The ultimate measure of success for any NFL quarterback is his ability to win games.
Only four starting quarterbacks in Cleveland Browns history can claim to have both won at least 15 games and won at least twice as many games as they lost.
The fourth quarterback would likely be more unrecognized – Milt Plum.
As part of a 13-year NFL career, Plum played quarterback for Cleveland from 1957 to 1961.
During those five seasons, Plum earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors and helped the Browns never have a losing season.
It’s like you don’t even think about Milt Plum anymore. The guy had the record for the best single season QB rating and he held the record for almost 40 years. Milt Plum was so good that he kept Len Dawson on the bench for two seasons. #Browns pic.twitter.com/Ctk340ly3l
— Vintage Browns (@VintageBrowns) June 14, 2020
We take a look at the life of Milt Plum – before, during, and after his NFL career.
The Early Years Before College
Milton Ross Plum was born on January 20, 1935 in Westville, New Jersey.
Westville is located in southwestern New Jersey, about 10 miles south of Philadelphia.
As there was both a football field and a baseball diamond behind Plum’s house, Plum grew up playing both football and baseball.
Plum attended Woodbury High School in Woodbury, New Jersey (a neighboring town to Westville).
At Woodbury High School, Plum played quarterback and also was a kicker.
Plum was a first team all-state quarterback.
Plum also was a catcher on the baseball team.
He also played on the basketball team.
At Woodbury High School, Plum earned nine varsity letters.
Over 1952 and 1953, at Woodbury High School, Plum helped the football team compile an 8-0 record and win both the Colonial Conference and South Jersey Group III titles, the baseball team post a 14-2-1 record and win the Colonial Conference title, and the boys’ basketball team have a 16-6 record and win the Colonial Conference title.
After graduating from high school in 1953, Plum considered playing minor league baseball.
However, Plum decided instead to accept a football scholarship to attend Pennsylvania State University (“Penn State”) in State College, Pennsylvania.
The College Years
Plum played football at Penn State for three seasons in 1954, 1955, and 1956.
He was a quarterback, defensive back, placekicker, and punter.
In 1954, Plum completed three of 17 passes for 42 yards.
He also rushed for 18 yards on 12 rushing attempts.
Penn State had a 7-2 record in 1954 (including on September 25, 1954, a 14-12 Penn State victory over Illinois, then ranked sixth in the nation by the Associated Press).
The Nittany Lions were ranked 20th in the nation in the final Associated Press poll for 1954.
Plum saw more playing time in 1955.
He completed 17 of 41 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 86 yards and three touchdowns on 29 rushing attempts.
In a 21-20 Penn State win over Syracuse (then ranked 18th in the nation by the Associated Press) on November 5, 1955, Plum had a great game.
Plum scored the game-tying touchdown and kicked the game-winning extra point.
He also threw a touchdown pass, intercepted a pass, and made a memorable play on defense, when he tackled Syracuse star (and future Plum teammate and Pro Football Hall of Fame running back) Jim Brown in the open field, preventing a Syracuse touchdown.
About his tackle of Brown, Plum said:
“He was off to the races. I had an angle on him and was able to get him.”
The Nittany Lions had a 5-4 record in 1955.
In 1956, as a senior, Plum saw his most playing time.
He completed 40 of 75 passes for 675 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for 70 yards on 36 rushing attempts.
On October 20, 1956, in a 7-6 Penn State defeat of Ohio State (then ranked fifth in the nation by the Associated Press), Plum had a 72-yard “coffin-corner” punt, which led to Penn State acquiring good field position and ultimately scoring Penn State’s only touchdown in the game.
Plum then kicked what turned out to be the game-winning extra point.
In 1956, Penn State had a 6-2-1 record.
Plum’s head coach at Penn State, future College Football Hall of Famer Rip Engle, said about Plum:
“[Plum] is always the first one on the field . . . he studies game films zealously and he never gets upset under fire.”
