The San Francisco 49ers’ quest for their first Super Bowl title in nearly two decades evaporated a few Sundays ago when they came up 18 yards short, in a 23-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game, held at the raucous Century Link Field, in Seattle, Washington.
Since the San Francisco 49ers did not earn a trip to the Super Bowl XLVIII and are nearly two decades removed from their fifth Lombardi Trophy, let me recall for you the days when the San Francisco 49ers Football team were replete with Italian Connections:
In 1930, the team was founded on a $25,000 shoestring supplied by Tony Morabito, a football-crazed lumberman and builder, and two-partners, Al Sorrell and Ernie Turre. With the 25 G’s, they got a slot in the brand new All American Conference which was running up against the longer-established National Football Leagues.
The team was named the 49ers because San Francisco was born in the Gold Rush, and the shirts had to be red and the pants gold.
Morabito played it smart. For head coach, he gave a record $25,000 a year to the “Silver Fox” coach of Santa Clara, Buck Shaw. For a whopping $10,000 season, he got the Dazzling Stanford All-American-quarterback, Frankie Albert.
Only a few joined up at big bucks; most of the team got peanuts. They played in Kezar, the stadium in Golden Gate Park. The office staff consisted on one man- Lou Spadia, a native of San Francisco with all the old qualities of loyalty, honesty and industriousness. In 1946, there were only 32 on the squad. Most of the same guys played offense and defense. They wore leather helmets with no face mask.
This was still the heyday of small-town San Francisco. The Baseball Seals were “as good, if not better than the big league teams,” and Seals Stadium was “The Yankee Stadium of the West”. The players lived in town and were neighbors; manager Lefty O’Doul could have walked into the mayor’s office, “but why should I take a demotion”. The early 49ers all lived here too. In 1957, Tony Morabito died of a heart attack during a game against the Bears. He was only 48. In 1964, his brother, Vic Morabito, the team president also died of a heart attack at 48. The faithful Lou Spadia then became president. The closest the team came to going to the Super Bowl under his regime was in 1970, when the 49ers played Dallas- and lost.
The ascendancy took a long time. It got a lift in 1977 when the DeBartolo family of Youngstown, Ohio, bought the team for $17 million. The Niners had never won anything except the heart of the city. The rest of the history is big money, big salaries, “class” organization, the arrival of “The Genius” (Mr. Walsh), Joe Montana, Eddie Dee and Carmen Policy -names for the ages built a juggernaut. And multi Super Bowl champions.
The son of Edward DeBartolo Sr., one of the world’s richest shopping center developers, Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., with his wife Candy owned homes in Atherton, California, and in the Whitefish River in Montana. He had racetracks, office buildings and hotels. And he owned one of America’s top football teams, the San Francisco 49ers. De Bartolo paid $17 million for the team in 1977, a move that seemed to set him free for the first time from his father’s shadow, it was his money, he said, not his father’s. After his father -a man of legendary business skills- died in 1994, DeBartolo Jr. floundered, friends said. The father was no longer there to huddle with his son. “While his dad was alive, he protected him and got him out of jams”, recalled one friend. Without his father, DeBartolo Jr. was manipulated by the entourage surrounding him. “God help him”, the friend said.
DeBartolo Jr. was born on November 6, 1946, in Youngstown, Ohio, the oldest of two children to Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. and the former Marie Montani. It was the same town his father been born in nearly 40 years earlier. The elder DeBartolo grew up in a poor immigrant ghetto on the edge of downtown, the son of a mill worker. Until he died at the age of 85 in 1994, DeBartolo Sr. worked long days, parlaying a small paving company started by his step-father into a billion-dollar real estate empire. The younger DeBartolo attended Catholic schools in Youngstown, then majored in business administration at Notre Dame. He went to work immediately in his father’s business. In 1968, he married his high school sweetheart, Cynthia “Candy” Papalia, with whom he has raised three daughters.
Over the years, he advanced in the family company- finally becoming chairman of the DeBartolo Realty Corp., a $1.5 billion firm with vast shopping center holdings. The elder DeBartolo was a quiet, almost shy man who shunned the limelight, but he was a powerful presence and tough negotiator. In contrast the younger DeBartolo was somewhat more open and casual. It was difficult growing up in the shadow of his father; “it was brutal”, DeBartolo Jr. once recalled. “It almost broke up by marriage before I realized I can’t fill those big shoes. I could not be Edward DeBartolo Sr., and I don’t have to be, I have to carry on a tradition, not an identity.”
Taking over the 49ers was one way. Early on, in the first year he owned the team, his father’s influence was still a factor. The younger DeBartolo fired 49ers coach Monti Clark and installed Joe Thomas, a choice unpopular with the fans. The Thomas hire was apparently the senior DeBartolo’s. Thomas was from Ohio and was a family friend. But two years later, the younger DeBartolo fired Thomas and hired Bill Walsh, his first major move as owner. Walsh, who led the team to three Super Bowl victories, said of DeBartolo Jr. “He is a good man. He has empathy and interest in others.” The Edward J. DeBartolo, later the Simon DeBartolo Group co-run by Denise DeBartolo York) is the original family company. Founded by DeBartolo Sr. in 1948 with a single Ohio shopping center. It is now a major real estate development and management company that owns along with the 49ers, a regional mall, offices and hotels around the United States.
In 1998, the DeBartolo empire merged with the Simon Property Group to form the largest real estate concern in North Americas (200 retail properties in 33 states, mainly in the Midwest, Southwest and Florida). Among its properties are the Mall of the Americas in Minneapolis and the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. In December 1997 I was taken aback when I read that “Edward J. Bartolo Jr., owner of the five-time Super Bowl Champion San Francisco 49ers, abruptly resigned from the team and other business interests while apparently on the verge of being indicted in Louisiana for his role in obtaining a riverboat casino license”.
In essence, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. decided that being a “tattletale” during the corrupt administration of former Governor Edwards was unwise and might result in an “accident” as in “____men tell no tales”, because Edwin Edwards was very popular with Louisiana voters and kept getting elected to office despite frequent clouds of corruption in the air and had many “friends”. Later in the corruption case of former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards, DeBartolo pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to report a felony, and received a $1 million fine and two years of probation. Edwards was on trial for extortion and other charges, among which were the $400,000 he demanded from DeBartolo to gain a River Boat casino license. DeBartolo never received the license, was fined by the NFL, and barred from active control of the 49ers for one year.
When the 47-year-old York, not DeBartolo, was named to the chair the DeBartolo Corp., upon their father’s death in 1994, some were surprised given the machismo culture of the DeBartolo world. But those close to the family have always said that York was more savvy and a harder worker than her flamboyant brother. However, hard work does not always triumph over HEART and when it came to the 49ers, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. had that in “abbondanza”. Beyond his Real Estate background, DeBartolo was actively involved in franchise ownership and sports management, becoming one of the most successful and generous owners in professional sports. His ownership of the 49ers proved especially notable.
During his twenty-three years owning the team, beginning in 1977, the 49ers won an unprecedented five Super Bowls under coaches Bill Walsh and George Seifert: Super Bowl XVI, Super Bowl XIX, Super Bowl XXIII, Super Bowl XXIV, and Super Bowl XXIX. From the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, DeBartolo presided over a team that had the winningest decade in football history. In 2008, DeBartolo was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, the first person to receive this honor who did not coach or compete in a professional sport. In 2009, he was inducted into the 49ers Hall of Fame.