YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

THE L.A. DONS : 4 Decades Ago, Maverick Football Team Made a Fleeting but Memorable Impact

December 26, 1986|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

It has been 40 years since Stanford All-Americans Frankie Albert and Norm Standlee joined the San Francisco 49ers and played their first big home game against their hostile downstate rivals--the L.A. Dons, that is, not the L.A. Rams.

The Dons, 49ers and six other teams had just formed a new pro league known as the All-America Football Conference.

And as the Dons kicked off that day, Standlee shifted his chewing tobacco from one cheek to the other and camped under the ball.

A Don tackler named Bob Mitchell, a back who had played behind the Albert-Standlee regulars at Stanford, was bearing down on him, so Standlee caught the ball carefully, and took one step before Mitchell hit him.

The collision is still being discussed by those who saw it. Or heard it.

First, Standlee's helmet flew off. Then he swallowed his chewing tobacco. And, finally, he swallowed his tongue.

"There was a five-minute delay while the doctors worked on him (Standlee was eventually OK)," former Don guard Ray Frankowski said recently. "I keep reading about how rough football has become in 1986. You should have seen us in 1946."

The Dons and Rams both opened for business in Los Angeles that fall after a Chicago sports editor, Arch Ward, had organized the AAFC and launched it into a war against the National Football League.

Ward lined up stable ownerships in most places but thought he could keep an eye on the Chicago team--the Rockets--himself. Those who played for Chicago weren't so sure that he did.

One night in New York, when the Rockets showed up at the airport after a game with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, they were told that their plane wouldn't start. After an hour or so, blankets were distributed to all, and the club announced that mechanical trouble would delay takeoff indefinitely, perhaps until morning.

Promptly at 7 a.m., the two pilots, bright and cheery, climbed aboard, punched a few buttons and took off for Chicago.

"We learned later that our plane was scheduled for a 7 a.m. departure all along," said Bill Granholm, the Rockets' former equipment manager. "The club kept us aboard all night just to get out of a hotel bill."

That approach--running things on a shoestring--has characterized most sports leagues, including the NFL, since early in the 20th Century. By comparison, the AAFC was a well-financed, first-class operation in many cities--Chicago was an obvious exception--as long as it lasted, which was four years, 1946-49.

The Los Angeles team was owned by a Chicago race track operator, a multimillionaire named Benjamin F. Lindheimer.

In the Dons' front office, Lindheimer was represented by a minority owner--his daughter, Marje, one of the nation's youngest sports executives and one of the first American women to take charge of the daily operations of a big league team.

Marje Lindheimer later became Marje Everett, who today runs Hollywood Park.

But first, in 1947, there was a coach to be disposed of, as there often is in football--college or pro--even though firing Don Coach Dud DeGroot wasn't Marje's idea.

"DeGroot was just too high-handed to fit in," Frankowski said. "Week in and week out, he didn't even tell Ben Lindheimer what he was up to. He had to go."

So Ben passed the word to Marje, who passed it along to DeGroot one cold morning at the Dons' hotel in Hershey, Pa.

Next, she called two of DeGroot's assistants to her suite and asked them to serve as co-coaches for the remainder of the season. They were Mel Hein and Ted Shipkey.

"That ticked off DeGroot," Hein remembers. "The thing that really ticked him was not that he was fired, but that we were hired."

As Hein tells it, "Dud called us and said: 'I gave you this job--now I want you to quit with me.'

"I told him, 'You're crazy, Dud. You've got another year on your contract--we haven't. I can't even pay my way home.'

" 'What's that got to do with a principle?' he shouted. 'So walk home!' "

DeGroot never forgave his former buddies. "The next time I saw him, he wouldn't speak to me," Hein said.

In their four Los Angeles years, the Dons hired one president, actor Don Ameche, and four coaches--Jimmy Phelan among them--prompting the Lindheimers to conclude that getting the right coach is the one tough thing about owning a football team.

"It isn't easy getting the right general manager, either," Marje Everett said. "Look around the (NFL) today.

"In the '40s, we did a great deal of research before hiring (former St. Mary's Coach) Slip Madigan as our GM.

"Well, the only coach Slip wanted was Dud DeGroot. But from the first day they were with us, Dud agitated against Slip. One day Slip couldn't take it anymore and resigned.

"I tell you, dealing with these people is something else."

Marje would much rather deal with jockeys, or even football players. This fall, for example, she promoted a reunion of the Dons, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the team's birth.

Los Angeles Times Articles