Those “Plucky” Forty-Niners: The Roots of Pro Football in San Francisco

Historical Essay

by Evelyn Rose, Tramps of San Francisco, 2013.

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Quarterback John Brodie warming up at Kezar Stadium, 1960s.

Photo: courtesy Ben Valdez

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San Francisco 49ers defeat Chicago Hornets, 42-7, at Kezar Stadium on Sept. 2, 1949.

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University of California-Berkeley versus Stanford at Haight Street baseball grounds, bordered by Stanyan, Frederick, Waller, and Cole Streets, San Francisco, November 1893.

From the San Francisco Call. Available at the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

Yes, Trampers, history does repeat itself! The San Francisco Forty-Niners are at last returning to the Super Bowl, after a long, dry 18-year absence. Established in 1946, the Niners have experienced periods of greatness. Just to name a few 49er icons: Y.A. Tittle, R.C. Owens, John Brodie, Joe Montana, Freddie Solomon, Dwight Clark, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Dwight Hicks, Steve Young, Jesse Sapolu, and Frank Gore. Now, the Niners are blessed with a tatooed, goateed young buck out of Turlock by the name of Colin Kaepernick who can throw like Montana and run like a gazelle. The history of professional football shimmers with Forty-Niner highlights, including the Alley Oop (Tittle to Owens), The Catch (Montana to Clark), The Catch 2 (Young to Terrell Owens), and more recently, The Catch 3 (a.k.a, The Grab, Alex Smith to Vernon Davis), plus Kaepernick’s all-time, all-game, quarterback rushing record in his very first play-off game.

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The famous "Alley OOPS" catch, Y.A. Tittle to RC Owens, Nov. 3, 1957, with 11 seconds remaining against the Detroit Lions.

Photo: courtesy Ben Valdez

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Coach Red Strader barks directions as quarterback Y.A. Tittle enters field, Sept. 26, 1955 at Kezar Stadium.

It was sports pioneer Tony Morabito who founded the Forty-Niners, the first major league professional team in San Francisco. According to official Niner history,

“Before World War II, Morabito was convinced the San Francisco Bay Area was ready for a franchise in the National Football League. The Bay Area was a mecca for college football. Fans came in droves to Kezar Stadium to see the Wonder Teams of California-Berkeley and the Wow Boys of Stanford, led by Frankie Albert. St. Mary’s, Santa Clara and the University of San Francisco were also area powerhouses that regularly defeated the University of Washington and Southern California inside the walls of Kezar.”

It took much persistence on the part of Morabito to convince the big league executives from the East and Midwest, but ultimately he won his franchise. The San Francisco Forty-Niners played their first home game (an exhibition) at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park, just west of the Haight-Ashbury, on September 1, 1946 in front of 45,000 roaring fans. The Niners beat the Chicago Rockets 34 to 14.

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Football at the long-time home of the San Francisco 49ers, Kezar Stadium, seen here on February 20, 1948.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

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Kezar Stadium packed and ready for a football game, n.d.

Photo: provenance unknown, via Facebook

Morabito’s insight and sense of sports history had brought the first original professional football franchise to the West Coast. (Rams’ fans, please take note: while the Rams began playing in Los Angeles nine months earlier in January 1946, the team actually originated in Cleveland in 1937. And, by the way, the Niners organization has never abandoned the greater San Francisco Bay Area, though the move to Santa Clara 40 miles away in 2014 is nothing short of bittersweet.)

But what was that local history that so informed Morabito? What made San Francisco such a great football town?

No matter what your colors are,
You’d always find it true.
When the football game is over
They’ll all be black and blue.

– Anonymous, San Francisco Call, December 1892
(originally published in the Chicago Tribune)

The Noisy Contingent delivering auricular torture at the California-Stanford game, November 1893. From the San Francisco Call. Available at the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

In 1860, faculty at New England’s Ivy League campuses were banning a popular and more primitive form of college football. The basic tenet of this predecessor was to kick a ball at a goal or run it over a line (a “kicking” or “running” game, respectively). As received by Pony Express, the Daily Alta California reported in December of that year that the abolition of the ritual Sophomore versus Freshmen football games at Harvard College had led to what became known as the practice of hazing:

“Since the prohibition by the College Faculty of the annual game of football, in which the Sophomores and the newly entered Freshmen were accustomed to engage, and which have of late years degenerated into a match at boxing and fighting, to the disgrace of the college Delta, the Sophomores have been much more severe in their initiatory attentions to the Freshmen ….

