1950s Steelers weren't pretty or very successful, but they were unquestionably tough
Jack Butler, who joined the Steelers as an undrafted player in 1951, set a franchise record with 52 interceptions, a mark later broken by Hall of Famer Mel Blount.
Mr. Butler, center, with fellow Legands Team members Bullet Bill Dudley, left, and Clendon Thomas, right, after being honored at last Sunday's game at Heinz Field.
Ernie Stautner was the dominant defensive force for the Steelers in the 1950s. A Hall of Famer, he is the only player to have his number officially retired by the organization. Teammates and opponents rate him as one of the toughest players to ever play the game.
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His gait was stiff, the consequence of two knee replacement surgeries, and his hair has grayed. But the eyes were still piercing and his black jersey with the gold No. 80 conjured up images of an era when tough men in tough times still played without face masks.
When the Steelers in their throwback uniforms registered the 500th win in franchise history last Sunday, 13 real-life throwbacks who are members of the all-time Legends Team were honored with a curtain call at halftime. Jack Butler was among several players from the 1950s who heard the cheers once more.
The Steelers of Mr. Butler's era lost more games than they won, but they established a tone that still defines a franchise playing its 75th season -- the blood-and-guts, hard-nosed style of Pittsburgh's Team.
"The Steelers always have been a physical team and always will be," Mr. Butler said before the game. "We didn't make a lot of money, but we loved the game. We played the game the way we thought it should be played. Other teams may have beaten us, but we always gave them battles. We always gave people their money's worth."
He first stepped onto a football field with the Steelers 57 years ago when he was a rookie at training camp under coach John Michelosen, the last NFL coach to use the single wing, an offensive relic designed for power running. At that camp in Cambridge Springs, the Steelers scrimmaged so long and so brutishly that a steady stream of battered players slipped off to the bus stop to head back home.
"Some of those guys, they didn't have to [get] cut. They just left on their own," Mr. Butler said. "The coaches would guard the exits to keep guys in camp. The only ones who made the team were the ones who survived."
In the '50s, the Steelers were 54-63-3 under four different coaches and finished with more wins than losses only twice. They started games by handing off so often to running back Fran Rogel that fans took up this chant: "Hey diddle, diddle, Rogel up the middle." But they were as indomitable as the brawling, bruising, shot-and-a-beer town they represented. The story is that opponents hated to play here because they'd be so banged up that they'd usually lose the following week.
Away from the gridiron, Pittsburgh was in the midst of its first Renaissance. Civic leaders such as Richard King Mellon, who understood that the city was choking on its own smoke, had brought in consultant Frank Lloyd Wright, who took a look at the industrial vista and said: "It would be cheaper to abandon it."
The generation that had liberated Europe and fought kamikazes from aircraft carriers in the Pacific Theater had settled down to parent the Baby Boom and create the suburbs, but a Cold War had already started and there was another hot war in Korea.
And a new-fangled technology called television was in the early stages of showcasing pro football to an audience that had spending money and leisure time.
Seeds of growth
When the franchise was still the football Pirates, Ed Kiely filed game accounts as a cub reporter for the International News Service.In 1950, he was hired by Steelers owner Art Rooney even though public relations was, in his words, "a mortal sin" for a newsman.
Radio began broadcasting pro football games here in 1936, with Joe Tucker behind the microphone, and the first NFL game to be televised was a 1939 contest between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Eagles on an experimental NBC station. But newspapers were still the dominant medium.
"Anything great always starts small," said Mr. Kiely, now 89. "I remember when I used to get in the car and drive to Uniontown, Brownsville, Charleroi and up into the Beaver Valley and ask them to please put our name in the paper. I remember building the press box on the 50-yard line at Forbes Field and how crude it was. The poor guys from the out-of-town papers hit their heads on the beams if they didn't duck down low enough."
By 1953, the Steelers were on TV. The Saturday night home opener on Oct. 3 was televised coast-to-coast by the DuMont Television Network, which owned and operated a station in Pittsburgh that was later sold to Westinghouse and became KDKA-TV Channel 2.
"We built stuff on the roof for TV. It looked like Shantytown," Mr. Kiely said.
By 1958, when the Colts beat the Giants in sudden death overtime of the championship game, the NFL and TV were beginning a marriage that turned into a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
Toughest Steeler ever
The prototype of steely toughness was an undersized lineman who to this day is the only player to have his number officially retired by the organization -- Hall of Famer Ernie Stautner, whose 14-year career began in 1950.