After Penn State, Plum headed to the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
The Cleveland Browns drafted Plum in the second round of the 1957 NFL draft.
He was the 17th overall pick.
Plum (playing at a height of six feet and one inch and a weight of 205 pounds) started the season as a back-up to Browns starting quarterback Tommy O’Connell.
He ended up playing in nine, and starting three, regular season games in 1957.
In a 24-7 Cleveland defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles on October 13, 1957, Plum accrued his first statistics in a regular season game, rushing for two yards on two rushing attempts.
The following week, on October 20, 1957, Plum completed his first pass in a regular season game, in a 17-7 Browns loss to the Eagles.
Plum completed seven of 13 passes for 78 yards and rushed for five yards on one rushing attempt.
In the next game, with Tommy O’Connell injured in the prior game, Plum started his first regular season game, in a 17-7 Cleveland victory over the Chicago Cardinals on October 27, 1957.
He completed three of nine passes for 11 yards and rushed for nine yards on two rushing attempts.
In a 20-7 Browns loss to the Detroit Lions on December 8, 1957, Plum started the game and threw his first regular season touchdown pass – 58 yards to flanker Ray Renfro.
Plum also completed 12 of 21 passes for 190 yards and rushed for 13 yards on five rushing attempts.
The following week, on December 15, 1957, Plum again started the game, in a 34-28 Cleveland win over the New York Giants.
Plum completed 11 of 16 passes for 229 yards and a 38-yard touchdown pass to Ray Renfro and rushed for 68 yards on seven rushing attempts.
In the 1957 regular season, Plum completed 41 of 76 passes for 590 yards and the above-described two touchdowns and rushed for 118 yards on 26 rushing attempts.
The Browns won the NFL East Division title in 1957 with a 9-2-1 record.
Cleveland advanced to the 1957 NFL championship game against the Detroit Lions on December 29, 1957.
Plum did not start the game, which the Browns lost to Detroit 59-14.
He completed five of 12 passes for 51 yards and rushed for 46 yards on three rushing attempts.
In 1958, Plum became the starter at quarterback for Cleveland, as he played in all 12, and started 11, regular season games.
On September 28, 1958, in a 30-27 Browns win over the Los Angeles Rams, Plum completed 13 of 25 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns – four yards to future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back-flanker Bobby Mitchell and 21 yards to Ray Renfro.
Plum also rushed for 15 yards on two rushing attempts.
The following week, on October 5, 1958, Plum completed 13 of 14 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns (21 yards to Bobby Mitchell and eight yards to end Pete Brewster), as Cleveland defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 45-12.
In the next game, on October 12, 1958, Plum scored his first regular season touchdown, on a one-yard rush, in a 35-28 Browns triumph over the Chicago Cardinals.
Plum also completed seven of 15 passes for 122 yards.
The following week, on October 19, 1958, in a 27-10 Cleveland victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Plum completed eight of 18 passes for 138 yards and three touchdowns – 27 yards to Jim Brown, 36 yards to Ray Renfro, and seven yards to Bobby Mitchell.
Plum also kicked two extra points.
Plum scored the winning touchdown on a one-yard rush, in a 21-14 Browns win over the Washington Redskins on November 30, 1958.
He also rushed for 23 yards on five rushing attempts and completed 10 of 19 passes for 219 yards and a 29-yard touchdown pass to Ray Renfro.
The following week, on December 7, 1958, Plum threw the winning touchdown pass, for 48 yards to Ray Renfro, in a 21-14 Cleveland defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Plum also completed five of 11 passes for 111 yards and rushed for 29 yards and two rushing touchdowns (for 10 yards and one yard) on six rushing attempts.
Plum, in the 1958 regular season, completed 102 of 189 passes (ranking fourth in passing completion percentage (54.0%)) for 1,619 yards (ranking second in average yards per passing attempt (8.6)) and 11 touchdowns, rushed for 107 yards and the above-described four touchdowns on 37 rushing attempts, and kicked the above-described two extra points.
