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SFCentric History: 49ers Founder Died Watching Them Play

Photo: San Francisco Chronicle

Many people say they want to die doing something that they love. 49ers co-owner Anthony J. Morabito did just that, after having first given us our beloved football team. But before we get into all that, let’s meet Tony.

The San Francisco native, son of Italian immigrants, was born in San Francisco in 1910. He learned how to play football as a kid in the vacant lots of North Beach, and went on to play for St. Ignatius College Prep and the University of Santa Clara, before an injury sidelined his career. Tony found success in the 1930s and early ‘40s in the lumber hauling business, but football found a way to call him back to the game.

At that time, the sport was only professionally played on the East Coast, with no teams west of St. Louis. Tony, however, realized that the popularity of college football in the Bay Area, paired with the growth of air travel, meant a local football team made sense.Year after year, he would petition the National Football League for a franchise; year and year, he was rejected. He even traveled to Chicago in 1944, to meet with them in person, but wasn’t taken seriously. Commissioner Elmer Layden, who felt San Francisco wasn’t ready for a team advised Morabito, “Well, sonny, you better go out and get a football first and then come back.” Albert J. Ruffo, Tony’s former football teammate at Santa Clara, and an integral part of the founding of the Forty Niners, remarked that Layden “talked as if California was some kind of foreign country.”

After the failure of their first meeting, Ruffo and Morabito walked across the street and met with Arch Ward, sports editor of the Chicago Tribune. Ward was planning on creating a rival league, and Tony Morabito wanted in. The All-American Football Conference formed that same year, and in it, Tony Morabito saw his opportunity for a San Francisco professional football team come to fruition. Tony finally had his team, which he owned with brother Victor Morabito; Allen E. Sorrell, and E.J. Turre, his partners in the Lumber Terminals of San Francisco (Al Ruffo would later become a stockholder). The 49ers played their first game on August 24, 1946 (we won, 17-7).

Tony Morabito acted as the senior member of management. He started as the 49ers co-owner and vice president in 1951, and was co-owner, principal stockholder (40%, while brother owned 20%) and team president by 1955.

Photo: Santa Clara Magazine

He was known for being tough when it was needed, whipping the 49ers into shape. In November of 1956, the Madera Tribune reported that “Tony Morabito, clearly irked by the ‘country club’ tag which hangs on his cellar-dwelling San Francisco Forty Niners, served notice today that some of the members will have to hustle for the rest of the season or get the axe.” Three coaches actually did get the axe–in the course of three years–as Tony’s eyes were on a championship. He wasn’t going to settle for those he felt couldn’t deliver. Morabito was also not a fan of the press, and would blacklist any reporters he didn’t like or agree with.

Photo: Madera Tribune

He might have been tough, but to those within the Forty Niner franchise, Tony Morabito was the greatest. He “wasn’t exactly the favorite personality among the nation’s sports writers,” the Madera Tribune admitted, “but to a man, his employees worshipped the ground on which he walked. To the fighting Forty Niners he was a combined boss, friend and father-confessor.”

Tony “never forgot a 49er,” former Niner player Joe Vetrano declared to Sports Illustrated after Morabito’s death. He paid for the doctor and hospital bills of Forty Niner wives who had babies. He sent a check for $2000 to cover the burial expenses for a former player who died in the East.

He paid players extra when he didn’t have to. Those who knew Tony said he was a “softie.”

1952 was hard on Morabito though. He suffered a coronary occlusion; medically, Tony was advised to sell the team. It was too stressful a venture, and he was “living on borrowed time.” While he was open to selling the 49ers, and even entertained bids, Tony decided it wasn’t worth it to it all let go. “I’ll take my chances,” he is noted as having said. “What the hell, if I’m going to die, I might as well die at a football game.”

Photo: Madera Tribune

On October 27, 1957, Tony’s word became truth. It was the second quarter of a Sunday game at against the Chicago Bears. The 47-year-old was in his 50-yard line seat at Kezar Stadium, with wife Josephine and brother Victor, when just before halftime, he suffered a severe heart attack. Victor ran to get medical help, but Tony Morabito was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Mary’s Help Hospital. As this was happening, the Forty Niners were losing to the Bears, 17-7. The team was notified in the second half of their leader’s death, after a note was passed to the coach saying “Tony’s Gone.” Tackle Bob St. Clair, who was on the sideline injured during the game, said that “It had a hell of an effect on the team to see Coach Frankie Albert weeping on the sidelines. At the risk of sounding maudlin, the team members felt they should win this one for Tony.”

The 49ers, within minutes, were able to turn the game around in memory of Morabito. A touchdown in the fourth quarter allowed them to come back and win the game, 21-18.tony While it was a victory, the franchise’s loss was profound..”There’ll never be another president of the Forty Niners as great as Tony Morabito,” Coach Frankie Albert said while crying. “I’d rather lose every game, 100-0 the rest of my life than to lose Tony.”

Chicago Bears owner George Halas pointed out Morabito’s legacy. “Tony made professional football a success in San Francisco. That, forever will be his monument.” We will always remember Tony Morabito for believing that San Francisco was worthy of a football team, for bringing us the chance to be champions, and living the 49er life ‘till the end.

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V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi

V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi

V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi is one of those rare born-and-raised San Franciscans (unicorn status). She is the Style & Culture, SF Editor for Hip Latina, and writer for several publications on fashion, art, culture and all things San Francisco. Alex aims to educate everyone (including natives) on anything you could possibly want to learn about the best city in the world. Follow her at @SFCentric and @TheItFactorBrand.