Updated: Sep 12
The San Francisco 49ers had one of the greatest offenses in the mid-1950’s. Their backfield featured four Pro Football Hall of Famers, quarterback Y.A. Tittle and running backs John Henry Johnson, Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny. Dubbed the “Million Dollar Backfield”, there was nary a game where they did not score against an opponent. They were like a comet, here for a moment and gone before we are able to fully comprehend the magnitude of the moment. The exploits of these four men vaulted the 49ers into the upper echelon of the NFL. This is their story.
Yelberton Abraham “Y.A.” was born on October 24, 1926 in Marshall, Texas. After starring at LSU in the dusk of World War II, he was drafted sixth overall by the Detroit Lions. However, with the advent of the AAFC, Tittle had options and decided to sign with the Baltimore Colts of the infant league. He played well that first year, throwing 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions; earning AAFC Rookie of the Year honors. The team struggled mightily in 1949, going 1-11-1, and Tittle’s play suffered. He threw 14 touchdown passes against 18 interceptions.
When the season concluded, the Colts along with the Cleveland Browns and the 49ers moved from the now defunct AAFC to the more established NFL. Tittle struggled in his first year in the NFL, going 1-6 as a starter and throwing more than twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. After the season, the Colts folded and Tittle was picked up by the 49ers.
Fletcher Joseph “Joe” Perry was born on January 22, 1927 in Stephens, Arkansas. His family sought a better life and moved to Los Angeles during the Great Depression.
After starring at David Starr Jordan High School, he played at Compton Junior College, scoring 22 touchdowns in his lone collegiate season. Following that 1944 season, he enlisted in the military to serve America during the latter stages of WWII. During his time in the military, he kept his gridiron skills sharp by playing for the Naval Air Station Alameda. He got the attention of professional football by scoring a touchdown in the East-West Shrine Game. Following his military service, Joe Perry went undrafted in the 1948 NFL Draft and signed as a free agent with the 49ers in 1948.
John Henry Johnson was born on November 24, 1929 in Waterproof, Louisiana. His family moved to Pittsburgh, California when he was young and starred for Pittsburgh High School. After playing at Saint Mary’s College, he transferred to Arizona State College. He was a jack-of-all-trades in college, playing halfback, defensive back and punt returner. He had an incredible two-game stretch where he scored four touchdowns off of punt returns.
After being drafted in the second round of the 1953 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson decided to play for the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL. After his one year in Canada, Johnson decided to go back to the NFL where he signed with the 49ers for the 1954 season.
Hugh Edward McElhenny Jr. was born on December 31, 1928, in Los Angeles, California. He was phenomenal in track and field at George Washington High School, setting state records in the high and low hurdles as well as the broad jump. After high school, he played at Compton Junior College where he starred on an undefeated team that won the 1948 Junior Rose Bowl. After Compton, he accepted a scholarship offer at the University of Washington. He played great, becoming the last player to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing until 1977. He also once rushed for a school-record 296 yards and five touchdowns against Washington State. After an All-American season in 1951, he was drafted by the 49ers in the first round of the 1952 NFL Draft.
Bay Area Beginnings
The 49ers were contenders for the AAFC crown in 1948 and were rejuvenated with the addition of Joe Perry. He didn’t disappoint and scored ten touchdowns in his rookie year. In one of his first practices with the 49ers, quarterback Frankie Albert gave him the nickname “the Jet”, citing his great speed. The Cleveland Browns dominated the AAFC at that time and no matter how good the 49ers were, they could never get past their nemesis. The 49ers ended the year two games behind the Browns in the standings with a 12-2 record.
Perry had more rushing yards in 1949 with 783, gaining an incredible 6.8 yards per carry and leading the AAFC in rushing. The team was still competitive, albeit, in a folding league. Although they finished with a 9-3 record, the 49ers still could not get past Cleveland who once again took the title.
The 49ers struggled in their first year in the NFL but their lone bright spot was Perry, who gained 5.2 yards per carry that season, running behind a newly acquired Leo Nomellini. However, he fumbled a career-worst 11 times. It was time for the 49ers to bolster their roster.
When Y.A. Tittle arrived in San Francisco, Frankie Albert was still the quarterback of the team and refused to give up his spot. Tittle started just five games in 1952, winning three and losing two. Even though he threw just 11 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, the coaching staff was impressed with what they saw.
Hugh McElhenny arrived in San Francisco as a highly touted first-round pick in 1952. Perry was already making headlines as an explosive fullback but the 49ers needed another playmaker to complement Perry’s speed. Throughout his career, McElhenny was said to have had eyes in the back of his head. So many defenders would think that they had him in their grasp but at the last second, he would make a move, leaving them grasping at air.
He very much emulated that ethos as a rookie, averaging seven yards per carry, gaining 1,051 yards from scrimmage, scoring nine touchdowns and making his first Pro Bowl. That season was Joe Perry’s first Pro Bowl season too. He gained 806 total yards and scored eight touchdowns while averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
The 1953 season was Y.A. Tittle’s first full season as the 49ers starter and he did not disappoint. He threw for 20 touchdowns and made his first Pro Bowl, taking full advantage of the protection of Nomellini and Bob St. Clair. McElhenny and Perry both made the Pro Bowl that season too, with Perry gaining 1,209 total yards to McElhenny’s 977. Even though they combined to score 18 touchdowns, something was missing from the offense.
