Birth of The Nation: the Steelers of the '30s

This is the first in a series on the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers



In the beginning, with makeshift lights barely penetrating the darkness of a sooty Wednesday night in the depths of the Great Depression, the National Football League team that gave birth to The Nation flickered to life with the kick of a football shaped like an elongated pumpkin and painted white for better visibility.

They were called the Pirates and played in Forbes Field, because, in the humble roots of its genesis, pro football was the realm of rapscallions that took a back seat to baseball and just about every other sport.

The midweek start was one of necessity rather than the product of NFL marketing geniuses. At the time, the state's blue laws -- enacted for the "prevention of vice and immorality" when George Washington was president -- banned spectator sports, including baseball, on the Sabbath.

The blue laws would be rescinded within two months, which meant the reign of the Thursday morning quarterback was short-lived. Because Fridays and Saturdays were set aside for high school and college football, Wednesday was as good a day as any. Given the next four decades of the franchise's existence, however, it would have been wise to heed the old English rhyme that Wednesday's child is full of woe.

The date was Sept. 20, 1933. Kickoff was scheduled for 8:30 p.m., presumably to give spectators time to get there on a work night. A 20-minute delay of the start was not explained, but it most assuredly was not because of a pre-game music act or wardrobe malfunction. Prohibition was still in effect, so it was illegal to slake the thirst with an adult beverage before, during or after the game, and there wasn't a single beer ad underwriting the show.

But whatever the name or wherever it played, it was Pittsburgh's NFL team from the start.

In a color scheme taken from the city flag, the home team wore gold jerseys with black stripes. Each jersey was adorned with the city crest, which was based on the coat of arms of William Pitt the Elder, first Earl of Chatham, whose name was given to the city that started out as a frontier outpost protecting three rivers. And the franchise, then as now, was in the hands of the Rooney family.

The first game was a 23-2 loss to the New York Giants, with the first points in franchise history the result of Johnny Oehler blocking a punt for a safety. Dee-fense! Dee-fense! Yet somehow, a mystical bond was established between town and team, as documented by Chet Smith, sports editor of The Pittsburgh Press, which sold for three cents.

"Nearly 20,000 spectators whooped and hurrahed," he wrote. "They saw... enough savage and spectacular football to insure the professional league a permanent home here if it continues to furnish as much entertainment in the future."

If he had only known.

This year, the franchise that became the Steelers marks its 75th season with a diamond jubilee studded with the diamonds of five Super Bowl rings. If the steel industry faded long ago, the Steelers still provide a sense of identity for a reborn city and an extended community of fans. Heinz Field is laid out so that the long axis of the playing field aligns directly with The Point, symbolically joining the team and the origins of the community. Think of one as a football and the other the air that inflates it.

All for $2,500

The pro league had existed for 13 seasons before Arthur J. Rooney, a 32-year-old politician and sportsman, was awarded a franchise on July 8, 1933. The entry fee was $2,500; the franchise is now valued at $880 million by Forbes Magazine.

Mr. Rooney was a boxer of note, but his first love was baseball, and he played for the Wheeling Stogies in the minor leagues before an arm injury ended his career. But he also founded and played for a couple of sandlot football teams -- the Majestics, which became Hope-Harvey (Hope being the fire station where the team changed clothes, and Harvey being the doctor who tended player injuries), and the J.P. Rooneys.

He played against the legendary Jim Thorpe, and he told friends he thought his sandlot teams could beat NFL clubs, so he joined the league.

The NFL was interested in Pittsburgh, which was the womb of pro football. In fact, the receipt of $500 paid to Pudge Heffelfinger in 1892 by the Allegheny Athletic Association is considered the birth certificate of pro football by the NFL Hall of Fame. The city was also centrally located on the railroad system used by the early NFL.

But the NFL also wanted Mr. Rooney for a practical reason. With his political connections, he could rescind the state law that banned the playing of sports, the operation of movie theaters and shopping on Sundays.

"He had the clout to get the blue laws lifted," said Art Rooney Jr., the second oldest of his five sons. "The movie industry sent him free passes every year until he died in 1988 because he got the law changed to allow Sunday events."

