Well, after a few debacles of this sort, you start looking over your shoulder. San Franciscans have long been adept at laughing in the face of adversity—consider the cheerful rebuilders of 1906—but over these many years, the 49ers have sorely tested our susceptibility to graveside boffos.
Truth is, from the start things have never really gone all that well for the Niners. In their first year, 1946, their owner and founder, Tony Morabito, got himself into an inadvisable feud with first one and later the other of the city's two leading newspapers. Morabito, a native San Franciscan, was a volatile, playful, fiercely loyal man who made his fortune in the lumber business. His partner with the 49ers was Vic Morabito, who was both his half-brother and his cousin. Tony's mother died when Tony was a baby, at which point his father, an Italian immigrant, summoned a sister-in-law from Italy to care for the child. The father eventually married the sister-in-law and they had Vic, who was born 10 years after Tony. It was a complicated relationship, but the boys got along well.
Tony was an extraordinarily friendly man. "He'd hitch rides on garbage trucks to go to fine restaurants," recalls Spadia, one of Tony's first 49er employees. "He knew everybody. But he was always throwing things. One day a friend came in with an Irish recording. Tony threw it out the window. And there was the time Gordy Soltau sauntered into the office wearing a hat. Gordy was still playing but he was also just starting out in business then, and those were the days when businessmen always wore hats. But Tony wouldn't have it. He let out a little shriek, grabbed that hat and flipped it out the window. Now, our offices in those days were 10 floors up, so we all rushed over to the window to see what had happened to the hat. Well, it fluttered down right at the feet of some poor guy standing there on the sidewalk below. He looked up as if he were expecting a body to follow."
Morabito's impulsiveness brought him grief, however, in the unfamiliar world of public relations. In his first season as an owner in the old All-America Conference, he signed a contract to play an opening exhibition game in each of five years for charities sponsored by the The San Francisco Examiner. This enraged the rival Chronicle, which began putting 49er stories alongside the truss ads. When the agreement expired, Tony, hoping to placate the Chronicle, refused to renew it. This, not unexpectedly, enraged the Examiner and its cantankerous sports editor, Curley Grieve, who promptly began to bury 49er stories in his paper, too. The Chronicle, meanwhile, hadn't forgiven Tony for the original slight. A man of a more conciliatory nature might have made his peace with both papers at that critical juncture, but Tony, angry now at the entire journalistic community, declared war on them all and went to his grave doing battle. In those early years the 49ers needed all the coverage they could get, but it became the job of Spadia, a gentle, good-natured man, to keep players away from inquiring newsmen.
At age 47 Tony died of a heart attack, at halftime of the 1957 game with the Chicago Bears in Kezar. The 49ers were trailing 17-7 at the time, but when word reached the bench that "Tony is gone," they played a furious second half and won 21-17. An emissary from the Bears approached Albert after the game. "If he was going to die," said the Chicagoan, "it would have made him happy that you beat us by four points." "If he was going to live," Albert replied, his eyes glistening with tears, "it would have made me happy to lose by a hundred points."
The Cleveland Browns won all four championships in the brief history of the All-America Conference, aceing out the 49ers each year, but the San Franciscans did gain a measure of revenge in a glorious 56-28 whipping of their arch rivals in 1949. The game devolved into farce, and Perry, then in his second year, and Joe Vetrano, the 170-pound placekicker, decided to exchange jerseys. In his first play wearing Vetrano's number, Perry sped 49 yards for a touchdown. The Browns were humiliated. A puny kicker had run through them. It might have occurred to them, though, that little Vetrano had undergone a startling metamorphosis from mild-mannered, white converter to lightning-fast, 6-foot, 207-pound black man. Vetrano is still very much a figure in San Francisco, a successful businessman seen often in the company of his pal Joe DiMaggio.
The team's emblem in those formative years was of a wild-eyed, bushy-maned prospector wearing boots, checkered pants and a red shirt who was shooting one six-shooter just over his head and aiming another under his jumping feet. "He was drunk." Spadia explains. "In the original picture, there was a saloon in the background." The offending insignia has been phased out over the years by conservative elements in the Niner organization, but there can be no questioning its accuracy as a symbol of the community psyche. The 49ers, players and fans, have always been a wild bunch. Albert, the first quarterback and later the coach, was in his signal-calling days a wit and a prankster who made up plays in the huddle and even changed them while they were in progress. His famous bootlegs often came as a surprise to the intended ballcarrier. And McElhenny, as brilliant as he was, was considered a poor risk when he came out of the University of Washington because of his love of the bright lights. "I'll room with him and tie him down," said Albert in urging Morabito to draft The King. "Fine," replied Tony, "and who'll tie you down?"
McElhenny could run wild off and on the field, but he was also an extraordinarily vulnerable and sentimental man. He wept uncontrollably during his induction speech at the NFL Hall of Fame, apologizing profusely all the while for his outburst. Mac made some unfortunate business deals toward the end of his playing days when he placed too much trust in supposed friends. A grocery venture ended in bankruptcy. He is, at heart, a softie. But at the same time, he is, as they say, no one to mess with. I was dining with friends at Perry's restaurant on Union Street several years ago when an argument of some kind erupted at the bar. I was surprised to see that McElhenny appeared to be a part of it. A man whose fortified courage exceeded his wisdom was being abusive to the fabled King. Mac was backing away from him, urging him to quiet down. The aggressor would have none of it, and he charged Mac. It was over just like that. The unfortunate soul landed at our feet. When he regained his senses, he looked up and inquired. "Did you see that?" "Yes," one of our number replied. "Next time don't pick on an All-Pro halfback."
The 49ers also have been visible in the Bay Area in far more acceptable ways. Charlie Krueger, the All-Pro defensive tackle, even married the daughter of the director of the San Francisco Opera Company. And Bob St. Clair, the All-Pro offensive tackle of the '50s and '60s. was elected to public office in suburban San Mateo County in spite of his well-publicized appetite for raw meat.
Nonetheless, over the years 49er fans have gained a deserved reputation for being among the most bibulous and truculent in the league, although the move to Candlestick from Kezar in 1970 seems mercifully to have dissipated some of that aggressiveness. In the early '60s, the fans' nastiness achieved such proportions that team officials were contemplating asking the city, which owns Kezar, to construct a moat around the playing field. A compromise of sorts was reached when a wire fence was built above the runway to the east tunnel to shield players from the traditional post-game bombardment of beer cans, most of which were not empties.