- Founding 49ers: The Dark Days before the Dynasty by Dave Newhouse
There have been a couple periods in the past when professional football was played the way the sport was meant to be, by all the teams and players, without all the ridiculous conduct by the players that characterizes today’s pro football both on and off the field. Dave Newhouse, a long-time sports journalist and columnist, has given us a tale of one team’s adventures during one of those glory times of pro football, from the late 1940s through the early 1970s.
The San Francisco 49ers were organized by their first owner, a wealthy lumberman named Tony Morabito, and they began play in the 1946 season as members of the new All-America Football Conference (AAFC). During the league’s four seasons of existence, the 49ers were clearly the second-best team, behind only the Cleveland Browns. When the owners tired of escalating player salaries and expenses, the National Football League (NFL) and the AAFC merged before the 1950 season. The 49ers were one of the few AAFC teams allowed into the NFL because the surviving league desperately needed a second franchise on the West Coast, along with the Los Angeles Rams, to address travel-expense issues.
While the 49ers were obviously overmatched and started slowly in 1950, they soon began fielding some very good teams. In fact, in the twenty-seven seasons between 1946 and1972, the 49ers suffered only eight losing campaigns. This detail makes the book’s subtitle a bit difficult to understand under football’s usual measures of relative success. But the author’s definition of “greatness” for the history of the 49ers turns out to be when they became serious contenders for Super Bowl championships in the early 1980s, once the team was under the direction of new owner Eddie DeBartolo and Coach Bill Walsh.
The author starts at the beginning and proceeds through each season along the way with highlights and notes on many of the games each year, but never with an overabundance of details and it reads quite easily. These accounts feature such outstanding 49ers of the past as Frankie Albert, Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry, Gordy Soltau, and Leo Nomellini. What makes Founding 49ers such an interesting book is that the author interviewed many former 49er players and team officials from across all the seasons covered, and we are treated to plenty of “inside” stories and anecdotes from both on and off the field that you will never find elsewhere. Thus, we also learn a great deal about the personalities and backgrounds of those players, coaches, and officials that made up the 49ers’ many excellent teams in those first decades. [End Page 242]
Founding 49ers is an excellent work of sports history and journalism, providing plenty of the “feel” and nostalgia that characterized pro football in the pre-1970 days. An easy read from start to finish, this book will be of interest to all fans and historians of professional football.