September 8, 2011

1946: 49ers Lose to Yankees in AAFC Debut

On September 8, 1946 two members of the new All-America Football Conference (AAFC) took the field for the first time in regular season action in San Francisco. The host 49ers had been founded by Tony Morabito, a partner in a lumber company. With John Blacklinger as general manager, the team drew heavily on Bay Area talent to stock the roster, starting with Head Coach Buck Shaw from Santa Clara. Two Stanford stars, left-handed QB Frankie Albert and FB Norm Standlee were signed, as was Santa Clara end Alyn Beals. Another Stanford product who had already established himself in the NFL, G Bruno Banducci, was snagged away from the Philadelphia Eagles.

The visiting Yankees were owned by Dan Topping, also an owner of the baseball Yankees (giving the new club a famous name as well as venue to play at), who had operated the NFL’s Brooklyn franchise until switching leagues. Ray Flaherty, a proven winner with the NFL Redskins, was hired as head coach and there were plenty of resources to sign talent that included ex-Dodgers tailback Ace Parker (a past MVP in the older league; pictured above), tackle Bruiser Kinard, and end Perry Schwartz, plus another ex-MVP with the Detroit Lions, tailback Frank Sinkwich. There were also promising rookies in tailback Orban “Spec” Sanders, FB Eddie Prokop, and ends Bruce Alford and Jack Russell.

There were some 35,000 fans present on a foggy day at Kezar Stadium. San Francisco scored first when Albert passed to HB John Strzykalski, who then lateraled to HB Len Eshmont at the New York 41, and Eshmont proceeded to run the rest of the way for a touchdown. Joe Vetrano kicked the extra point to make the score 7-0.

New York’s Coach Flaherty, taking advantage of his team’s depth, revamped the lineup in the second quarter and the Yankees got on the board thanks to a deflected punt. With the 49ers backed up deep in their own territory, Vetrano punted and tackle Derrell Palmer got a hand on the kick. Wingback Lowell Wagner grabbed the ball on the run at the San Francisco 40 and returned it for a touchdown. Harvey Johnson’s extra point tied the score.

Shortly into the third quarter, the Yankees drove 52 yards to score. Asserting their strong running game, only one pass was thrown, by Parker to HB Bob Sweiger for 13 yards. Parker, FB Pug Manders (another ex-Dodger), and QB Bob Morrow alternated carries until Parker ran seven yards off tackle for the go-ahead TD.

In the fourth quarter, New York drove 72 yards to put more points on the board. Spec Sanders operated at tailback and passed effectively while FB Dewey Proctor handled the bulk of the running, including going three yards for the final touchdown. Wearing the 49ers down with their ball-controlling single-wing attack, the Yankees won by a convincing score of 21-7.

New York outgained the 49ers (194 yards to 180), with 132 yards coming on the ground. The Yankees also had the edge in first downs, with 13 to San Francisco’s 6.

Not surprisingly, New York went on to dominate the Eastern Division, finishing well ahead of the pack at 10-3-1. The Yankees lost a closely-fought AAFC Championship game to the Cleveland Browns. Ace Parker, in the final season of his Hall of Fame career, ranked second in passing while Spec Sanders led the new league in rushing (709 yards).

The 49ers recovered from the opening defeat to put together a 9-5 record, second to the Browns in the Western Division. While they had difficulty scoring against the Yankees, they were runners-up to Cleveland in points scored (307). Frankie Albert proved to be a proficient passer and the team led the league in rushing yards (2175) with Norm Standlee pacing the club with 651.

It would be the story throughout the remainder of the AAFC’s four-year existence – overshadowed by the powerful Browns, the 49ers ended up being the league’s second-best team and very successful at the gate as well. Ultimately, San Francisco joined Cleveland in the NFL.