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Browns first rivalry: San Francisco 49ers

Both clubs began in another NFL-rival league

WR Dante Lavelli in the 1947 AAFC Championship Game

Times were tough for the remaining teams in the NFL during World War II. The Cleveland Rams shut down for one season. The Pittsburgh Steelers had to merge with the Philadelphia Eagles and then the Chicago Cardinals in consecutive seasons. In 1943, the league was down to eight clubs. One year, Chicago Bears head coach George Halas signed anyone who could run around the track twice. The league almost shut down for the duration of the war but limped forward instead. None of the franchises could fill their 33-man rosters each year.

Not only did current NFL players enter the war, but also some coaches and even several owners. College athletes in their junior and senior years enlisted and did not lose their final years of eligibility, but did not wish to return to college football but instead pursue the business world or professional football.

Now the league faced another challenge. Business was finally stabilizing as most clubs turned a profit each year although most were held back by teams that were neither successful on the field each year nor profitable at the gate.

Uncertainty filled the air. During World War I, Americans were expected to conserve resources to support the war effort including rationing. How would this war affect the country? The NFL? Instead of a pause for several years, the fact that the league continued on saved itself. If the NFL had halted operations, it would have lost its fanbase who would simply have forgotten about their favorite teams and concentrated on baseball or college football - which were both kings of sport at the time.

Prior to the United States entering the war effort, there were several men who had approached the NFL owners about obtaining a franchise but were repeatedly rebuffed. As the war effort was coming to a conclusion, these same men asked again about getting their own team. Once again, the owners refused. They liked what they had and did not want any new money, younger men, or newfangled ideas into the fold.

So, these wealthy men began their own league and called it the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). This became an eight-team entity that would become an NFL-rival league that competed for veterans, coaches, college talent, and territory. The plan was to begin in the 1946 season as more and more athletes were coming back stateside.

Because travel to games was mainly by train, the NFL liked keeping their league in the Midwest and Eastern seaboard. But by 1946, air travel became available. The AAFC seized this opportunity to place a team in San Francisco and Los Angeles. After the Cleveland Rams captured the 1945 NFL title, they relocated to Los Angeles as well.

This set the stage for the new AAFC team located in Cleveland coached by Paul Brown to have the city for themselves and not have to compete directly against the NFL much less their reigning champion.

The owner of the Cleveland AAFC team, Mickey McBride, ran a “name the team” contest in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer to which “Panthers” was selected. This was the name of another Cleveland team back in the early 1930s. A man contacted McBride and stated he still owned the trademarks for the name “Cleveland Panthers” but was willing to lease it to him. McBride passed, and eventually, his club would be named the “Cleveland Browns” after their renowned head coach who at the time was the most famous sports figure in the State of Ohio.

AAFC begins

With eight clubs, the new league was divided into two divisions and began in 1946. The Eastern Division comprised the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, Buffalo Bisons, and Miami Seahawks. The Western Division had the Cleveland Browns, Chicago Rockets, Los Angeles Dons, and San Francisco 49ers.

This meant that several teams encroached into the territory of existing NFL teams: the Yankees and Dodgers on the New York Football Giants, the Rockets on the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals, and the Dons on the Los Angeles Rams.

The changes for the duration of the AAFC are as follows: Buffalo became the Bills in 1947, Miami relocated to Baltimore in 1947 and was renamed the Colts, Chicago changed their team name to the Hornets in 1949, and the Dodgers and Yankees merged into one club in 1949. Then in 1950, the NFL merged Cleveland, San Francisco, and Baltimore as players from the defunct teams were disbursed to various NFL clubs.

In its maiden season of 1946, the AAFC playoffs were structured just like the NFL with the two division winners competing in the league championship game.

Otto Graham Being Hit During Game

Cleveland captured the Western Division with a 12-2-0 record and won the right to play the Yankees (10-3-1) in the first AAFC Championship Game. Behind the Browns, the 49ers finished 9-5-0.

It would become the first year that the Browns vs. 49ers would become the league’s most fierce rivalry.

Beginning of the rivalry

The AAFC had one major flaw. There wasn’t any mechanism to provide parity in the league. Teams signed any player they wanted and were able to pay their players whatever they wished.

Browns head coach Paul Brown had a distinct advantage because he had won six state high school championships in Ohio and then won the National Championship while the head guy at Ohio State. So, not only the players he coached, but he had an inside view of players on opposing teams that he saw as elite athletes.

Without any league draft or player disbursement system in place, Cleveland signed numerous former NFL players and exceptional college talent who missed their final years at that level.

