If you were to judge which Anniston Ram had the best year — in baseball, in life, by any possible measure — Lloyd Cheatham would be the hands-down winner. He was, and will always be, peerless.
That he played well for the Rams, often in center field and hitting in the lineup’s midsection, is meaningless. The month he spent in an Anniston uniform is important only through its place in his spectacular year of 1942, a year in which the standout Auburn University athlete saw his life’s entire trajectory change. And it would have been that way even if America’s entry into World War II had never happened.
Born in Oklahoma and reared in the tiny Alabama town of Nauvoo, Cheatham by the 1940s had become one of college football’s best blocking backs and a standout baseball player at Auburn. Tall, stout and movie-star handsome, the Tigers’ football captain and leading hitter on the baseball team personified the nature of segregated collegiate sports at the time.
“He is a natural football player,” Auburn football coach Jack Meagher told the Montgomery Advertiser in 1941, “and he could be a star in the line or backfield … I look for his extraordinary performances to provide the fans with plenty of thrills at every game. He is truly a magnificent back.”
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, altering the nation’s course and Cheatham’s immediate future.
In February 1942, Cheatham, volunteered for the Naval Reserves’ officer candidate program, listed as class V-7, and was selected by the Chicago Cardinals with the 14th overall pick in the NFL draft.
That spring, he played baseball for Auburn and again led the team in hitting with a school record .413 average.
That summer, he fielded an offer from the Southern League’s Atlanta Crackers, but instead signed with the Southeastern League’s Montgomery Rebels.
In mid-July, Anniston bought him from Montgomery. He played center field and hit third in his first game with the Rams, going 1 for 3 with two runs scored, and then batted above .400 in his first week in town.
In mid-August, he left the Rams and reported to training camp for the college football all-star game against the NFL’s Chicago Bears. (The Bears won, 21-0.)
In September, he made his NFL debut with the Cardinals.
On Nov. 1, he scored his first — and only — NFL touchdown, a 7-yard reception from Cecil Isbell in a 55-24 road loss against the Green Bay Packers.
In roughly 10 months, the 22-year-old Cheatham enlisted in the military, was drafted into the NFL, played baseball for Auburn and two SEL clubs, participated in a football all-star game, played in the NFL and scored against one of professional football’s heralded franchises, the Packers.
If there’s a punchline, it’s this: the Rams’ all-time roster is full of players who survived kamikaze attacks, fought in the infantry and played in the Major Leagues. But in their 10 seasons, no one other than Lloyd Cheatham played for Anniston and scored an NFL touchdown in the same year.
When Cheatham got around to suiting up for the Rams, The Anniston Star beamed with confidence. “With football days behind him, he is just beginning what should prove to be a brilliant career,” the newspaper wrote. But it erred. Cheatham’s football days, or his stardom, weren’t over.
After playing for the NFL’s Cardinals, he returned briefly to Auburn for spring baseball and then began officer training with the Naval Reserve. For three years he played football with distinction at the U.S. Naval Training Center Bainbridge in Maryland. (He also played Navy baseball.) Interestingly, in a shot at the quality of prewar professional football, the Baltimore Sun wrote in November 1943 that Cheatham “considers (the Navy) better than any of his other previous football experiences and simply ‘likes it fine.'”
Lloyd Cheatham in the Naval Reserve
The war’s end allowed Cheatham to decide his next stop — and he choose football, not baseball, signing with the New York Yankees of the short-lived All-American Football Conference. Cheatham instantly became one of the Yankees’ regulars, starting often during the team’s playoff runs in 1946 and 1947, seasons that ended in title-game losses to the Cleveland Browns. In his three seasons in New York, the former Ram started 26 of 39 games and caught three touchdown passes.
Cheatham turned 30 in the spring of 1949. In an August visit to Montgomery, he gave The Advertiser a glimpse of what his future in professional football may hold. “The Yanks have started practicing and I haven’t heard from them since I returned my contract,” Cheatham said. “I’m waiting to see whether they think I’m worth what I think I am.”
He wasn’t on the Yankees’ 1949 roster.
His playing days over, Cheatham worked for General Motors’ Chevrolet division and became a realtor. He died in 1989 at the age of 70. He is buried at the Covenant Presbyterian Church Columbarium in Charlotte, North Carolina.