By Joe Hession, 49ers Museum Historian
Dick Nolan coached the 49ers to their first NFC West championship in 1970 as a pair of shrewd yet discreet women remained behind the scenes managing the franchise's direction.
Josephine and Jane Morabito oversaw the 49ers first trip to a National Football Conference championship game and they did it not once, but twice. In both 1970 and 1971, they had the 49ers on the doorstep of the Super Bowl, an unimaginable concept when they assumed a controlling interest in the club in 1964.
As time ran out on Coach Bud Grant's Minnesota Vikings at the 1970 Divisional Playoff, the elation that comes from long-awaited success boiled over. The Morabito party finally experienced the sweet joy that comes with a team's first championship, particularly when it included an upset of the defending NFC champs on their own frozen field.
In the players' locker room, a raucous celebration was underway. Josephine took notice and said to team president Lou Spadia, "You know, Lou, I'd give my right arm to be a man for five minutes and go in there with those players."
Her remark acknowledged two realities. It revealed her love for the franchise she helped nourish since 1946 when her husband, Tony Morabito, established the 49ers. But it also expressed a social divide. The National Football League was a man's world and she was on the outside looking in.
It was a role the Morabito women balanced for nearly two decades as they helped build one of the most successful franchises in professional sports.
"The Morabito ladies," a name coined by the local sporting press, sensed something special after the 49ers eliminated the Vikings and their NFL-best 12-2 record from the Super Bowl picture.
"Once we beat Minnesota I had all the confidence in the world we would make it (to the Super Bowl)," Jane Morabito said in a San Francisco Examiner interview. "I never thought for one minute of losing... We had hundreds of friends who had made arrangements to fly to Miami for the game. Even our mayor, Joe Alioto, was ready to join us."
Jane and Josephine Morabito were not the first women to own an NFL team. That distinction belonged to Violet Bidwell, who guided the Chicago, later St. Louis, Cardinals from 1947 to 1962 after the death of her husband Charles Bidwell. The Morabito ladies would have been the first female owners to bring a club to the Super Bowl, but the Dallas Cowboys crushed their dream, not just in 1970, but for three consecutive seasons.
Born in 1911 in Tacoma, Washington, Josephine Verone knew virtually nothing about football as a youngster. She was shy and bookish, did well in school, and studied to be an educator. She was employed as an elementary school teacher when she married Anthony J. Morabito, a young man from San Francisco with big dreams. Tony was already a successful businessman, but he had his eyes set on more. He wanted to bring pro football to his hometown.
As a dedicated educator, Josephine, or Josie as she was known by friends, was eager to learn more about her husband's passion. While Tony struggled to get his fledgling San Francisco 49ers franchise off the ground, Josie watched and listened. Over time, she picked up details about the team's players, economic situation and intricate link to the social fabric of San Francisco. Those observations soon would pay dividends.
"I learned all that I know about football from my husband Tony," she said in a San Francisco Examiner interview. "My interest in the game has developed slowly over the years."
In 1957, Tony's long history of cardiac problems caught up to him. The 47-year-old team founder died of a heart attack while watching the 49ers play the Chicago Bears at Kezar Stadium. His death left a nearly unfillable void. Tony was the visionary behind the 49ers operation. He knew the inner workings of the NFL and had cultivated the political and social connections needed to run a professional sports franchise.
Thus began Josie's foray into pro football. She inherited Tony's 30 percent ownership of the franchise then weighed her options. She could sell her share of the 49ers to one of the numerous wealthy men throwing money at her office door, or retain it and become just the second female owner of an NFL team.
Josie still considered herself a football novice. Most of her interaction with the 49ers had been as a host, party planner and friendly observer. She had limited knowledge of personnel and on-field football strategy, let alone the inner workings of one of America's premier men's clubs, the National Football League.
Fortunately, she had a pair of confidants she could rely on. Victor Morabito, Tony's brother, who owned 25 percent of the team, and Lou Spadia, a 49ers employee since the club sold its first ticket.
