT Don Colo, a three-year pro who had been with the original Colts in 1950 and moved on to the Yanks and Texans; OT Mike McCormack, third-round draft choice in 1951 by the Yanks who had played one season for them; HB John Petitbon, formerly of Notre Dame and taken by the Yanks/Texans in the seventh round for 1952, intercepting five passes in his first year; and G Herschel Forester, an eighth-round draft choice out of SMU in 1952 who was in the military.

Head Coach Paul Brown of Cleveland was especially annoyed with players who had indicated that they would play pro football only if they first failed to make it as baseball players. He said of Agganis, a star quarterback at Boston University, that, “we are not waiting to see whether or not (he) makes a baseball team. We prefer to make our plans now and can afford to do so since we do not have a quarterback problem.”

Agganis, known as “The Golden Greek”, chose to sign with baseball’s Boston Red Sox for a reported $35,000 and was forbidden to play football. Colts Coach Keith Molesworth, needing a quarterback, hoped he could be persuaded to change his mind and Agganis was a key player in the deal for Baltimore. “The Golden Greek” stuck with baseball, however, and showed the potential to become a star at the major league level. Tragically, Agganis died of a pulmonary embolism at age 26 in 1955.

Molesworth (and his successor, Weeb Ewbank) had better outcomes with some of the other players. Rechichar, Shula, and Taseff all moved into the starting lineup in the defensive backfield while Spinney started at defensive end before being shifted to guard on offense. Of that group, Rechichar had the biggest immediate impact, garnering second-team All-Pro honors in ’53 and eventually being selected to three Pro Bowls. While he was at it, he booted a league-record 56-yard field goal in the 1953 opening-game win over the Bears.

Rechichar was with the Colts, but past his prime, when they won back-to-back NFL titles in 1958 and ’59. Taseff and Spinney were still in the starting lineup, however. Shula was gone by then, but would gain far greater fame as a head coach (starting with Baltimore).

Of the others, Sharkey played one year for the Colts as a reserve before moving on to Philadelphia in 1954. None of the remaining players involved saw action with the team, although Nagler was with the Chicago Cardinals for five seasons and Pittsburgh for one before ending up back in Cleveland as a tight end.

For Cleveland’s part, Paul Brown was concentrating on strengthening his team at tackle and linebacker. While McCormack and Forester were in military service and would not be available until after 1953, Brown saw them as an investment in the future. Colo was expected to contribute right away, especially with DT Bob Gain leaving for the military, and he did, moving into the starting lineup in ’53 and staying there until 1958 while achieving selection to the Pro Bowl three times during that period.

McCormack (pictured at right) joined the club in ’54, started as a middle guard on defense that year, and then moved to right offensive tackle, where he remained a fixture for eight seasons. He garnered first- or second-team All-Pro honors in every one of those years and went to six Pro Bowls. The lineman that Paul Brown acquired as a future consideration was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984. Forester, while far less accomplished, put in four seasons with the Browns.

Catlin played at linebacker in Cleveland and also stayed for four years before moving on to the Eagles. Of the five players the Browns received, Petitbon contributed the least, playing one year at safety in 1955 after spending time in the service.

Overall, the huge trade garnered benefits for both teams. Cleveland, filling in some holes on an already-sound club, topped the Eastern Conference in ’53 and added NFL titles in 1954 and ’55 (and regularly contended well beyond). The Colts, looking to build for the future, didn’t become a winner right away (they were 3-9 in 1953), but methodically developed into a championship team by the last two years of the decade.