“… the Sophs have ‘taken it out’ of the Freshmen by ‘hazing’ them whenever there was an opportunity; that is, have played all sorts of practical jokes upon them. This, of late, has been resisted by the more spunkey Freshmen, and the result is, that the subject has been brought to the attention of the government of the college, who have promptly suspended seven of the more unruly members.”

While loosely organized “running” or “kicking” games may have continued in ethnic neighborhoods, the point of evolutionary divergence from the traditional games of soccer and rugby (as played in the British Isles and by her emigrants to America) to the foundation of modern professional football emerged on November 6, 1869 when Rutgers and Princeton played the first modern college football game (Rutgers won, 6 to 4).

It would be another 23 years before the first intercollegiate football game would be played in California. On March 19, 1892, the “Palo Alto boys ” (whose team manager was future U.S. President Herbert Hoover) met the “Berkeley players ” at the Haight Street baseball grounds (bounded by Stanyan, Waller, Frederick, and Cole Streets – just over a stone’s throw from the future Kezar Stadium) in San Francisco. The crowds were described as “immense.” About 20,000 spectators crammed into the 15,000-seat grounds:

“A dark red was the Palo Alto color, and the students wore it in ribbons around their headgear and sleeves and in buttonholes. Each student carried a little flag and a tin horn, or some other instrument of auricular torture. The Berkeley boys did the same in their colors, blue and gold. Much tooting of horns and shouting was heard, the bronchial accompaniments being a special vocal composition arranged specially for each college.”

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Cheering for the Blue and Gold at the Berkeley-Stanford game, November 1893.

From the San Francisco Call. Available at the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

Play was to begin at 3 o’clock but then it was realized no one had brought the game ball. A “mounted messenger” was dispatched into town to retrieve one and the game was finally able to begin an hour later. Stanford made one goal and two “touch downs” in the first half, while Berkeley scored two touch downs and a “safety touch” in the second. The final score was Stanford 14-Berkeley 10 [Trampers' Note: According to a compilation of sources available at Wikipedia, a touchdown was 4 points, a field goal 5 points, and a safety 2 points. Based on this, Berkeley's score correctly tallies to 10, but Stanford's score based on reported scores is short by 1). Game receipts amounted to $30,000 (almost $750,000 in today's dollars). The coaches split the profits and financed their respective teams for another year.

November 1892 was a banner month for football. William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, a three-time All-American guard from Yale, was declared the first “professional” football player when he was paid $500 to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. He recovered a fumble and ran 35 yards to make the game’s only score. Later that same month, the Yale football elite traveled to San Francisco: Heffelfinger, Lee McClung, a teammate of Heffelfinger who also served as Yale’s captain (and who would later become United States Treasurer), and Walter Camp, captain of Yale in the late 1870s and football coach of Heffelfinger and McClung. These three men, especially Walter Camp, are considered the fathers of modern American football.

Berkeley and Stanford were scheduled to face off again at the Haight Street grounds on December 17, 1892. This time, the game benefited from the professional influence of the Yale football statesmen, with Camp coaching Stanford and McClung guiding Berkeley (interestingly they also served as referee and coach, respectively). Heffelfinger was also reported to be in attendance.

San Francisco was in a high level of excitement and anticipation for the big game. Trainloads of spectators were arriving from as far away as Sacramento. This time, it seems, somebody remembered to bring the ball.

“Both teams had trained faithfully and were in the best condition. The University of California men out-weighed the Stanford boys slightly, but the latter made up in quickness what they lost in weight … Berkeley, relying on superior weight and strength, played a bucking game, and when the team had the ball would gradually work their way through Stanford’s ranks without attempting any fancy plays. Stanford played a more scientific came and made some brilliant runs.”

