When the San Francisco 49ers, my worrisome Niners, moved out to a 24-7 lead over the Giants in the second quarter of their NFC divisional playoff game three weeks ago, I turned to my companion in the end zone of Candlestick Park and said gravely, "It's all over." He nodded somberly in agreement. We weren't lamenting the fate of the Giants, mind you. On the contrary, more than three decades of suffering had taught both of us a painful lesson: When the Niners are ahead in a playoff game, especially if they're in front 24-7, forget it. It's all over. They've had it. The Niners, that is. It's in the history books.
For the rest of the country, the year 1957 was no more eventful than most. Oh, Sputniks 1 and 2 were up there beeping in the Space Age, but down below everything was cool. Ike was safely back in the White House for a second term, Elvis was complaining about being "all shook up," and Debbie still had Eddie. Life went on. But not for those of us who are now rather coyly known as the 49er Faithful. For us, the year ended on Dec. 22, the day the Niners played Detroit in San Francisco's old Kezar Stadium for the championship of the NFL Western Conference and the right to meet Cleveland for the league title.
It had, till then, been a banner year for the home team. The Alley-Oop pass play from Y.A. Tittle to gangly R.C. Owens had pulled out a succession of 11th-hour wins. The play, if it could be called that, was a mere lob to the vicinity of the opponents' goal posts, and its success was wholly dependent on the ability of Owens, a former College of Idaho basketball player, to outjump the defenders for the ball, which he regularly did. Assistant Coach Red Hickey persuaded Head Coach Frankie Albert to put the Alley-Oop in the playbook after he saw Tittle, merely fooling around in practice, try unsuccessfully to throw a ball over Owens's head. "We should practice that," Hickey told Albert. "Practice it?" said Albert. "How do you practice that?" But it frequently worked.
Not that the 49ers didn't have other weapons at their disposal. In addition to Tittle, Halfback Hugh (The King) McElhenny, Fullback Joe (The Jet) Perry and Defensive Tackle Leo Nomellini would make the NFL Hall of Fame. The Niners and the Lions had finished the 1957 season in a dead heat for the division championship with 8-4 records, but San Francisco, coming off three straight thriller wins, was on a roll, and its rowdy fans, present company included, were ready to cut loose. Things looked bad for me for a while. My wife had had our first child only four days earlier, and over my obviously selfish objections, she wanted to come home on the day of the game. I was not then a sportswriter, just a hopelessly addicted fan. On game day, I was as busy as Buster Keaton, fetching wife and newborn baby, quaffing some congratulatory champagne with outraged in-laws as fellow season-ticket-holding friends paced impatiently outside and finally scurrying to arrive at Kezar only seconds before the kickoff. As it turned out, I'd have been better off in the bosom of my burgeoning family.
January 25, 1982
Ah, 24-7. That, alas, was the score in favor of the 49ers by halftime. The fans were preparing to dismantle the dilapidated stadium in exultation. And things got even better. On the first play of the second half from the San Francisco 20, McElhenny ran right, assessing his opportunities as he loped menacingly along the line with a stride more feline than human. He paused patiently, running in place, as Guard Lou Palatella got the block that released him. Then he flew, as if pursued by demons, cutting diagonally across the worn turf against the flow of traffic, seemingly oblivious to the Lions clawing at his flanks. No one I've seen has ever run the ball with quite The King's panache.
He was, in a sense, pursued by demons. As a youngster in Los Angeles returning home at night, he was, he has said, "always scared. There was a light at the end of the alley which I had to cut through to get home, with dark doorways on both sides of it. So I wouldn't walk on either side. I'd run down the middle straight toward that light, and along the way I'd sense a telephone pole that I couldn't see and duck away from it. And I'd have the feeling there was someone in each of those doorways trying to get at me." Mac. Good, sweet Mac. He has spent the better part of a lifetime dodging past those doorways, behind which have lurked bankruptcy, broken dreams (he failed to get the Seattle NFL franchise for the prospective purchasers he was representing) and the usual round of domestic headaches. But he generally makes it to the end of the alley.
He was something in those days. Every long run of his—and he still has the three longest runs from scrimmage and the longest punt return in 49er history—was a work of art, and we Mac-ites collected them avidly in our minds' eyes. This one against Detroit was a near masterpiece, covering about 150 circuitous yards—routine for a Mac gain of 50 yards or more—until he was finally hemmed in and driven out of bounds on the Detroit nine-yard line.
