1940s put Steelers to tests that nearly break them

Second in a series on the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers



What's in a name?

They could have been the Pittsburgh Wahoos, Condors, Pioneers, Triangles, Bridgers, Buckaroos or Yankees, or something steely such as the Millers, Vulcans, Tubers, Smokers, Rollers, Ingots or Puddlers -- all of which were fan entries in the contest to rename the football Pirates.

The winner became the brand name of an industrial city, and it is no small irony the team now practices on the site of a bygone mill. The name Steelers first appeared in a headline on March 3, 1940, in The Pittsburgh Press. And the back story is that the name almost disappeared into oblivion within the year.

After seven years of losing and being confused with a baseball team, owner Arthur J. Rooney asked fans for their input. Several thousand entries were received by mail at the team headquarters in the old Fort Pitt Hotel off Grant Street, some coming from as far away as Two Rivers, Wis., where the team had trained the previous summer.

Former coach Joe Bach, one of the Notre Dame lineman known as the "seven mules," headed a panel that chose the winner. A total of 21 people -- including one woman, Margaret O'Donnell of Pittsburgh -- submitted the winning name, with each receiving two season tickets for the 1940 season when a season ticket cost about $5. (There were no seat licenses.)

As documented by the postmarks, the first entry suggesting Steelers came from Arnold Goldberg, sports editor and later managing editor of The Evening Standard in Uniontown.

The reaction wasn't as vocal as it was for, say, Steely McBeam. But Havey Boyle, sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote that he preferred Puddlers, a nod to specialists in the early days of the iron-making industry. "Our own suspicion is that the whole thing was just another Rooney scheme to give away free tickets for his enterprise," he opined.

While the name was new, the results were the same. The Steelers bombed at the box office and lost seven of their last eight games to finish 2-7-2. Then came a series of developments resulting in the most bizarre trade in sports.

Wheeling and dealing

Rumors about a sale had been so rampant that Rooney routinely issued denials, such as this one near the start of the new decade: "You can say again for me that I'm afraid I'll have the team next fall, unless somebody makes me an offer I'd be crazy to turn down."

Enter Alexis Thompson, a wealthy New York playboy who had lettered in soccer and lacrosse at Yale and was looking to buy a National Football League team to move to his hometown of Boston. Mr. Thompson first approached Bert Bell, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Although he wasn't interested in sellling the Eagles, Mr. Bell brokered a deal in which Mr. Thompson would pay $160,000 for the Steelers, and Mr. Rooney would then invest half that amount to become co-owner of the Eagles. The deal included an 18-player swap. Mr. Thompson planned to rename his team the Ironmen and move them to Boston, and the Rooney/Bell enterprise hoped to operate a Keystone franchise with games played on both ends of the state.

This mega-deal went down on Dec. 9, 1940, the day after the Chicago Bears and quarterback Sid Luckman (obtained in the draft with a Steelers' pick) beat the Washington Redskins, 73-0, in the most lopsided NFL championship game in history.

"I certainly hated to give up the franchise in the old hometown, but it would have been poor business to refuse the proposition for a second-division ball club at the terms that were offered," Mr. Rooney told the Post-Gazette.

But insurmountable complications arose. At the same time, Mr. Rooney had second thoughts about selling. He pursued a Plan B to get the Steelers back, and he tipped the local writers that there would be a big story coming out of the NFL's spring meeting in Chicago.

The result: the Rooney/Bell franchise would move to Pittsburgh and resurrect the Steelers while Mr. Thompson would take the Ironmen to Philadelphia and operate as the Eagles. The NFL approved the switch on April 4, 1941.

Because all of this happened in the off-season, the Steelers never technically missed a beat or ever left town. For years, however, the corporate name of the Steelers was the Philadelphia Football Club Inc.

Sideline instability

Today's Steelers are admired as a model of stability and success in part because there have only been three coaches since 1969 -- Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. In 1941, there were three coaches in one season, including the only time in NFL history that one man coached a pro team and a college team simultaneously.

Mr. Bell, whose wife was in the Ziegfield Follies and whose brother was once governor of Pennsylvania and chief justice of the state Supreme Court, installed himself as coach to start the season. When the Steelers lost their first two games and looked bad doing so, he sought advice from his co-owner.

