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Misc General General Archive Top Cleveland Sports Figures, By the Numbers - #13
Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar

This is one installment in a team effort by The Cleveland Fan, highlighting the top local sports figures by jersey number. Please weigh in with your thoughts on the Boards. And as David Letterman would say, “For entertainment purposes only; please, no wagering.”

FrankRyan2There are really just two serious candidates for top honors at #13 in our series...with all due respect to Felix Fermin. As it turns out, Fermin is due more respect than he is often afforded, having brought to Cleveland in trade one of the greatest shortstops in major league history, and one of the most popular Cleveland Indians of all time, Omar Vizquel. Still not enough to get Felix the Cat serious consideration in his own right.

On the other hand, there are dozens of reasons to decide on Vizquel as our choice at #13, not least the 11 Gold Gloves and the 2,877 hits, in a career that spanned four decades in the majors. He played his best years in our town, and he did it with flair, and a winning smile, and sometimes even with his bare hand. He made spectacular plays routinely, leaving us certain we had never seen anyone do it better. And yeah...I saw Ozzie Smith.

Vizquel3Vizquel’s greatness and his eventual Hall of Fame worthiness seem inarguable to those of us who watched him play every day, yet he still has his detractors. Consider though, that there are just two other players in major league history with more than 10 Gold Gloves and more than 2,850 career hits. Not two shortstops.Two  Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays.  Defense rests.   

Omar played in two World Series under the Wahoo cap, and paired up with Robbie Alomar (our choice for #12) to form perhaps the best double-play combination of all time. He played more games at shortstop than anyone else, and became the oldest player to ever man the position. And besides, he’s got his own website. But there’s one big thing he didn’t do that his chief competitor at #13 did manage to pull off. And that was to win a world championship for the city of Cleveland.


The Good Doctor Ryan

FrankRyan64-PNGWhile Vizquel is revered by Clevelanders in large part for his consistency...his longevity...his excellence over literally thousands of games, Frank Ryan has been immortalized in Cleveland essentially for just one. December 27, 1964. Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The NFL Championship Game.

Cleveland Browns 27 - Baltimore Colts 0

Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but that’s all that matters. He won it the most important position on the field. And nobody in this town has done it since. That makes Frank Ryan Cleveland’s most significant #13 ever.

Ryan wasn’t even a starter in college at Rice University. He played behind big-time prospect King Hill, who became known mostly for his time as the Philadelphia Eagles QB in the early 60’s. Ryan was getting ready to go to graduate school in mathematics, and had been accepted at UCLA and Cal Berkeley among other places. He was shocked when L.A. Rams G.M. Pete Rozelle picked him in the 4th round in the 1958 draft. Rozelle liked his size (6’3, 200) and his strong arm, and thought he had a good chance to develop, as a backup at least.

Ryan considered not playing pro football at all, but since he had been drafted by a southern California team, Rozelle convinced him he could attend UCLA and play for the Rams at the same time. But Ryan mostly rode the bench in L.A., getting frustrated behind Zeke Bratkowski and Billy Wade. He had 11 starts in four seasons, and in 1962 Paul Brown traded for him to be Jim Ninowski’s backup with the Browns.

FrankRyan4The frustration didn’t end there. Ryan was not happy to be traded to Cleveland. He was twenty-six, and he knew that Ninowski was a fixture as the starter with the Browns, and had the full confidence of Paul Brown. In addition, Ryan was good friends with Steelers wide receiver Buddy Dial, and had hoped to be traded to Pittsburgh. He admitted later that his bitterness about his treatment in L.A. affected him with the Browns when he saw Ninowski getting almost all the practice reps, and he felt he wasn’t given a fair shot at the starting job.

That shot came in the middle of the 1962 season when Ninowski broke his collarbone and was lost for the season. Ryan started the last seven games in ‘62, and remained the starter for the next five full seasons. Ryan was inconsistent at times in those seven starts, as the Browns went 3-3-1, but Brown liked what he saw.  In his 1997 book, “When All the World Was Browns Town”, Terry Pluto relates a quote from Brown, near the end of the 1962 season..”If Ryan continues to improve, the deal with Los Angeles could dwarf all the others. I don’t want to build this out of proportion, but the more I see of him, the more I like. He doesn’t lack for courage. He’s no schoolboy”

FrankRyan1-PNGThe Schoolboy Thing

If you have ever heard anything about Frank Ryan beyond the events of 12/27/64, you know that he was a genius. I grew up knowing for a fact that Ryan had an IQ of 160. That number was everywhere in the press. He was a mathematical prodigy. His doctoral thesis was titled, “Characterization of the Set of Asymptotic Values of a Function Holomorphic in the Unit Disc”. We heard this stuff all the time from sportswriters.

Most writers didn’t know what to make of Frank Ryan, so they wrote about him as if he were something of a kook. And apparently, they just made stuff up. As Pluto recounts in “Browns Town”, Frank Ryan never knew what his IQ was, and he didn’t care. He didn’t call himself a genius and he considered himself the intellectual inferior of the people he studied under and learned from at Rice and elsewhere.

Ryan came to resent the lazy, “genius” treatment he got from sportswriters, as exemplified by Los Angeles writer Mel Durslag, who once wrote that Frank Ryan playing quarterback in the NFL was “tantamount to Albert Schweitzer working in a drug store.” Even if characterizations of this kind were meant to be complimentary, or to indicate a certain awe of his rather unique background, Ryan was a football player, and a good one, and he wanted to be treated like any other Cleveland Browns player. He never thought of himself as being above the career of pro quarterback, or above communicating with teammates or media people as anything but an equal.

