The San Diego Chargers recently left the cozy confines of their Pacific Ocean home to go back to Los Angeles where their franchise history began as the Los Angeles Chargers. The club played one season in LA, and then 56 years in San Diego. They won the 1963 American Football League championship with a 51-10 drubbing of the Boston Patriots and was the AFC Champion of the NFL in 1994 before getting demolished by the San Francisco 49ers 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX.
In a nutshell, in 58 years of being in business, the Chargers had a single championship to call their own.
But, that magical 1963 AFL season was not San Diego’s first championship. That distinction belongs to the San Diego Bombers.
Pro Football on the West Coast
Pro football in California with a major league did not occur until 1946 when the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles, and the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Dons became charter members of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). But prior to the invention of the AAFC, there was a pro football league called the Pacific Coast Professional Football League (PCPFL) which operated from 1940-1948.
The PCPFL was considered a high brow version of semi-pro football, and in fact, from 1942-1945 it’s only rival talent-wise was the NFL. Many a player in the PCPFL found future employment in the NFL as well as the AAFC in later years. At the time, most west coast cities, although with large populations, were problematic as far as travel since the most widely used transportation utilized in those days was by railroad. Nobody wanted to spend more than a day by rail to travel to or from another NFL city, so the western United States was merely unattainable until advancements in travel prevailed.
So, the PCPFL was operated like a major pro football entity with its own region – the Western Coast of the United States. No other league wanted to place a team so far from their other franchises, therefore this league flourished and acted as its own local venture as if no other league would ever eventually come and take over the cities that were already started.
And it may have stayed that way except for one situation. Starting in 1946, air travel became a national reality. And because of this, the NFL allowed the Cleveland Rams to move west while the AAFC granted two franchises in the two largest cities along the west coast.
The PCPFL began in 1940 with teams in Los Angeles, Oakland, Phoenix and San Diego, the latter called their club the Bombers. The five-team league planned a 10-game season, however, because of travel expenses, not every team decided to complete a full year. The Bombers went 0-4-0 and only traveled to Los Angeles to play the Bulldogs and the Hollywood Bears. The same situation occurred with the Phoenix Panthers who only played four games. These teams played strictly for the gate without much help from local boosters to cover game and stadium costs.
During these same years, the NFL had an unwritten rule where they omitted black players. So, star black players such as former UCLA star running back Kenny Washington found a team with Hollywood. Future movie star Woody Strode of Illinois was a teammate of Washington, and both eventually played for the Rams.
In 1941, the Bears employed Jackie Robinson, who would later break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. This same season the Bears went 8-0-0 and took home the league title. An NFL rival league that operated this season, the second American Football League, had several teams who came west and played games against PCPFL teams. This helped to fortify the league’s existence and stature. The Bombers, however, had another bad season as they went 1-5-0 despite having Notre Dame star Steve Bagarus (who would later play for the Washington Redskins).
For 1942, World War II had depleted players in all leagues. Some clubs completely shut down for a season. With the PCPFL, the league did field four teams, but only played five games. The Bombers finished on top with a 4-1-0 record and was named the league titleholder, San Diego’s very first pro football championship.
The Bombers would also capture the league title in 1943 with a 7-1-0 record, and then a three-peat in 1944 with a perfect 9-0-0 final tally. In that perfect season, the Bombers scored 335 points for an incredible 37.2 per game average, and only allowed 54 points (6 point average).
After winning three league titles in a row, from this point, most of the better players on the Bombers had either retired or migrated to the new AAFC which was announced to begin play in 1945 but put that season on hold and instead began play in 1946. The Bombers roster that remained was a hodgepodge of talent; mostly local players who were former college players with little or no pro experience. They limped to 4-4-0 record in 1945. The lone bright spot was Bosh Pritchard, the star running back from Virginia Military Institute. Pritchard would later play for the Rams and Philadelphia Eagles.
1946 brought about some big changes for the PCPFL. The NFL was concerned that the newly-formed AAFC would raid their rosters or cash in on the better college players. They wanted a haven for players that were cut so that the AAFC could not sign them to their rival league. So, the NFL devised a farm system in which the PCPFL along with the Dixie League and the American Association league would all merge into one entity called the “Association of Professional Football Leagues (APFL).”
This increased the number of teams to nine that would compete in the 1946 season of the newly-formed APFL. The Bombers once again floundered since all of their good players were now playing in either the AAFC or the NFL. A 1-7-0 record was observed, well enough for dead last in a league they once dominated. Because of sloppy play and not enough offense, attendance at Bomber games dropped off significantly to where the club had issues covering costs. Although the APFL competed in 1947 and 1948, the Bombers closed up shop instead.
Out of all the PCPFL clubs that competed from 1940-1948, the Bombers were the top team overall with a combined 25-15-0 record (.625 win percentage) and three league titles, the most by any franchise.
The PCPFL set the stage for future teams such as the 49ers, Seahawks, Rams, Cardinals, and Raiders to stake their claim into the West Coast hotbed that already had developed fan interest in California, Arizona and Seattle.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.