With a 9-3 record, the Browns tied for first place with the New York Giants in the NFL East division in 1958.
Cleveland met New York in a “tiebreaker” playoff game on December 21, 1958.
Plum started the game and completed seven of 12 passes for 83 yards and rushed for 13 yards on three rushing attempts.
However, the Browns lost to the Giants 10-0.
In 1959, Jim Ninowski competed with Plum for the starting quarterback position.
Plum won the job and started all 12 regular season games in 1959.
Future Pro Football Hall of Fame Browns head coach Paul Brown stated:
“Plum gives the team confidence.”
On October 4, 1959, Plum completed 11 of 14 passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns – a five-yard pass to Ray Renfro and a 36-yard pass to end Billy Howton – in a 34-7 Cleveland victory over the Chicago Cardinals.
Plum also rushed for one yard on one rushing attempt.
In a 34-7 Browns win over the Washington Redskins on October 25, 1959, Plum threw four touchdown passes – 76 yards and 15 yards to Bobby Mitchell, 12 yards to end Preston Carpenter, and 10 yards to running back Ed Modzelewski.
Plum also completed 13 of 18 passes for 253 yards.
The following week, on November 1, 1959, Plum completed 14 of 23 passes for 200 yards, as Cleveland defeated the Baltimore Colts 38-31.
In the next game, on November 8, 1959, Plum completed 12 of 20 passes for 146 yards and a four-yard touchdown pass to Ray Renfro, in a 28-7 Browns triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles.
The following week, on November 15, 1959, Plum completed 17 of 25 passes for 170 yards and a 39-yard touchdown pass to Ray Renfro, in a 31-17 Cleveland victory over the Washington Redskins.
Plum completed 12 of 14 passes for 165 yards and one touchdown (43 yards to Preston Carpenter), in a 28-21 Browns win over the Philadelphia Eagles on December 13, 1959.
He also rushed for 17 yards on two rushing attempts.
In the 1959 regular season, Plum completed 156 of 266 passes (ranking tied for first in passing completion percentage (58.6%)) for 1,992 yards (ranking fourth in passing yards) and 14 touchdowns (ranking tied for fourth in passing touchdowns) and rushed for 20 yards and one touchdown on 21 rushing attempts.
He also had a 20-yard pass reception.
Cleveland posted a 7-5 record in 1959.
Plum again started all 12 regular season games in 1960.
In a 28-20 Browns win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 2, 1960, Plum completed 10 of 14 passes for 308 yards and a 60-yard touchdown pass to end Rich Kreitling.
Plum also scored a touchdown on a one-yard rush.
The following game, on October 16, 1960, Plum completed six of eight passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns – 46 yards to Bobby Mitchell and six yards to end Gern Nagler – in a 48-7 Cleveland triumph over the Dallas Cowboys.
Plum completed 14 of 19 passes for 204 yards and one touchdown (a 53-yard touchdown pass to Gern Nagler), in a 31-10 Browns victory over the Washington Redskins on October 30, 1960.
He also rushed for six yards on one rushing attempt.
On November 13, 1960, Plum completed 11 of 15 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns – a 66-yard pass to Ray Renfro and a five-yard pass to end Leon Clarke – as Cleveland defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 28-27.
Plum threw three touchdown passes – 30 yards to Jim Brown, 12 yards to Rich Kreitling, and 29 yards to Bobby Mitchell – in a 27-16 Browns win over the Washington Redskins on December 4, 1960.
He also completed 10 of 28 passes for 212 yards and rushed for one yard on one rushing attempt.
In a 48-34 Cleveland triumph over the New York Giants on December 18, 1960, Plum completed 19 of 40 passes for 296 yards and four touchdowns – 31 yards to Ray Renfro, 69 yards and seven yards to Bobby Mitchell, and 37 yards to Jim Brown.
