Much to the amusement of more seasoned observers, an entire
generation of Bay Area football fans seems to have reached maturity
believing the San Francisco 49ers to be some sort of invincible
dynasty. The old-timers can only look back on nearly four decades of
anguish, frustration and dashed hopes and see their beloved team as
more of a dysfunctional family. The signal year for these older fans
would be 1957.
And, oh, what a year it was! There were nail-biting last-minute
wins over the Los Angeles Rams, the Chicago Bears, the Detroit Lions
and the Baltimore Colts. Quarterback Y.A. Tittle became famous for
his alley-oop passes thrown high in the end zone to the acrobatic
halfback R.C. Owens. Huge crowds of rumbustious disciples, many of
them arriving in bus caravans from bars near and far, filled
dilapidated old Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park to throbbing
capacity. This was a team coached by 49er immortal Frankie Albert,
the lefthander who had quarterbacked the team from 1946 to '52, and
peopled with such glamorous stars as future Hall of Famers Tittle,
Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry, Leo Nomellini and Bob St. Clair. The
Niners finished in a dead heat with Detroit for the Western
Conference championship that year, the first title of any sort in the
history of the franchise.
Alas, it would also be a year of grievous heartbreak. In the first
half of an Oct. 27 game with the Bears at Kezar, Tony Morabito, the
team's founder and owner, died at age 47 of a heart attack. The
players were told of his death at halftime, when they trailed 17-7.
They charged from the locker room for the second half with tears
streaming down their faces. The Bears had no chance as the Niners
pulled out a 21-17 win.
Morabito was a popular owner, a gregarious, self-made lumber
tycoon who was pals with his players and unusually protective of them
as well. He was also possessed of a volatile temper that manifested
itself in his habit of hurling things that displeased him (people
excluded) out of his office window, 10 stories above the streets of
San Francisco. One day, Morabito was visited by star end and kicker
Gordy Soltau, who was wearing a business suit, complete with hat,
this being a time when fedoras were considered essential to proper
downtown attire. For some reason, the sight of one of his players
wearing a hat annoyed Morabito, so he snatched the offending object
and skimmed it out the window. It sailed down those 10 stories and
landed at the feet of a pedestrian, who looked upward apprehensively
as if, recalled Niner general manager Lou Spadia, ''he fully expected
a body to follow.''
When, in 1946, Morabito organized the team as a member of the
All-America Conference (the Niners were among three AAC teams that
joined the NFL in 1950), he wisely stocked up on players familiar to
Bay Area fans. They included seven from his alma mater, Santa Clara,
and four -- Albert, Norm Standlee, Bruno Banducci and Hank Norberg --
who had formed the nucleus of the undefeated 1940 Stanford team,
which introduced the T formation to college football. Morabito also
hired popular coach Buck Shaw, who had taken Santa Clara to two Sugar
Bowl wins in the 1930s.
At the same time, Morabito unwisely feuded with San Francisco's
two major daily newspapers, the Chronicle and the Examiner, angering
the former because he agreed to play a series of charity games
sponsored by the latter. The Examiner then cried foul when he
terminated the deal. Morabito also bristled at what he considered
unfair criticism -- that is to say, any criticism -- of his players
in print. The rift was eventually closed, largely through the good
works of the amiable Spadia, but Morabito never trusted journalists.
At his death, control of the team fell to Vic Morabito, who was
both Tony's half-brother and cousin, Tony's widowed father having
married a sister-in-law who then gave birth to Vic. Under the best
of circumstances, it is doubtful that Tony, who had long suffered
from a heart condition, would have survived the 1957 divisional
playoff game with the Lions, the memory of which still breaks the
hearts of the 49er faithful.
The Niners came out for the second half of that game with a 24-7
lead. On the first play of the third quarter, McElhenny ripped off
one of his cross- country runs, zigzagging from sideline to sideline
until he was finally forced out-of-bounds at the Lion nine-yard line.
To this day, there are 49er fans who insist that -- Gale Sayers,
Barry Sanders and the rest be damned -- Hurrying Hugh was the most
exciting of all backs.
In the 49er record books, McElhenny still has the three longest
runs from scrimmage in team history: 89, 86 and 82 yards. Against the
Lions on that Dec. 22, he certainly brought the 50,118 fans crammed
into Kezar to a screaming frenzy. And yet, in a chilling omen of
things to come, the 49ers were unable to punch the ball across the
goal line, settling instead for a Soltau field goal. Still, a 27-7
lead looked substantial enough. It wasn't. The Lions, behind the
passing of Tobin Rote (subbing for an injured Bobby Layne) and the
running of Tom (the Bomb) Tracy, came back to win 31-27. The faithful
trudged out of Kezar in a state of shock and climbed disconsolately
aboard their buses toward homes empty of joy.
