Artifact of the Game: 49ers vs. Eagles
Fists Fly at Kezar Stadium when 49ers Face Philadelphia Eagles
This story appears in the Sept. 28 issue of the San Francisco 49ers Gameday magazine.
By Joe Hession, 49ers Museum historian
Kezar Stadium, the 49ers original home field, had a large crew of notoriously rowdy football fans. They came out in full force for the 1953 season opener when a bench-clearing brawl erupted on the playing field.
Bad blood had been stewing between Coach Buck Shaw’s 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles since kickoff. San Francisco linebacker Hardy “the hatchet” Brown, known as the meanest man in football, lit the flame by flattening Eagles running back Toy Ledbetter with one of his infamous shoulder tackles. Ledbetter left the field with a broken cheekbone.
San Francisco built a hardy 24-7 lead in the third quarter when tempers again flared on the field. This time Eagles receiver Bobby Walston exchanged blows with 49ers defensive end Charlie Powell. Walston picked the wrong man to tangle with.
Powell was a highly acclaimed amateur fighter who spent his off seasons in the boxing ring taking lessons from former light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore. After his 49ers career, Powell became a heavyweight contender and took on many of the top boxers of the era. He knocked out Cuban title-holder, Nino Valdes, squared off with ex-heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson, and went three rounds with a young man named Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali). In his 39 professional bouts, Powell knocked out 17 opponents.
While Powell subdued Walston, Hugh McElhenny, the 49ers 1952 Rookie of the Year, was attacked by a pair of helmet-swinging Eagles. The sight of the 49ers Pro Bowl running back being blindsided by a pack of Philadelphia players was more than the Kezar fans could handle. They swarmed the field in an effort to assist their hometown heroes.
In the 15-minute melee that ensued, game officials attempted to restore order but were trounced. Joe McTigue and the 49ers band finally placated the crowd with a rendition of the National Anthem.
The Eagles lost the game, 31-21, and were foolish to pick a fight with the 49ers. Besides Powell, the club’s roster included WWA wrestling champion Leo “the Lion” Nomellini. Bob St. Clair, who dined on raw meat, was the largest man in the NFL at 6’9” and 275 pounds. Even more dangerous was Hardy Brown, who regularly knocked out opposing players, and was selected in a recent NFL poll as one of the “Ten Meanest Defensive Players” in league history.
Powell was the 49ers real pugilist, however, and may have been the greatest athlete ever to wear a San Francisco uniform. At San Diego High School in the early 1950s, the 6’3” Powell ran 100 yards in 9.8, threw the shot over 57 feet, and high jumped six feet. He was named the Southern California prep football Player-of-the-Year and was recruited by the Harlem Globetrotters to play basketball. Instead, Powell signed a pro baseball contract with the St. Louis Browns. After one season, Powell left the Browns organization and hooked up with the 49ers despite never playing a down of college football. He was only 19 years old when he joined the 49ers.
In his first NFL game with San Francisco in 1952, Powell roughed up Detroit’s All-Pro quarterback, Bobby Layne. Although statistics from that season are incomplete, and sacks were not tabulated as an official record, various witnesses claim Powell sacked Layne somewhere between 5 and 10 times, depending on who tells the story. The actual number of sacks may never be verified but Powell is without a doubt one of the true legends in 49ers lore.
Artifacts from Bob St. Clair, Charlie Powell, Leo Nomellini, Hardy Brown and the 49ers band can be see at the 49ers Museum presented by Sony. Also on display are original Kezar Stadium lockers and other treasures from the 49ers first home field. For more information on Museum tickets, hours and content, visit levisstadium.com/museum.