August 27, 2011

1948: Sanders Leads Yankees to Win Over Brooklyn

The All-America Football Conference kicked off its 1948 season with games in Brooklyn and Chicago on August 27. The contest in Brooklyn featured the league’s two New York City-based teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees. Both operated out of single-wing offenses, but the similarities ended there.

The Dodgers had struggled during the AAFC’s first two seasons, losing money while posting identical 3-10-1 records. The franchise had been purchased by the baseball Dodgers at the suggestion of Branch Rickey, the pioneering major league executive who hoped to prove equally adept at operating a pro football team. The Dodgers had a new head coach, Carl Voyles, and a star rookie tailback in Bob Chappuis from Michigan to join holdover Bob Hoernschemeyer.

The Yankees had been much more successful under Head Coach Ray Flaherty, who had led the NFL Redskins to championships, dominating the Eastern Division in 1946 and ’47 while posting a combined 21-5-2 regular season tally. They had lost the league championship game in both instances to the Cleveland Browns, but were a talented team that included small (5’5”, 170-pound) but quick HB Buddy Young, ends Jack Russell and Bruce Alford, and most significantly, tailback Orban (Spec) Sanders (pictured above), an all-around talent who led the AAFC in rushing in each of the first two seasons, including 1432 yards and 19 touchdowns in ’47.

There were 16,411 fans in attendance at Ebbets Field for the game played on a Friday night in 92-degree heat. That it felt far more like baseball than football weather was enhanced by those in attendance who were listening to the game between the baseball Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds on portable radios.

Brooklyn outplayed the Yankees in the first half, although both teams appeared sluggish in the heat. Chappuis and Hoernschemeyer led the passing attack, but the Dodgers managed to score only once, on a 17-yard Lee Tevis field goal in the second quarter to hold a 3-0 lead at halftime.

New York’s offense came alive in the third quarter, and it was Sanders who keyed the rally. Four minutes into the second half, he gained 27 yards on consecutive carries, including an eight-yard run for a touchdown as he powered into the end zone with DB Carl Allen on his back.

Following Brooklyn’s next possession, the Yankees moved the ball to their 40 yard line and Sanders ran off tackle and went untouched for a 60-yard TD. In sudden fashion, New York had taken a 14-3 lead and control of the game.

While Sanders keyed the offense and with the game still in the third quarter, rookie tailback Tom Casey came up with the most sensational play of all when he returned a punt an AAFC-record 94 yards for a touchdown. Harvey Johnson followed with his third extra point of the game, giving him a total of 43 straight to break his own prior record of 42.

There was no further scoring, but the three-touchdown outburst in the third quarter was more than enough to propel the Yankees to a 21-3 win.

New York outgained the Dodgers, 333 yards to 233, with 250 of that total coming on the ground. The Yankees also accumulated 15 first downs, to Brooklyn’s 11. Spec Sanders carried the ball just 11 times, but gained 147 yards and scored two touchdowns.

The opening win was not a prelude of another division-winning season for the Yankees, however. They lost their next four games, by which point the highly-regarded Flaherty was gone and replaced by Red Strader. While the team rallied somewhat in the second half of the year, it could not overcome the 2-6 start and finished in third place at 6-8 – still only a game behind the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Colts, who tied for the division title at 7-7 (the Bills won the playoff, thus earning the dubious honor of being the team thrashed by the undefeated Browns in the title game).

Despite Branch Rickey’s efforts, the Dodgers finished last with their worst record of all, 2-12. The baseball Dodgers sold the franchise back to the league, and it was merged with the Yankees for the AAFC’s last season in 1949.

Running into injury problems over the course of the season, Spec Sanders didn’t lead the league in rushing in ’48, but finished fourth with 759 yards on 169 carries that included nine TDs. Adding in 918 passing yards, Sanders generated 1677 yards of total offense to rank seventh in the league (just behind Brooklyn’s Chappuis with 310 yards on the ground and 1402 through the air for a total of 1712). A knee injury knocked him out of the 1949 season, but he returned to play for the New York Yanks of the NFL in 1950 and, as a defensive back, led the league with 13 interceptions.