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Tony Morabito: The Founder

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Anthony James "Tony" Morabito had a vision for professional football in the Bay Area. The child of Italian immigrants, he was born and raised in San Francisco. He fell in love with the sport on the sand lots of the City by the Bay and that love would take him far. After starring at Saint Ignatius High School he played for Santa Clara University in 1927. Fate took a cruel turn when his playing career abruptly ended after his freshman year due to a shoulder injury.

With football on hold for the foreseeable future, Morabito put all of his energy into his studies and graduated in 1931 during the height of the Great Depression. Following his graduation, he got a job as a truck driver for $80 a month. Over the course of the following decade he built a successful lumber carrier business. When World War II ended, he was financially ready to start a professional football franchise.

A new professional football league was starting up in the fall of 1946 called the All American Football Conference. The AAFC consisted of teams and locations not deemed worthy of status in the NFL. Morabito applied and was given the opportunity to start San Francisco’s first professional sports franchise. Together with his younger brother Victor along with partners Allen E. Sorrell and E.J. Turre, Morabito set out to make history.

The group decided to name their franchise after the settlers in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and the original logo depicted the same sentiment. Kezar Stadium had been built a couple of decades earlier and was more than capable of hosting the 49ers. Morabito knew that they needed to load the team with local talent for fans to be engaged with the franchise. He hired Santa Clara head coach Buck Shaw as the coach of the 49ers. In addition to Shaw, Morabito signed local stars such as Frankie Albert, Bruno Banducci and Norm Standlee.

The signings of local talent helped the 49ers ticket sales in the early years as they battled the Cleveland Browns for supremacy in the AAFC. Unfortunately, the 49ers could never get over the hump and placed second behind the division rival Browns in each year of the AAFC’s existence. The 49ers played well enough and were in a good enough location to draw the NFL’s attention. After the 1949 season the 49ers along with the Browns and Baltimore Colts were invited to the NFL. The rest of the AAFC folded. At long last, Tony Morabito had brought the NFL to San Francisco.

The NFL proved to be much more of a challenge for the 49ers. They had a lot of talent through the 1950’s but they lost a lot of games. Through the struggle, Morabito maintained a futile relationship with the media and the rest of the NFL while protecting his team. Whether it was chasing Rams co-owner Fred Levy around the LA Coliseum looking for a fight or calling NFL Commissioner Bert Bell “the quintessence of nothing”, there was nary a fight Morabito was willing to shy away from.

A darker future lay ahead for Tony Morabito. He suffered a heart attack in 1952 and his doctor strongly advised him to get out of football. Morabito was too attached to the 49ers to even consider leaving the game. The 49ers had been slowly building a contender since entering the NFL and he desperately wanted to deliver that elusive championship to his home. The pieces were in place for a memorable 1957 campaign.

Led by Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, John Henry Johnson and Joe Perry, dubbed the Million Dollar Backfield, the 49ers were a sight to see. Their defense was good too, led by defensive tackles Leo Nomellini and Bob St. Clair. They even brought the Alley-Oop pass to football nomenclature with Tittle throwing impossibly high touchdown passes to R.C. Owens. As the season progressed, it was clear that this 49ers team was ready to finally bring home a championship.

All was going well until October 25th, 1957. The 49ers were losing to the Chicago Bears at Kezar Stadium 17-7 when Morabito died from a massive heart attack in his seat within the lower press box. He was 47 years old. The team was notified in the locker room at half time and was immediately shaken. With tears streaming down their cheeks, Tony Morabito’s franchise stormed back and vented their pain and sadness on the Bears. The 49ers were relentless the entire second half and came away with a 21-17 victory, honoring their founder.

The 49ers dedicated the rest of the season to Morabito’s memory. They marched onward and earned their first postseason appearance with a trip to the Western Conference Championship Game against the Detroit Lions in San Francisco

San Francisco started off hot, rushing to a 27-7 lead. Unfortunately, the Lions recovered and beat the 49ers 31-27. It was a season unlike any other for the 49ers and it would take decades before they would finally win their first championship.

Tony’s stake in the team was transferred to his wife and when his brother Victor passed away from a heart attack a few years later, his stake in the team was transferred to his wife as well. The Morabito widows kept the team in the family until selling their interest to the DeBartolo family in 1977.

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