Anthony J. (Tony) Morabito, 47, one of pro football's most controversial figures, died Sunday from a coronary in the second quarter of the 49er-Bear game. Morabito died, as he might have wished, in his 50-yard-line seat in the lower press box at Kezar Stadium. In 1952, Morabito suffered a severe heart attack. The stocky, graying 49er owner, once a hearty, stay-up-later and go-anywhere type, was ordered to slow down. His doctor, William O'Grady, advised him "to get out of football," but Morabito said, "I'll take my chances."
After '52, Morabito's personality seemed to change. He seemed to draw the 49ers unto himself and was extremely sensitive to critical appraisal of the team. He accused the L.A. Rams of "the dirtiest game in football." He chased Co-owner Fred Levy of the Rams around the L.A. Coliseum locker room, searching for a fight; he called NFL Commissioner Bert Bell "the quintessence of nothing." Morabito's "list" of sports-writers and radiocasters he felt were unfair numbered at least two dozen, off and on.
Morabito's players, however, found him kind and thoughtful. "People outside didn't know Tony," said Joe Vetrano, a former 49er. "He never forgot a 49er."
Coach Frank Albert, bawling in the dressing room after the 49ers had pulled out the victory 21-17, said: "The 49ers could never find a better owner, even if they got President Eisenhower."
Morabito, his steel-gray hair and heavy horned-rim glasses a familiar identification in his box, keeled over in the second quarter when the 49ers were trailing 14-7. His 38-year-old brother and junior partner, Vic Morabito, rushed out of the press box, down the stands, across the field and around the goal posts to the opposite side. At the 49er bench he told Dr. William O'Grady and Trainer Henry Schmidt what had happened. The three ran back across the field to the press box. In his excitement, Vic forgot he could have stepped to the regular scout phones in the press box to summon aid.
Tony Morabito was taken in a stretcher to an ambulance outside the stadium and was pronounced d.o.a. at Mary's Help Hospital. After the news of his death reached his players at half time, they turned into a completely different team. They had been trailing the fired-up Bears 17-7; but now their defense tightened, holding the Bears scoreless, while Quarterback Y. A. Tittle directed the team to a victory and the undisputed Western Division lead.
Morabito pioneered the 49ers. He put up the money (made in lumber carrying) to start the team in the old All-America Conference in 1946. In San Francisco, pro football may be more quiet because of Tony Morabito's passing. He shunned personal publicity but always seemed to make it. He was one of a kind.
CONTROVERSY seemed to follow Morabito, but to the 49ers he was the best of bosses.