There were the Morabitos. Today, I'm going to take you back in time one more time to revisit the Morabito ownership. As modern-day 49ers fans, we're well-versed in everything DeBartolo. We remember the rocky start and the early criticisms. We remember the sudden turnaround and the decades of unbelievable football the followed. We remember the personality and the money. We remember the scandals. Eddie D. was the 49ers for most of our lives, but the family that we owe everything to will always be the Morabitos.
Tony Morabito created the San Francisco 49ers and owned the team, alongside his brother Vic, until he died. Vic Morabito then owned the team until his death, when ownership passed on to the wives of the two men, Jo and Jane Morabito respectively. These women, two of the first women to hold a majority ownership in a major sports franchise, then owned the team for 13 more years before selling to the DeBartolos.
Join me after the jump to learn more.
From the beginning, the 49ers were the lovechild of Tony Morabito. Tony Morabito was born in 1910 and got his education at the University of Santa Clara. He had a shrewd business sense and originally made his mark in the lumber industry, operating a trucking and hauling business.
With the money from that career in hand, he began to think bigger. A veteran in transportation already, Tony recognized the possibilities of passenger air travel as it might apply to professional sports. In short, he saw an opportunity, with high-speed transportation improving dramatically, to bring a professional franchise to the West Coast. With this thought, he began petitioning the NFL for a new franchise in California. Year after year, though, these petitions were rejected, and Tony was left looking for another option. Then, as World War II was winding down, he found his way in.
In 1945, a new league formed, known as the All American Football Conference (or AAFC for short). Tony Morabito threw $25,000 of his own money into his petition for a team in the new league. This petition became the San Francisco 49ers, and Tony got started preparing his team for the league's 1946 debut.
Tony Morabito was a complex man, but when he formed the 49ers he did so with the sole intention of winning. He quickly assembled a group of some of the best coaches and players available, including the legendary Buck Shaw, not to mention Frankie Albert, Len Eshmont, Norm Standlee, Johnny Strzykalski, and Alyn Beals.
When the AAFC was enveloped by the NFL, the 49ers - largely thanks to the talent on the team - were one of only three teams to make the transition to the larger league.
But alongside his great drive to win lay a deep suspicion of the media and a remarkable sensitivity toward criticism. Among his long legacy of alienating and aggressive behavior, Tony accused the Los Angeles Rams of playing the dirtiest game in football, actually physically chasing their owner around the Coliseum locker room, he called former commissioner Bert Bell "the quintessence of nothing", and maintained an actual and extensive list of media members who had slighted him.
For all that, he was much loved by his players and coaches. When Tony died in 1957 at the age of 47, succumbing to heart problems that he'd been struggling with for some time, much of his team was moved to tears. Then coach of the team, Frankie Albert, even favorably compared him to Dwight Eisenhower.
After Tony's death, majority ownership of the team fell to his brother Vic. Vic Morabito was almost an invisible man compared to his brother. He maintained a dedication to winning, but eschewed many of the more high-profile attributes that Tony brought to the table. Vic was much friendlier with the media, and the 49ers public coverage grew as a result. Vic preferred to stay out of the headlines himself, taking a quiet approach to ownership where he could.
However, this didn't keep Vic from taking a hard line with the media when he felt it was necessary. In a notable episode, Vic banned columnist Joe Arenas from the team's bench and dressing room. Arenas played for the 49ers from 1951 until 1957, and covered them for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin. He said that Vic banned him because the players had been insulted by some of his reporting.
Sadly, much like his brother, Vic Morabito also suffered from heart trouble. He had a minor heart attack in 1962, continued to struggle with chest pain in the years following, and ultimately died of a heart attack himself in 1964. Vic was also 47 at the time of his death.
At that time, ownership duties fell to the widows, Jo and Jane Morabito, combined their respective 30% and 25% shares to take majority ownership of the team as a pair.
Jo Morabito was born in 1911 and was a school teacher when she met Tony. At the time, she knew nothing about football, and couldn't have possibly foreseen her future. Nonetheless, she helped Tony to see the team through its early years, assisting him during the team's formation and eventual NFL transition.
Through these experiences, she came to know the sport and was later regarded as an intelligent football mind. Nonetheless, she preferred to stay as far away from football decisions as possible, recognizing the importance of a having a woman run a sports team but preferring not to shoulder that responsibility herself. She chose instead to leave teamwide responsibilities with team president Lou Spadia, and wouldn't even join locker room celebrations out of modesty. Her low-key personality became her trademark, and she was widely known as the shy half of the "Morabito ladies". Jane was less closed off than Jo in her life, but deferred to Jo's strategy of staying out of the way. Individually, the women played indirect roles with the team, but like their husbands before them they continued to make the necessary resources available to pursue a championship.
In 1972, Jo was named to the board of regents at the University of Santa Clara, and used the position to establish an athletic scholarship at the school in her husband's name. In 1977, they decided to sell their shares in the team. And so began the much storied DeBartolo era.
Jane Morabito passed away in 1992. Jo Morabito followed in 1995.