At the same time, the New York Yankees were former NFL members who left the established league and joined the AAFC. So, they already had a full roster of NFL players. This fact made them the superior club in the Eastern Division right away.

The owners of the 49ers were brothers Tony and Victor Morabito who gained their fortune with a successful lumber hauling business in Northern California during the late 1930s and into the 1940s. The brothers had several applications for an NFL expansion franchise rejected, and were one of the first to grab a team in the new AAFC. Tony ran his team with a belligerent disdain for outsiders and was a controversial man. Tony’s “list” of sports writers and radio broadcasters he felt were unfairly targeting his club numbered at least two dozen, off and on.

However, his players found him kind, thoughtful and he paid well for talented athletes.

San Francisco was coached by Buck Shaw who had been a superior athlete while at Notre Dame and later would be named to the All-Time Fighting Irish Team. He was signed to an unheard salary of $25,000 a season. Shaw had success while the head man at Santa Clara University who at one time had compiled an 18-1-0 record over two seasons and won two Sugar Bowls.

While Coach Brown had signed former Northwestern star Otto Graham (6’-1”, 196 pounds) to quarterback his club, the 49ers inked southpaw QB Frankie Albert (5’-9”, 166 pounds) of Stanford and a Two-time All-American. During the war, Graham had obligated himself to the Coast Guard while Albert served four years in the Navy.

Albert was considered one of the best quarterbacks coming back from the war effort and had gone into the service after his junior campaign.

What the NFL did as college players missed their senior seasons, the subsequent NFL draft would contain all missing seniors available for the draft, and then their rights would be protected. An example would be Utah WR Mac Speedie (and future Brown) was taken by the Detroit Lions in the 15th round in the 1942 draft despite him being in the Army, but retained his rights. The Chicago Bears selected Albert with the 10th overall selection and held his rights even though he would not be available for several years.

Albert was considered a magician with the ball. In 1946, the Browns scored the most points (423) in the AAFC with San Fran in second with 307. But the 49ers had the best rushing attack in the league. Running backs Norm Standlee, John Strzykalski, and Len Eshmont finished with the 2nd, 8th, and 13th (respectively) most yards gained.

Albert finished second in the league in passing yardage. San Francisco’s WR Alyn Beals finished second in the league in receptions as well as receiving yards. RB Standlee had the second-most rushing yards. The 49ers scored the second most points and their defense gave up the second least number of points.

And they finished second to the Browns. However, San Francisco did own one first: they defeated the Browns in their first-ever game. The two would split their regular season games with the visitor winning both times.

Going into the Week 8 game in 1946, Cleveland was 7-0-0 while San Francisco sat in second place with a 4-3-0 record. The 49ers had built a 27-6 lead from the arm of Albert. In the fourth quarter, the Browns outscored San Fran 14-7 but lost 34-20 in front of a Cleveland crowd of 70,385. The total yardage was unheard of for the time as the 49ers had 357 yards to 338 for Cleveland. But the Browns committed six turnovers in the defeat.

Two games later, Cleveland had lost to Los Angeles and was sitting at 7-2-0 while San Fran had beaten Buffalo and had a 6-3-0 record. It literally was the game to decide the division. A crowd of 41,061 showed up to cheer their 49ers to their second victory over the Browns. Cleveland scored two first-half touchdowns but was shut out in the second half as the 49ers stiff defense stifled the Browns’ potent offense. This time around, it was the 49ers who had the turnover issue as they committed four in the 14-7 loss at Kezar Stadium.

For the remainder of 1946, San Francisco went 3-1 while the Browns ran the table with five consecutive wins outscoring their opponents down the stretch 207-52.

In the maiden AAFC Championship Game on December 22, Cleveland defeated the Yankees 14-9.

Next three seasons plus one

Over the next three years, it wasn’t the Eastern Division foes who gave the Browns trouble – it was San Francisco.

In 1947, Cleveland went 12-1-1. They had just barely beaten the 49ers 14-7 on the road with attendance announced at 54,483, but won 37-14 three weeks later at home in front of 76,504 patrons. The Browns then defeated the Yankees once again in the title game 14-3 for their second straight league crown.

For 1948, the Browns finished 15-0-0 and became only the second pro football club in history to complete a season unbeaten and untied (1937 Los Angeles Bulldogs 16-0-0).

Spectators Leave Municiple Stadium
Elevated view of spectators as they leave Municipal Stadium after a football game between the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland, Ohio, November 15, 1948. A record crowd of 82,769 watched the Browns win, 14-7.
Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images

San Francisco had their best team to date. They began 10-0-0 including two wins over Eastern Division powerhouse Yankees. In Week 12, they played the 10-0-0 Browns on the road in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 82,769 (stadium capacity: 81,000). In the first quarter, Graham had a 14-yard touchdown run while San Fran scored on a 1-yard Joe Perry plunge. This became the halftime score. In the third quarter, Cleveland’s Edgar Jones scored from four yards out and the Browns defense held for the 14-7 victory. The 49ers had committed six turnovers.