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View of the playing field at the Haight Street street grounds, bordered by Stanyan, Frederick, Waller, and Cole Streets in San Francisco, November 1892.

From the San Francisco Call. Available at the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

Likely to the dismay of all in attendance, the game ended in a 10-10 tie, but newspapers still billed it as “the prettiest contest ever seen on the Pacific Coast.” In 1893, Heffelfinger would return to coach football at UC-Berkeley, while Walter Camp would do the same at Stanford. No wonder the rivalry would later become known as “The Big Game” in 1900.

Two days after the Berkeley-Stanford game, the morning edition of the San Francisco Call provided an overview of the new-fangled game for the benefit of the uninitiated [Tramper's note: footnotes added],

“Ten or fifteen thousand people went to the football game on Saturday and appeared to enjoy it hugely. It was a new sensation, for there is rather more excitement in football than in baseball. At the latter skill alone commands victory, whereas at the former thews• and sinews are of more consequence than address. The team which can make the strongest rush generally wins, on the Napoleonic principle that fortune is on the side of the heaviest battalions. The game is called football because it is not allowable to use the feet in it. If Ajax still lived, and could enlist four men of his size and muscle to guard him, he would become the champion football player of the day. No one could resist his rushes, and when he got the ball the enemy would merely dash themselves in vain against his stalwart frame in efforts to take it from him. For the idea of the modern football captain is to fling such a force upon the holder of the ball that he shall be knocked down, and probably knocked senseless, then to carry off the ball without meeting with the like experience from the opposite captain.

“Football has become, perhaps, the most popular of our college athletic sports, because it exacts more endurance and especially more pluck than any other. Rowing and baseball involve a strain upon the muscles, but none upon the virile grit. A man may be the veriest poltroon† and yet may be able to outrow champions, and to pitch so as to distress the most dextrous batter. But a football player must have pluck. He can never reckon out in advance the net results of the shock of his charges. He may be knocked so senseless that it may bother the doctors to restore him, or he may be crippled for life. These chances he must take, and he who takes them gayly, for the fun and glory of the thing, would lead a squadron of horse upon a battery with a smiling face. As courage is an acquired attribute, which is born in few, but can be learned by experience like the small sword exercise, football commends itself as an apprenticeship to one of the most valuable qualities possessed by civilized men. In the old days of the war it was found that the boys who had been the most proficient at athletic games, involving more or less danger to limb, made the best cavalry officers. They were often stupid as owls, but set them on a horse and show them a battery and it was odds they were presently seen sabering the gunners.

“In the last generation the fault of an American collegiate education was that it neglected physical development. A few scholars were evolved, but much fewer men of muscle or men of pluck. In England they were wiser. College authorities winked at the chronic warfare between town boys and gown boys‡, and when the latter were drafted into the army hard fighting came natural to them. Some thirty years ago the war [Tramper's note: the American Civil War] disclosed our mistake, and ever since the leading colleges of the country – Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Cornell and Princeton – have been careful to educate the combative instinct of their scholars. Our own Berkeley was quick to follow the example. Now, if trouble befall, excellent material for officers would be found in the ranks of college graduates, and especially among the accomplished football players.”

In another Call report one month later entitled Scientific Sport, a writer named only as Puck describes his first introduction to the game and why he eventually quit:

“My interest in this game of football was first aroused by seeing various photographs of crack teams. Then, one day in a gymnasium, I was shown the ball itself. It is a quick, willing affair, shaped like a ripe watermelon, and I had fun with it for an hour. Then a young man who said he was captain of the ‘Athletics’ asked me if I wouldn’t join his team … on the following day I met with the team for practice. Although I found this practice delightful in many ways my suspicions were aroused by a stocky young fellow in a blouse, who persisted in throwing me down every time I secured the ball. I did not resent this as I might have done, because I was assured it was a feature of the game …

“I witnessed a game of football. So far as I could determine, it was this way: The opposing teams, each consisting of eleven in uniforms, faced each other, and the ball was kicked out between them. The most of them settled upon it and formed an amusing jumble of padded legs.

