Dave Newhouse's 'Founding 49er' brings the 'dark days before
the dynasty' to light
By Lou Fancher
Longtime Oakland Tribune sports scribe Dave Newhouse owes a lot to elevators.
Retiring in November 2011 after a 47-year career in journalism, he found the subject of his new book at the doors of up-down conveyance carriages.
"Founding 49ers: The Dark Days Before the Dynasty" (Kent State University Press, $15.45, 256 pages) is filled with quirky and often controversial characters, such as diminutive but dynamic quarterback Frankie Albert and nearly blind coach Buck Shaw, and is further packed with enough stats and scores to please true sports hounds. Newhouse chronicles the franchise's lesser-known history from its 1946 origin to the team's purchase by the DeBartolo family in 1977.
The author grew up on the Peninsula, watching the 49ers in their final years playing in the much-maligned All-America Football Conference before becoming the high-powered National Football League team of today. In the 1950s, the team trained a mere 15-minute bike ride from his home, and Newhouse caught "the fever" for football and other professional sports. After attending Menlo-Atherton High School, serving four years in the Air Force and graduating from San Jose State University, he began a sportswriting career that included articles for Sports Illustrated and Sporting News, 10 books, a KNBR radio talk show and appearances in ESPN documentaries.
Along the way, he wrote about Lou Spadia, the son of Italian immigrants who rose from "grunt work" in the 49ers organization to become the team's general manager, president and part owner. Spadia left the 49ers in 1979 and founded the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, a nonprofit that supports local youth activities. Learning that the legendary figure was physically ailing but mentally sharp, Newhouse visited Spadia at his Nob Hill condominium in 2012.
It was at the elevator as they parted that the conversation turned to memoirs that Spadia had regretted leaving unfinished. Spadia said to Newhouse, "Why don't you do it?" Thus, a book was born.
But life took an unimaginable turn, and so did the book's scope and direction.
"I interviewed Lou in September. He had a stroke the next week," Newhouse says. "Dec. 1 was the next time I could talk to him. I did one more interview, then the next day, Dec. 2, my son Chad took his life. I was just incapacitated.
"When Lou died in February, after that, I'd made a commitment to his family. I just felt it was the best therapy to keep writing."
Doing what he calls "grindstone work," Newhouse shifted from one man's biography to team history and searched through Tribune files and other archival material to find stories that would reach people inside and outside of football. The process took two years.
"It's not a snap book. It's a story of war heroes. Guys who played with shrapnel in their bodies after returning from war. I felt they hadn't been written about at all," he says.
The personal and professional blows in the author's life -- the loss of his son, witnessing pro sports teams' losses, injuries, corruption, commercialization -- are balanced by blessings -- a fulfilling, 50-year marriage with his wife, Patsy, and a remaining son, Casey, who has made Newhouse's life "very special" with two grandchildren. And there's his lifelong passion: writing.
"I wake up at 5 in my pajamas and robe and come downstairs to my lair and start writing. At 7 p.m. I'm still in my pajamas and robe. It's addictive."
Writing about the 49ers in their infancy with sensitivity was imperative, he says. "The section with John Brodie -- he was the longest 49er, with 17 years of service -- well, it's not a fluff book. But it hurt me that his family would read his (critical) comments about Dick Nolan, the coach. It bothered me to write it, although it was what he said and was a fair picture of Nolan through Brodie's eyes."
Now working on several book projects, Newhouse recently encountered writer David McCullough in an elevator while in Paris celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary. "I was brazen and said, 'You know, David, we should keep writing into our 90s.' It was like talking to Picasso, a two-minute interlude, but I meant what I said. I love writing about people. All stories are human. They're detailed, diligent research told with sensitivity."