The inaugural season of the AAFC was over, and certain things were becoming clear to the league about what it needed to do to remain competitive with the NFL. As with any new league, maneuvering your way into the right markets is a combination of things from simple funds an availability to intensive competetive and market research, but when it comes to sustainability in the untested or crowded markets that the AAFC had moved into, things ultimately come down to trial and error with some luck thrown in for good measure.
The AAFC, it seemed, had gotten relatively lucky. Though they had positioned a number of teams in crowded markets like New York and Chicago and also positioned themselves in completely untested waters like San Francisco and Los Angeles, they were fortunate that it had been primarily these critical market teams that had the strongest seasons in 1946. Having success in these dubious cities allowed the league to establish a little early stability where fans wouldn’t bother to be patient with a loser.
And in the race to remain competitive with the NFL, stability was going to be the key to success. Going into the 1947 season, there was relatively little upheaval in the structure of the AAFC. The Miami Seahawks had been awful in 1946, garnering neither love nor loyalty with local fans, and because the economics of keeping the team didn’t make sense for the league, they were dissolved. In order to fill the hole left by this move, the league granted a team to Baltimore – which had petitioned for a team and been rejected during the formation of the league – and the Colts were born.
Other than that, there was really very little done to disrupt the early stability of the league. The Buffalo Bisons were rechristened the Buffalo Bills, and in a fairly surprising move, Commissioner Jim Crowley left his post as league head to take the head coaching position with the Chicago Rockets. Jonas H. Ingram, a distinguished former Naval officer (as both an officer and football coach) and veteran of two World Wars, stepped into the position for year two.
1946 had been a good year for the 49ers. They had established themselves not only as a good team, but also as an exciting team with versatile and charismatic stars. They consistently drew near capacity crowds at home, and likely could have attracted more fans to the gates if Kezar Stadium had been as big as many standard football stadiums. And on top of that, they had finished strong, coming in second place in their division and third place in the league - and were one of only two teams that year to defeat the league champion Cleveland Browns.
Though the team was having success at the stadium, drawing crowds and winning games, they had been having a difficult time with the local media. At the time, the popular media attractions for the city were many of the local college teams and the San Francisco Seals, a distinguished and successful minor league baseball team during those years. Local media was slow and unwilling to take the 49ers and the AAFC seriously, and the team struggled to get any visible newspaper coverage and had no television broadcasts in the early years.
Getting exposure was therefore a constant struggle, and team owner Tony Morabito was infamous for creating problems with media outlets. Before he died in 1957, he had made key enemies across the media and had spent neither much time nor interest repairing those relationships. A passionate and self-conscious man, he had a tendency to take minor public affronts too seriously and never failed to hold a grudge.
The media outage was one major contributing factor to the fact that, despite good in-game crowds, the 49ers did not turn a profit in 1946. Most teams didn’t, in fact, as only Cleveland and New York managed to make money in their first years of existence, but for the continued success of the league, winning teams like the 49ers would need to make money.
Even so, going into 1947 the 49ers had established credibility with a strong core of local fans, and were about to make one of the most important decisions in team history. Having gone the 1946 season wearing red jerseys and silver pants, 1947 was the first year that the team donned red and gold, switching out the silver pants for a more appropriate and iconic gold color. These colors would soon come to define the team, and have not been changed – outside of minor shade variations – in the fifty-plus years since their arrival.
The 49ers went into the 1947 with their offensive core intact. The imposing backfield of Frankie Albert, Len Eshmont, Norm Standlee, and Johnny Strzykalski was left completely intact. Not only that, but the vertical game appeared to be improved, as receiving Tight End Alyn Beals - coming off of a ten touchdown campaign while splitting time with aging blocker Bill Fisk the year before - became the full-time starter in 1947, and versatile second year player Nick Susoeff assumed the starting role on the other side of the line.
It was on the offensive line that the 49ers had the most serious, and possibly the most concerning turnover from the year before. Out of the lineup were starting LT John Mellus, LG Dick Bassi, and C Dutch Ellston. Mellus had been picked up by the new Baltimore Colts, and Bassi and Ellston both assumed backup roles to players who had been charged with being their backups the year before. Lifetime 49er Bob Bryant took over Mellus’s vacated spot at tackle, Gregory Garland (also a kick returner that year!) stepped in at Guard, and aging John Schiechl came over from the NFL’s Chicago Bears to take over the Center position. Combined with the decreased focus on blocking Tight Ends in the offense, the 49ers had as many as five full-time changes in their blocking scheme - changes that would have an unknown effect on the rest of the offensive play.
The good news for the blocking game, though, was that stalwart RG Bruno Banducci was still around to make sure things didn’t go wrong. Banducci, who had established himself as a star on the line the year before and was one of only two returning starters, was going to be an important part of keeping Albert safe. The other returning starter on the line was beast of a player RT John Woudenberg, who also played on defense and special teams and was one of the few players on the team to routinely play all 60 minutes.
The 49ers had many returning starters on defense (in the continued absence of a better reference, my coverage of the defense will be bare for the time being), and continued to get important contributions from offensive stars like Len Eshmont and Johnny Strzykalski. The true spark to the defense in 1947, though, was to come from defensive back Ned Matthews, an exciting presence with a nose for the ball. While he was the spark, though, 24 year old linebacker/lineman Visco Grgich provided the heart. Grgich was a full-time starter and an absolute beast on defense.
However, the most important addition the 49ers made this year wasn’t even a major contributor to the team. In 1947, the 49ers signed rookie running back/defensive back Wally Yonamine, making the 49ers the first professional football team in history to have an Asian-American player on the roster.
In fact, the AAFC at large had been playing a critical role in breaking pro-football’s color barrier, which had stood for close to 15 years since 1933. The year before, the Browns had signed and started two African-American players, re-opening the door for players of color in both leagues.
Expectations were high. History was being made. The only thing left to do was play the games. Next time, we'll see how the team's highly anticipated 1947 season actually went, game by game.