Those 49ers fans who think Jed York should be more like his uncle have a short memory. It took Bill Walsh to turn Eddie DeBartolo into a hero.
When the DeBartolo family bought the 49ers in 1976, Eddie’s first act was to hire family friend Joe Thomas. Very quickly, Thomas turned a team that had been only a couple of flubbed field goals from the playoffs into a team that ranked with the absolute worst in NFL history.
Eddie fired Thomas after an especially bizarre episode in which Thomas was certain he was going to be killed at a Monday night game. As a replacement, he hired Walsh, who had gotten Stanford to bowl games in his two years there. Even Walsh couldn’t win in the first two seasons with that depleted roster, but he picked up Joe Montana and Dwight Clark in his first draft and hit the jackpot in his third one when he drafted three-quarters of his defensive backfield, starting with Ronnie Lott. The 49ers then won the first of three Super Bowls under Walsh.
Eddie was no longer the villain, but he was still a thorn in Walsh’s side. A big drinker, he would often threaten to fire Walsh after a loss, only to relent when he sobered up the next day.
It wasn’t until the end of the decade that he became a positive influence, because of his father’s money. The first Super Bowl championship team had been at the bottom of the NFL’s salary list and the 49ers were still in the middle of the pack with their second champion, but then the DeBartolo fortune came into play. The 49ers spent so liberally at that time that they had backups who could have started for other teams. At one point, they had three quarterbacks who were starters during their NFL career: Montana, Steve Young and Steve Bono. That spending spree encouraged other NFL owners to put in a salary cap.
But Eddie’s personal lifestyle hadn’t changed, so Ed Sr. sent Carmen Policy to San Francisco to monitor him. Policy became a key figure for the 49ers in the next decade and helped polish Eddie’s image. DeBartolo was quite surprised, and pleased, when he and Policy were campaigning for a bond measure that would help build a new stadium at Candlestick Park and people greeted Eddie like a long-lost friend. The bond issue passed, barely, but then Policy got his sweetheart deal in Cleveland and left. Without him, the last chance for a new stadium in San Francisco evaporated.
And Eddie was caught up in a sting operation in Louisiana and banned by the NFL. He had to sell his shares in the 49ers. Moving to Florida, he solidified his financial position and cleaned up his act.
Meanwhile, Jed York — who always talks fondly of his uncle — is trying to turn public opinion and the 49ers around, but that won’t happen until he realizes he backed the wrong horse in Trent Baalke. He had the coach, Jim Harbaugh, who could have saved him, but he believed Baalke and parted ways with Harbaugh. Be careful what you hope for.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.