True or false: Joe Montana is the greatest quarterback in the history of the San Francisco 49ers.
Well, I would have to say, False. Not proven, anyway.
Well, then, the greatest quarterback in 49er history is (choose one): Y.A. Tittle, John Brodie, Billy Kilmer or Jim Plunkett. Or maybe you liked George Mira?
The correct answer would be, none of the above.
A very good case could be made that the best quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers is a guy who threw with the wrong hand, and not very far at that. He was small and slow. He was easy to overlook. That's why he isn't in the Hall of Fame. It's also why he deserves to be.
No less an authority than the late Clark Shaughnessy, who might have been the most cerebral football coach who ever lived--if you think Bill Walsh is in the genius category, you should have seen Clark Shaughnessy's X's and O's, you could have built a moon rocket with them--thought Frankie Albert was the greatest quarterback who ever lived. I never argued with Clark Shaughnessy when he was alive and I'm not going to start now.
I guess you had to have been there, but Frankie Albert was the slickest thing you will ever see running a ballclub. He played his team like a great organ. He didn't just win. He gave a concert, painted a picture. I think the 49er tradition of not just grinding out a game but winning--or losing--with some panache started with Frankie Albert.
He probably never weighed over 165 in his life. He might have been 5-foot-10, but no more. He didn't have this howitzer for an arm but, when everything was clicking, the San Francisco 49ers were one of the great sights and sounds of pro football.
Some of the great players in the history of the game roamed the 49er backfield. Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny, Strike Strzykalski, Lenny Eshmont, Norm Standlee.
None of them was any greater than their quarterback. An exasperated rival coach once lamented that he was beaten by a guy who had "a million-dollar head and a dime-store arm."
Albert was like a poker player who could bluff you out of the pot even if you had better cards. And he relished doing it.
He did all the punting, passing--and thinking. Unlike Otto Graham, Frankie called his own plays. And they usually worked.
Long before Fran Tarkenton became known for his elusiveness, Albert worked that corner, too. It was Deacon Jones who said of Tarkenton that he figured chasing Fran cut his career short by 2 years, but Don Paul of the Rams once said:
"At least with Tarkenton, those guys knew Francis had the ball. With Frankie Albert, we weren't always sure. Then he would stand there and laugh at you. He always acted as if he just heard the funniest joke. And it was you."
Albert's personal invention was the bootleg play, one in which he would hide the ball on his left hip and act as if he had just handed it off. It worked so well sometimes that the halfback who got the fake handoff actually thought he had the ball. So did the opposing linebackers. Albert had to be careful not to laugh too soon.
Frankie Albert went to Stanford, not your basic football factory then, any more than it is now. The team went 1-7-1 in 1939, Albert's sophomore year. Then Clark Shaughnessy became the coach and he brought over from the pros--the Chicago Bears--the T-formation.
It was like giving Napoleon a cannon. Instant history. Albert and Shaughnessy--and Stanford--rocked college football that year with their diabolical sleight-of-hand. With a backfield of Albert, Standlee, Pete Kmetovic and Hugh Gallarneau, the scholars who had scored 54 whole points the year before rolled up 196 in 1940 and won every game they played, including the 1941 Rose Bowl game against Nebraska, 21-13.
The system worked like a diamond watch under Albert. Every college, virtually, in the land immediately junked the single wing as soon as they got a load of Albert working the T grift.
Albert went into the Navy for 4 years and played some semipro ball around L.A. But when the 49ers were formed, they grabbed him first and built a franchise around him.
Football fans have largely forgotten that the 49ers, now recognized as a solid Establishment NFL franchise, actually started in the old All-America Conference, the league that belonged in fee simple to Paul Brown, whose Cincinnati Bengals will play the 49ers in next Sunday's Super Bowl.
Paul Brown's precision unit, the Cleveland Browns, lost only 4 games in the entire history of that benighted conference. Two of them were lost to Albert's 49ers. Frankie beat them once, 56-28, throwing 5 (count 'em) touchdown passes.
Albert threw 29 touchdown passes one season, which was good enough to stand for 17 years in the 49er record book.
If he wasn't the best passer in San Francisco history, he was the best left-handed passer. Before Albert, left-handed passers were about as common as left-handed third basemen. Today, no one raises an eyebrow when Boomer Esiason grips the ball with the nether hand. In Albert's day, it was considered a form of devil worship.
Why he isn't in the Hall of Fame is something for Canton, Ohio, to reason out. The five 49ers in there--Tittle, McElhenny, Perry, John Henry Johnson and Leo Nomellini--were no more a part of 49er mystique than this unfrantic Francis.
He set the mode and style of a team that wins with a kind of nonchalant detachment to this day. The 49ers kind of make you feel like peasants. And Albert used to like to make linebackers look like rubes at a carnival, or someone who came to do the lawn.
He was fun to watch. He kept even the lunch-pail, hard-hat pro game at a kind of Ivy League level. He always tended to downplay his resources.
If you ask him about his key memories, as I did, Frankie Albert will tell you about the time he had a chance to beat UCLA in 1939--and raise the team season record to 2 games won--but he threw an interception to Jackie Robinson. The story has a happy ending, though.
"I tackled him on the 20," he says proudly. "With Jackie in the open field, that wasn't easy. Maybe I should have been a safety man."
He should be on the sidelines when the 49ers line up for the Super Bowl kickoff. You have to remember when the NFL and the All-America Conference merged in 1950, only four AAFC teams survived the cut. One of them didn't have to be the 49ers. They were picked because they were 12-2 and 9-3 in their last 2 seasons.
And the reason they were that is a little, laughing, left-handed quarterback who could beat you four ways. And usually did. There might not be any 49ers today if there hadn't been a Frankie Albert.