How a Taxi Magnate Made the Cleveland Browns
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s more yellow than you thought to the brown and orange.
By Vince Guerrieri
The Cleveland Yellow Cab Co., driven into the ground by Uber and other ride-hailing apps, is shutting its doors after decades of service to the Midwestern city dubbed America’s North Coast. The move signals a massive U-turn, considering that the firm owned for years by Arthur “Mickey” McBride — either the embodiment of the American Dream or a criminal with a veneer of legitimacy, depending on whom you ask — once monopolized Cleveland’s taxi service.
On May 25, 2017, Mickey’s grandson Brian McBride made the big announcement — one that should have been met with sorrow by Cleveland Browns fans, aka the Dawg Pound. Granddad McBride, after all, had not only driven to the top of the taxi game; he also launched the city’s famed football team.
Mickey arrived in Cleveland in 1913 to work as the circulation director for the Cleveland News. He had distinguished himself in his hometown of Chicago, first as a newsboy selling papers on street corners and then in circulation, a business where, as he told a Senate committee investigating organized crime, “You couldn’t be a weakling.” According to an FBI memo obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, “[McBride] directed the operations of strong-arm men in a bitter circulation war.”
I think [McBride] sensed it was an up-and-coming sport and a moneymaking opportunity.
While never convicted of anything, McBride was dogged by allegations of organized crime, particularly with his ownership of a wire service that provided horse racing results — not illegal at the time but of great use to bookies and gangsters. “He wasn’t out doing illegal things himself,” says Cleveland mob historian Allan May. “He just knew the guys who were — many from his days at the News.”
By 1930, McBride was making an estimated $15,000 a year working for the newspaper, but he quit to pursue his own interests, saying later, “Nobody ever got rich on a salary.” Even by then, he already had invested wisely enough in real estate that he didn’t have to work another day in his life. But in 1931, he bought a half-interest in the Zone Cab Company, one of several companies vying for fares in Cleveland, then the sixth biggest U.S. city. The Cleveland taxi war included strikes and fights that sometimes ended with cabs being set ablaze. McBride managed to buy the biggest cab company, Yellow Cab, in 1934, and order was soon restored to Cleveland’s streets. McBride’s taxi empire quickly spread to Akron and Canton.
The taxi magnate was indifferent to football until he went with his son Edward, a student at Notre Dame, to see the Fighting Irish play in 1940. He fell in love with the sport and decided he wanted a team in Cleveland. At the time, the Cleveland NFL team was the Rams. McBride offered owner Dan Reeves $105,000 for it, but the offer was rebuffed.
Four years later, in 1944, Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward — the man behind the first Major League Baseball All-Star Game in 1933 — started a new football league, the All-America Conference. McBride was interested in building a Cleveland franchise, as much out of civic pride as for profit. “A football team was cheaper to buy than a baseball team,” says John Grabowski, editor of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. “I think he sensed it was an up-and-coming sport and a moneymaking opportunity.”
McBride was willing to spend the money, an estimated $300,000, before the first game was played, knowing it would bring the publicity a new team needed. “Cleveland has been good to me,” he said at the time. “I’ve made a great deal of money here. In return, I would like nothing more than to give the fans a team they can be proud of.” To that end, he asked a Plain Dealer sportswriter who the best football coach in America was — answer: Paul Brown — and hired him. He even bought a plane for West Coast travel and kept players who weren’t on the active roster — but Brown wanted nearby — on his cab company payroll, coining the term “taxi squad.”
As World War II ended, it looked like there would be two pro-football teams in Cleveland, the Rams and McBride’s, called the Browns after their coach. “McBride even made overtures to share Cleveland Stadium with the Rams,” says Jim Sulecki, author of a recent book on the Rams. But three weeks after the Rams won the NFL title, the team announced it was moving to Los Angeles and leaving Cleveland to McBride and the Browns.
The Rams had drawn a total of 73,000 fans in their four home games during that championship season, and more than 61,000 people came to the first Browns game in Cleveland. As coach, Brown essentially invented the modern game of professional football, coming up with concepts we now take for granted: the draw play, film study, speed testing for potential draft picks and the face mask. His team, in turn, ruled the All-America Conference, winning the league title in all four years of its existence, including an undefeated season in 1948.
The team then became one of three All-America teams to move to the NFL in 1950, winning the title that first year in the league and thereby deepening the city’s love affair with the Browns.
- Vince Guerrieri, OZY Author Contact Vince Guerrieri