A professional football game in San Francisco last Sunday produced the biggest exodus the city has known since the earthquake of 1906. Some 15,000 fans, unable to get seats for the 49er-Baltimore Colt game, poured out of the city headed for Reno, Lake Tahoe—anywhere over the boundaries of the 150-mile TV blackout. They were wiser than the fans who elected to fight for the 4,800 general admission seats which went on sale Sunday morning. This obstreperous crowd battled furiously to get to the ticket windows. The ticket booth rocked back and forth, once came down on the foot of a fan at the ticket window, bruising his toes. He was treated at a hospital but limped off rapidly, headed back to Kezar Stadium and the football game.
In Detroit on the same afternoon, the 55,815 people who jammed Briggs Stadium roared continuously through most of the second half of the Detroit-Cleveland game.
When the shouting and tumult had died down Sunday night, three teams were tied for first place in the riotous race for the National Football League's Western Division crown. Baltimore, which had been alone in first place, lost to San Francisco in the last 46 seconds, and Detroit, surviving the loss of Quarterback Bobby Layne, defeated Cleveland. The combination left San Francisco, Baltimore and Detroit tied at 7-4 in the West.
The winner of this three-way hassle for the Western championship will play the Cleveland Browns for the National Football League crown in the home stadium of the West champion. Cleveland, which has won 8, lost 2 and tied 1, became the East champion, regardless of how it fares against the New York Giants Sunday; the Giants attended to that by losing to Pittsburgh in ankle-deep mud last Saturday afternoon.
The pro football fans of Baltimore, Detroit and San Francisco suffered through a long Sunday afternoon of high tension and explosive action before the three-way tie was effected. First Detroit, playing a Cleveland team which looked lackadaisical at times, stumbled and stuttered to a 20-7 victory. Cleveland, playing one of its two games against a foe from the Western Division, appeared to be resting and licking its wounds in preparation for the championship game against the survivor of the dog fight in the West. Injured Tommy O'Connell, the surprising quarterback who has led the Brown comeback this season, sat on the bench in civvies. His No. 1 replacement, Milt Plum, was injured late in the game, and John Borton finished for the Browns. The Lions, needing this game for a chance at the West title, played viciously, especially after Bobby Layne, their leader and quarterback, went out with a broken ankle. Tobin Rote, who replaced Layne, responded nobly, but probably the principal credit for the Lion victory accrues to a blond, good-natured young man named Joe Schmidt. Schmidt, who plays middle linebacker for the Lions, may be the most competent practitioner of his difficult trade in professional football. Against the Browns, he spent most of the chill, gray afternoon dogging the steps of Jimmy Brown, the great Cleveland rookie fullback who went into this game leading the league in ground-gaining. Brown contributed little to the measly 69-yard Cleveland total on the ground; Schmidt saw to that. On one Cleveland sequence Schmidt, on successive plays, threw Borton for a six-yard loss on an attempted pass, hauled down another Brown after a short gain, dropped a third runner after two yards and, finally, with the Browns gambling from their own 26, knifed through a gap to spill Jim Brown so hard that the Cleveland rookie fumbled, setting up Detroit's final touchdown. Said Schmidt, sometime before this game was played: "This pro game always has been real rough, and the players aren't getting any more lenient. Every time I hit someone I try to do it just as hard as I can. In the heat of the excitement you can get mad, and everyone does."
The Lions were particularly riled when Layne, their fine quarterback, was carried off the field on a stretcher. Don Colo, the giant Cleveland tackle, didn't help matters much. Dr. Richard A. Thompson, the Detroit team physician, told Layne as they left the field, "You're going to the hospital, Bobby." Said Colo, bending over Layne, "That's better than jail, Bobby boy." Layne only smiled.
Layne's accident was just that. Although no snow fell during the game, the field was soft from earlier snows and both teams wore mud cleats. Layne, going down under a pile of Cleveland tacklers, hung his cleats in the soft earth and broke the fibula and dislocated his ankle.
The loss of Layne, who is out for the season, makes Detroit's chances for a division title slim indeed. George Wilson, the Lion coach was noncommittal about the cost of Layne's absence: "I won't comment on that because it would put too much pressure on Rote."
Jim Doran, who plays offensive end for Detroit, looks ahead grimly to next Sunday's Bear game. "If there's one club the Lions really hate, it's the Bears," he said after the Cleveland victory.