If the '57 season ranks as a colossal disappointment, '54 and '61
were not much better. Fifty-four was the first year of the Million
Dollar Backfield of Tittle, McElhenny, Perry and John Henry Johnson,
the only backfield in NFL history with four future Hall of Famers.
The Niners, sparked by these terrors, went 4-0-1 in their first five
games and seemed headed for their first championship. McElhenny, who
had averaged seven yards per carry as a rookie in '52, was
unstoppable in those first five games of '54. And in the sixth,
against Chicago, he was averaging a cool 18 yards for his seven
carries when the Bears pounced on him after one dazzler, knocking him
out of the game and the rest of the season with a separated shoulder.
McElhenny finished with 515 yards in his five-plus games for an
astonishing average of eight yards per carry.
The Niners' season effectively ended with McElhenny's injury. The
team won only three more games, and adding insult to injury, Morabito
fired Shaw, still popular after nine years at the helm. Shaw went on
to win a league ) championship as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles
six years later.
The '61 season began with similar promise, although there were
some early misgivings after coach Red Hickey summarily unloaded the
aging Tittle, McElhenny and Perry to make room for his new shotgun
offense. The trade of Tittle to the New York Giants -- whom he would
lead to three NFL title games -- for an obscure lineman named Lou
Cordileone ranks as one of the worst in the history of professional
sports. But Hickey said Tittle simply would not fit into his new
attack, and he assured fans that the shotgun would ''swing in any
direction and fire when ready.'' This supposedly revolutionary
offense was merely a variation of the old spread formation that
Hickey had seen in his college days at Arkansas in the wide-open
Southwest Conference of the 1930s. Instead of receiving the snap
directly behind the center, Hickey's quarterbacks would stand five
yards deep and be flanked by two running backs.
Hickey began the season alternating three quarterbacks -- John
Brodie, rookie Billy Kilmer and Bobby Waters -- on every play. Brodie
would usually pass, Kilmer would almost always run, and Waters might
do either. The shotgun discharged with a bang, and the Niners ran up
lopsided scores of 35-3 over the Washington Redskins, 49-0 over
Detroit and 35-0 over the Rams while again winning four of their
first five games. Then they played the Bears in Chicago on Oct. 22.
Clark Shaughnessy, Papa Bear George Halas's wily defensive coach (and
Albert's coach at Stanford), had spotted a flaw in the shotgun. By
positioning linebacker Bill George directly over center, Shaughnessy
felt that he could nullify the run, since the formation wasn't
constructed for sweeps. And by employing as many as seven men on the
line, he knew he could muster a pass rush that would hound Brodie to
distraction. The defense worked to perfection. The Niners gained only
132 yards in total offense and had just six first downs in a 31-0
Stubborn though he was, Hickey abandoned the shotgun and put
Brodie back behind center full-time in the T. The Niners won only
three more games that season. The stars Hickey had forsaken fared
somewhat better. McElhenny, palmed off to the expansion Minnesota
Vikings, led his team in rushing with 570 yards -- on one run, a
39-yarder against his former teammates, he dodged every single 49er
defender at least once on his way to the end zone -- and averaged 19
yards on punt returns. Perry led Baltimore in rushing with 675 yards,
and Tittle threw 17 touchdown passes while leading the Giants to
the Eastern Conference championship.
After going 6-8 the next year, Hickey finally quit three games
into the '63 season, protesting all the while that, given the right
triggermen, the shotgun could blow holes in any defense. In the years
since, he has been at least partially vindicated as most NFL teams
now use the formation at least occasionally.
The 1960s were, on the whole, sad times for the Niners. They had
only four winning seasons in the decade, and attendance was down by
almost half from the glory days of the '50s. Part of the problem, of
course, was Kezar itself, where only 19,000 of the 59,000-plus seats
were between the goal lines and the spaces between the rows of
splintered benches were a knee-cracking 20 inches. Even when the fans
were most aroused, they were miserably uncomfortable, and many
assuaged that discomfort with generous swallows of stimulants. Kezar
fans therefore developed the reputation of being the rowdiest and
most obnoxious in the league.