"Bert, did you ever consider changing coaches?" Mr. Rooney asked.

He never coached another game.

Aldo (Buff) Donelli, who was already coaching the Duquesne University team, was brought in, working with the Steelers in the morning during classes and drilling the Dukes in the afternoon. With the Steelers, he was 0-5. His college team went undefeated.

When NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden balked at the arrangement, Walt Kiesling, who coached the previous two seasons, was brought back, producing one victory in the last four games.

In 1941, East Liberty's Billy Conn challenged heavyweight champion Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 consecutive games, Ted Williams batted over .400, Whirlaway won horse racing's triple crown and the Steelers obtained the first pick in the NFL draft by finishing last. All of that, however, was insignificant to Pearl Harbor.

A boost from 'Bullet Bill'

William McGarvey Dudley, better known as "Bullet Bill" at the University of Virginia, was the best college football player in the land. But like most red-blooded, able-bodied Americans, he set out in 1942 to do his part in a global war in which everyone made a sacrifice or contribution.

Mr. Dudley never intended to play pro football and had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September 1942, but there was such an influx of recruits that his induction was put off for three months. In the meantime, as the first player picked in the football draft, he signed for $5,000 and donned the uniform of the Steelers.

Local mines and mills were going full blast as rank-and-file steelers forged metal for armor and guns. Having never been to Pittsburgh before, Mr. Dudley was struck at how the smoke of the furnaces blotted out the sun.

But behind their new star, the Steelers accomplished a first. They won seven of their last nine games to finish 7-4 for a winning record, three games behind the Redskins in the division.

As the NFL rookie of the year, Mr. Dudley led the league with 696 yards rushing. He also passed for 438 yards, scored seven touchdowns, punted 18 times, returned 20 punts and ran back 11 kickoffs, including one for a touchdown.

Duty called to take Mr. Dudley away for the next two seasons and most of 1945. He played football on a military team and flew supply missions in the Pacific Theater. Although he played only play four games in 1945, he still led the team in scoring. In 1946, playing tailback and safety, Mr. Dudley accomplished another first by becoming the first player in franchise history to become the league's MVP. He led the NFL with in rushing, interceptions and punt returns, an unheard of triple crown in modern day football.

In his honor, Art Rooney named one of his racehorses Bullet Bill. Last week, Mr. Dudley,was one of 24 players named to the Legends Team composed of the franchise's best pre-Super Bowl players.

Remember the Steagles

Sports leagues and teams were a distant concern to a nation dedicated to prevailing during World War II. And during those war years, the Steelers may have gone the way of other, short-lived NFL teams like the Staten Island Stapletons or the Boston Yanks if not for two unlikely mergers.

In 1943, with most of their players off to war, the Steelers petitioned the league to merge with the Eagles in an endeavor officially known as the Phil-Pitt Eagles-Steelers Combine but unofficially named the Steagles by Chet Smith, sports editor of The Pittsburgh Press.

The Steagles were based in Philadelphia, where they practiced during the week. In the two home games played at Forbes Field, they wore the green and white of the Eagles, the only time black and gold were not the home colors.

It had been said that you couldn't get one good team out of both franchises. But the Steagles finished 5-4-1, the first winning season in Philadelphia's history and the second consecutive winning season for Pittsburgh. The 1943 season was historic in two other ways. It was the first year that helmets were made mandatory, and, with limited rosters, free substitution was allowed. In the early days, players were expected to be on the field for 60 minutes, on both offense and defense. Free substitution allowed fresh players to go on and off the field in between plays. Ultimately, the rule resulted in the modern version of offense, defense and special teams.

While the Eagles went their own way in 1944, the Steelers merged again -- this time at the NFL's request. The Chicago Cardinals were also short on players, and thus was born the Card-Pitt Combine, which put the Steelers in the Western Division for one season.

It may have been the worst team in NFL history. The record was 0-10, the only time in franchise history the Steelers were winless. The combine held a lead only twice all season and was outscored 328-108. One fan wrote the Post-Gazette that Card-Pitt should be changed to "Car-Pets" because every other team walked all over them.

The merger's best player, John Grigas, quit the team before the final loss, attended by about 9,000 fans here on Dec. 3, 1944.

He left a farewell note that said: "When your mind is changed because of the physical beating, week in and week out, your soul isn't in the game."