San Francisco's victory Sunday could be credited, in large measure, to two old pros—Hugh McElhenny and Leo Nomellini. McElhenny, playing end since the injury to Clyde Conner deprived the 49ers of much-needed speed at the flank, caught key passes all afternoon. And he called for the pass which gave the 49ers the game in the last 46 seconds. Y. A. Tittle, the brilliant quarterback who started the game with a pulled muscle in his left leg, had maneuvered the 49ers down into scoring position with a 43-yard pass play to McElhenny when a sudden muscle spasm in the injured leg put him out of the game. In came John Brodie, who has seen very little action this season. ("No rookie ever went in to face more of a clutch," said Coach Frank Albert after the game.) Brodie tried one pass from the 14-yard line, which went astray. As the 49ers huddled, facing fourth down, knowing a tie was useless to them in their quest for their first division championship, McElhenny spoke up.
"Throw it to me, John," he said. "Davis is playing me too loose. I can get away."
So Brodie threw it to McElhenny, who had raced straight down at Colt Rookie Halfback Milt Davis and suddenly cut sharply to the sideline. The pass was good, McElhenny caught it and the 49ers won.
Nomellini's contribution was not quite so spectacular, but it was as valuable. The big tackle, elected defensive captain for the first time before the game, responded with a ponderous and violent display of gratitude. Once big Leo, who is a wrestler in the off season and who is playing his eighth year of professional football, thundered through Colt blockers to bat down an extra-point try and leave the 49ers in possession of a 7-6 lead. And again he brushed aside blockers to knock down a field goal attempt, then lumbered heavily after the ball until he plopped down on it at the 49er 41-yard line to stop a Colt threat.
Johnny to Lennie
Although they lost the game, the Colts often appeared the sounder team. Johnny Unitas, their remarkable quarterback, handled the team coolly, although he was under strong pressure from the 49er defensive line most of the afternoon. He worked carefully to set up the most spectacular touchdown of the game, an 82-yard scoring pass to Halfback Lennie Moore. Moore, flanked to the left most of the afternoon, was flanked to the right, wide, at the Colt 18-yard line. This left J. D. Smith, weakest of the 49er pass defenders, to handle the speedy Moore alone. Unitas dropped back, waited briefly while Moore outsped Smith, then sailed the ball some 50 yards through the air, down to the 49er 40-yard line where Moore, now three yards behind Smith, took it in stride and hurried on for the touchdown.
All was not sweetness and light after the game. Weeb Ewbank, the Colt coach, took the defeat bitterly. Ewbank claimed that McElhenny pushed Davis in completing the touchdown pass which gave the 49ers the game. "R. C. Owens used to push the defenders to complete passes until the other clubs caught on," said Ewbank. "Now McElhenny has learned the trick."
Said McElhenny, in ambiguous rebuttal: "On the touchdown pass I didn't touch him and he didn't touch me."
The 49er team captain, Tackle Bob St. Clair, awarded the game ball to McElhenny. "Usually we like to give the ball to a defensive player," said St. Clair in his presentation speech. "But today Mac's the man."
"I'll split the ball with you," McElhenny hollered to Brodie. But Brodie declined. "I'm the luckiest son of a gun in the world, Mac," he said. "But that ball belongs to you. I'd like to put my name on it, though."
Frank Albert, the 49er coach, climbed on a bench to make another speech. "Fellows," he said, "don't forget we still have one more game." He didn't finish the speech. "Two more, Coach!" someone yelled, and the team roared.
As the three western contenders approach their final regular season games, San Francisco is in the best position. Tittle, whose muscle spasm was only a temporary disability, will be ready to play, and the rest of the team is healthy. The 49ers play at home before their rabidly partisan fans, and their opposition is the weakest in the division, the Green Bay Packers. The Colts, also healthy, face the Los Angeles Rams in the Coliseum, a team which Sunday beat Green Bay 42-17. The Lions are in the least enviable position; with Layne out and the team coming off a bruising game with Cleveland, they must play the rough Chicago Bears in Chicago.
As the spectators filed out of Kezar Stadium Sunday evening, hundreds of them lined up at ticket booths to buy the few remaining tickets for next week's Green Bay game.
Doubtless other hundreds hurried to reserve hotel rooms in Reno and elsewhere beyond the TV blackout.