In a 1953 on-field brawl between the 49ers and the Eagles,
Philadelphia players were shocked to find that among their opponents
were bottle-wielding fans and even belligerent members of the pep
band. A few years later, one fan burst from his end-zone seat and
steamed straight for Halas, whose badgering of officials the fan
apparently found intolerable. Fortunately, the miscreant was
intercepted by a Bear aide and sent packing with a solid kick to the
rear. On another occasion, a shapely woman in a red dress appeared
unexpectedly on the running track surrounding the playing field and
began a seductive dance. She would have toured the track had security
guards not caught up with her at about midfield and hauled her off.
Turns out she was the ex-wife of a prominent San Francisco
In order to reach their locker rooms, the players were obliged to
pass directly under the dreaded Kezar stands before entering a tunnel
that took them to safety. This arrangement afforded some of the more
besotted spectators a chance to express their displeasure, often
physically. In the Sorry '60s, it was not at all uncommon for Niner
players to be showered with beer cans from above, not all of them
empty. To make the field a bit safer, 49er management at one point
asked the city to convert the running track into a moat. The city
demurred but, in a compromise, authorized the construction of a
protective cage over the east-end exit from the field. While this
did not stop the bombardment, it did render it less effective.
Then there was the press box, which in many respects more nearly
resembled a middle-class suburban home plopped incongruously in the
stands on the south side of the stadium. This structure could
accommodate as many as 250 onlookers, though not all of them were
working newsmen. In fact, sportswriters were in a distinct minority
among the hordes of politicians, front-office cronies, friendly
priests, out-of-town visitors and sundry freeloaders who partied
there. During one game, a female guest wheeled on a reporter busily
banging out his story and snapped, ''Must you keep up that infernal
typing? Can't you see I'm trying to concentrate on the game?''
Not all of the 49ers' troubles in the 1960s were on the field,
although those were bad enough. In '62, Kilmer, who had developed a
loyal following, broke his leg in a car crash. Not to be outdone,
Brodie broke his arm five months later in another crash only a few
miles from the site of Kilmer's accident. In May 1964, Vic Morabito
died, like his half-brother, of a heart attack. He was only 43.
Control of the team fell to the surviving widows, Josephine and Jane,
with Spadia as team president and faithful retainer.
The new owners made a smart decision in 1968 when they hired
35-year-old Dick Nolan as coach. And two years later, the team moved
from Kezar to a newly expanded Candlestick Park. The early '70s would
bring some relief. The shy Nolan, who had been a defensive back with
the Giants and then a Dallas Cowboy assistant, was no locker room
spellbinder, but he did know his football. He took the team to three
straight playoff appearances from 1970 through '72, each of them a
loss to the Cowboys. The last of these was all too painfully
reminiscent of '57.
The game was played at Candlestick, and the Niners were leading
28-16 with 1:53 left to play when, as usual, things turned sour.
Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach needed only 32 seconds to make it
28-23 on a pass to Billy Parks. The Cowboys then tried an onside
kick. Nolan was ready for it, having replaced his conventional return
team with a ''sure hands'' unit. But kicker Toni Fritsch's squib
somehow slipped through the sure hands of 49er Preston Riley and into
the surer ones of Cowboy Mel Renfro. Dallas promptly marched in for
the winning score, a Staubach-to-Ron Sellers pass.
Would it ever end, this frustration? The answer, of course, was
yes. But not right away. In 1977, the Morabito widows sold the
franchise to Edward DeBartolo Jr., the 31-year-old heir to an Ohio
shopping-mall fortune. The baby-faced Eddie announced, somewhat
defensively, in his opening press conference that he hadn't acquired
the team as a ''play toy,'' an ill-advised remark that prompted one
newsman to mutter, ''If it's not a play toy, then why did the old man
buy it and give it to his young son?''
DeBartolo's first hire was general manager Joe Thomas, who got off
to a rotten start by firing popular coach Monte Clark and then
alienated both fans and 49er alumni by removing all photographs and
records of the team's legendary stars from the team headquarters. The
churlish Thomas apparently wanted to start fresh, obliterating
history. In doing so, he forgot that many of the old players -- such
as Tittle, Perry, Owens, Nomellini and St. Clair -- still lived in
the Bay Area and were considered part of the 49ers' nuclear family.
Besides, San Francisco is a city where the past is very much present.
Thomas went through three coaches in two years and racked up a
7-23 record before DeBartolo replaced him with Bill Walsh, thus
ushering in the fabled dynasty. Now all this dynasty has to do is
last another 20 years or so and it will make believers of even the
most skeptical of the old Niner faithful.