Josie also clung to Tony's long-held values: to run the 49ers franchise as if it was his family and to bring a championship to his hometown. Her brother-in-law Vic made those sentiments public.
"The Morabito family did not get into football for financial gain," Vic told the San Francisco Examiner. "We've had chances to sell before and we've turned them all down. I've had this feeling ever since we came into the business. So has my sister-in-law (Josie)."
Josie's allegiance to the Morabito family's beliefs won out. The big buck suitors clamoring to own a piece of an NFL franchise were rebuffed. She decided to run the team alongside Vic Morabito and Lou Spadia, the soon to be named team president.
"The 49ers should have San Francisco ownership and they should have Morabito ownership," Spadia told reporters. "There will be no sale to anyone."
Vic was married to the former Elizabeth Jane Eddy, who was the social opposite of Josie Morabito. Born in San Francisco in 1920, Jane had a long relationship with Vic dating back to his days as a high school football player at St. Ignatius. A vivacious and outgoing woman, Jane loved the city's nightlife, dining with friends at Julius' Castle and dancing with Vic at the Starlight Room.
Then in 1964, Vic suffered the same cruel fate as his brother, Tony. At the age of 45, he died of a heart attack. Jane acquired his 25 percent interest in the team. With a combined 55 percent stake in the franchise, controlling ownership of the 49ers fell to the Morabito widows.
It was a partnership that seemed inevitable. The sisters-in-law were old friends with a social bond that began nearly 25 years earlier when Jane was dating Vic while he was a student at Santa Clara University. Over the years, the couples spent many leisurely evenings together, which cultivated a sense of camaraderie and loyalty that served them well in their business venture.
As majority owners of one of San Francisco's crown jewels, the Morabito ladies had a unified vision: to build a championship football team. Spadia, who now owned five percent of the 49ers, would continue to oversee the club's day-to-day operation.
"We have capable personnel hired to handle such matters," Josie said about Spadia's managerial duties. "We are more concerned with big decisions that have to do with the team's welfare."
The Morabito ladies had barely settled into the ownership suite when the club's first major decision reached their office.
The 1963 football season had been calamitous from the start. During training camp dissension began to stir in the locker room between Coach Red Hickey and his players. In early October, after losing the first three games of the season, Hickey submitted his resignation. Defensive backs coach Jack Christiansen was named interim head coach. He guided the 49ers to a 2-12 record, the worst in the NFL.
As the 1964 campaign approached, Christiansen's contract needed to be reconsidered. The Morabito ladies looked to Spadia for guidance. He put the stamp of approval on Christiansen.
During Christensen's five-year coaching tenure the 49ers recorded just one winning season, a 7-6-1 mark in 1965. The Morabito ladies felt a sense of loyalty to Christensen. He was their first coaching hire, but by 1968 a change needed to be made.
Spadia brought a list of possible head coaches to the Morabitos. Dick Nolan, the Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator, was on the list and the clear favorite of Jane and Josie, but Spadia had reservations. Although Nolan had a sharp defensive mind, he had never been a head coach. Meanwhile, Spadia continued to look elsewhere and discussed the 49ers coaching job with another unnamed candidate according to Jane Morabito.
After some low-key discourse, Spadia and the Morabito ladies came to an agreement and Nolan was hired to his first head coaching job. It proved to be a stroke of genius. Two years later the 49ers were NFC West champions. After nearly 20 years in the NFL, the 49ers were a bona fide contender.
Professional football faced a dilemma in the mid-1960s and the Morabito ladies found themselves in the midst of it. The National Football League and the American Football League were nibbling away at one another. Teams from both leagues competed for the same players, coaches, fans and revenue. A merger of the two leagues seemed the logical solution.
For the Morabito women that presented a problem. If the two leagues merged, the AFL's Oakland Raiders would be infringing on the 49ers territorial rights. Under the NFL's constitution at the time, every team was guaranteed exclusive right to the area within 75 miles of its home territory.