First-and-goal on the nine, ahead 24-7. I mean, this one's all over. That's right, it was. For the Niners. The Lions held, and San Francisco's Gordy Soltau kicked a field goal to make it 27-7. And that was it. The Lions won it 31-27. Who knows how? We were all too stunned to remember. All over the stadium beer cans dropped from the hands of disbelieving fans. It all seemed to happen with a terrible inevitability. And it kept on happening. That fateful game of 1957 was an omen.
The 49ers didn't play another postseason game until 1970, the first of three successive years in which they would lose in the playoffs to Dallas. The last of these disasters, on Dec. 23, 1972, was a replay of 1957. Vic Washington returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a 49er touchdown, and with only 1:53 left in the game the Niners were leading 28-16. But Roger Staubach got the Cowboys a touchdown in only 32 seconds, and with 1:21 left the Cowboys lined up for an on-side kick. The Niners were ready for this gambit, having deployed the sure of hand up front to field the ball. Toni Fritsch kicked a squibber straight to Preston Riley, a third-year wide receiver out of Memphis State. The strategy-had worked. The Cowboys had literally played into the 49ers' hands. It was all over. And it was. For the 49ers. The ball squirted through Riley's supposedly nimble fingers, and Mel Renfro of the Cowboys fell on it at midfield. A Staubach scramble and two passes and Dallas had won 30-28. Riley became a pariah who soon drifted out of the game. "I've been in construction ever since then," he said recently in an interview from his home in Houston. "I don't really think that much about it anymore. I'm still hangin' in there."
"I remember that kid who ran the kick back, Vic Washington, was inconsolable after that game," says Lou Spadia, then the 49ers' president. "He sat in his locker and cried for an hour and a half."
Well, after a few debacles of this sort, you start looking over your shoulder. San Franciscans have long been adept at laughing in the face of adversity—consider the cheerful rebuilders of 1906—but over these many years, the 49ers have sorely tested our susceptibility to graveside boffos.
Truth is, from the start things have never really gone all that well for the Niners. In their first year, 1946, their owner and founder, Tony Morabito, got himself into an inadvisable feud with first one and later the other of the city's two leading newspapers. Morabito, a native San Franciscan, was a volatile, playful, fiercely loyal man who made his fortune in the lumber business. His partner with the 49ers was Vic Morabito, who was both his half-brother and his cousin. Tony's mother died when Tony was a baby, at which point his father, an Italian immigrant, summoned a sister-in-law from Italy to care for the child. The father eventually married the sister-in-law and they had Vic, who was born 10 years after Tony. It was a complicated relationship, but the boys got along well.
Tony was an extraordinarily friendly man. "He'd hitch rides on garbage trucks to go to fine restaurants," recalls Spadia, one of Tony's first 49er employees. "He knew everybody. But he was always throwing things. One day a friend came in with an Irish recording. Tony threw it out the window. And there was the time Gordy Soltau sauntered into the office wearing a hat. Gordy was still playing but he was also just starting out in business then, and those were the days when businessmen always wore hats. But Tony wouldn't have it. He let out a little shriek, grabbed that hat and flipped it out the window. Now, our offices in those days were 10 floors up, so we all rushed over to the window to see what had happened to the hat. Well, it fluttered down right at the feet of some poor guy standing there on the sidewalk below. He looked up as if he were expecting a body to follow."
Morabito's impulsiveness brought him grief, however, in the unfamiliar world of public relations. In his first season as an owner in the old All-America Conference, he signed a contract to play an opening exhibition game in each of five years for charities sponsored by the The San Francisco Examiner. This enraged the rival Chronicle, which began putting 49er stories alongside the truss ads. When the agreement expired, Tony, hoping to placate the Chronicle, refused to renew it. This, not unexpectedly, enraged the Examiner and its cantankerous sports editor, Curley Grieve, who promptly began to bury 49er stories in his paper, too. The Chronicle, meanwhile, hadn't forgiven Tony for the original slight. A man of a more conciliatory nature might have made his peace with both papers at that critical juncture, but Tony, angry now at the entire journalistic community, declared war on them all and went to his grave doing battle. In those early years the 49ers needed all the coverage they could get, but it became the job of Spadia, a gentle, good-natured man, to keep players away from inquiring newsmen.