In many ways, 1933 was the beginning of the modern NFL. The league adopted its own rules to distinguish it from the college game. It also split into two divisions of five teams each to set up a championship game at the end of the season -- the forerunner to the Super Bowl, America's unofficial national holiday.

Also in 1933, City Hall was occupied by the last Republican to reign as mayor. President Franklin Roosevelt unveiled the New Deal. Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Imperial Japan was taking military steps that would lead to Pearl Harbor.

Unlikely hero

History was made in several ways on Sept. 27, 1933, the date of the franchise's first victory.

With Forbes Field a mud pit after an all-day rain, Butch Kottler intercepted a pass and raced 99 yards for Pittsburgh's first-ever touchdown. The length of the return still stands as a franchise record. Then after tying the Chicago Cardinals in the final minute, an unlikely headliner waddled onto the field to boot the extra point in a 14-13 win.

He was Christian (Mose) Kelsch, who at 37 was the oldest player in the NFL and five years older than the team founder. A North Sider who never went to college but played on the Majestics sandlot team, Mr. Kelsch was described in the newspapers as double-chinned and ample around the middle. Helmets were optional in those days, just as motorcycle helmets are today in Pennsylvania, and Kelsch's bald pate was exposed as he tallied the winning point without wearing headgear. Yinzers of any era could exult in the moment.

Also part of that game were the only two African-Americans playing in the NFL at the time.

From the U.S. Army to Major League Baseball, America was racially divided. Yet the year the Pittsburgh Crawfords became a charter member of the Negro National League and 14 years before Jackie Robinson broke through baseball's racial barrier, Pittsburgh's Ray Kemp and Chicago's Joe Lillard met on the same football field.

A 1926 graduate of Cecil High School, Mr. Kemp worked as a coal miner for a year before playing football at Duquesne University. While most NFL players were paid $100 a game, Mr. Kemp got $40. Still, a miner at the time would have had to load 16 tons a day for 14 days to earn that paycheck.

Not that race relations were exemplary at the time. Mr. Kemp played four games that year, the last one coming in New York. While his white teammates stayed at a Manhattan hotel, Mr. Kemp was relegated to the Harlem branch of the YMCA.

From 1934 to 1946, there were no black players in the NFL. The Steelers re-integrated in 1952 when they drafted offensive lineman Jack Spinks of Alcorn State.

Good day at the track

In seven seasons under five coaches as the Pirates, the franchise was 22-55-3, never had a winning season and lost money in every year but 1936. The red ink for the decade totaled $100,000.

"You had two thrills in those days," Mr. Rooney once said. "One came Sunday trying to win the game. The next came Monday trying to make the payroll."

He was such an avid horse player that he and his bride, Kathleen McNulty, honeymooned at Belmont Park in New York following their 1931 marriage. As regularly as his football team lost, the horses he bet on at the race track would win. And his winnings kept the franchise afloat in tough times.

One day in August 1936, Mr. Rooney, who was later known as The Chief, parlayed $20 into a $21,000 haul at the Empire City Trotting Club, now known as Yonkers Raceway and owned by the Rooney family. The next day, he headed to Saratoga Race Track, pushing his car at times along the way, according to family history. He hit six longshots in what may have been the best day at a track ever, winning somewhere between $200,000 and $358,000. His take was at least $2.9 million in today's dollars, and the track offered a Brink's truck to take the money home.

"He was the greatest horse player of the 20th century," said Art Jr. "Did you ever see the movie 'Seabiscuit'? The Chief said he won more money on Seabiscuit than the guys who owned the horse."

There were plenty of notable football moments, too.

One NFL record the franchise still shares was set on Oct. 22, 1933, in a scoreless tie at Cincinnati witnessed by 900 fans. The teams combined for 31 punts, a total matched by the Bears and Packers that same day but never surpassed.

The first Sunday game in Pittsburgh history came on Nov. 12, 1933. The election results rescinding the blue laws hadn't been certified yet, but Mr. Rooney avoided any legal complications by having police superintendent Franklin McQuade at the game as his guest.

The home team lost, 32-0, to the Brooklyn Dodgers, and papers noted that the only thing desecrated on that Sabbath was the scoreboard. Attendance was announced at 12,000, putting the season total for five home games at 57,000. That was 3,000 less than the crowd that watched the Pitt-Duquesne match-up on Nov. 11 that year.

