The NFL today is comprised of 32 clubs nestled comfortably into two conferences with four divisions of four teams in each division. But out of those 32 franchises, only 14 originated in the NFL. Six of those 14 were expansion entries.
The San Francisco 49ers fall into the group of clubs who originated from another rival pro football league: the All-America Football Conference. This league hailed from 1946 until 1949 when the 49ers, Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns merged into the NFL.
The Niners have been an NFL team ever since and provide a strong West Coast presence. They have won four Super Bowls and are considered the “Team of the 1980s.”
But before the NFL, and before the AAFC, the City of San Francisco had two other pro football teams: the San Francisco Packers and the San Francisco Clippers.
The year was 1940, and World War II was on the brink of existence. The NFL had 10 franchises. The Cleveland Rams had just joined the league from the defunct American Football League 2 (AFL2) while the Pittsburgh Pirates changed their nickname to the Steelers. Fouls that are committed inside the 20-yard line now became “half the distance to the goal” instead of the entire yardage infraction. The Washington Redskins are the southernmost franchise whereas the Chicago Cardinals and Chicago Bears are the most western teams.
Although there had been interest from wealthy men to place NFL clubs in Texas, Missouri, and California, because travel was done mainly by train the league did not have any interest in going west of the Mississippi River.
Despite this, there was pro football in other areas of the United States, just not members of the NFL. The Pacific Coast Professional Football League (PCPFL) just happened to be one of those leagues.
The term “professional football” meant players were no longer in college and they played for a percentage of the gate. Sometimes, clubs signed players to a “per game” fee regardless of how many folks attended games. Regardless, these athletes played for pay no matter how menial the payout.
The origins of the PCPFL began with a club called the Los Angeles Bulldogs. They were formed in the 1930s and played regional games against basically any opponent. In 1937, they joined the AFL2 as pro football’s very first West Coast professional football team and promptly went 8-0-0 and taking the AFL2’s second championship. Their roster was comprised of former collegiate stars as well as former NFL players.
The Bulldogs averaged over 14,000 a game which at the time was higher than most NFL clubs. When the league folded, the Bulldogs tried to enter the NFL but was turned down mainly because of the travel logistic nightmare. So, the team stayed together and competed on the western seaboard for many years and were still popular. Every season they also played games against NFL squads such as the Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Cardinals, and Green Bay Packers to round out those team’s schedules. By 1939 there were several teams playing regularly along the Pacific Rim that wanted to play the Bulldogs and share their gate proceeds.
The Bulldogs’ popularity developed into more clubs forming and staying together year-after-year until an organized league was necessary, so the PCPFL played its first season in 1940 with five teams, four of which were based in California. The following season, the San Francisco Bay Packers also joined the league. Like the other clubs (and unlike the Bulldogs), the Packers’ roster was full of policemen, laborers, miners, teachers, and firefighters. The Packers first campaign was shortened by the attack on Pearl Harbor to end their maiden season 1-5-0.
As World War II pressed on and with the USA now fully involved, many professional athletes in all sports were called to war service. The PCPFL decided to press on and played a partial schedule for 1942. The Packers finished in second place. The next two seasons saw a combined record of 5-7-0.
In 1944, the third American Football League (AFL) formed with eight teams and with it, the San Francisco Clippers were born. This league competed with the PCPFL but had branched out with clubs in Seattle and Portland instead of mainly California cities. The Clippers had at running back former UCLA star Kenny Washington who eventually would suit up for the Los Angeles Rams in 1946, the year they moved from Cleveland. Washington was a gifted runner in a time when the NFL had an unwritten rule about admitting black players into the league.
The AFL Clippers were very strong in 1944 and featured many former college athletes who had served time overseas and were now back at the conclusion of WWII. The club finished 7-3-0 and tied for second place in their league, with all three losses to the 11-0-0 Hollywood Rangers. The Packers went 4-3-0 and like the Clips finished in second place.
Before the conclusion of the inaugural 1944 season three AFL teams folded. The two leagues decided the best course of action would be to merge for the 1945 season. Washington was signed away by the Bulldogs. The Packers were no longer a team due to the fact that the Clippers had a better squad. However, most of their players would sign to play with other teams in the league as well as the AAFC, and the next three seasons the Clippers went 1-7-0, 6-4-0 and 4-4-0; the latter two shared with the existence of the 49ers of the AAFC.
While the Clippers went 1-7-1 in 1945, they played before minimal crowds as the 49ers and the AAFC had a foothold on the public’s attention and desire for pro football. At one point the Packers were the only game in town and just the previous season suddenly there were three teams. The AAFC had all the big names, too, and were considered major league status whereas the PCPFL and AFL were looked at as advanced semi-pro entities.
In 1946, the league was now in two divisions with the winners to play in a championship game. Going into the last week of the season, the Clippers and Tacoma Indians had identical 6-3-0 records. If the Clippers could get past the 8-2-1 Bulldogs, they would be named the division champs due to the fact that they had defeated Tacoma during the season. In a tough match, the Clippers ousted Los Angeles 24-19. This placed the Clippers in the championship game.
In the locker room afterward, Clippers’ team owner Frank Ciraolo recognized John Woudenberg, the starting offensive tackle for the 49ers, in a Clippers’ uniform and realized that he had played all game. Ciraolo reported his findings to the league and the end result for Ciraolo’s honesty was a 1-0 forfeit awarded to the Bulldogs. Instead of a division title and a shot at the Los Angeles in the championship game, San Francisco took home a second place 6-4-0 record good enough for second place.
With the Los Angeles Dons of the AAFC and the Rams of the NFL now in Southern California, the Bulldogs fell into obscurity and the PCPFL closed its doors in 1948, no longer relevant nor needed.
The PCPFC developed the game of professional football on the West Coast and established public interest in a region that truly loved baseball. This league hired black players in an era that kept those athletes from playing in the NFL.
And when the NFL began looking at the entire West Coast region as possible areas for expansion, there was already willing patrons waiting in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle, San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco – all cities that once had a club that played in the Pacific Coast Professional Football League.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association