The Morabito women were in a position to kill the merger. They were reluctant to act on that option, but the situation became so dire that NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle flew to San Francisco to meet with them.
The AFL offered financial compensation to the 49ers of $8 million under terms of the merger. That was fine with the Morabitos until they discovered the New York Giants, who shared territorial rights with the New York Jets, would receive $10 million.
That sent up red flags in the 49ers office. The Morabito ladies wanted equal compensation. Spadia stepped in, did some negotiating and the dispute was settled equitably with the 49ers receiving additional concessions.
"We fought it right down to the wire," Josie said in William Paul's The Gray-Flannel Pigskin. "We also wanted to continue the Rams rivalry and we didn't want to be playing at home on the same Sunday as the Raiders."
After the NFL-AFL merger, pro football enjoyed an enormous growth spurt. Football, television and commercial opportunities became intrinsically linked. Salaries spiraled upward. Attendance jumped. The days of owning a mom-and-pop style sporting operation were over. Football was a big business and the Morabito ladies were sitting on the pulse of it.
Kezar Stadium, the 49ers humble home field since the team's inception in 1946 no longer could host NFL football. The crumbling yet lovable old stadium in Golden Gate Park, with wooden bench seating and absolutely no luxury boxes or corporate suites, was clearly outdated. In 1970, the NFC Championship Game between the 49ers and Cowboys was held in the ramshackle old joint while the corporate side of NFL management watched mildly bemused.
Spadia began looking for a new home. The search party considered several venues including Stanford Stadium, Candlestick Park and the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
Jane Morabito, a true native San Franciscan, opposed the move and made her sentiment clear. Kezar Stadium was the 49ers home and a San Francisco landmark. Nearly every high school in the city had played football there at one time, and Kezar hosted the annual Thanksgiving Day prep championship game. Everyone raised in San Francisco had a Kezar Stadium memory.
"I didn't want to go and I told them so," Jane said about moving the 49ers out of Kezar. "I told them I had many happy memories of Kezar."
Economics trumped nostalgia, however, and Candlestick Park received the nod of approval. The San Francisco Giants home baseball field since 1960, Candlestick needed additional seating and renovations, but it was the obvious choice for the 49ers.
Prior to the 49ers final game at Kezar, a 17-10 loss to Dallas for the 1970 NFC title, the Morabitos hosted a party for their beloved stadium. Their "Farewell to Kezar" luncheon at the Fairmont Hotel featured politicians, local celebrities and 49ers alumni, who all shared dear memories about the club's original home.
As the 49ers prepared to move, rumors began to swirl again about the franchise's possible sale. Josie stepped in to quash that idea on behalf of both women.
"The two principal owners haven't ever speculated about a sale," Josie told the San Francisco Examiner. "Bringing a championship to San Francisco is our goal."
In fact, under the Morabito women's stewardship the 49ers popularity increased and its financial outlook brightened. Jane and Josie became regular guests on the San Francisco social circuit and were active in civic and political affairs. They attended Super Bowls and NFL meetings. During the run-up to Super Bowl VIII in 1973 they offered the national media their predictions on the outcome. Jane liked the Miami Dolphins while Josie took Minnesota. But they did agree on one thing, "One day we will come to this game with our own team," Jane said.
Off the field, the Morabito women engaged in a number of charitable events and fundraisers to assist children and needy families. In the 1970s, they used the 49ers popularity as a vehicle to support San Francisco Mayor Joe Alioto and his effort to raise funds for youth activities. They organized their own charity event, one 49ers game each season in which a percentage of the gate receipts was donated to Mayor Alioto's Youth Fund. They called it the Mayor's Youth Bowl. The income generated (estimated at over $100,000 per game) helped support community organizations like boys and girls clubs, youth summer programs and high school sports.
Josie also became involved in fundraising at Santa Clara University, her husband Tony's alma mater. She was named to Santa Clara's Board of Regents in 1972 and established the Tony Morabito and Josephine Morabito Fox Scholarship Fund.