The Million Dollar Backfield
The 49ers had one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL but they were missing an element of power in their arsenal. That missing element had resided in Canada for the past year. Standing 6’2” and weighing 210 lbs, John Henry Johnson was a force to be reckoned with. With him sharing the backfield with two players who were more explosive than powerful, the 49ers offense featured all of the elements that can vault a team to legendary status.
It was around this time that Dan McGuire, the 49ers public relations man, first came up with the “Million Dollar Backfield” name. In those days, players were not paid nearly what they are paid now and even collectively, all four players didn’t equal $1 million. Still, the value they gave the 49ers offense was incalculable. In Johnson’s first year with the 49ers, he rushed for 681 yards and nine touchdowns while earning a Pro Bowl invitation. Perry and Tittle also made the Pro Bowl that year while McElhenny suffered a down year, only gaining 677 yards from scrimmage.
Perry was in the prime of his career, having already been named an All-Pro in 1953, he earned All-Pro honors again in 1954 while rushing for 1,049 yards and eight touchdowns; leading the NFL in rushing in both of those years. Due to his exploits on the field, the United Press named Perry its Pro Player of the Year in 1954, becoming the first African-American player given such an honor.
He would never again come close to equaling those totals. Tittle was blossoming as a leader and led the 49ers to a 7-4-1 record. They were on the cusp of making the playoffs but could not get past the near-dynastic Detroit Lions or the still-formidable Chicago Bears.
The 49ers suffered through a disappointing 4-8 record in 1955. Tittle didn’t help matters, leading the league with 28 interceptions, but he also led the league with 17 touchdown passes. Johnson was hurt for much of the season, only appearing in seven games and rushing for a minuscule 69 yards. McElhenny was only a little bit better, rushing for a dismal 327 yards and four touchdowns. With so many of his teammates struggling, Joe Perry had to carry the weight of the offense. He gained 756 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns in the disappointing season.
The 1956 season seemed to be not much better, with the 49ers starting 1-6. However, the team won four and tied once in the final five weeks to end the season 5-6-1. McElhenny was the offense’s workhorse that year, gaining 1,109 yards and scoring eight touchdowns. While they still had trouble with the Bears and the Lions, the 49ers knew that better days were ahead. John Henry Johnson left in the offseason for Detroit.
The 1957 season was the greatest season in the 49ers first decade in the NFL. After starting 4-1, owner and founder Tony Morabito died during their game against the Bears on October 27. After the 49ers defeated the Bears, they dedicated the rest of the season to their friend. After struggling the previous two years, Y.A. Tittle was back in form, making the Pro Bowl for the first time since 1954 and being named All Pro for the first time in his career. McElhenny continued to carry the offense with 936 yards from scrimmage and made the Pro Bowl for the fourth time in his career. Perry continued to be productive, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and gaining 584 yards from scrimmage.
The 49ers road the coattails of these stars to an 8-4 record and a tie with the Lions for the division lead, setting up a playoff game. The 49ers stormed to a 27-7 lead but the Lions never lost heart and won 31-27. They would go on to defeat the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship making John Henry Johnson the lone member of the Million Dollar Backfield to win an NFL Championship. The 49ers would not be back to the playoffs again until 1970.
John Henry Johnson would stay with the Lions through the 1950’s. He found his greatest success in Pittsburgh, playing for the Steelers from 1960 to 1965 and going to three Pro Bowls. He finished his career in the AFL with the Houston Oilers and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry would each stay in San Francisco until 1961. While only Tittle and McElhenny made one more Pro Bowl with the 49ers, Perry would continue to be productive, despite the lack of accolades. Perry’s last great year in San Francisco was 1958, when he gained 976 yards from scrimmage and scored five touchdowns.
He left in 1961 for Baltimore where he would find one last year of greatness, gaining 997 yards from scrimmage that season. He returned to the 49ers in 1963 but at the age of 36 was a shell of his former self and retired after the season. At the time of his retirement, he had the most rushing yards in NFL history, a record soon to be broken by Jim Brown. Perry was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969.
Hugh McElhenny would make the Pro Bowl in 1958, gaining 817 yards from scrimmage and scoring eight touchdowns. He left for Minnesota in 1961, making the Pro Bowl in the Vikings' inaugural season. After bouncing around from the New York Giants to the Lions in his final two years, McElhenny called it a career after the 1964 season and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970.
Tittle left for New York in 1961 and he experienced the greatest years of his professional life while with the Giants organization. He was invited to three straight Pro Bowls from the time he stepped foot in the city and was twice named an All-Pro. He was voted the NFL MVP in 1963 after setting a league record with 36 touchdown passes. He even made it to three straight NFL Championship Games but lost all three, two to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and one to George Halas’ Bears. He retired after the 1964 season and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971
Each of these players left an impact on the NFL. Though they only played with each other for a short time, the years they spent together are still viewed as some of the most memorable in the 49ers' early history. A part they were excellent, but together they were historic.