“After a moment’s scramble some one aptly remarked, ‘Down!’ Then they all crouched motionless over the ball, while a gifted young man in rear aimlessly recited a mangled version of the alphabet. Just as the recitation was becoming monotonous the whole gang again settled down upon the ball, and each man went into convulsions. The elocutionist climbed up on top of the mass of writhing humanity and danced exultantly upon it.

“This performance was repeated many times, and was, in a way, rather interesting. More collar-bones were broken than anything else I think. Once during the game I asked a man who sat next to me why it was called ‘football’ instead of ‘headball.’ He did not reply. He was a voiceful idiot who yelled most of the time and pretended that he could keep score. It is a rough game – not so many vowels in it, so to speak. I decided that all football-players should speak the Welsh language, enjoy Wagner and eat horse feed …

Time out at the 1893 Cal-Stanford game at the Haight Street grounds to attend to an injured player. From the San Francisco Call. Available at the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

“Immediately after the game was over I sought the captain of the Athletics and firmly resigned from the team. ‘But you don’t understand the game yet,’ he expostulated. ‘Why, man, it’s the most scientific game played.’ “‘I grant you that,’ I said in my scholarly way; ‘but the game is not what it should be; it is handicapped by the restrictions which I presume are imposed against the use of artificial weapons … The game as now played, compared with what it could be made, is as crude as were the ancient ways of battle … you don’t even allow a man to use a club, and the most primeval and degraded savage availed himself of that simple weapon … Of course, there is science in it, if by ‘science’ you mean calculated and concerted effort – there is science in all battles … But they shall never have any of my own personal blood to spill around over a barren waste of ground with white lines painted on it.”

Football safety is as much of a concern now as it was in 1892. Yet, it would be nearly a century before science, medicine, and technology began to converge to develop football uniforms akin to Star Wars’ Stormtroopers. In the Gay Nineties, however, football gear appeared to be designed more for the protection of vanity than the bone-breaking, head-knocking, sometimes paralyzing and fatal injuries players were experiencing. A November 1892 article in the Call described the late 19th century uniform innovations over the previous 10 years:


Devices Worn by Football Players.
The Many Improvements That Have Taken Place in the Game of Kicks.

“With the onward and upward rush of the game of football many new and startling changes have taken place both in the physiognomy and apparel of the player. The game is now the representative college sport and has been in vogue in American about seventeen years, during which time the percentage of cripples has largely increased.

The uniform of football circa late 1870s. Walter Camp, captain of the Yale team in 1878-1879, would later become the father of modern football and coach at Stanford. From Football Days, Memories of the Game and the Men Behind the Ball, by William H. Edwards. 1916. Moffat, Yard, and Co. Available at Project Gutenberg.
The “modern” football uniform of the 1890s. Player William “Pudge” Heffelfinger of Yale helped bring “science” to the game of football. From American Football, by Walter Camp. 1891. Harper & Brothers. Available at Project Gutenberg.

“As it is now played it is a modification of the Rugby game of England. At the time of its introduction here the pastime was in a very crude state regarding the appliances thereunto appertaining. On this account the players devoted all their time and attention to acquiring a mastery of the rule, laying off between games to recover from the injuries sustained while pursuing their studies.

“As a high degree of proficiency increased the danger of broken legs and necks the brainy men of the football fraternity set to work to lessen the risks of becoming cripples or disfigured for life. The result can now been seen wherever football is played according to Hoyle,§ and the sport is not so remunerative to the surgeon as it used to be.

“Visit a game on any of the college grounds, at Central or Golden Gate parks and you can see all the latest improved football machinery to date. The top notch has not been attained, but the difference between the apparatus of ten years ago and that in use at the present is apparent, even to the novice.

“In this respect football has kept pace with baseball. Where the backstop of the latter team wears his face incased in a wire mask the football player protects his nose with a sheet-iron copper-riveted armor or nosebag which he carefully straps to his nasal organ before jumping into the fray. This prevents the flattening of the nose should he jam it against the skull of an opposing rusher.” [Trampers' Note: Apparently, the impact from what could be likened to a ship's metal bow ramming the opponent's thinking parts was not considered.]

These heavily padded pantaloons helped protect players from broken bones due to errant kicks by teammates and opponents alike. From the San Francisco Call. Available at the California Digital Newspaper Repository.