Two weeks later, the Browns took home a 31-28 win at San Fran as they fell to 11-2-0 and would finish 12-2-0 for the season. The 49ers’ stadium held 59,942 for football as the gate that day was 59,785. Their only losses all season were to Cleveland but led the league in points scored with 495. The Browns would win their third consecutive championship with a 49-7 victory over Buffalo in the AAFC Championship Game.

In 1949, the AAFC was down to seven clubs with the merger of the Yankees and Dodgers so the division process was scratched. The Browns finished 9-1-2 while the 49ers once again came in second place with a 9-3-0 record.

In their Week 7 matchup, Cleveland came into San Francisco with a 4-0-1 record to the 49ers’ 4-1-0. Once again, it would be labeled the battle of supremacy of the league. San Fran built a 21-7 lead on Albert’s touchdown passes and held a 35-21 halftime advantage. After another Albert passing TD as the game’s only score in Quarter 3, the 49ers outscored Cleveland in the fourth quarter 14-7 to capture a 56-28 thumping of the Browns before 59,720 fans.

It was the worst loss for Paul Brown in his entire coaching career. After the game, the 49ers were now in first place with a sterling 5-1-0 record to Cleveland’s 4-1-1. This marked the first time in the AAFC that Coach Brown’s team was not listed in first place. The two would play again in three weeks. In the interim, San Fran beat Buffalo but lost to the Yankees. Cleveland had a bye and then defeated Los Angeles 61-14.

Cleveland Browns v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Vic Stein/Getty Images

Going into the Week 10 rematch, the Yankees were 5-1-0 with Cleveland 5-1-1 while the 49ers were close behind at 6-2-0.

A crowd of 71,189 saw a great game. After a scoreless first quarter, both teams found the end zone twice to provide a 14-14 halftime score. Each squad once again scored before Lou Groza booted a 38-yard field goal to take a 24-21 lead halfway into the final stanza. Then Graham found Speedie for a 12-yard touchdown pass. Albert had a one-yard score late in the game, but the Browns won 30-28 in a wild game that was devoid of any turnovers or penalties and had a whopping 877 yards of combined offense.

At the same time, the Yankees/Dodgers defeated Baltimore and had a 6-1-0 record to lead the standings. Cleveland was now 6-1-1 while San Fran fell to 6-3-0 with three games left.

New York lost to Buffalo the next weekend, then to the Browns 31-0 in Week 13, and finally to San Francisco 35-14 in the final game but beat Chicago and Los Angeles to finish 8-4-0. They had played three games in seven days. The 49ers went 3-0 down the stretch with a final record of 9-3-0 while Cleveland went 3-0-1 in their final games to finish 9-1-2.

Football Coach Paul Brown Being Carried by His Players
Browns head coach Paul Brown after winning the 1949 AAFC title

The format for the post-season was also different. Instead of the top two teams automatically in the title game, the first-place club played the fourth-place finisher while #2 was pitted against #3. The Browns beat Buffalo 31-21 while San Fran took care of New York 17-7. This set up San Francisco and Cleveland in the AAFC Championship Game for the first time ever. Neither team had much offense but the Browns prevailed 21-7 on touchdown runs by Edgar Jones, Marion Motley, and Dub Jones.

It would become Cleveland’s fourth title in as many years. It would also be their last in the AAFC.

The NFL and AAFC had been in merger talks for a year, and after the 1949 season decided that three AAFC clubs would join the NFL: Cleveland, San Francisco, and Baltimore. The four years of war between the two leagues had escalated player salaries tremendously with few teams in either league finding a profit at year’s end.

At the conclusion of the AAFC, Cleveland posted a 47-4-2 overall record while San Fran came in second with a total record of 38-14-2. Two of Cleveland’s total losses were to the 49ers as the Browns posted a 7-2-0 record against their bitter rival.

Going into the 1950 season, now in the NFL, Cleveland was slotted in the American Division with the mighty New York Football Giants and current league champion Philadelphia Eagles. San Francisco was placed in the National Division which housed powerhouses Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams.

The Browns would find a new rival in the Giants for the next two decades whereas the Rams vs. 49ers became classic matchups.

Before Cleveland’s rivalries became the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and Cincinnati Bengals, it was the San Francisco 49ers as their first adversary.