Coming into the 1947, the 49ers had already made a fair bit of history. The year before, they had been the first major league professional sports team to play a game on the West Coast, and then became the first major league professional sports team to play a regular season game on the West Coast. They had enjoyed a 9-5 season and had helped to establish the legitimacy of professional sports in California. And after all that, they became the first football team in history to have an Asian American on the roster when they signed rookie running back/defensive end Wally Yonamine during the offseason.
And while making history is all well and good, and in some ways worthy of more pride than sheer victories - particularly when that history involves breaking color lines for the sport - the name of the game is holding that Championship Trophy at the end of the year. The 49ers were a hopeful team. They had enjoyed a great deal of offensive success the year before and had kept their main core of skill players together on that side of the ball. They had played solid defense and had defeated the League Champion Cleveland Browns in Cleveland. If they didn't show improvement in 1947, it would be a disappointment. The team was hungry, and expectations were high.
The 49ers got a bit of a gift to start the 1947 season, playing their first four games at home, and their first against the Brooklyn Dodgers – a team that had gone 3-10-1 the year before, and that the 49ers had swept in two games by a combined score of 62-27. This August 31 matchup came with no surprises, as the 49ers easily wrapped up a 23-7 victory over the still hapless Dodgers in front of nearly 32,000 happy fans. Frankie Albert threw for two scores and Alyn Beals caught two to make easy work of this game.
A stiffer test was to come in week two when the cross-state divisional rival Los Angeles Dons came to town. The Dons were one of four teams in 1946 to finish the season with a winning record, and were eager to improve on that early success. Having beaten the Rockets the week before, the Dons were eager to cinch up win number two, and the 31,000 fans who came out to watch the game were in for a real treat. After taking a first half 14-0 lead behind a powerful running attack, the 49ers watched the Dons come back through the air in the second half to tie things up. This battle was decided on a late fourth quarter Joe Vetrano field goal to give the 49ers a thrilling 17-14 win.
The Niners continued to roll at home with their running game the next week, racking up over 250 total yards on the ground, with two Norm Standlee rushing touchdowns, to steamroll the expansion Baltimore Colts. Riding high on three home victories, the undefeated 49ers would welcome their stiffest test of the young season when the 2-1 New York Yankees came to town on September 21. The Yankees had lost to the Browns in the Championship game the year before, and were popular favorites to win it all this season. With the 49ers looking strong, this game represented a possible Championship matchup, and the reality of that was not lost on the fans, as an astounding 52,000 people showed up to watch.
The game lived up to expectations. The 49ers came at New York with everything they had on offense and defense, racking up over 150 yards each through the air and the ground, while holding the Yanks to less than 100 of each. For all of their firepower, though, the Niners were only able to put together a field goal in the first half, and fell into an early 3-14 hole. They turned up the heat in the second half, riding two long Frankie Albert TD throws to cut the lead down to 16-21 in the fourth quarter, but in the end that was all they would get, and they would finish the home stand on a low note – wasting stellar performances on both sides of the ball in a frustrating loss.
The 3-1 Niners would be going on the road now for two games to face the Buffalo Bills and the Baltimore Colts. The Bills, who had finished the previous year at 3-10-1, already had 3 wins for the new year, and were looking to prove that they weren’t a fluke against one of best teams in the league. The 49ers were having none of it, though, and returned to the sheer power of their running game to roll all over the upstart Bills to the tune of 277 yards on the ground, five rushing TDs, and a 41-24 spanking to improve their overall record to 4-1.
When the Colts had come to San Francisco earlier in the season, the 49ers had made short work of them, but Baltimore wasn’t going to be such an easy opponent on their home grass. Despite racking up the most passing yards in a game that they would get all season long, and rushing – once again – for over 150 yards, the defense just wasn’t in this game as the 49ers gave up 400 total yards to the Colts and were lucky to escape with a 28-28 tie.
At 4-1-1, the 49ers came back home to face the Chicago Rockets, and it was probably fair to expect that they would be looking past the winless train-wreck to their next game, at home, against the defending league champs and divisional rival Cleveland Browns. It turns out that they weren’t prepared to take even a week off, and stomped the Rockets 42-28 to ride into the next week’s anticipated matchup on a much deserved high note.