“In the matter of padded trousers the college athlete has kept pace with his brother of the green diamond. The base-runner has portions of his trousers padded to prevent the ruffling up of his epidermis while sliding from bag to bag, and the heavily quilted pantaloons of the football man lessens the danger of a broken leg from a misguided kick.

“In the matter of shoes the college man is debarred from using the razor-edged metal plates that adorn the soles of the ballplayer’s shoes. The reason is obvious. In baseball, where the player does no kicking whatever except at the umpire, men are frequently cut and gashed in a horrible manner. In football these plates would simply result in slaughter, so little bars of leather have taken their place.

“Some players also wear shin-guards similar to those adopted by cricketers. These are strips of heavy canvas or leather strapped to the leg between the knee and ankle and greatly lessen the pain of random kicks received in rushes. Since the introduction of this appliance limps are less apparent on the field of carnage.

“Another item on which the football inventor is still at work is an ear-guard, which will fill a long felt want when perfected. It is not an uncommon occurrence for a player to have an ear shaved off by coming in contact with the sharp shoulder-blades of an opponent, and in some instances large bagsful of damaged ears have been picked up after the game.

Example of innovation in the protection of vanity. The “nosebag” was made of copper-riveted sheet iron. Despite the number of serious head injuries and other types of central nervous system trauma, helmets would not be mandatory for another fifty years. From the San Francisco Call. Available at California Digital Newspaper Collection.

“What the player wants is an apparatus which will allow him to retain his ears and his hearing at the same time. The machine now in use is a large pad strapped to the side of the head. It protects the ear, but the player cannot hear the orders or signals from his captain. Therefore the pad is not popular. It is said that some of the greatest inventors of the age are at work on this problem.

“[Players have] a luxurious crop of hair that covers his head in a thorough manner … Ten years ago it was the custom to wear caps while at play, but now the athletes perform bareheaded. The cap will not stay on during the heat of the scrimmage, but as the player must have some protection for his head he lets his hair grow from the time he begins practice until after the game. This guards against scalp wounds, and also gives the wind a chance.”

Incredibly, the helmet would not become mandatory football attire until 1943. Football helmets were invented by the father of carrier aviation, Admiral Joseph Mason Reeve, for the Army-Navy­ game of 1893. Legend has it that Admiral Reeve had been kicked in the head so many times that his physician advised one more impact would lead to “instant insanity.” While his invention was not widely used, it was adapted for use by paratroopers in World War I. Some players wore soft leather head gear in the early 1900s, which became harder leather in the 1920s. Then, John T. Riddell invented the plastic helmet in 1939 that would forever change the game.

So, whether you’ll be rooting for the Cal Bears or the Stanford Cardinals at the next November Big Game, remember to pay homage to both teams. Were it not for the intensity of their 120-year rivalry, Morabito may have never considered the potential for San Francisco to become a frenzied, big league football town.

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Umpire confers with players during 1949 game at Kezar.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

• Thews: muscular or physical strength
† Poltroons: defined as “wretched cowards”
‡ Gown boys: According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this was a collective singular for “residents of a university.”
§ The identify of Hoyle and his relationship to football is unknown.


1. Anonymous. The Founder: Tony Morabito. Available at
2. Anonymous. St Louis Rams Chronology. Available at
3. Anonymous. Nov. 12: The Birth of Pro Football. Available at Pro Football Hall of Fame.
4. Various articles from the Daily Alta California, San Francisco Call, Los Angeles Herald. Available at the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
5. Anonymous. Rutgers Football History. Available at
6. Anonymous. The Big Game: History and Tradition. At
7. Anonymous. Football Firsts. Available at Pro Football Hall of Fame.
9. American Etymology Dictionary.
10. Edwards, William H. Football Days, Memories of the Game and the Men Behind the Ball. 1916. Moffat, Yard, and Co. Available at Project Gutenberg.
11. Camp, Walter. American Football. 1891. Harper & Brothers. Available at Project Gutenberg.
12. Stamp, J. Leatherhead to Radio-head: The Evolution of the Football Helmet. October 1, 2012. Available at