The 1946 AAFC season was the first season of the All-America Football Conference, a new professional league established to challenge the market dominance of the established National Football League. The league included eight teams, broken up into Eastern and Western divisions, which played a 14-game official schedule, culminating in a league championship game.
The season is significant for its shattering of the color line in the ranks of professional American football, when black athletes Marion Motley and Bill Willis took to the field for the AAFC's Cleveland Browns on September 9, 1946. Both of these stars would later be voted to membership in the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
In September 1944, Arch Ward, sports columnist for the prestigious Chicago Tribune and father ten years earlier of the college all-star football game, presided over two days of meetings in Chicago to finalize his plan for a new American football league. Over the course of several previous months, Ward had garnered financial commitments for franchise ownership from a circle of interested wealthy investors. Teams were already sponsored for seven cities, with the ownership groups including several individuals of national prominence, such as former heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney in Baltimore, film star Don Ameche in Los Angeles, and Eleanor Gehrig, widow of Yankee baseball great Lou Gehrig, in New York City. Plans were announced for a launch in the fall of 1945.
The new football league to emulate the situation existing in professional baseball, in which two parallel and equal leagues emerged and came to work in close cooperation. The new league, to be called the All-America Football Conference, tapped former Notre Dame legend Jim Crowley as its commissioner, signing the former collegiate teammate of NFL commissioner Elmer Layden to a lucrative five-year contract worth $125,000 and began signing players and fielding additional applications for team charters.
Seven coaches and about 30 players were signed before league owners decided that wartime manpower shortages and the inability of several teams to expeditiously obtain stadium leases would force a postponement until the fall of 1946.
An additional franchise was added, bringing the total to eight, and a schedule was issued — a round-robin format in which every team in the league played every other team in the league twice on a home-and-away basis. The new league prepared for its launch on September 6, 1946.
The AAFC was divided into two divisions of four teams, split "Eastern" and "Western" on a geographic basis.
Several of the league's teams played on fields also used by Major League Baseball teams and even made use of baseball team names, including the Brooklyn Dodgers of Ebbets Field, who did battle with the New York Yankees, playing their games at Yankee Stadium.
With two franchises in California, the AAFC broke new ground as the leading purveyor of professional sports on the Pacific coast, being joined for the 1946 season by the NFL champion Cleveland Rams, which were then relocating to Los Angeles.
|Western Division||Eastern Division|
|San Francisco 49ers (Kezar Stadium)||Buffalo Bisons (Civic Stadium†)|
|Los Angeles Dons (Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum)||Brooklyn Dodgers (Ebbets Field)|
|Chicago Rockets (Soldier Field)||New York Yankees (Yankee Stadium)|
|Cleveland Browns (Municipal Stadium)||Miami Seahawks (Burdine Stadium‡)|
† — Better known as War Memorial Stadium, also the first home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills.
‡ — Later known as the Miami Orange Bowl.
The fledgling AAFC played a total of 7 preseason games in 1946, spaced over a three-week period, with the first exhibition game taking place August 18 in Portland, Oregon, where the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Chicago Rockets battled to a 14-14 tie. Brooklyn would lead the league with three preseason games played; other clubs such as Miami, Buffalo, and Cleveland, would only play a single exhibition contest.
Five of the seven preseason contests took place on the West coast, with contests in Portland, Spokane, San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The two games taking place in the Eastern time zone were held at neutral locations, apparently as a means of broadening potential fan interest, with the Cleveland Browns stopping Brooklyn by a score of 35-20 in Akron, Ohio, and the Buffalo Bisons edging the Miami Seahawks, 23-21, in Baltimore.
The 1946 regular season of the All-America Football Conference kicked off the night of Friday, September 6 at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, where the Cleveland Browns — a team which featured two African-American players, Marion Motley and Bill Willis — hosted the visiting Miami Seahawks. The game, attended by a massive crowd of 60,135, was the largest ever to see a regularly scheduled professional football game. The result was never in doubt, as the Paul Brown-coached Browns, led by quarter back Otto Graham annihilated the hapless Seahawks by a score of 44-0.
The week continued with two games on Sunday, September 9, with the San Francisco 49ers giving up an early lead and falling to the visiting New York Yankees, 21-7, in front of about 35,000 people at Kezar Stadium. In game two, single wing half back Glenn Dobbs passed for one touchdown and lateraled for another midway through a 58-yard scoring run as the visiting Brooklyn Dodgers topped the Buffalo Bisons, 27-14, in front of Commissioner Jim Crowley and a crowd of 25,489 at Buffalo's Civic Stadium. Chicago and Los Angeles had first week byes.