At age 47 Tony died of a heart attack, at halftime of the 1957 game with the Chicago Bears in Kezar. The 49ers were trailing 17-7 at the time, but when word reached the bench that "Tony is gone," they played a furious second half and won 21-17. An emissary from the Bears approached Albert after the game. "If he was going to die," said the Chicagoan, "it would have made him happy that you beat us by four points." "If he was going to live," Albert replied, his eyes glistening with tears, "it would have made me happy to lose by a hundred points."
The Cleveland Browns won all four championships in the brief history of the All-America Conference, aceing out the 49ers each year, but the San Franciscans did gain a measure of revenge in a glorious 56-28 whipping of their arch rivals in 1949. The game devolved into farce, and Perry, then in his second year, and Joe Vetrano, the 170-pound placekicker, decided to exchange jerseys. In his first play wearing Vetrano's number, Perry sped 49 yards for a touchdown. The Browns were humiliated. A puny kicker had run through them. It might have occurred to them, though, that little Vetrano had undergone a startling metamorphosis from mild-mannered, white converter to lightning-fast, 6-foot, 207-pound black man. Vetrano is still very much a figure in San Francisco, a successful businessman seen often in the company of his pal Joe DiMaggio.
The team's emblem in those formative years was of a wild-eyed, bushy-maned prospector wearing boots, checkered pants and a red shirt who was shooting one six-shooter just over his head and aiming another under his jumping feet. "He was drunk." Spadia explains. "In the original picture, there was a saloon in the background." The offending insignia has been phased out over the years by conservative elements in the Niner organization, but there can be no questioning its accuracy as a symbol of the community psyche. The 49ers, players and fans, have always been a wild bunch. Albert, the first quarterback and later the coach, was in his signal-calling days a wit and a prankster who made up plays in the huddle and even changed them while they were in progress. His famous bootlegs often came as a surprise to the intended ballcarrier. And McElhenny, as brilliant as he was, was considered a poor risk when he came out of the University of Washington because of his love of the bright lights. "I'll room with him and tie him down," said Albert in urging Morabito to draft The King. "Fine," replied Tony, "and who'll tie you down?"
McElhenny could run wild off and on the field, but he was also an extraordinarily vulnerable and sentimental man. He wept uncontrollably during his induction speech at the NFL Hall of Fame, apologizing profusely all the while for his outburst. Mac made some unfortunate business deals toward the end of his playing days when he placed too much trust in supposed friends. A grocery venture ended in bankruptcy. He is, at heart, a softie. But at the same time, he is, as they say, no one to mess with. I was dining with friends at Perry's restaurant on Union Street several years ago when an argument of some kind erupted at the bar. I was surprised to see that McElhenny appeared to be a part of it. A man whose fortified courage exceeded his wisdom was being abusive to the fabled King. Mac was backing away from him, urging him to quiet down. The aggressor would have none of it, and he charged Mac. It was over just like that. The unfortunate soul landed at our feet. When he regained his senses, he looked up and inquired. "Did you see that?" "Yes," one of our number replied. "Next time don't pick on an All-Pro halfback."
The 49ers also have been visible in the Bay Area in far more acceptable ways. Charlie Krueger, the All-Pro defensive tackle, even married the daughter of the director of the San Francisco Opera Company. And Bob St. Clair, the All-Pro offensive tackle of the '50s and '60s. was elected to public office in suburban San Mateo County in spite of his well-publicized appetite for raw meat.
Nonetheless, over the years 49er fans have gained a deserved reputation for being among the most bibulous and truculent in the league, although the move to Candlestick from Kezar in 1970 seems mercifully to have dissipated some of that aggressiveness. In the early '60s, the fans' nastiness achieved such proportions that team officials were contemplating asking the city, which owns Kezar, to construct a moat around the playing field. A compromise of sorts was reached when a wire fence was built above the runway to the east tunnel to shield players from the traditional post-game bombardment of beer cans, most of which were not empties.
Kezar itself may have been as much at fault for this aberrant behavior as were the generally frustrating events on the field. Few stadiums are as esthetically favored as this old bowl at the eastern extremity of Golden Gate Park. Approached from the north and west, the arriving fan strolls to it through acres of lush green lawn with forests of eucalyptus, pine and palm. There are ponds and flower beds, and children laughing and dogs playing. In such bucolic splendor it could be assumed that even the most churlish of louts would find room in his heart for charity. Not so. Kezar invariably brought out the worst in everyone.