By 1974 the 49ers three-year run as a Super Bowl contender began to waver. Coach Dick Nolan was on the hot seat. The 49ers finished 5-9 in 1975 and Nolan was replaced by Monte Clark. As he left the building for the final time, Nolan provided reporters with insight into his relationship with the Morabitos.
"In my eight years with the 49ers" he said, "I had nothing but a fine relationship with Lou. The same goes for the Morabito ladies, Jane and Josephine. They have been wonderful employers."
The Morabitos lifetime in football may have reached its apex in 1969 at the Pro Football Hall of Fame where Joe Perry and Leo Nomellini were the first 49ers ever inducted. In one of the ultimate forms of respect and loyalty Perry, pro football's all-time leading rusher before retiring, invited Josephine to be his presenter. Nomellini, acclaimed by the NFL as the greatest defensive tackle during its first 50 years, selected Jane.
As the Morabitos stood on the hallowed steps of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio they established another milestone. They were the first women to present and speak on behalf of inductees.
Josephine described Perry "as a player who deserves the best, for he never gave anything less than all of himself."
Jane extolled Nomellini for his devotion to the game of football and "especially his dedication to the 49ers for 14 years of service to the team."
The moment was not lost on the two women. "They were emotional," Spadia said. "It was a great thrill for them."
Throughout their years at the helm of the 49ers, prospective team buyers continually approached the Morabitos. They found an ownership group in 1977, the DeBartolos, whose beliefs aligned closely with those of the team's founders. The DeBartolos espoused the same commitment to family values and championship football as the Morabitos.
Under the Morabito ladies' watch from 1964 to 1976, the 49ers compiled an 86-88-8 regular season record and won three NFC West titles. Jane passed away in 1992 and Josephine died of heart failure in 1995. They paved a path for female leadership in the NFL that soon would return to the 49ers boardroom.
Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. ventured into the world of professional sports when he purchased both the 49ers and the National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins in 1977. He entrusted the management of the clubs to his children. Edward DeBartolo Jr. took command of the 49ers while Denise DeBartolo York made her mark in the NHL as owner of the Penguins.
Prior to her role with the Penguins, where she was one of the few female executives in professional hockey, Denise attended Saint Mary's College of Indiana, a Catholic women's college adjacent to the University of Notre Dame, earning a degree in social work. She then returned to Youngstown, Ohio and joined the family business, The DeBartolo Corporation, where she worked closely with her father studying his every move and decision.
From 1977 to 1991 Denise, who describes her management style as "hands-on and interactive," focused on revitalizing the underachieving Penguins. She provided the club with the resources needed to excel and signed outstanding players like Mario Lemieux. The team's popularity increased and during the 1990-91 NHL season the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup. Denise was just the third woman to have her name etched on hockey's most cherished trophy.
As the Penguins visibility grew, Denise and Eddie Sr. attracted the NHL All-Star game to Pittsburgh for the first time in 1990. Before they sold the club in the early 1990s, Denise and her father were hailed as the saviors of hockey in Pittsburgh.
While rejuvenating the Penguins, Denise also worked behind the scenes as co-owner of the 49ers and played an integral part in the club's four decades of football success. Since her involvement with the 49ers began in 1977, the team has appeared in seven Super Bowls, winning five Vince Lombardi Trophies.
The 1980s remain a memorable time in her life and not just for the Super Bowl championships. "There were no COVID worries and more interaction with the players," Denise said. "Our parents were still alive. There were many plane loads of terrific fans flying back and forth from Ohio."
Denise assumed command of the 49ers in 1997 as chairperson and chief executive officer, joining Virginia Halas McCaskey, principal owner of the Chicago Bears, and St. Louis Rams CEO Georgia Frontiere as the only female team owners in the NFL. Her experience with the Penguins left her well prepared for the challenge of running a football franchise in a world dominated by men.
Former 49ers coach Bill Walsh said at the time, "She's a marvelous lady, an excellent business person. She's been employed in the DeBartolo business since she was a child. She's highly respected everywhere."