For the 1960 regular season, Plum completed 151 of 250 passes (ranking first in passing completion percentage (60.4%)) for 2,297 yards (ranking third in passing yards and first in average passing yards per passing attempt (9.2)) and 21 touchdowns (ranking third in passing touchdowns) and rushed for two touchdowns.
Plum was invited to his first Pro Bowl for his play in 1960.
He also was named second team All-Pro for his play in 1960 by the Associated Press.
The Browns compiled an 8-3-1 record in 1960.
In 1961, Plum played in all 14, and started 13, regular season games.
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) August 21, 2017
Plum completed 16 of 32 passes for 134 yards and two touchdown passes – 16 yards to running back Tom Watkins and 41 yards to Leon Clarke – in a 20-17 Cleveland win over the St. Louis Cardinals on September 24, 1961.
The following week, on October 1, 1961, Plum completed 8 of 17 passes for 100 yards and two touchdown passes to Rich Kreitling (for 16 yards and eight yards), as the Browns defeated the Dallas Cowboys 25-7.
Plum also rushed for 21 yards on four rushing attempts.
In the next game, on October 8, 1961, Plum completed 16 of 26 passes for 184 yards and a 52-yard touchdown pass to Bobby Mitchell, in a 31-7 Cleveland triumph over the Washington Redskins.
In another Browns victory over the Redskins, 17-6 on November 12, 1961, Plum completed 12 of 15 passes for 92 yards and a nine-yard touchdown pass to Rich Kreitling.
Plum also rushed for eight yards on one rushing attempt.
The following week, on November 19, 1961, Plum completed 16 of 21 passes for 246 yards and an 18-yard touchdown pass to Bobby Mitchell, in a 45-24 Cleveland win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
On December 3, 1961, Plum scored on a one-yard touchdown rush, as the Browns defeated the Dallas Cowboys 38-17.
He also rushed for four yards on five rushing attempts and completed 10 of 13 passes for 143 yards and a 21-yard touchdown pass to Jim Brown.
Plum, in the 1961 regular season, completed 177 of 302 passes (ranking first in passing completion percentage (58.6%)) for 2,416 yards (ranking fifth in passing yards and tied for fifth in average passing yards per passing attempt (8.0)) and 18 touchdowns (ranking tied for third in passing touchdowns) and rushed for the above-described one touchdown.
For his play in 1961, Plum was invited to his second consecutive Pro Bowl.
Browns QB Milt Plum at the 1961 NFL Pro Bowl. He was traded to the Lions not long after. pic.twitter.com/7U7fM8r0Gp
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) December 13, 2016
In 1961, Cleveland had an 8-5-1 record.
1961 was Plum’s last season with the Browns.
On March 29, 1962, Cleveland traded Plum, Tom Watkins, and linebacker Dave Lloyd to the Detroit Lions in exchange for Jim Ninowski (who returned to the Browns after playing for Detroit in the 1960 and 1961), defensive end Bill Glass, and running back Howard “Hopalong” Cassady.
Plum was traded in part because he publicly criticized the play calling by Paul Brown; Plum wanted to have more flexibility to call audible plays at the line of scrimmage.
In 1962, Plum started all 14 regular season games for Detroit.
Plum, in the 1962 regular season, completed 179 of 325 passes for 2,378 yards and 15 touchdowns, rushed for 170 yards and one touchdown on 29 rushing attempts, and kicked five field goals.
The Lions had an 11-3 record in 1962.
In 1963, Plum lost his job as starting quarterback to Earl Morrall.
Plum only played in 10, and started four, regular season games in 1963.
Plum, in the 1963 regular season, completed 27 of 77 passes for 339 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for 26 yards on 9 rushing attempts, and kicked one field goal and 13 extra points.
Detroit had a 5-8-1 record in 1963.
When Earl Morrall was injured in 1964, Plum regained the starting quarterback position for Detroit.
