Happy birthday to a San Fransisco 49ers fan! Today, we will dive into the beginnings of the gold and crimson team.
Tony Morabito dedicated his life to bringing an idea to fruition that others thought preposterous – the membership of the West Coast, in general, and San Francisco, in particular, in a nationwide professional football league. Morabito was the sports pioneer of the West, bringing San Francisco its first major league professional team, the San Francisco 49ers, in a professional sports business that was dominated by the East Coast.
Before World War II, Morabito was convinced the San Francisco Bay Area was ready for a franchise in the National Football League. The Bay Area was a mecca for college football. Fans came in droves to Kezar Stadium to see the Wonder Teams of California-Berkeley and the Wow Boys of Stanford, led by Frankie Albert. St. Mary's, Santa Clara and the University of San Francisco were also area powerhouses that regularly defeated the University of Washington and Southern California inside the walls of Kezar.
Morabito saw the rise of football in the area and presented a case to birth a professional football team in 1942 to National Football League officials, but he was quickly ushered out of the meeting room with firm politeness. In the spring of 1944, he took another crack, filing an application for an expansion team in the NFL. The NFL had no teams west of Chicago, and had no plans of changing their geographical structure. Morabito was again shunned.
He was then put in touch with Arch Ward, sports editor of The Chicago Tribune who was trying to organize a rival league, the All-America Football Conference. Morabito told Ward to count him in.
The new league's first meeting was held on June 6, 1944 in St. Louis, D-Day in Europe. Morabito agreed to form a San Francisco franchise in a league that would not begin operations until the end of the war.
1946 was the San Francisco 49ers first year of operation and the Bay Area was in the middle of a post-war economic surge. Morabito's lumber yard was in huge demand as houses were springing up to shelter the fast-growing population that was migrating to California.
Morabito owned the new All-America Football Conference franchise with his partners in the Lumber Terminals of San Francisco – Allen E. Sorrell and E.J. Turre – and his younger brother, Victor. Sorrell suggested the team be named "49ers" after the voyagers who had rushed the West for gold. It is the only name the team has ever been affiliated with and San Francisco is the only city in which it has resided.
The original team logo depicted San Francisco's wild beginnings. A gold miner in boots and a lumberjack shirt, firing a pair of pistols. One shot just missed the miner's head, while the other missed his foot. The logo was taken from a design seen on the side of railway freight cars.
With a charter, name and logo, the group recruited Lawrence "Buck" Shaw, Santa Clara's famous "Silver Fox," as the 49ers first head coach. The organization spent $250,000 to get structured before the team even took their first snap. Morabito's approach was considered "first class," by most, and a financial risk by many, but Morabito charged on, hand-picking an inaugural roster comprised of 32 players including Frankie Albert, Norm Standlee and Bruno Banducci, all from Stanford, and stars from Santa Clara, including Alyn Beals, an end who scored 46 pro touchdowns in four years. Other known players on the roster were Len Eshmont, Johnny "Johnny Strike" Strzykalski and Joe "The Toe" Ventrano.
Morabito watched as his 49ers played their first game on August 24, 1946, a 17-7 exhibition win over the Los Angeles Dons at Balboa Park in San Diego. The 49ers first home game was played at Kezar Stadium on September 1, 1946, a 34-14 exhibition win over the Chicago Rockets in front of 45,000 fans made up of longshoremen, draymen, mechanics and waterfront workers.
The first regular season league game was on September 8, 1946 against the New York Yankees. The 49ers scored first, but lost 21-7 in a game that began in sunshine and ended in the famous Kezar fog. The 49ers finished 9-5 in their first season under Shaw, and went on to have an 8-4-2 record in 1947, 12-2 finish in 1948 and 10-4 record, including a trip to the Championship Game, in their final season in the AAFC.
At the end of 1949, it was announced that the AAFC had run its course. San Francisco, Cleveland and Baltimore received NFL franchises and would begin play in the NFL in 1950. The merger was what Morabito had hoped for all along as he, his brother Victor and general manager Lou Spadia, continued to hold the reins.