In its inaugural season, the Pirates finished last and were out-scored 205-67.

The 1934 team is notorious not for its 2-10 record, but for its uniforms. The jerseys had wide, bold vertical stripes that would have looked more appropriate on a road gang, according to NFL Films.

A championship was actually in reach in 1936 under coach Joe Bach. After beating the Eagles in a road game played in Johnstown -- yes, Johnstown -- the Pirates were in first place at 6-3 and needed only to win one of their final three games to play in the NFL championship game. Not only did they lose all three, they took a train to Los Angeles to play an exhibition game in what was essentially a bye week before their final game against the Redskins, who crushed them 30-0 to win the division.

"The story is that Bach and my father got into a fistfight on the train that lasted across state lines until a priest broke it up," said Art Jr.

Bold moves were tried to jump-start the franchise, but most of them backfired. Future Hall of Famer Johnny Blood McNally was installed as a player/coach in 1937, and he returned a kickoff 92 yards for one touchdown and scored again on a 50-yard reception in the opening game.

Blood was fired after an 0-3 start in 1939, which followed a six-game losing streak from the previous season. But he made his mark in other ways, sometimes missing games and leaving the players to fend for themselves.

"Blood never worried about his players. His players worried about him," Mr. Rooney once recalled. "He was the first of the free spirits."

On the road to anywhere

In 1938, two days in August stand out in franchise history.

On the 16th, Chicago's George Halas traded Edgar (Eggs) Manske to Pittsburgh in return for a No. 1 draft choice. Mr. Manske played six games in Pittsburgh and scored two touchdowns before he ended up back in Chicago that same season.

The draft pick turned out to be Sid Luckman, who made the cover of Life magazine as college football's best passer. Mr. Luckman revolutionized the quarterback position in the T formation, leading the Bears to four NFL championships and six other appearances in title games during his 12-year, Hall of Fame career.

Through the prism of history, many experts rate it as the worst trade of all time.

On the 17th, Byron (Whizzer) White played his first game as a pro in an intrasquad match-up in Johnstown. Years later, when he was a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice White still talked about the rocks on that Johnstown field.

An All-America runner, passer and kicker from Colorado who was also a Rhodes Scholar, Mr. White signed for the unheard sum of $15,800 -- the largest NFL contract to date. He became the first rookie to lead the NFL in rushing (587 yards on 152 carries with a league-leading four touchdowns), but the team finished last at 2-9. Mr. Rooney tried to offset his investment by scheduling six extra games during the season with non-NFL teams such as the Boston Shamrocks. It was, however, Mr. Rooney's worst year to date at the gate, and the future justice's only season in Pittsburgh.

Because baseball was the undisputed national pastime and Rooney U. did not have its own home, it was not uncommon for the football Pirates to play home games in places like Buffalo, N.Y., or New Orleans.

In addition, the schedule could be changed depending on advance ticket sales.

In 1939, for example, the Pittsburgh team took an 11-hour, pre-Turnpike bus ride to Philadelphia for the season opener. But Eagles owner Bert Bell had sold only 1,700 tickets and didn't have enough cash to pay the $5,000 guarantee to the visiting team.

Mr. Bell persuaded Mr. Rooney to postpone the game because of rain, even though a major league baseball game was played the same day in Philadelphia. It was rescheduled for Thanksgiving Day, and the Eagles won -- their lone victory of the season -- in front of 20,000 fans. Three days later in Pittsburgh, the home team won its only game of a 1-9-1 season.

That 24-12 win on Nov. 26, 1939, was the last time the football Pirates took the field. Shortly thereafter, a contest was announced to chose a new nickname.

Art Rooney once said he only had one real job in his life. He reported to work in the morning and lasted a half a shift before he walked out, not even bothering to pick up his pay. He also had a brief flirtation in running for office.

In 1939, he was persuaded to run as a Republican for Register of Wills in Allegheny County.

As a candidate, he told the voters: "Frankly, I'm not certain I'd know what to do if I won. In fact, I don't even know where the office is located. But if you elect me, I will hire the best people I can find."

He lost. Football would be his destiny.


Next Sunday: The Forties. Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-1959. First Published September 9, 2007 4:00 AM


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