For one thing, there was virtually no parking in the vicinity of the stadium. So visitors usually arrived early to spend their pregame hours in Stanyan Street saloons preparing themselves for the outrages soon to be visited on them by their favorite team. There were other ways of beating the parking dilemma, though. I, for example, spent $1,200, a huge sum to me in those days, to buy an Isetta for precisely that purpose. The Isetta was a two-cylinder vehicle built by BMW and no bigger than a golf cart. It weighed about 700 pounds and could seat one person comfortably, two in a pinch. On Niner game days its capacity would be stretched to four. We would tool right up to the stadium and physically lift the little machine into a parking space no full-grown car could hope to fit into.
A police officer friend of mine had an even more ingenious method for licking the parking problem. He would drive directly to the no-parking zone nearest the stadium, leave his car there and ceremoniously write himself a citation, which he would place beneath a windshield wiper. At game's end he would return to the illegally parked vehicle and tear the ticket to shreds.
The worst trouble with Kezar was inside. Seats in modern stadiums are generally at least 20 inches wide. And a minimum of 30 inches between rows is considered proper. Kezar's splintery benches allowed only 16 inches of posterior space and the rows were a knee-cracking 20 inches apart. Bill Shoemaker would consider such accommodations confining. In Kezar's center sections, where the season ticket holders congregated, close friendships resulted from such intimacy. In the outer reaches, where strangers collided, familiarity bred contempt. And at Kezar only 19,000 of the 60,000 seats were between the goal lines.
The stadium was built in 1925 for high school football and expanded in patchwork fashion, with the result that it took on a lopsided shape, made all the more ludicrous by the outsized press box that stood like some crazily misplaced middle-income house above the 24 rows of seats on the south side. Rarely, if ever, were there enough newsmen to occupy all of the 250 press-box seats, so the vacancies were filled by visiting celebrities, politicians, priests, small children, guests of management and other freeloaders. Working newsmen were in the minority, and the atmosphere was far more social than professional. During one Niner game a sportswriter was busy hammering out his play-by-play account when the woman seated in front of him suddenly wheeled upon him. "Must you continue that infernal typing through this entire game?" she angrily inquired. "I'm trying to concentrate."
There is no need here to touch upon the deficiency of restrooms in so primitive a facility. Suffice to say that that, too, had a debilitating effect on the collective dispositions of the spectators.
With the move to Candlestick, everything seemed to change but the final scores of crucial games. After Tony's death, Vic ran the team until he, too, died of a heart attack in 1964. The Morabitos' widows, Josephine and Jane, kept things going, with the loyal Spadia as president, until they finally sold the club to Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. in 1977. Eddie was only 31 then and he looked like the young Eddie Fisher. When, in his first press conference, he denied that the team was a toy to him, he seemed to be protesting too much, because Eddie looked like a baby and Papa had a bundle. Hiring Joe Thomas was another blunder. Thomas tried to rebuild by tearing down, and he alienated an entire community in the process. His most grievous error was trying fruitlessly to erase the past, tearing down old photos in the office, cutting the alumni off from free passes. That was dumb. The 49ers are family. Almost all of the old star players still live in the Bay Area, and the fans still love them. In San Francisco, the past is always present.
But Eddie shaped up. He sacked Thomas and hired Bill Walsh, which makes him for this career fan quite simply the smartest owner in the game. It is significant that an old hand like Spadia is impressed by Walsh first of all because he looks like the team's original coach, Buck Shaw. Walsh has tradition built in with that Shavian silver hair.
I tell you, it's been a heady season for those of us who were there from the beginning. The 49ers didn't blow that game to the Giants and they didn't even lose to the Cowboys this time. What's going on around here? I watched the final moments of that Dallas game on television in a Cincinnati hotel room, where I was on assignment. "It's all over," I said to myself when the Cowboys, behind by one point, got the ball with plenty-of time left to score. I knew that all my fellow Niner sufferers from years back were saying the same thing. And it was all over. This time for Dallas. On my television set, my hometown crowd was going wild. And I was sitting there alone, like a damn fool, bawling like a baby. By heaven, they finally did it.