When my family moved to Howland, Ohio, when I was a freshman in high school, I quickly learned that while the region in northeastern Ohio was formally Cleveland Browns territory, there was a big, loud San Francisco 49ers subculture. The reason for this was twofold. In part, it was a function of how good the Niners were at the time. In larger part, though, it was a function of the team’s owner: Edward DeBartolo Jr.
Howland is a bit east of the city of Warren, which is itself due northwest of the much larger city of Youngstown. In Youngstown, the DeBartolos weren’t quite royalty, but they weren’t quite not. I knew the name DeBartolo within weeks of moving to the area. They were a family that had risen to national prominence from an area that was more often the subject of mopey songs or depressing news articles about the U.S. economy. Youngstown was a big loser in the economy of the 1970s and 1980s — but could also boast of being the home to the family that owned a team that kept winning the Super Bowl.
Antiheroes were something of a trend in the region at the time. The local congressman at the time was Jim Traficant (D), whose career was mottled by allegations and evidence of ties to organized crime (including when he was sheriff). But he was beloved by voters for his eccentricities and his eagerness to fight for the region’s working class. There were rumors about the DeBartolos, too, probably not a surprise given the region’s history with the Mafia. The family represented success and served as a curiosity.
Ed DeBartolo Jr. did eventually face criminal charges after being solicited for a bribe by the governor of Louisiana and failing to report it. He agreed in 1998 to serve two years’ probation and pay $1 million in fines. He transferred ownership of the 49ers to his sister Denise DeBartolo York in 2000.
On Tuesday, President Trump granted DeBartolo a full pardon. In the abstract, it’s an odd decision, focused on someone whose infraction was fairly minor and resolved two decades ago. It may be a function in part of the 49ers’ reemergence as a force in the NFL. But it may also be a way to send a signal to a critical part of an important state.
In the 2016 election, Mahoning County, where Youngstown is located, narrowly voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump, though Trump benefited from a 25-point swing in his favor. Trumbull County, where Warren and Howland are located, voted Republican for the first time since 1972. Trump won Ohio by eight points, but polling last year had him trailing some potential Democratic opponents. Locking down Mahoning County, 2 percent of the state’s population, doesn’t hurt Trump’s chances.
There are other reasons for Trump to have been sympathetic to DeBartolo, including that the Youngstown native supported Trump’s presidency. But someone, somewhere, no doubt kept Trump apprised of DeBartolo’s popularity in a region central to U.S. presidential politics.
“It’s a family-oriented community, so even people that had no reason to cheer for the 49ers, they would because of my family,” current 49ers CEO Jed York — nephew of DeBartolo — said last year about the Youngstown area. “Everybody sort of looks at the 49ers as their second team, or some people, their first team. So it’s cool to have that family feel, back then in the ‘80s and ‘90s and even today, seeing the excitement the 49ers bring to the community.”
It’s a sense the team fosters. The Niners held practice sessions at Youngstown State University last year, and the players participated in community events, as well.
Youngstown is, as York said, a 49ers town. It is a 49ers town because of the DeBartolos. And, days after heading to Daytona to woo NASCAR fans, Trump on Tuesday tied himself more closely to that family.