A four-game slate began with two Friday night tilts on September 13, with the Cleveland Browns giving up their first points of the season in the fourth quarter of a 20-6 drubbing of the Chicago Rockets in front of 51,962 fans at Chicago's Soldier Field. Scoring was opened with a 20-yard run by the Brown's powerful running back Marion Motley, with Lou Groza adding two field goals and two PATs, running his season scoring total to 22 points. Game two was a lightly attended contest in the massive Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, in which the Los Angeles Dons managed to hold on for a 20-14 win over the visiting Brooklyn Dodgers in front of an announced attendance of 19,500.
On Sunday, 40,606 fans turned out to Yankee Stadium to watch their New York Yankees win a sloppy, turnover-plagued contest over the visiting Buffalo Bisons. A Yankee fumble in the red zone was run back 95 yards for a touchdown by Buffalo's Al Vandeweghe. Despite substantially outgaining Buffalo over the course of the game, it took two touchdowns in the final quarter for the Yankees to achieve a come-from-behind win. In the second Sunday game, Frankie Albert and the San Francisco 49ers made the Miami Seahawks the league's first 0-2 team with a 21-14 victory in front of a reported 25,000 people at Kezar Stadium.
The league once again split its action between Friday and Sunday in week 3, with the Chicago Rockets salvaging a 17-17 tie with the Yankees thanks to a 36-yard touchdown pass from QB Walt Williams to halfback Bill Boedeker with just 55 seconds remaining. In game 2, about 23,000 fans made their way to the LA Coliseum to see the Dons run their record to 2-0 in a 30-14 victory over the Miami Seahawks. Despite the lopsided final score, the game was close at halftime, with Miami hitting the locker room holding a 14-10 lead. Twenty unanswered points in the second half, with the Dons' Charlie O'Rourke finishing the game with three touchdown passes as part of his 9-17 throwing effort.
On Sunday, September 22, the mighty Cleveland Browns went to Buffalo and took no prisoners in a 28-0 shutout that was virtually beyond doubt by the end of the first quarter. Cleveland star Otto Graham threw for two more touchdowns, including a 33-yard strike to Marion Motley out of the backfield, as the Browns cruised to their third straight victory. The Browns allowed just six points in their first three games, establishing themselves as the team to beat in the AAFC in 1946. In game 2, 35,000 people turned out at Kezar Stadium to watch Frankie Albert throw for two touchdowns and run for one more as part of a 32-13 disassembling of the visiting Brooklyn Dodgers. The Niners moved their season record to 2-1.
The AAFC held its first Wednesday night contest to kick off week 4, drawing 20,768 fans to Soldier Field to witness an offensive shootout, won by the home team Chicago Rockets over the visiting Buffalo Bisons, 38-35. A fourth quarter rally with 17 unanswered point was needed for the Rockets to escape with the narrow win, won with a walk-off chip-shot field goal by Steve Nemeth. The game was marked by the acrimonious departure of head coach Dick Hanley, who watched the game from the stands after leaving the team owing to personal disagreements with owner John L. Keeshin.
With Brooklyn and Miami on the bye, both the Rockets and the Bisons were needed to play again on Sunday, Sept. 29, just four days later. The previously 0-4 Bisons managed a tie with the visiting Los Angeles Dons, 21-21, while the Rockets played another home game, winning twice in a single week with a 24-7 dispatching of the 49ers. In the final game of the week, the New York Yankees more than doubled the season points allowed total of the Cleveland Browns, scoring a first quarter touchdown en route to a 24-7 loss. The Browns went to 4-0 on the year in the victory.
The fifth week of the AAFC's inaugural season opened with a pair of Friday night games. In the first, the visiting New York Yankees began to exert Eastern Division dominance with a 21–13 victory over the Buffalo Bisons in front of more than 17,000 fans. Yankee rookie Spec Sanders, league leader in total offense, led the team to victory with a pair of fourth quarter scores — a touchdown pass and a 76-yard punt return to the house. In the second game, the Los Angeles Dons scored 21 unanswered points after halftime to notch a come-from-behind 21–9 victory over the Chicago Rockets at Soldier Field.
Only one game took place on Sunday, October 6, in which the Cleveland Browns extended their unbeaten record to five games with an easy 26–7 victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers in front of 43,713 of the home faithful. The league's first foray into football in the Deep South, a Tuesday tilt between the Seahawks and the visiting San Francisco 49ers was a debacle, with only 7,621 fans passing through the turnstiles to watch the dismantling of the home team by a score of 34–7.
