75 for 75: First NFL Game

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"75 for 75" is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting moments in the team's history as part of the franchise's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.

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September 17, 1950

The 49ers made their NFL debut against the New York Yanks at Kezar Stadium. The Yanks were a vagabond club, having played in the NFL as the Boston Yanks, then the New York Bulldogs before becoming the New York Yanks in 1950. Their sole gate attraction was former Louisiana State star running back Zollie "Tugboat" Toth.

Ticket prices at Kezar Stadium, a beloved but antiquated facility at the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park near Stanyan Street, ranged from $3.75 at midfield to $2 for general admission. Mayor Elmer Robinson, expecting a solid home crowd, ordered San Francisco police to shut down public roads in Golden Gate Park to allow for parking. It proved to be wishful thinking. Just over 29,000 fans showed up on that sunny September day.

Buck Shaw, in his fifth season as the 49ers head coach, built a solid offense around southpaw quarterback Frankie Albert and a stable of running backs that included Joe Perry, Johnny "Strike" Strzykalski, Sam Cathcart and team captain Norm Standlee. Albert and Standlee were well-known commodities in the Bay Area, having starred at nearby Stanford University.

After dropping four of five preseason games, local fans were skeptical about San Francisco's ability to compete with the NFL's top teams. The doubts seemed to be confirmed in the first period as New York capitalized on several 49ers miscues, most notably a fumbled punt scooped up by Yanks defensive back Joe Golding and returned 32 yards for a touchdown. 

Trailing 14-0 early in the second period, San Francisco put together its first NFL scoring drive. The 80-yard march began with Strzykalski, a 5-foot-9 firecracker from Marquette University, slipping off a tackle for 35 yards. It ended with Albert rolling left and connecting with receiver Paul Salata on a two-yard pass to record the 49ers first-ever NFL touchdown. Oddly enough, a year earlier Albert and Salata teamed up on a 23-yard completion to post another 49ers milestone, the club's final touchdown in the All-America Football Conference. 

San Francisco closed the scoring gap before the half ended when Gordy Soltau, who doubled as a kicker and receiver, converted a 26-yard field goal. 

The game was in danger of slipping away in the fourth quarter, but after falling behind 21-10, 49ers middle linebacker Pete Wismann picked off New York quarterback George Ratterman's pass and scrambled to the Yanks 39-yard line. From there, Albert connected with receiver Alyn Beals, the pride of San Francisco's Polytechnic High School, for 17 yards. Perry added an 11-yard run, then capped the drive with a two-yard plunge into the end zone.

Late in the game, San Francisco still had time to pull out its first NFL victory. Behind the slick passing of Albert and Perry's shifty runs, the 49ers marched to the Yanks 40-yard line. With less than two minutes on the clock, Shaw shuttled a play into the 49ers huddle. Unfortunately, 12 men remained on the field when the play began. The resulting 15-yard penalty, and a 17-yard sack of Albert on the ensuing play, killed the drive and handed New York a 21-17 victory. 

In a brutal contest during the pre-face mask era, both teams were flagged several times for personal fouls that involved "throwing punches." San Francisco defensive back Verl Lillywhite walked off the field with a broken nose while tackle Leo Nomellini nursed a black eye. Still, the 49ers unleashed the dangerous running attack that would become their forte in the early NFL years recording 193 rushing yards. Strzykalski led the way with 14 carries for 99 yards. Perry dashed for 53 yards and Sam Cathcart added 35.

"We had to sweat this one out," Yanks coach Red Strader said while praising the 49ers talent. "Albert is always sneaky and dangerous, and that Perry looks a little on the terrific side."

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