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The Dons of L.A. Pro Sports

Sixty years ago, the city's first major league team took the field as part of a challenge to the NFL

September 13, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer backed the project.

Hope and Crosby too.

Sixty years ago tonight, major league sports reached Los Angeles when the supported-by-the-stars Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference, an upstart challenger to the then-25-year-old NFL, played the first regular-season major league professional football game in the city.

Two weeks before the transplanted Rams kicked off their first season in their new home after moving from Cleveland, the Dons defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers, 20-14, in front of a Friday-night crowd of 18,995 at the Coliseum.

A new era had dawned in professional football, one that made it a truly national endeavor. But by decade's end the AAFC and the Dons were gone.

Though the eight-team AAFC was generally considered to be on a par with the 10-team NFL, if not better, the new league lasted only four seasons before three of its remaining seven teams -- the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts -- were absorbed into the NFL. The Dons were among those dissolved.

The AAFC helped open the West Coast to pro sports and brought long-lasting innovations, such as widespread air travel, extensive use of zone defenses and 14-game schedules, the latter not adopted by the NFL until the 1960s.

The Dons, whose ownership group included Mayer and actors Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Don Ameche, were never more than a middle-of-the-pack team, unable to top their 7-5-2 record in that first season and finishing with a four-year mark of 25-27-2. But in three of their four seasons they outdrew the Rams, who touched down in Southern California as the defending NFL champions.

In 1947, the Dons drew a then-pro-record 82,576 to the Coliseum for a game against the New York Yankees, and in 1948 they outdrew every NFL team.

But after 1949 they and the AAFC faded into obscurity, victims of a salary war that at the time was called the most expensive in sports history, draining millions of dollars from owners in both leagues.

"You hear a lot about the start of the AFL, or some of these other leagues," said Dick Danehe, who turned 86 on Sunday and for two seasons was a tackle with the Dons. "But nobody ever talks about the All-America Conference....

"This was in every way a major professional league. It was every bit as good a league, if not a better league, than the National Football League. We had a dozen players on our club that moved to the Dons directly from the National Football League because the Dons paid more, as did every other team in the conference."

In fact, the upstart league was loaded with wealthy owners and on-field talent, including 13 players who would later be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, among them Otto Graham, Y.A. Tittle and Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch. Big-name players who suited up for the Dons included Angelo Bertelli, Notre Dame's first Heisman Trophy winner, and Bob Nelson, a perennial all-pro center.

Jim Crowley, one of the legendary Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, was the league's first commissioner and Lou Gehrig's widow, Eleanor, was its secretary and treasurer.

"It's disappointing that it didn't continue and that nobody really remembers it," said Burr Baldwin, an 83-year-old former UCLA All-American and Dons end for three seasons, of the AAFC. "The caliber of play was very good."

The league, its launch timed perfectly to take advantage of a wealth of players returning from military service after World War II, was the brainchild of Arch Ward, sports editor of the Chicago Tribune. Ward, a promoter as well as a journalist, had conceived baseball's All-Star game and football's college All-Star game, which pitted a team of college stars against the defending NFL champion.

He figured that if a two-league structure worked in major league baseball, why not football?

Ward, who years earlier had turned down an offer to be NFL commissioner, envisioned a season-ending "world championship," a la the World Series. But the NFL, then struggling to establish its own identity in a football world where college teams ruled, was unreceptive.

Commissioner Elmer Layden unwittingly provided a rallying cry for the new league when he dismissively suggested that the AAFC "first get a ball, then make a schedule, and then play a game."

The paraphrased "Tell them to get a ball first" lived on.

And from the start, the battle for players was enjoined.

Of the 66 college all-stars who defeated the Rams, 16-0, in the 1946 College All-Star game, 40 signed with AAFC teams, among them eight of the 11 starters.

Training camps opened that year, the Dons' at Ventura College, with more than 115 former NFL players on the rosters of the eight original AAFC teams: the Dons, Browns, 49ers, Yankees, Dodgers, Buffalo Bisons, Miami Seahawks and Chicago Rockets. But at season's end only three of the college all-stars made the all-conference first team, testimony to the depth of talent that had been lured to the upstart league.

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