Crippen, Kenneth R. and Matt Reaser, eds., The All-America Football Conference: Players, Coaches, Records, Games and Awards, 1946-1949. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2018. Pp. 361. Index. $45 softcover.
Reviewed by Richard A. Macales
Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers’ coach for whom the Super Bowl Trophy is named, did not win a championship in his first year as an NFL head coach. Nor did some of the other winningest coaches: Bill Belichick (New England Patriots), Bill Parcells (New York Giants), George Halas (Chicago Bears), Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys), Bill Walsh (San Francisco 49ers), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Don Shula (Miami Dolphins), and Hank Stram (Kansas City Chiefs).
Similarly, a rookie-year championship ring eluded 10 great quarterbacks: Tom Brady (Patriots), Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers), Joe Montana (49ers), Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos), Troy Aikman (Cowboys), John Elway (Broncos), Roger Staubach (Cowboys), Terry Bradshaw (Steelers), Bart Starr (Packers), and Johnny Unitas (Baltimore Colts). Achieving stardom from the get-go?—yes (except for Brady, Elway and Aikman). Earning a first-year championship ring?—no.
The nearly forgotten coach and quarterback that DID appear in the championship game EVERY YEAR for the first 10 years of their careers were Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown and his quarterback, Otto Graham. In Graham’s case, his decade of making the finals (1946-55) comprised his entire pro football career. This record may never be surpassed. Before pro football, Graham’s championship run actually began via another sport – pro basketball. He also played one season (1945-46) for the National Basketball League-champion Rochester Royals (now the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.) Graham’s start-of-career five-year-in-a-row championship feat was later matched by only hockey great Henri Richard of the Montreal Canadiens, 1956-60. Four-in-a-row championships from the start of their careers belongs to baseball’s Joe DiMaggio (1936-39) and the WNBA’s Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson (1997-2000).
Unlike the aforementioned athletes in other major sports, in the case of Coach Brown and QB Graham, the passage of time has not been kind in our collective football memory. Part of the reason may be attributed to Cleveland having won its championships prior to the advent of the much-hyped Super Bowl (starting in 1967). The Browns have never appeared in a Super Bowl; team namesake Jim Brown, their record-setting running back and possibly the greatest player in NFL history, abruptly retired in his prime the year before the “Super Sunday” cultural phenomenon to pursue a successful career in acting. The other reason is that the Browns initially participated in a “rebel”/”outlaw” league, at least in in the eyes of NFL hierarchy.
Enter the eight-team All-America Football Conference (AAFC), organized right after the conclusion of World War II by a group of budding young entrepreneurs and older, established industrialists. These business visionaries saw an incredible opportunity: a pool of playing talent released from the armed forces, and a growing populace now back on the job, but also with more leisure time to attend entertainment and sporting events in off-hours. In the case of the AAFC, large cities were selected for franchises: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Buffalo, and Baltimore, each yearning to go “major league.” The AAFC also fielded two teams in New York City and one in Chicago to go head-to-head against established NFL franchises in the Big Apple and the Windy City, then the two largest American metropolises.
The AAFC might have been totally forgotten; it has been exactly 70 years since the last game was played (the championship game, Cleveland Browns vs. San Francisco 49ers, on December 11, 1949) if not for two enterprising members of the Professional Football Researchers Association (PFRA), Kenneth R. Crippen and Matt Reaser. They have set the record straight about the incredible success of the AAFC in a newly released and meticulously researched reference work, titled The All-America Football Conference: Players, Coaches, Records, Games and Awards, 1946-49. Crippen and Reaser’s encyclopedia/record book contains every imaginable statistic, including many factoids that cannot be (easily) googled.
We discover that the Cleveland Browns were the AAFC’s marquee franchise and pro football’s first great dynasty in the post-World War II era. The Browns won all four AAFC championships during the league’s existence. When they were accepted into the NFL in 1950, they proved the greatness of the disbanded “rebel league” by winning the title in their initial season in the NFL. Between 1950 and 1955, the Browns won a total of three NFL titles, and appeared in the championship game every year. Same coach (Paul Brown) and quarterback (Otto Graham) each year.
In the case of coach Paul Brown, he was “the face” in Cleveland as well as the entire AAFC from 1946-49. He assembled Cleveland’s front office and recruited some of the finest playing talent (most significantly, African American players, encouraging other teams in the new league to follow suit). To reward his organizational talent, the team owner decided to name the Cleveland Browns after Paul Brown! In 1945, the year before the Browns and the AAFC came into existence, Cleveland had a very successful NFL team that won the championship – the Rams. “Rewarding” their loyal fan base, the Cleveland Rams’ owners abruptly moved the team to L.A., rebranding them the Los Angeles Rams. Cleveland was determined to show NFL owners they were wrong in allowing the Rams to skip town. If they couldn’t achieve it through the established NFL, Cleveland would field a successful new team in a new league. As a result, Cleveland’s fiercely loyal fans got their revenge when the Browns defeated the bitter rival Los Angeles (ne Cleveland) Rams in their first title game in the NFL. The Browns and Rams met in two more title games under Brown and Graham, 1951 and ’55 – losing the former and winning the latter.
