The San Francisco 49ers have had an illustrious history in the NFL, but few realize that their history did not start in the NFL but rather in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). There have been a number of professional football leagues over the decades, some of which have been successful while others have been lost to history.
The AAFC was short-lived but some of the teams it produced have lived on and prospered. Along with the 49ers, these teams include the Indianapolis Colts, the Baltimore Ravens, and the Cleveland Browns. Originally this was just three teams, but due to expansion and two franchises moving to different cities, these are the current teams that represent the old AAFC. While this league was not nearly as successful as the NFL and AFL, its impact lives on and it has shaped the way football is played today. What follows is the short but impactful history of the AAFC.
AAFC: The Forgotten Football League
The beginning of the AAFC and modern day football started during the height of World War II in 1944. Representatives from Buffalo, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Cleveland met with Arch Ward, the editor of the Chicago Tribune, who smelled opportunity at the close of the war.
Each of these prospective owners had a unique interest in starting a new football league. Dan Topping, the part owner of the baseball New York Yankees, had found it difficult to compete against the NFL’s elite with his football Brooklyn Dodgers. He also wanted to move them out of aging Ebbets Field and into the palatial Yankee Stadium. In doing so he renamed his team the New York Yankees, leaving the NFL for the AAFC.
Tony Morabito was a life-long citizen of San Francisco and wanted to bring professional football to his hometown. Not all of these owners were ultimately successful but their determination got the NFL’s attention.
Throughout history, new football leagues typically wish to one day join the ranks of the NFL. The AAFC was no exception to this and was subsequently met with hostility and litigation from the NFL. The AAFC countered this animosity by signing a number of former NFL players. This signing war eventually cost both leagues over five million dollars.
College was not immune to the lure of the AAFC as 44 out of the 60 invited to the College All-Star Game signed with an AAFC team. The NFL was desperately trying to find a way to keep this league from getting off the ground but all they could do was watch as the AAFC started its venture in 1946.
List of AAFC Teams circa 1946
Team Owner Coach
San Francisco 49ers Tony Morabito Buck Shaw
Los Angeles Dons Ben Lindheimer Dudley DeGroot
Chicago Rockets John Keeshin Dick Hanley
New York Yankees Dan Topping Ray Flaherty
Brooklyn Dodgers Bill Cox Mal Stevens
Miami Seahawks Harvey Hester Jack Meagher
1946: A Fast Start
The 49ers started off well with a 9-5 record for their inaugural season. They had excellent players, including Len Eshmont who has an award named after him for courageous and inspirational play the 49ers handout annually.
They also had Frankie Albert who was the first in a long line of excellent quarterbacks for the franchise. While the team did struggle at times, they finished the season strong with a three-game winning streak but there was one team who was quickly making a name for itself. This team would continue to be a thorn in the side of the 49ers as well as so many other teams over the next decade while changing the game of football forever.
This team was the Cleveland Browns. The 49ers and the Browns had a lopsided rivalry in the 1940’s but it did produce some memorable moments. The 49ers were the first team to ever beat the Browns, in Cleveland of all places, by a score of 34-20. Two weeks later the Browns defeated the 49ers 14-7 in San Francisco and the rivalry was officially underway. While other teams in the AAFC looked like they might have survived, it was clear over the next three years that these two teams were ready for the NFL.
While all teams in the AAFC were expansion teams, the Browns quickly proved they were on a different level compared to the other teams in the league. Their first game was a 44-0 massacre against the Miami Seahawks and they trampled over their competition all season, ending with a 12-2 record and the league title.
They had Hall of Fame talent all over the roster including end Dante Lavelli, quarterback Otto Graham and running back Marion Motley. They also had a legendary head coach in Paul Brown who is considered one of the greatest coaches of all time.
They beat the New York Yankees 14-9 for the inaugural AAFC Championship. This was the first of many championships to come for the Browns in the next decade.
1947: A Budding Dynasty
Fresh off a championship campaign in their inaugural season, the Browns continued to run all over their competition and right into the AAFC Championship Game again. For the second straight year they faced off against the Yankees and they won this game in a 14-3 defensive slugfest.
The 49ers were hot on their heels again with an 8-4-2 finish, however, they were swept by the Browns that season and this set a trend for the 49ers for the next 34 years. They were always right on the cusp of a championship but could never seem to get out of their own way.
In the rest of league, a number of teams were struggling. The Chicago Rockets finished a disastrous 1-13. The Baltimore Colts finished 2-11-1. The Colts were an interesting bunch, having played as the Miami Seahawks in 1946 but moved to Baltimore in 1947. Their history gets even more interesting once they reached the NFL.
1948: The Rivalry
The 1972 Dolphins were the NFL’s only undefeated team to win the championship and are viewed as one of the greatest teams of all time. What few people realize is that the 1948 Browns went undefeated and dominated the championship game, against the Buffalo Bills, 49-7.
