The stadium was ready, the staff was in place, the roster was set, and the fans were hungry. At this point in time, the West Coast was still an untapped market for any of the major sports, and the two California based AAFC teams were to be an important experiment for the immediate future of major league sports in the region. This made it all the more important for the 49ers to start their existence on a strong note. If the team couldn't draw the crowds, then there wouldn't be as much incentive for investors to put up the cash to get teams from any of the other major sports anytime soon.
While the 49ers played their first regular season game on September 8, 1946, they had actually played their first official game at Kezar Stadium 8 days earlier against the Chicago Rockets to the tune of 40,000 clamoring fans. Drawing 40,000 to a preseason game was a good sign of things to come, but regular attendance could still be swayed by a poor product on the field. Good thing for the 49ers and their fans that they won this preseason game 34-14, and that with that polished effort they appeared ready to take the fledgling league by storm.
Things didn’t start so well in the regular season, though, as the New York Yankees came to town and knocked the 49ers around to the tune of 21-7. It was an unfortunate break for the team, but San Francisco’s lone touchdown was a potent sign of things to come. In the first quarter, with the score still ties 0-0, Johnny Strzykalski took a pass from Frankie Albert and sent a lateral Len Eshmont’s way that turned into a thrilling 40 yard score. This play showed that the 49ers had serious playmaking ability, and it was a fitting beginning for future stars Albert and Eshmont to be involved, together, in the team’s first ever scoring play.
Over the next two weeks, things really got going for the 49ers who played host first to the Miami Seahawks and then to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Exploding for over 300 total yards and at least 140 rushing yards in each of these games, the 49ers were finally establishing the dangerous offense that they hoped would carry them to a Championship. Backup FB Dick Renfro scored the only three TDs of his career in the Niners’ 21-14 victory over Miami, while in their 32-13 victory over Brooklyn, Eshmont notched two more touchdowns on the ground and Albert had what would become recognized as one of his trademark TD scrambles to put the game away.
Having won the three week homestand, the 49ers went on the road for a five week marathon against Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Buffalo, and Cleveland. The team’s first experience away from Kezar was not a pretty one, as they lost 7-24 in Chicago with only a lone Eshmont TD to show for it. Things quickly started going right again, though, as it seemed the team only had to get its feet wet on the road before feeling comfortable away from home. They easily rallied off two victories in Miami (a dominating 34-7 performance) and Los Angeles (a solid 23-14 win) before stumbling 14-17 to the putrid 0-6-1 Buffalo Bisons.
The 49ers had reached the halfway point of their first season with an underwhelming 4-3 record, but the power structure of the league was beginning to take shape, and they were still one of about five teams – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Cleveland the other four – with a reasonable shot at the league title. The eighth game of the year had the potential to be a crucial game for the direction of the rest of the season, and it was an away game against the then undefeated Cleveland Browns.
In front of over 70,000 devoted Cleveland fans, the 49ers exploded out of the gate with two field goals and two touchdowns in the first half to stake themselves to a 14 point lead at halftime. Once again, it was emerging stars Frankie Albert and Len Eshmont who led the way, Albert throwing for a first half score and Eshmont running for one. The 49ers had set the tone in the first half of this game, and they were not prepared to let Cleveland back in. Despite giving the Browns two garbage time scores in the fourth quarter, Albert effectively put the game away with two second half touchdown throws of his own. This was a huge game for the 49ers. Not only did they stay on the right side of .500, but they beat the best team in the league while amassing what was then a season high 357 total yards.
Headed back home for two games, the Niners were looking to get first a little payback against Buffalo, and then to defend their stunning road victory with Cleveland coming to town. Things went half-right with this homestand when the team walloped the Bisons 27-14, breaking their total yards mark from a week before by one yard. Things turned sour when Cleveland showed up, though, a hard-nosed team looking for a little payback of their own. The Niners kept the game close, but there was no part of this 7-14 loss that wasn’t dominated by Cleveland.
Thoroughly deflated, the team took their 6-4 record into New York to face a very strong Yankees team. The Niners again kept the score close in this 9-10 loss, but couldn’t seem to muster enough of the momentum they’d had only two weeks before to pull it out. With this loss, the 49ers fell another game behind the Browns in the standings, who were looking more and more unstoppable every week, and were hanging onto their title hopes by a thread.
Needing not only to sweep their final three games, but also to see Cleveland stumble in all of theirs, the team went into Brooklyn with one thing on its mind: total domination. Though the Niners scored more of their points through the air, they won this 30-14 romp because of 265 yards on the ground. Unfortunately, the Browns also won this week, securing first place in the division and rendering the 49ers’ final two weeks meaningless.
For a couple of meaningless games, though, the 49ers weren’t willing to lay down and die. Coming home to end the season, the least they could do was give their fans a show, and after a lackluster 14-0 victory over the Rockets, the team ended the season on a high note, setting season highs for total points, point differential, and total yards in a 48-7, 388 yard laugher over the respectable 7-4-2 Los Angeles Dons. Three TD passes and one mighty two yard TD scramble from Frankie Albert let the 49ers leave the 1946 season on a high note and with high expectations for 1947.
If not for the sheer, overpowering dominance of the Cleveland Browns during the regular season, the 49ers could have easily found themselves in the title game of the 1946 season. With a 9-5 record and a slew of gaudy offensive stats, the 49ers were looking forward to to 1947. Frankie Albert was proving to be the star that everybody thought he would become, and was quickly establishing himself as the face of the franchise and as one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Buck Shaw's coaching was translating at a pro level without a hitch, and with one extra year under everybody's belts, the only place to go was up.
See you in 1947, everyone.