The fledgling All-America Football Conference (AAFC) was going to compete with the National Football League in 1946 and settled on the battle ground – the West Coast.
The NFL Rams left Cleveland that season to relocate in Los Angeles and the AAFC awarded franchises in its inaugural season to both Los Angeles and San Francisco. Football thus beat baseball to the West Coast by 12 years. The NFL Rams and AAFC Dons would represent Los Angeles and the 49ers San Francisco.
Tony Morabito, who founded the 49ers, welcomed the chance to embrace northern California with a team representative of the Bay Area. He hired Buck Shaw away from Cal to coach the 49ers and signed 15 of his 33 players from Bay Area colleges.
Guard Bruno Banducci was one of those 15. A sixth-round NFL draft pick out of Stanford by Philadelphia, Banducci started for the Eagles as a rookie in 1944 and was part of the blocking wall in 1945 that helped Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren win an NFL rushing title. The Eagles posted a 14-4-2 record in those two seasons and were knocking on the door of NFL championships.
But Banducci found the lure of returning to the Bay Area to continue his career too attractive and left the powerful Eagles in 1946 to sign with the upstart 49ers. That move may have cost him a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Van Buren would go on to win three more rushing titles and the Eagles would appear in three consecutive championships games from 1947-49, winning the last two.
Banducci was reunited in San Francisco with his former Stanford teammates quarterback Frankie Albert and fullback Norm Standlee. There were four Stanford alums in the 49ers’ debut season, seven more players from Santa Clara, two from St. Mary’s and one apiece from San Francisco and San Jose State.
The 49ers were formidable during the AAFC era but had the misfortune of playing in the Western Division with the Cleveland Browns. San Francisco won 72.2 percent of its games (38-14-2) over its first four seasons but finished in second place each time to the Browns, who won all four AAFC championships.
The NFL absorbed three AAFC teams in 1950 – the Browns, 49ers and Baltimore Colts – and again the San Francisco wound up with a bad draw. The 49ers played in the Western Conference with the Rams and Detroit Lions, who combined to represent the West in six consecutive NFL title games (1950-55). Despite winning 65.7 percent of their games, Banducci’s teams finished in second place in eight of his 11 seasons.
The 49ers may have spent their first nine seasons on pro football’s second shelf as a contender but Banducci spent those years as a top-shelf performer.
Banducci earned all-pro honors with San Francisco in eight of his nine seasons in the two different leagues. He was competing with Hall of Fame guards Dick Barwegen and Bill Willis for AAFC honors and Hall of Famers Barwegen, Lou Creekmur and Dick Stanfel for NFL honors. He made first-team AAFC all-pro in 1947 and first-team NFL in his final season in 1954. He also was named only the second captain in 49ers history in 1953.
Lightning quick at 5-11, 215 pounds, Banducci could make blocks in-line and at the second level. His team finished first in the NFL in rushing in seven of his 11 seasons and Banducci blocked for three NFL rushing champions – Van Buren (1945) and Hall of Famer Joe “The Jet” Perry in 1953-54. His pass blocking was also in evidence as Albert led the AAFC in touchdown passes twice and won a passing crown in 1948.
Banducci’s blocking with the Eagles and 49ers earned him first-team all-decade acclaim for the 1940s. Nine of the 11 players from that team have busts in Canton. Banducci and his former Eagles teammate, tackle Al Wistert, are the only two first-teamers still on the outside looking in. Neither has ever been a finalist to have his careers scrutinized.
And that’s a fumble on the part of the Hall of Fame selection committee. Of the 145 players selected first-team all-decade in the NFL’s first eight decades, only seven have not been enshrined. As one of those seven, Banducci, who passed away in 1985, deserved the chance to have his career discussed and debated by the Hall of Fame selection committee. Maybe the expanded Centennial Class of 2020 with 10 seniors will finally open Canton’s door for Banducci.