Containing minimal textual narrative, Crippen and Reaser’s record book does include a brief history of the league and interesting thumbnail sketches on some of the AAFC’s most interesting personalities — many of whom went on to similar success in the NFL. Six who began successful careers in the AAFC were later inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The book is a stat geek’s dream. Similar in format to The Sporting News’ outstanding National Football Guide and Football Register (no longer published, unfortunately), the AAFC record book allows the reader to let the stats do the talking on league quality and equality. Sandwiched between its 361 pages are such hard-to-find details as line scores (“box scores”) of every regular season and playoff game ever held in the AAFC (including brief summaries of game highlights); career and single season records for individual players and teams; complete statistics in offensive and defensive roles for every player; a coaching register which includes all assistant coaches. In the case of the Cleveland Browns we discover that many of Paul Brown’s coaching assistants went on to become winning head coaches. Former Brown assistant Weeb Ewbank, for example, led the New York Jets, featuring flamboyant quarterback Joe Namath, to an upset victory in Super Bowl III, in 1969; one of the most talked about games to this day. Two Cleveland players that wore the Browns’ player uniforms (albeit briefly) went on to legendary careers as Hall of Fame head coaches in the professional and collegiate ranks, respectively–Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys) and Ara Parseghian (Notre Dame).
Perhaps the most fascinating chapter of the book is the player register which includes career records of most of the players who played in the AAFC. Some who participated in one or two TOTAL career games are not included. Close examination of AAFC players’ vital statistics demonstrate the amazing contrast to current talent in the NFL. Whereas today’s players are usually well over 6-feet-tall and 250 pounds, in the AAFC many players, including linemen, were 6-feet or shorter and weighed 215 pounds or less. It seems as though the less protected players of that era had longer life spans than many gridiron stars in future decades. This begs the question: are “Super Bowl era” players’ lives shorter because of substance abuse and weight-increasing dietary supplements? Right now, medical experts and the NFL Players’ Association seem to be focusing on head injuries and resultant neurological damage.
During the AAFC’s existence most players were white. During its peak season of integration, 1949, only 13 players were black, 10 more than on NFL rosters that same year. Today, African Americans account for more than 60% of NFL rosters. Three AAFC players, we discover, were born in Europe: Germany, Italy and the former Yugoslavia. AAFC players born in the USA (the vast majority) seemed to have been second-generation Americans, the children of European immigrants/refugees, based on their towns of birth. In their childhood many, no doubt, had hardscrabble lives in steel towns, coalmining regions, industrial/manufacturing hubs, the farm belt, and places with meat processing plants. Occupations requiring heavy lifting and backbreaking manual labor were ideal “training grounds” for grooming football players for their “Americanized” offspring. The reviewer’s favorite name is Mac Speedie, who most fittingly led the AAFC in receiving yards for two seasons. Mac Curtis Speedie was his legal name at birth (it was not made up by an overzealous sports promoter!) in the grain fields along the famed Route 66 in rural Odell, Illinois.
In a chapter on attendance figures, the authors freely admit that they cannot verify the ethnicity of those who attended games seven decades after the AAFC’s demise; they surmise that Cleveland, New York and Los Angeles probably attracted a large number of black fans since those clubs signed the bulk of the star black players. Five of the eight AAFC teams had blacks on their rosters; in the NFL only the L.A. Rams signed African American players. Unlike other rebel football leagues that challenged the NFL – the American Football League (AFL) of 1960-69, the World Football League of 1974 and part of 75, and the United States Football League (USFL) of Donald Trump (yes, the future president) of 1983-85, the AAFC actually had higher attendance than the NFL – until its last season, 1949.
During their four-year run in the AAFC, the San Francisco 49ers enjoyed the second highest average attendance in the league, after Cleveland. The 49ers were one of three AAFC teams absorbed into the NFL along with Cleveland and the Baltimore Colts (now the Indianapolis Colts). In the case of the 49ers, their AAFC roots were selectively “photo-shopped” out of the NFL record book. The Colts’ history is even more curious, as this reviewer uncovered through additional research. Having had such an awful inaugural season in the NFL, the Colts ostensibly “folded” for one year. In 1952 the team resurfaced as the Dallas Texans, only to once again close shop. Without a year’s break, they returned as the all-new Baltimore Colts, but they were not designated by the NFL as an “expansion team.” It is worth nothing that the Indianapolis Colts and NFL do not trace the modern-day Colts’ lineage to the 1950 Baltimore Colts or 1952 Dallas Texans (nor to their three seasons in the AAFC, 1947-49). This historical elision, while not necessarily accurate, is not necessarily surprising, as the “original” Colts posted 1-11 and 1-7 won-loss records in the NFL!
The real reason for the AAFC’s demise may never be known. Originally billed as a “merger” with the NFL, the enlarged league was to be known as the NAFL – the National American Football League. No sooner had the ink dried on the agreement/”surrender” by the AAFC, when NFL owners (the majority voting bloc) quickly dropped the word “American” from the league name prior to the 1950 season, reverting back to “NFL.” Book editors Crippen and Reaser include a complete list of AAFC players distributed to NFL teams in what was politely termed the “allocation draft.” Many continued their successful careers with established teams in the NFL, being named All-Pros. Good luck finding this info on the Internet!
Lamar Hunt’s American Football League of 1960-69 fully merged into the NFL, including all AFL records from its inception. Many football historians would contend, however, that the AAFC, in its four-year existence, far surpassed the AFL in the quality of talent on the field and attendance in the stands during their comparable formative years. But Hunt, the AFL founder, had the financial clout and connections to override NFL owners’ misgivings. AFL record inclusion request made by Hunt granted by the NFL. For the AAFC, record “keeping” was punctuated by EXCLUSION!
The All-America Football Conference: Players, Coaches, Records, Games and Awards, 1946-49 is a must for the bookshelf of sports historians and researchers, lovers of vintage pro football played, and those interested in defunct American sports leagues and their impact on sports economics. It recovers lots of lost ground!
Rich Macales was a former longtime senior writer and public information officer at UCLA. He is a contributor to American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols and Ideas, edited by Prof. Murry R. Nelson, ABC-Clio. He wrote the essay on the history of the Heisman Trophy in American culture.