It's a well-known story that Pat Tillman of the Arizona Cardinals volunteered to become a U.S. Army Ranger and was killed in 2004 in Afghanistan in a fratricide that is still under investigation. During World War II, about 640 NFL players and four owners served in the military. Nineteen of the players died in the war.

Family takes over

The ownership chart changed again in 1946 when Bert Bell was named NFL commissioner and sold his share of the Steelers. Art Rooney emerged with 58 percent of the team while his brother-in-law Barney McGinley, a partner in the Rooney-McGinley Boxing Club and the General Braddock Brewing Co., became a 42 percent owner. The Rooney family has since bought half of the McGinley shares.

Although stories abound in local myth and legend about The Chief having to put up the team as collateral when he borrowed money to get through hard times, no one has come forward with documentation.

"It wasn't about winning and losing then. The first order of business was survival," said Art Rooney Jr., the founder's second-oldest son.

After 15 years of futility, the Steelers finally got to play a post-season game in 1947. But the players almost went on strike because they weren't going to be paid for extra games.

Jock Sutherland, a luminary for his accomplishments as a player and coach at Pitt, had energized the Steelers in the post-war years. After he signed a five-year contract in 1946, the Steelers sold out at home before playing a single game. There had been 11 consecutive sellouts -- an unheard of string of success -- going into a historic clash on Dec. 21, 1947, at Forbes Field.

The Eagles had tied the Steelers for first place in the Eastern Division, and a playoff would determine who would face the Chicago Cardinals in the NFL title game. For once, team offices were mobbed and the phones were ringing off the hooks.

Interviewers were advised to avoid congestion by walking down an alley and entering the owner's office through a window.

"It was never like this in the old days," said Mr. Rooney, a well-used spittoon next to his desk. "I got so used to losing, sometimes I find it strange to act like a winner this season. But I love it. It's a great feeling. I don't have to duck down the side streets anymore."

Behind the scenes, however, players balked when the coach laid out the financial arrangements -- players were already under contract, so there would be no extra paycheck. In a region where labor's gains were sometimes paid for with blood, the grumbling players threatened a strike.

Stepping in as mediator, Mr. Rooney promised there would be rewards. And team captain Chuck Cherundolo, recently named as the center on the Legends Team, quelled the revolt and kept the team on track to play.

Furious at his players, Mr. Sutherland reportedly worked the team extra hard in scrimmages leading up to the game. For whatever reason, the Steelers played one of their poorest games of the year and were beaten, 21-0. A playoff win would have to wait for another quarter century.

The Sutherland era abruptly ended the following spring when the coach died of a brain tumor, and the Steelers went into decline. But he was still vital to their survival.

"He was a magic name in Pittsburgh," Mr. Rooney said. "If it weren't for the crowds he drew, I would have been financially licked and out of the business."

The Sutherland years also brought a degree of organization to the player draft.

In the early days, there were no scouts, personnel directors or film to study. As an example of how things worked, or failed to work, a sports writer tipped the team about a Penn State player named Leon Gajecki. In the 1939 draft, Mr. Rooney selected the player based on information in the school program. Unfortunately, the program had the wrong information on Mr. Gajecki's graduation date, and he was ineligible.

Under Mr. Sutherland, the Steelers brought in a guy who wrote to colleges requesting information on players and kept detailed information on index cards. He was Ray (Digger) Byrne, whose full-time job was working at the Byrne Funeral Home in Highland Park.

During the decade, the Steelers left some cleat marks in the NFL record books:

• Most fumbles in one game, 10, by the Steagles in a 1943 game against the New York Giants. The mark was subsequently tied by three other teams.

• Fewest passes attempted in a game, zero. The Steelers reached the mark in a 1941 game against the Brooklyn Dodgers and matched it in 1949 against the Los Angeles Rams. Three other teams share the record.

• Fewest passes completed in a game by both teams, one. The Steelers had one reception in a 1942 game against the Dodgers, who failed to complete a pass. The mark was equaled in three other games.

• Fewest touchdown passes in a season, zero. The Steelers did it in 1945. The 1933 Cincinnati Reds were the only other team to do so.


Next Sunday: The Fifties Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorcahk@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-1959. First Published September 16, 2007 4:00 AM


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