Friday, February 19, 2016

Nearly Lost Los Angeles Football History: The LA Dons

Much has been said in recent weeks about the return of the NFL’s Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles, and the potential for the Chargers to move to LA from San Diego. One of the big questions being asked was (and is) whether LA could support – or would even “need” – two professional football teams.

The dialogue about the Rams and the Chargers is interesting. But I was even more interested to find a small scrap of paper at an estate sale this week that alerted me to the fact that this wouldn’t have been the first time Los Angeles had two professional football teams sharing a stadium.

That scrap of paper was a December 1946 ticket stub that I found tucked away inside a 1947 Rose Bowl program.  It was underneath a ticket from the Rose Bowl game.

Before I looked inside the Rose Bowl program, I’d had no idea that, 70 years ago, LA not only had the Rams…it had the Dons.

The stub told me that on December 1, 1946, the Los Angeles Dons played the Buffalo Bisons. I'd never heard of the Los Angeles Dons. I hadn’t heard of the Buffalo Bisons either. (An odd name for a team. Still, I suppose that sounds better than calling them the Buffalo Buffalo.)

By doing some quick online research, I discovered that the Los Angeles Dons were a professional football team in the now defunct All-America Football Conference (AAFC) from 1946 to 1949, that played in the LA Memorial Coliseum on the USC campus.  That was long before my time, and decades before I moved to this area.

It turns out that the Dons were the first professional football team to play a regular season game in LA, two weeks before the rival Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League played their first game in LA. The Dons’ financial backers included no less than film magnate Louis B. Mayer and actors Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Don Ameche.

A quick check of a pro football website told me that the Dons won that game against Buffalo. Actually, they didn’t just win – they trampled the Bisons, 62-14.

But that game was one highlight in the LA Dons’ otherwise mediocre history.

Ten years ago, the Los Angeles Times recalled the first game the Dons played in the All-America Football Conference.

The LA Times reported:

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 were….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.

So what happened to the Los Angeles Dons, that hardly anyone remembers them today?  The LA Times remembered that, despite their popularity, the Dons and the AAFC were the victims of a salary war:

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.

Wikipedia says that the Dons merged with the Rams after their 1949 season. But even though the Los Angeles Dons are now just a footnote in football history, one of their players left a more lasting legacy. Bill Radovich, who played both offense and defense, left the NFL's Detroit Lions to play for the LA Dons in 1947. There was no free agency back then, no players' union. 

The Lions objected; Radovich claimed they had threatened to put him on a blacklist for five years if he didn't stay in Detroit. Radovich went to LA anyway, and filed a lawsuit against the NFL. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court. Several years ago, the Chicago Tribune reported on the story in depth:

Last year, the website LA Curbed posted some photos of from the LA Dons’ brief history.

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