Tony Morabito dedicated his life to bringing an idea to fruition that others thought preposterous – the membership of the West Coast, in general, and San Francisco, in particular, in a nationwide professional football league.
Morabito was the sports pioneer of the West, bringing San Francisco its first major league professional team, the San Francisco 49ers, in a professional sports business that was dominated by the East Coast. Before World War II, Morabito was convinced the San Francisco Bay Area was ready for a franchise in the National Football League. The Bay Area was a mecca for college football. Fans came in droves to Kezar Stadium to see the Wonder Teams of California-Berkeley and the Wow Boys of Stanford, led by Frankie Albert. St. Mary’s, Santa Clara and the University of San Francisco were also area powerhouses that regularly defeated the University of Washington and Southern California inside the walls of Kezar.
Morabito saw the rise of football in the area and presented a case to birth a professional football team in 1942 to National Football League officials, but he was quickly ushered out of the meeting room with firm politeness. In the spring of 1944, he took another crack, filing an application for an expansion team in the NFL. Morabito and some of his business associates went to Chicago to present their plan in front of League Commissioner, Elmer Layden. The NFL had no teams west of Chicago, and had no plans of changing their geographical structure. Morabito was again shunned.
He was then put in touch with Arch Ward, sports editor of The Chicago Tribune who was trying to organize a rival league, the All-America Football Conference. Morabito told Ward to count him in.
The new league’s first meeting was held on June 6, 1944 in St. Louis, D-Day in Europe. Morabito agreed to form a San Francisco franchise in a league that would not begin operations until the end of the war.
It was the right time, and Morabito knew it.
A native of San Francisco, Morabito learned the game of football on vacant lots in the North Beach sector and had some success later as a halfback at St. Ignatius High School. He went on to play for the University of Santa Clara as a freshman in 1927 but his playing career was ended shortly after by a shoulder injury. He received his diploma in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression. He got a job driving a truck for $80 a month while his father, an immigrant from Italy, had built up a flourishing ship’s service business on the San Francisco waterfront, only to see it fold in the wake of the depression years.
As the country’s economic state began to improve, so did Morabito’s. By 1940, when he was 30 years old, he became a success in the lumber carrier business.
The army turned him down for duty in 1942 because of partial deafness, which later forced him to wear a hearing aid.
By 1946, the San Francisco 49ers first year of operation, the Bay Area was in the middle of a postwar economic surge. Morabito’s lumber yard was in huge demand as houses were springing up to shelter the fast-growing population that was migrating to California.
Morabito owned the new All-America Football Conference franchise with his partners in the Lumber Terminals of San Francisco – Allen E. Sorrell and E.J. Turre – and his younger brother, Victor.
Sorrell suggested the team be named “49ers” after the voyagers who had rushed the West for gold. It is the only name the team has ever been affiliated with and San Francisco is the only city in which it has resided.
The original team logo depicted San Francisco’s wild beginnings. It was a goldminer in boots and a lumberjack shirt, firing a pair of pistols. One shot just missed the miner’s head, while the other missed his foot. The logo was taken from a design seen on the side of railway freight cars.
With a charter, name and logo, the group recruited Lawrence “Buck” Shaw, Santa Clara’s famous “Silver Fox,” as the 49ers first head coach. The organization spent $250,000 to get structured before the team even took their first snap. Morabito’s approach was considered “first class,” by most, and a financial risk by many.
But Morabito charged on, hand-picking an inaugural roster comprised of 32 players including Frankie Albert, Norm Standlee and Bruno Banducci, all from Stanford, and stars from Santa Clara, including Alyn Beals, an end who scored 46 pro touchdowns in four years. Other known players on the roster were Len Eshmont, Johnny “Johnny Strike” Strzykalski and Joe “The Toe” Ventrano.
Morabito watched as his 49ers played their first game on August 24, 1946, a 17-7 exhibition win over the Los Angeles Dons at Balboa Park in San Diego. The 49ers first home game was played at Kezar Stadium on September 1, 1946, a 34-14 exhibition win over the Chicago Rockets in front of 45,000 fans made up of longshoremen, draymen, mechanics and waterfront workers.
The first regular season league game was on September 8, 1946 against the New York Yankees. The 49ers scored first, but lost 21-7 in a game that began in sunshine and ended in the famous Kezar fog.
The 49ers finished 9-5 in their first season under Shaw, and went on to have an 8-4-2 record in 1947, 12-2 finish in 1948 and 10-4 record, including a trip to the Championship Game, in their final season in the AAFC.
At the end of 1949, it was announced that the AAFC had run its course. San Francisco, Cleveland and Baltimore received NFL franchises and would begin play in the NFL in 1950. The merger was what Morabito had hoped for all along as he, his brother Victor and general manager Lou Spadia, continued to hold the reins.
The 49ers struggled during their first season among the NFL elite, finishing with a 3-9 record. The following year though, the 49ers went 7-4-1.
As the seasons went on, Morabito was the heart and soul of the organization, signing on greats like The Million Dollar Backfield: Joe “The Jet” Perry, Hugh “The King” McElhenny and John Henry Johnson. He also attracted some of the NFL’s most renowned talents in R.C. Owens, Bob St. Clair, Leo Nomellini, John Brodie and Y.A. Tittle.
The players appreciated his honesty, and trusted his every move and word.
As the 1950’s progressed, Morabito was warned by his doctors that a bad heart and the rigors of football were not a healthy combination. But Morabito wasn’t going to let a health scare get in the way of his passion. “What the hell, if I’m going to die, I might as well die at a football game,” he said.
On October 27, 1957, the 49ers hosted the Chicago Bears at Kezar. The 49ers entered the game with a 3-1 record behind the talents of Owens, Perry, Tittle, McElhenny, Billy Wilson, and others. The Bears had a 14-0 advantage in the first quarter before the 49ers scored to close the deficit at 14-7. Just as the 49ers lined up for the next kickoff, Morabito, who was sitting next to his wife, Josephine, and his brother, Victor, in the guest box, suddenly collapsed. The great heart that had been with the 49ers since the franchise’s inception had failed. Father Bill McGuire of St. James parish was summoned to the guest box and pronounced Morabito his final absolution. Morabito looked up at him and smiled.
“Thank you father,” he said.
Those were his last words.
The 49ers were behind 17-7 in the third quarter when the team learned of Morabito’s death. His players rallied and came back to defeat Chicago, 21-17, in an emotional last win for their owner. The 49ers finished the season with three straight victories and an 8-4 record, tying Detroit for the NFL Western Division title.
Victor, Tony’s younger brother, kept the team in the family until 1964, when he too died of a heart attack. Both Victor and Tony’s wives, Jane and Josephine, retained control of the 49ers with Lou Spadia as team president until 1977, when a new team owner, Edward DeBartolo Jr. of Youngstown, Ohio emerged to buy the franchise.
Morabito’s conviction, passion and character birthed and kept an NFL franchise in San Francisco, and laid the sturdy foundation that enabled the 49ers to become one of the NFL’s premier football powers over the past 60 years.