1946 AAFC final standings
W = Wins, L = Losses, T = Ties, Pct. = Winning Percentage
PF = Points Scored For, PA = Point Scored Against
|San Francisco 49ers||9||5||0||.643||307||189|
|Los Angeles Dons||7||5||2||.583||305||290|
|New York Yankees||10||3||1||.769||270||192|
AAFC Championship: Cleveland 14, New York 9 (December 22 @ Cleveland)
League leaders, awards, and achievements
1946 All-AAFC teams
The United Press (UP) selected an All-AAFC team in December 1946. The AAFC also announced an official All-AAFC team in January based on polling of reporters and broadcasters in member cities. The Associated Press (AP) selected an All-Pro team that included selections from both the NFL and the AAFC.
- Alyn Beals, San Francisco (AAFC-1, UP-1)
- Dante Lavelli, Cleveland (AAFC-1, UP-2, AP-2)
- Mac Speedie, Cleveland (AAFC-2, UP-1)
- Jack Russell, New York (AAFC-2, AP-2)
- Joe Aguirre, Los Angeles (UP-2)
- Bruiser Kinard, New York (AAFC-1, UP-1, AP-1)
- Martin Ruby, Brooklyn (AAFC-1, UP-1, AP-2)
- Lee Artoe, Los Angeles (AAFC-2, UP-2)
- Lou Groza, Cleveland (UP-2)
- Bob Reinhard, Los Angeles (AAFC-2)
- Bill Radovich, Los Angeles (AAFC-2, UP-1, AP-1)
- Bruno Banducci, San Francisco (AAFC-1, UP-1, AP-2)
- Bill Willis, San Francisco (AAFC-1)
- Buddy Jungmichel, Miami (AAFC-2, UP-2)
- Ed Ulinski, Cleveland (UP-2)
- Glenn Dobbs, Brooklyn (AAFC-1, UP-1, AP-1)
- Spec Sanders, New York (AAFC-1, UP-1, AP-1)
- Bob Hoernschemeyer, Chicago (AAFC-2, UP-2)
- Steve Juzwik, Buffalo (AAFC-2)
- Ace Parker, New York (UP-2)
- Gary Webster, The League That Didn't Exist: A History of the All-America Football Conference, 1946-1949. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2019; pp. 1-2.
- Webster, The League That Didn't Exist, pp. 15-16.
- Webster, The League That Didn't Exist, pg. 16.
- Webster, The League That Didn't Exist, pg. 18.
- Webster, The League That Didn't Exist, pg. 28.
- Webster, The League That Didn't Exist, pg. 33.
- Kenneth R. Crippen, "A Brief History of the AAFC," in Kenneth R. Crippen and Matt Reaser, The All-America Football Conference: Players, Coaches, Records, Games and Awards, 1946-1949. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2018; pg. 6.
- Crippen and Reaser (eds.), The All-America Football Conference, pg. 83.
- Professional Football Researchers Association Linescore Committee, Gary Selby (chair), "Regular and Post-Season Games," in Crippen and Reaser, The All-America Football Conference, pg. 84.
- PFRA Linescore Committee, "Regular and Post-Season Games," pp. 85-86.
- PRRA Linescore Committee, "Regular and Post-season Games," pp. 86-87.
- PRRA Linescore Committee, "Regular and Post-season Games," pp. 87-88.
- PRRA Linescore Committee, "Regular and Post-season Games," pp. 88-90.
- "Conference Passing Laurels Shared by Graham, Dobbs". Asbury Park Press. December 18, 1946. p. 18.
- "Jungmichael Named On All-AAFC Second". The Miami News. December 16, 1946. p. 4B – via Newspapers.com.
- "All-Star Pro Eleven Named". Baltimore Sun. January 5, 1947. p. Sports 2 – via Newspapers.com.
- "Two Freshmen Gain Berths On 1946 AP All-Pro Eleven". Battle Creek Enquirer. December 13, 1946. p. 21 – via Newspapers.com.
- George Cantor, Paul Brown: The Man Who Invented Modern Football. Chicago: Triumph Books, 2008.
- Kenneth R. Crippen, The Original Buffalo Bills: A History of the All-America Football Conference Team, 1946-1949. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2010.
- Kenneth R. Crippen and Matt Reaser (eds.), The All-America Football Conference: Players, Coaches, Records, Games and Awards, 1946-1949. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2018
- John Keim, Legends by the Lake: The Cleveland Browns at Municipal Stadium. Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 1999.
- Andy Piascik, The Best Show in Football: The 1946–1955 Cleveland Browns. Lanham MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007.