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

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.

Twenty-three former players and their wives returned for a weekend party--two days at Hollywood Park, two nights at a Los Angeles hotel, with banquets at the track and at Everett's home in Holmby Hills.

The party moved from place to place in a chartered bus.

Antelope Al Krueger, the receiver who once caught a famous Rose Bowl-winning touchdown pass for USC, was among the Dons attending.

"Marje picked up the hotel bill, the bus bill and everything else," Krueger said. "She even gave us spending money at the track--a $50 bill apiece."

Forty years ago, the Lindheimers had run their team with the same benevolence. Said Hein: "When Mr. Lindheimer loaned me the money to buy my house, the only thing he said was, 'If you pay me back in three years, I won't charge you any interest.' "

In every year of the AAFC era, the Lindheimer organization fielded well-paid, lively teams that caught the attention of the L.A. area. They usually ranked in the AAFC's top three with the 49ers and the champion Cleveland Browns.

At home, their competition was formidable. The Rams had invaded Los Angeles with the NFL's title team, winning it for, and departing from, Cleveland the same year, 1945. Despite that, the Dons soon outdrew them here.

The Dons, in fact, were the first pro club to attract crowds averaging 40,000 in California, and, by 1949, Ram owner Dan Reeves had lost so much money here that he was considering moving the franchise to San Diego.

The Rams had started with a name quarterback, Bob Waterfield. But by the time they added Tom Fears in '48 and Elroy Hirsch and Norm Van Brocklin in '49, the Los Angeles football public was showing a clear preference for the other team--for such Dons as Chuck Fenenbock, Lee Artoe, Len Ford, Bus Mertes, Charlie O'Rourke, Bob Reinhard, Burr Baldwin, George Taliaferro, Dan Dworsky, Bill Fisk, Bill Radovich, Krueger, Frankowski, and, above all, Glenn Dobbs.

A single-wing tailback from Tulsa who doubled as a T-formation quarterback, Dobbs was one of the ablest and most intriguing football players of his time, one of the first to be identified as a superstar, one of the first to drive a Cadillac, one of the first to make a measurable impact on Los Angeles.

The Lindheimers had landed him in pro football's first big trade.

"We gave Brooklyn several players and $100,000 cash for Dobbs," Everett said. "He had the first $20,000 salary in pro ball--at a time when many NFL players weren't getting $5,000. The first night with Dobbs in the lineup, we drew 83,000 at the Coliseum, and he won it with a 55-yard pass. Some days he earned his salary with the field position he gave us as a punter."

To his teammates, the Dons' spectacular punter-quarterback was an unreal perfectionist. One of his friends, Hein, recalls the February morning that he arrived early at Dobbs' house for a golf date.

The player's wife said that Dobbs was in the bathroom but to go right in.

"What do you mean, go right in?" Hein said. "I can wait until the man gets out of the bathroom."

"Glenn just went in," his wife said. "I know he'd want to see you."

Opening the door cautiously, Hein saw Dobbs standing in front of a full-length mirror dropping a football on his bare foot.

Without looking at his guest, Dobbs greeted him cordially, and said he'd only be another 25 minutes. He was practicing punting, he said, making sure the ball hit his foot in the same spot every time. He did this for 30 minutes every day. In February. As well as March and April--and the rest of the year.

"All I could do was stare at him," said Hein, who was no slouch himself as a workout hound. A Hall of Famer, the consensus all-time all-pro center, Hein played 60 minutes of every game but one in a 15-year career with the New York Giants. He played more minutes of football than any other pro ever has in the NFL's 67 seasons.

"You can bet I was in shape," Hein said. "But not like Glenn Dobbs was in shape."

Ben Lindheimer always said that Dobbs was the classiest individual he had employed in any of his organizations.

When the AAFC folded in '49, Dobbs was still on the Dons' payroll, technically. He had two more years, guaranteed.

But the next day, Dobbs walked into Marje Lindheimer's office and tore up his contract.

"He said he'd get it back in Canada," she said.

His fame as an AAFC star preceded Dobbs across the border. On his first day in the uniform of a Canadian team, a snowy January afternoon, he drew a full house of football fans--paying $1 apiece--to watch him sign a three-year contract.

"I guess we missed a bet," Marje said. "We should have done that, too."

In the long sweep of pro football, the Dons belong to one of the early chapters. Forty years ago when the AAFC was organized, the NFL was barely a quarter century old.

One of the Dons' youngest coaches, Hein, had played in the NFL as early as 1931. Drafted by the Giants, he joined them that year after driving cross-country in a 1929 Ford roadster, detouring through wheat fields, dry river beds, and the other dirt freeways of the day.

Mel and his bride, Florence, who accompanied him, had graduated from Washington State the day before they left for New York. That was 55 years ago. She was still with him at the Dons' reunion.

"I've decided to keep her," he said. "I've got a lot of money invested in her."

After the Dons went under, Hein moved to USC and then the Rams. He is the only coach who served all three teams.

He might still be in the AAFC but for Ben Lindheimer's inopportune illness in September, 1949.

According to reports that were current in the NFL at the time, Lindheimer was financially supporting three of the AAFC's eight teams.

Marje Everett won't confirm that, but she said: "My father's heart attack was fatal to our league. We would have survived, I'm sure, if he hadn't been ill.

"We had more money at the top than the NFL. We had Dan Topping and Del Webb and Mickey McBride and Branch Rickey and Walter O'Malley. And TV was just around the corner--the TV that made pro football what it is.

"But without my father behind him, Arch Ward couldn't quite keep the new league going, although three of our teams eventually merged into the NFL: the 49ers, Browns and Colts."

Founder of baseball's All-Star Game, Ward was the 1940s sports editor of the Chicago Tribune. He used his paper to promote the new league, assigning respected war correspondent Robert Cromie--who had covered Patton's Third Army throughout World War II--to the AAFC's Chicago Rockets.

Why would a sports editor want to start a new football league?

"Arch was an idealist," Marje said. "He thought the country needed a major pro football league. He said the NFL was a cheap-john minor league outfit that paid unnecessarily low salaries.

"The NFL had insulted great players like Jay Berwanger with ridiculously low offers. And there were many other fine players who couldn't afford to turn pro at NFL prices.

"Arch said that the NFL had a monopoly on a class act but didn't know what they had. He often wrote that nothing but competition from a new league would goad the NFL into paying living wages to their players."

He was right about that. In company with all the other football leagues that have come along in the last half-century, the AAFC did affect NFL player salaries, boosting them rather drastically.

"The most I ever made as an NFL player was $5,000," said the longtime Giant all-pro, Hein. "As soon as the Lindheimers got into the act, rookies were making $5,000. Salaries went up every year--and stayed up."

Many football people, the Dons among them, believe that it was Ward who made the NFL into a major league in spite of itself.

But, strangely, he could never make the AAFC's Chicago franchise into a major league team. The Rockets couldn't compete with the Bears or even the old Chicago Cardinals.

Granholm, now with the NFL as assistant to the president of the NFC, remembers that the Rockets had four owners in four years, along with five coaches.

One owner changed coaches only after asking the players if he should.

"He put it to a vote," Granholm said. "And the players voted the coach out, 29 to 1."

The irony is that Ward could have given the NFL a monster headache in Chicago by allowing the Lindheimers to run the franchise there, as they preferred to do.

It was because the new league needed strength in the West that Ben and Marje took charge of the Dons.

And a good thing, too. Until the day that one of their players ran into Norm Standlee, many worldly halfbacks in either league could carry the ball and chew tobacco at the same time. After that, nobody dared.

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