Once again, the 49ers proved stiff competition for the championship game, going 12-2 with their only two losses coming to the Browns. The 49ers scored 495 points compared to the Browns 389. However, defense wins championships and the Browns only allowed 190 points while the 49ers allowed 248.
The 49ers had a great chance to beat the Browns late in the season. In front of a capacity crowd at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, the 49ers and Browns fought for history. The game was a shootout with momentum shifting back and forth. The 49ers came into halftime with a 14-10 lead but let that lead slip away by giving up 21 points in the third quarter.
While the 49ers ultimately lost 31-28, this was somewhat a moral victory as this was the closest the Browns came to losing all season. This game showed the world that both teams were ready for the NFL and that the AAFC was no longer competitive enough for them. This was the beginning of the end for the AAFC.
1949: The Merger
The league began the season without one of its teams. The Brooklyn Dodgers merged with the New York Yankees, ironic considering that the Yankees were originally named the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Chicago Rockets changed their name to the Hornets but did not do much better in the standings. They were also hurting in ticket sales as they played in a city already home to two NFL teams, the Chicago Bears, and the Chicago Cardinals.
Due to the Dodgers/Yankees merger, there was only one division for the AAFC and at last the biggest rivalry in the AAFC would meet in the championship game. The Browns and 49ers left the rest of the league in the dust and met for the final AAFC championship.
The 49ers led the league in points scored but could not solve the Browns formidable defense and lost 21-7. This signaled the end of the AAFC as the two leagues had agreed to a merger two days before the title game.
Due to their dominance in the AAFC, the Browns and 49ers were the obvious choices for merging with the NFL. The real dilemma was who else the NFL wanted. While the Buffalo Bills had better attendance and more wins, the Baltimore Colts were ultimately voted into the NFL based on their proximity to Washington D.C. The NFL figured they would be a natural rival for the Washington D.C. team. They were wrong.
The Colts ended up folding after the 1950 season and were reborn under new ownership in 1953. The New York Yankees players were divided up between the New York Giants and the short-lived New York Bulldogs. The Bills, Dons, and Hornets all folded and their players entered a dispersal draft. The Browns did acquire three players from the Bills. With all of these transactions, the future of the NFL would never be the same.
The Browns immediately won a championship in the NFL and ultimately made it to the championship game in each of their first six years in the league. Along the way, they helped change the way football would be played.
Due to a facial injury to Graham, Brown invented the face mask to protect Graham from further injury. They were the first team to use game film on a regular basis to plan against their opponents. They had IQ tests to test a prospect’s mental capacity.
The NFL was integrated partly because of the Browns since Marion Motley was the first African American to play for the AAFC and the NFL was not yet fully integrated. They even had a helmet radio, although the technology at the time was archaic and the NFL banned it for the next 40 years.
Eventually, the Browns fired head coach Paul Brown and he founded the Cincinnati Bengals. It was here that Brown hired Bill Walsh as an assistant before Walsh went on to great success in San Francisco and changed the passing game forever.
Cleveland lost the Browns in 1996 when they moved to Baltimore but were able to obtain an expansion team of the same name. While the Ravens have won two Super Bowls since departing Cleveland, the Browns have yet been to the Super Bowl and have sunk to the doldrums of the NFL, going 0-16 in 2017. Counting the Bengals, the Browns are responsible for bringing three teams into the NFL as well as introducing a plethora of ways of how to prepare for and play the game.
The 49ers had a slower adjustment to the NFL and struggled to win games through most of the 1950s. They had a number of Hall of Fame players such as Leo Nomellini and former Baltimore Colts quarterback Y.A. Tittle. They invented the shotgun formation in 1960 which is still widely used in all levels of football to this day.
When Walsh took over as head coach in 1979 the organization was in shambles. By implementing his West Coast Offense, he not only revitalized a once proud organization, he also introduced the NFL to new offensive possibilities. While the West Coast Offense was once viewed as a finesse offense, most NFL teams use some variation of it to this very day. A number of franchises have won Super Bowls based on this offensive philosophy and NFL history has never been the same.
The Baltimore Colts had a bumpy start in the NFL. They folded after the 1950 season but were renewed in 1953 under new ownership. They acquired Johnny Unitas, a man who is often regarded as one of the best quarterbacks running the two-minute offense.
They later moved to Indianapolis and drafted Peyton Manning in 1998 who holds a number of passing records including most career yards and touchdowns. The Colts started off slow but they acquired two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
While the AAFC lasted just three years, its legacy lives on within several teams in the NFL. The concepts and players are the byproducts of a failed professional football league but they bring out the best of the memories of the AAFC. Most of the owners of the AAFC teams never got into the NFL but their dedication to their league helped sell the Browns, Colts and 49ers to the NFL. Without their contribution, the game of football would be very different. While this was a failed venture, the impact of its failure lives on to this day.