The Browns came into this game at 6-1, and if the 49ers came out with a win, they’d be in sole possession of first place in the division and on the clear track toward the championship game. If they lost, they’d be facing an uphill battle down the stretch with the re-match coming in Cleveland. The 49ers had every reason to be optimistic. They’d defeated the Browns once in the previous year, were playing in front of their home crowd, and had established one of the strongest offenses in the league. Recently, though, the defense had been struggling – and they couldn’t afford to have another poor performance this week.
In front of a season record 54,000 fans at Kezar Stadium, the 49ers put up one of their least inspiring efforts of the season. The Browns had one of the toughest defenses in the league, and managed to hold a disappointing Frankie Albert and the 49ers to fewer than 90 yards through the air. Jumping out to an early first half 0-14 win, that would be all the Browns needed as they torched the 49ers defense for the most yards they had given up all season, including nearly 30 through the air. A potentially crushing 7-14 loss at home, the 49ers faced the distinct reality of having to win each of their final six games – including five consecutive road games and a difficult rematch in Cleveland – just to keep up with the defending champs.
It was with this mindset that they marched into Los Angeles the following week. Riding their most balanced overall effort of the season, the 49ers swept their season series with the strong 5-3 Dons behind four Frankie Albert TD passes and over 200 yards both on the ground and through the air. Feeling good after this 26-16 victory, the 49ers had a daunting task ahead of them. Their next two games would be against the 7-2 New York Yankees and the 8-1 Cleveland Browns – the two teams responsible for the two losses that the 49ers already had on the year.
Unfortunately for 49er fans, the team couldn’t take the heat. Though they jumped out to an early 13 point lead against the Yankees, the offense managed a measly 139 total yards and the defense fell back into its hard luck habits, giving up over 400 as the Yanks rolled through the second half to a 24-16 victory that was closer in score than it ever was in reality.
Going into Cleveland with three losses and four games left in the season, the 49ers would have to defeat the Browns on their home turf to have any chance of taking the division and advancing to the Championship game. It was do or die. They had beaten Cleveland in Cleveland the year before, but this season the team had been hurt by an inconsistent if dangerous offense and an underperforming defense. As it happened, the offense would come out to play, but it was once again the defense that spelled the 49ers undoing. Despite going over 300 yards of total offense, the defense put together its worst performance of the season and the Browns took away a dishearteningly easy 14 -37 victory at home. The 49ers were eliminated, the Browns would be going to Championship for the second straight year, and neither team had a lot left to play for in the regular season outside of pride.
But if that was all the 49ers had left to play for, they were happy to play for pride. Though eliminated, they marched into Chicago and Brooklyn with their two biggest offensive performances of the entire season, racking up 432 total yards in Chicago and almost 300 rushing yards alone in Brooklyn to take away two easy 41-16 and 21-7 victories respectively before coming back home to finish the year off against the Bills.
Hoping to at least give their home fans a victory in an otherwise meaningless game, the 49ers stuck to their guns in front of a disappointingly, but understandably small 22,000 person crowd at Kezar. The Bills came into this game facing an identical situation, also sitting at 8-4-1 and having been eliminated from contention weeks prior to the defending divisional champs. Despite controlling the pace by grinding this game out on the ground, perhaps it was appropriate that the deflated 49ers were only able to put together enough of an effort to escape the season with a 21-21 tie against the Bills, leaving both teams in second place with identical 8-4-2 records.
This was not the way the 49ers had envisioned the 1947 season going. After a blazing hot 5-1-1 start, it was ultimately the team’s inability to step up their level of play against the league’s two elite teams that led to another disappointing second place finish. The standings would say that the 49ers had a successful season, but the atmosphere in the locker room might have said something different. The 49ers had come off of a strong 1946 season to play inconsistent football in 1947. It was clear that the offense would have to mature and the defense would have to make serious improvements for the team to be competitive with New York and Cleveland in 1948.
It was up to the offseason to decide the fate of the following year.