Before getting into the meat of my story, I wanted to introduce myself alongside Matt Miller as the newest weekly contributor to Niners Nation. Many of you probably recognize me as a frequent contributor to the boards, and I'm excited about the chance to bring you informative articles on a more official basis. I'm a lifelong 49ers fan currently working as an Editor for a web-development company. While Matt has his hands full covering different aspects of the 2008 49ers with a scouter's eye, I'll be taking an in depth look at the history of the team, starting in 1946 and moving forward year-by-year. Most of us tend to really know 49ers history as far back as Bill Walsh, and I'll be trying to bring in-depth recaps of important roster moves, staff moves, season games, and individual players right from the beginning, so we can really start to know the Niners from their first year in the AAFC right up to the present day. I hope you enjoy this as much as I've enjoyed writing it!
I'm looking forward to your comments and feedback, as I'm hoping to be able to make this segment better and better based on what everybody (and what I) wants.
In the early 1940s, Chicago Tribune writer Arch Ward, who had been trying for some time to get the NFL to expand, began instead to focus his efforts on starting up a new league to compete with the NFL. The idea was to create a league that could eventually face off against the NFL at the end of each year in a climactic Championship Game. By 1944, he had managed to round up a group of investors, and his new league, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), was taking shape. By the end of that year, the league had named Jim Crowley as their commissioner. With finances secured and a commissioner in place, the next step was putting together a group of teams.
Over the first few months of 1945, the league granted teams to owners in eight cities, crowning the Chicago Rockets, Los Angeles Dons, Miami Seahawks, New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bisons, and your San Francisco 49ers as the proud teams responsible for bringing glory and lasting power to the upstart league.
Though the league had planned to open its inaugural season in 1945, they delayed it for one year because of the United States’ continued involvement in WWII. So it happened that in 1946, the storied San Francisco 49ers franchise played the first game of its existence.
San Francisco had been granted an AAFC team when trucking executive Tony Morabito led the city’s petition with a monstrous $25,000 bid and popular all-purpose Kezar Stadium in hand. Morabito had spent the previous five years trying to no avail to buy into an expansion franchise in the NFL, and like Ward, he wasn’t willing to wait forever.
The new 49ers franchise brought former great North Carolina State and Santa Clara University Head Coach Buck Shaw in to coach for them. He had previously amassed a 49-16-6 career record as a college coach, and by 1945 was ready to make the jump to professional football. During the unexpected year off in 1945, though, Shaw found work coaching at UC Berkeley and took the team to a mild 4-5-1 record.
When the season started in 1946, the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Dons were the first two professional sports teams on the West Coast, and on September 8 of that year, the 49ers had the high honor of becoming the first major league professional sports team to play a regular season home game in California (the Dons played their first home game five days later on September 13), falling 21-7 to the New York Yankees.
The 49ers went into the 1946 season with 34 players (and 21 rookies) on their active roster. Many of these players, including QB/P Frankie Albert, HB/DB Len Eshmont, and all-purpose lineman Bob Titchenal, played on at least two sides of the ball, and as a result many records don’t even have defensive rosters or statistics during these early years.
26 year old rookie QB Frankie Albert was the first player to sign for the 49ers. Albert had played his college football for what was then the Stanford Indians. At Stanford, he experienced unprecedented success playing in Clark Shaughnessy’s revolutionary T-formation system, the same system that the 49ers ran in the early years under Buck Shaw. After graduating, Albert spent four years serving the US Navy, including service time in WWII, before finally beginning his professional career with the 49ers.
Rounding out the starting backfield of the 49ers’ T were Left Halfback Len Eshmont, Right Halfback Johnny Strzykalski, and the centerpiece of the running game, Fullback Norm Standlee. Standlee and Eshmont had both been professional players who came to the AAFC after having played in the NFL. Standlee, another Stanford grad, had been a minor star for the Chicago Bears in 1941 before leaving the league to serve in the Armed Forces during WWII, and Eshmont had played for the New York Giants in 1941, also leaving football at that time for the war to serve in the Navy. To this day, the 49ers annually give out the Len Eshmont Award for the player who best exemplifies inspirational and courageous play. Strzykalski, 25, was the lone rookie of the three, coming out of Marquette in 1946 to play pro ball.
From left to right, the starting offensive line was made up of LT John Mellus, LG Dick Bassi, C Dutch Elston, RG Bruno Banducci, and RT John Woudenberg, all NFL alums. Mellus had played until 1941 with the New York Giants. Bassi had jumped around the NFL during his early career, playing with Chicago, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh before also losing four years to war after the 1941 season. Elston played one year in 1942 with the Cleveland Rams before going to war, himself. Banducci had played the 1944 and 1945 seasons in Philadelphia before coming to San Francisco and finishing his long and distinguished career as a true 49er. Woudenberg played his (surprise) pre-war days in Chicago before departing in 1942.
At any given time, the 49ers had two Tight Ends on the field to lock up the line for their three pronged running attack. They had a three Tight End rotation to fill these two spots, though, with blocking specialists Bill Fisk and Bob Titchenal getting all the glory of the trenches and rookie receiving specialist Alyn Beals making things happen in the passing game. Fisk played his NFL ball for four years with Detroit from 1940-1943 before playing his first two years of AAFC ball with the 49ers. Titchenal played three years with the Redskins before the war, and only played one year with the 49ers after. Both Tight Ends left San Francisco for Los Angeles and finished their careers there. Rookie Beals, however, was a career 49er and was perennially among their receptions leaders during his time.
Many of these 49ers stars played multiple positions on different sides of the ball. Eshmont also played Defensive Back during his career. Frankie Albert was an extremely distinguished punter at both Stanford and in the pros. Titchenal played both sides of the line. Bill Fisk also played Defensive End, and Norm Standlee also played some Linebacker. Backup Quarterback Ken Casanega played quality football as a defensive back. Johnny Strzykalski, Don Durden, Jesse Freitas, and Joe Vetrano were also notable contributors on defense.
The 49ers had the personnel in place, and were expecting good things in their first season, with Santa Clara University great Buck Shaw coaching a high octane offense powered by former college standout Frankie Albert with a bevy of former NFL vets behind him. In my next story, we'll be getting into the season game-by-game to see how history plays out!