The Dons of L.A. Pro Sports

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.

A well-heeled group of AAFC owners -- reporters referred to their meetings as "the millionaires' coffee klatch" -- reportedly was worth $50 million and willing to spend. Many had been rebuffed by the NFL, including lumber tycoon Anthony Morabito in San Francisco and the Hollywood group in Los Angeles because of the so-called "train barrier," when three- and four-day trips to the West Coast weren't conducive to scheduling.

Advances in air travel after the war made that restriction obsolete, and the AAFC was the first pro league that truly blanketed the nation -- with teams in New York and Chicago as well as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami, though the Seahawks lasted only one season before folding.

In Los Angeles, the Dons' ownership group was headed by Ben Lindheimer, a well-to-do Chicago racetrack owner who had tried unsuccessfully to become involved financially with the Bears and Cardinals in Chicago.

He and his fellow owners enriched the players. Before the AAFC launched, NFL linemen were paid as little as $150 to $175 a game, backs $250 to $300.

Danehe, who'd played at USC in the early '40s before joining the war effort, said the Dons paid him $5,000 for the 1947 season, including a $500 signing bonus, which was about $1,500 more than the NFL's Detroit Lions originally offered him.

"In today's world, $5,000 doesn't sound like much," Danehe said, "but I could buy a Cadillac for a thousand dollars. It was more money than most of us had seen in our lives. The All-America Conference really raised the salary level."

The AAFC, urging its teams to go out and sign as many players as possible, did not conduct a draft before its inaugural season, a move it later lamented because the Browns and their intuitive coach, Paul Brown, corralled so many great players.

With Brown coaching and Graham orchestrating from quarterback, the Browns were so dominant that interest in other AAFC cities might have been diluted. Cleveland won all four of the league's championships, compiling a 52-4-3 record.

Only the Dons outscored the Browns more than once -- 17-16 at the Coliseum in 1946 and 13-10 at Cleveland in 1947 -- but "I also remember being shellacked several times," Baldwin said.

In 1948, the Browns capped their masterpiece, a 15-0 season, by defeating the renamed Buffalo Bills, 49-7, in the title game.

A year later, two days after the merger was announced on Dec. 9, 1949, the Browns won their last AAFC title by defeating the 49ers, 21-7, in the championship game. Showing that their dominance was not limited to the AAFC, they reached the championship game in their first six NFL seasons, winning three more titles.

In Los Angeles, the Dons had suffered through their worst season in 1949, finishing with a 4-8 record, tied for fifth place in a seven-team league. Promotions involving celebrities -- Hope, Al Jolson, Jimmy Durante and Mickey Rooney were among those who sponsored youth teams that entertained fans before games -- weren't enough to keep the crowds coming.

The Rams, meanwhile, reached the NFL championship game that year before losing to the Philadelphia Eagles, 14-0, at the Coliseum.

Worse for the Dons, Lindheimer, who had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars propping up the AAFC, had been diagnosed in September with a serious heart ailment and told by his doctors to get out of football.

Though it was speculated that the Dons and Rams would merge to play in what at first was going to be known as the National-American Football League -- Lindheimer and Rams owner Dan Reeves reportedly even met in Lindheimer's Beverly Hills home -- Lindheimer dismissed the talk.

His heart ailment, he said, would prevent him from "even considering" affiliating as a part-owner with the Rams.

The Dons were done.



Dons' debut

Los Angeles' first pro football game, on Sept. 13, 1946:


*--* BROOKLYN DONS Jim McCarthy LE Joe Aguirre Frank Hrabetin LT Bob Reinhard George Bernhardt LG Al Lolotai Tex Warrington C Bob Nelson Jack Freeman RG Bill Radovich Martin Ruby RT Lee Artoe Joe Davis RE Al Krueger Rhoten Shetley QB Charley O'Rourke Glenn Dobbs LH Bert Seymour Mickey Colmer RH Harry Clarke Dom Principe FB John Polanski




* Dons -- Bud Nygren, 60 pass from O'Rourke; Andy Marefos, 2 run; Chuck Fenenbock 21 run.

* Brooklyn -- Saxon Judd 23 pass from Dobbs; Bob Paffrath 1 run.

Los Angeles Times



An overview of the All-America Football Conference:


The original roster of teams in 1946 were the Brooklyn Dodgers, Buffalo Bisons, Chicago Rockets, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Dons, Miami Seahawks, New York Yankees and San Francisco 49ers. Miami folded after one season and was replaced by the Baltimore Colts. Brooklyn and New York merged for the final season, in 1949.


The Cleveland Browns won all four championships, winning 52 and tying three of 59 games and defeating New York twice, Buffalo and San Francisco in the title games, by an average score of 24-6.


The Browns had more than their share of stars, including Otto Graham, who passed for 10,085 yards in four seasons; Marion Motley, the league's career rushing leader with 3,024 yards; Mac Speedie, who led the league in receptions three times for a four-year total of 211; and Lou Groza, a Hall-of-Fame tackle and the league's top kicker. San Francisco's Frankie Albert had the most touchdown passes, 88, and his top target was Alyn Beals, with 46. New York's Spec Sanders twice led the league in rushing, including a record 1,432 yards in 1947. Future NFL great Y.A. Tittle got his start in Baltimore.


Although credited with playing an entertaining style, Los Angeles' entry was never a postseason threat, playing in the same division with Cleveland. The Dons' best season was their first, with a 7-5-2 record, followed by seasons of 7-7, 7-7 and 4-8. Glenn Dobbs, a triple-threat tailback acquired from Brooklyn after 1946, led the league in punt returns in 1947 and punting in 1948. Bob Nelson, a center, was named all-league three times; tackle Bob Reinhard was selected twice.


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