Denise currently serves as co-chairperson of the 49ers alongside her husband Dr. John York, whom she married in 1978. She is widely recognized as the leader of one of the largest female-owned corporations in the Bay Area and one of the most influential women in professional sports.
Denise's leadership was evident in the 49ers move from Candlestick Park to Levi's Stadium in 2014. One year after opening its doors, the stadium earned recognition as Sports Business Journal's 2015 Sports Facility of the Year and the 2015 Sports Venue of the Year.
Her plans for the 49ers new state-of-the-art home included a 20,000 square foot museum, which houses captivating memorabilia spanning the team's 75-year history. Included are interactive digital highlights of 49ers players and games as well as the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. 49ers Hall of Fame, where life-size statues of the club's greatest players, coaches and executives are exhibited. The museum often serves as a rallying point for numerous alumni events and the team's annual Hall of Fame induction.
During Denise's tenure as co-chairperson, the 49ers have advanced to Super Bowl XLVII and Super Bowl LIV. She cherishes the personal relationships she has built with the players and coaches as much as the team's success. Frank Gore, the 49ers all-time leading rusher, is near the top of her list of favorites.
"I had and still do have a great admiration and attachment to Frank Gore," she said. "His mom died suddenly his rookie year and never got to see him play for us. It was heartbreaking. My motherly instincts took over and we are still close and in communication with each other."
Her success with the 49ers has provided her with several leadership roles in the NFL including as a trustee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio where her brother, Edward DeBartolo Jr., and numerous 49ers alumni are enshrined.
Denise's influence goes beyond the football field to numerous charity and community events. She maintains a guiding hand on the 49ers Foundation and its focus on educating and empowering Bay Area youth. Since its inception, nearly 30 years ago, the Foundation has distributed nearly $50 million to community groups and is considered one of the most impactful in all of professional sports. Its generosity ripples throughout the Bay Area, from the 49ers Academy in East Palo Alto to San Francisco's Bayview Hunters Point youth centers.
Our mother’s desire to promote the welfare of others stems from the very same passion instilled by her parents. It is through her actions not just her words. It is part of the fabric of our family that we cherish and look forward to continuing. Jenna and Mara York
Denise's philanthropy led to the franchise being named the 2017 ESPN Sports Humanitarian Team of the Year and the 2017 Pop Warner Little Scholars Team of the Year.
One of her major contributions to youth education can be found at the 49ers Museum presented by Foxconn Industrial Internet, which was built with a spacious set of classrooms designed to serve the learning needs of Bay Area students.
"I'm very impressed with the concept," she said. "It was Jed's idea and I'm touched to have my name attached."
The Denise DeBartolo York Education Center at Levi's® Stadium was introduced in 2014. Located adjacent to the 49ers Museum, the EDU program focuses on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) based learning. The 49ers, one of the first professional sports organizations to develop and provide STEAM learning concepts, offers free on-site training to students from Kindergarten through Eighth Grade. Nearly 360 students a day are able to receive instruction in the museum's classrooms, where Denise remains a supportive presence.
The DeBartolo family's hometown of Youngstown, Ohio also has benefited from Denise's largesse. Over the past 23 years, she has awarded over $1.2 million in financial assistance to high school seniors in the tri-county area based on their financial need, community service and academic achievement. She also supports, with anonymous contributions, local food banks, adopt-a-school programs, the United Way, even a local wig program for women battling breast cancer.
In 2019, Denise was honored to receive the Simeon Booker Award for Courage at Youngstown State University near her hometown in Ohio. Booker grew up in Youngstown and was the first African-American reporter at the Washington Post, where he covered the Civil Rights movement. The award acknowledges Denise as an individual exhibiting virtues similar to Booker: courage, tenacity, social justice and the willingness to put their lives on the line for a cause.
Upon receiving the award Denise said, "I never thought of myself as being that courageous, but I could never turn away an admirable child or somebody that needs help."
It is a sentiment she has firmly established throughout the 49ers franchise.