Plum played in 12, and started 11, regular season games in 1964.
In the 1964 regular season, Plum completed 154 of 287 passes for 2,241 yards (ranking fourth in average passing yards per passing attempt (7.8)) and 18 touchdowns and rushed for 28 yards and one touchdown on 12 rushing attempts.
The Lions posted a 7-5-2 record in 1964.
In 1965, Plum played in all 14, and started 11, regular season games.
— Ted Fattal (@TedFattal) February 5, 2017
Plum completed 143 of 308 passes for 1,710 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 37 yards and three touchdowns on 21 rushing attempts in the 1965 regular season.
Detroit, in 1965, had a 6-7-1 record.
Plum suffered a knee injury in 1966 and only played in and started six regular season games.
In the 1966 regular season, Plum completed 82 of 146 passes (ranking third in passing completion percentage (56.2%)) for 943 yards and four touchdowns, rushed for 59 yards on 12 rushing attempts, and kicked one extra point.
The Lions had a 4-9-1 record in 1966.
In 1967, Plum played in nine, and started six, regular season games.
Plum, in the 1967 regular season, completed 86 of 172 passes for 925 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for five yards on six rushing attempts.
In 1967, Detroit compiled a 5-7-2 record.
1967 was both Plum’s last year with the Lions and last year he saw significant playing time in the NFL.
On May 1, 1968, Plum was traded to the Los Angeles Rams.
With the Rams, Plum (playing in only four regular season games) completed five of 12 passes for 49 yards and one touchdown and rushed for three yards on two rushing attempts in the 1968 regular season.
The Rams had a 10-3-1 record in 1968.
Plum, on July 20, 1969, was traded to the New York Giants.
In the 1969 regular season, Plum (playing in only one regular season game) completed three of nine passes for 37 yards.
New York, in 1969, had a 6-8 record.
1969 was Plum’s final season in the NFL.
The Years After Professional Football
After his NFL career was over, Plum worked in the wood products industry.
He ultimately retired to North Carolina.
In reflecting on his NFL career, Plum said:
“God gave me the gift for throwing. I threw hard as a catcher, and I threw hard as a quarterback. In tennis I try to hit the ball hard. But I can’t hit a golf ball worth a damn!”
Plum ranks in the top 10 in several Cleveland Browns career passing statistics.
First, in Browns career passing yards, Plum ranks eighth (8,914 yards).
Second, in Cleveland career touchdown passes, Plum ranks seventh (66 touchdowns).
Third, in Browns career passing completion percentage among quarterbacks who attempted at least 300 passes, Plum ranks ninth (57.9%).
Fourth, in Cleveland career average passing yards per passing attempt among quarterbacks who attempted at least 300 passes, Plum ranks second (8.2 yards).
While these statistics are impressive, it is Plum’s winning record as a starting quarterback – 33-16-2 – that is especially noteworthy.
Why then does Plum not get more recognition?
The probable answer is that Plum was never the starting quarterback for a Browns team that advanced to the NFL championship game.
In his rookie season, Plum contributed to Cleveland advancing to the NFL championship game in 1957, but he was not the starting quarterback.
From 1958 to 1961, Plum helped the Browns post records of 9-3, 7-5, 8-3-1, and 8-5-1, respectively.
In the “limited” (generally only two team) playoffs during these years, those winning records were insufficient to surpass some good New York Giants (although in 1958, Cleveland tied with the Giants, but lost to them in the “tiebreaker” playoff game) and Philadelphia Eagles teams in the NFL East division.
While Plum never quarterbacked the Browns to the NFL championship game, his Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors and various high NFL regular season statistical rankings (in such categories as passing completion percentage, passing yards, average passing yards per passing attempt, and passing touchdowns) show that Plum had quarterback talent.
Based on this talent and his role in helping Cleveland consistently win games over his five seasons with the team, Milt Plum is one of the top quarterbacks in Browns history.