Even today, Ryan is sought out for the purpose of being singled out as that smart mathematics guy who happened to play NFL football.

Collier Makes it Click

RyanBrownBlanton Collier was just what the often inconsistent Ryan needed to thrive at quarterback in Cleveland. Hired by Modell for the 1963 season (after he dismissed that piker Paul Brown), Collier immediately named Ryan his starter for the year. Collier didn’t want any part of a quarterback controversy, and said he felt Ryan could be the type of quarterback who could keep defenses honest with his arm, and complement the Browns’ potent rushing attack.  (See, they had this #32 guy....)

Collier had watched the Browns go through seven quarterbacks in seven years...from Milt Plum to John Borton to Len Dawson, and he knew that the fans were frustrated, having gone (imagine it!) nine years since the Browns had won the NFL title. He saw Ryan as a guy who would be cool under pressure, and able to execute under a well-defined plan.


“Blanton was the first guy to give me something concrete. The others just accepted the fact that I could throw a football, but Blanton reduced throwing to a procedure - a series of basic steps - so when things went bad, I could check and find out why” - Frank Ryan


FrankRyan3Collier’s approach was perfect for the analytical Ryan, and the Browns went 10-3 in his first full year as the starter, as he threw 25 TD’s against 13 interceptions, and had a 90.4 QB rating. In his time as the Browns QB (from 1962-1968) the team was 52-22-2. In the days of 14-game seasons, Ryan led the Browns for five full years, winning 10 games three times, and 9 games twice.

Fun-Lover Frank

Ryan was a notorious and ingenious (there I go) prankster in his time with the Browns. Broadcaster Ken Coleman relates the story of the “parrot fever” stunt he pulled on Lou Groza, an incident too lengthy to get into here, but he is probably best known for the media picture day prank he pulled in 1963. Ryan complied with every agency’s requests for all the normal poses that a quarterback must do for the promotional photo shoots that happen every season...the dropback shot, the passing motion, etc. But Ryan posed for every shot all day as a left-handed passer, which would later confound editors and embarrass the photographers who were duped.

The Game

As upsets go, the Browns victory over Baltimore in the NFL Championship was very nearly the equivalent of Joe Namath’s celebrated win over those same Colts four years later. Baltimore had by far the best offense in the NFL, with Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Jim Parker, Raymond Berry, John Mackey, and Jimmy Orr. The Colts were favored by a touchdown on the a title game. It was reported that Sports Illustrated was so certain of the eventual outcome that they had their cover photo prepared in advance...featuring Don Shula and Unitas...and they had to scramble after the game to replace it with a shot of Ryan.

PDHeadlineYou know the rest. It was a scoreless game at the half, but Ryan and Gary Collins connected for three touchdown passes in the second half, and Lou Groza added two field goals to make it a 27-0 final. Collins’ record-setting day made him the MVP over the veteran quarterback, but Ryan had his finest moment as well that afternoon. A guy named Jim Brown wasn’t shabby either, chipping in with 114 yards, including carries of 46 and 23 yards.

On a personal note, I feel privileged to remember that day and that feeling, an emotion many of my colleagues here at TCF, sadly, have never experienced, young pups that they are. As it happens, 12/27/64 was my 12th birthday, and I recall sitting with my dad in our living room, huddled around the piece of furniture we called the “Hi-Fi”, a combination record-player, radio, and record cabinet, hanging on every word of Gib Shanley’s radio call of the action.

It was the first ever NFL Championship game to be televised nationally by CBS, but alas, the game was blacked out in the Cleveland area. I have run across dozens of Clevelanders over the years who claim to remember watching the game on home in Lakewood or Garfield Heights.  It’s B.S. I don’t accuse them of lying. Maybe they’re just innocently deluded, mis-remembering what they wish could have been so.  I leave it alone.

Here’s Chuck Heaton’s game story , and you can watch the highlights at YouTube here.

Despite having had a solid NFL career, I guess it’s fair that Frank Ryan will always be remembered for just one game. More fair at least, than, say...the way Jose Mesa will always be seared into the memories of Cleveland fans...for just one game in an otherwise commendable career.

Frank Ryan won the big one. That makes all the difference in the world.


One Step Behind:

Asdrubal Cabrera
- Indians - SS - (2007-Present)

Cabrera2There are surely other, less-contested uniform numbers for which Cabrera might be our best option...but he wears #13. Another stellar shortstop absolutely stolen from the Seattle Mariners (in a trade for Eduardo Perez), in much the same fashion as the Vizquel for Fermin/Jefferson heist more than a decade earlier. Cabrera made the AL All-Star team in 2011 and 2012, and won the Silver Slugger Award for shortstops in ‘11, when he exploded for 25 home runs after not ever hitting more than six in his first four big league seasons.  


Other #13’s

tristan-thompsonTristan Thompson - Cavaliers - Forward - (2011-Present)
Thompson was the 4th overall pick of the 2011 draft, and has seen his rep move from a sure-fire bust to possible solid contributor on a decent team. Stay tuned.




DelonteWest1Delonte West - Cavaliers Guard - (2007-2010)
Three bizarre seasons in Cleveland with LeBron, ending with yet more strangeness.




Clarett2Maurice Clarett - Ohio State - Running Back - 2002
Officially, we are not including Buckeyes in this series, but few #13’s have had as profound an impact on the local sports scene in the last several decades as the talented but troubled running back from Youngstown. I figured he at least deserved a plug among the also-rans. Clarett was only in Columbus for one year before wearing out his welcome...but what a year it was. (video highlights). To his credit, MoC has done a lot of growing up since 2002.


on Twitter at @dwismar


some photos courtesy of Vintage Football Card Gallery

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