A native of Germany whose family emigrated to Albany, N.Y., when he was a toddler, Mr. Stautner fought as a Marine in the battle of Okinawa when he was 17. After World War II, he played football at Boston College and, at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, was drafted by the Steelers.
Mr. Stautner played in nine Pro Bowls and was named to the Steelers all-time team for their 50th anniversary. Primarily a defensive lineman, he also played offensive guard and tackle for a time. He missed only six games in his career despite having broken ribs, separated shoulders, smashed noses and gnarled hands.
Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jim Parker once said of him: "That man ain't human. He's too strong to be human. He's the toughest guy in the league to play against because he keeps coming head first. Swinging those forearms wears you down."
Andy Russell, a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Steelers in the '60s and '70s, remembers the game in which Mr. Stautner suffered a compound fracture of the thumb, and the bone was sticking out of his skin. He closed his first over it to set the break and asked what the defense was. Everyone in the huddle expected Mr. Stautner to go to the hospital after the opponent punted, but he wrapped a ball of tape around his fist and played the rest of the game.
"He never missed a down," Mr. Russell said. "He is clearly the toughest Steeler to have ever played the game."
Joining Mr. Stautner on the NFL's All-Decade team for the 1950s was Jack Butler, a Pittsburgh native who fits into a special category. He didn't play high school football and attended a seminary before he enrolled at St. Bonaventure University.
The school's athletic director was Father Silas, who had played sandlot football with Mr. Butler's father and had asked him to go out for the team. When Mr. Butler wasn't drafted by the pros, Father Silas, who was known as Daniel Rooney before he became a priest. recommended him to his brother, the Steelers owner,
He made the Steelers as a 170-pound defensive end and signed for $4,000, about $800 more than he would have been paid as an English teacher. But when an injury opened up a spot at cornerback, Mr. Butler settled in. He didn't miss a snap as a defensive back for the next eight seasons and played in the Pro Bowl four times. A devastating knee injury against the Eagles in 1959 abruptly ended his career.
"He was one of those warriors who had to be carried off on his shield," said Art Rooney Jr., son of the founder.
In his career, Mr. Butler intercepted 52 passes, including four in a 1953 game against the Redskins. The total stood as a franchise record until it was broken by Mel Blount. When Mr. Butler's playing days were over, only Dick (Night Train) Lane and Emlen Tunnel, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame, had more career interceptions.
In addition to scoring five touchdowns on defense, Mr. Butler also had seven career pass receptions, four of which went for touchdowns.
He later became a scout and headed the scouting combine BLESTO Inc. until his retirement last June. It has been said that he is the best Steelers player prior to the Super Bowl era who is not in the Hall of Fame, but Mr. Butler isn't concerned about such things.
"I've lived a charmed life. I got paid to play the game I love. I never had a job outside the NFL," said Mr. Butler, who lives in Munhall. "Yesterday's gone. There are many more things much more important to be than [in the Hall of Fame]. If it were to happen, it would be an honor and a privilege. If it doesn't happen, it's not the end of the world. There are more important things to me than that. I had eight kids, and they all went to college. I have 15 grandkids. I had a job in football for 56 years. I have a lot of great memories."
In addition to being on the Legends Team, Mr. Butler has the inside track for a spot on the 75th anniversary team that will be announced in November.
Passing on Johnny U
Training camp in 1955 was held at St. Bonaventure, in Olean, N.Y., and Jack Butler would stay after practice to catch passes from a strong-armed, crew-cut rookie who played high school football at St. Justin on Mount Washington and was once selected ahead of North Catholic's Dan Rooney as quarterback on the Pittsburgh Catholic All-Star team.
When the 1955 camp broke and the players were driving back to Pittsburgh for a Sunday exhibition game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Mr. Butler gave the rookie a ride.
"You know, I think they're going to cut me," his passenger said during the drive home.
"No," Mr. Butler replied, reassuringly. "They have to give you a better look."
The next day, in the ninth paragraph of a Sept. 6 story in The Pittsburgh Press, the release of quarterback "Jack [sic] Unitas" was announced.
"Unitas, a Pittsburgher, was the biggest of the quarterback candidates. However, with Ted Marchibroda and Vic Eaton seeing the most of the understudy passing duties, the University of Louisville passer never got a chance to play in a ball game," the story said.
Mr. Unitas hung around Pittsburgh working construction and playing sandlot ball for $6 a game. He got another chance with the Baltimore Colts in 1956, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth began in earnest.
Johnny U. won the first of two straight NFL championships in 1958. When he retired after the 1973 season, he held 22 records, including most passes completed, most yards gained passing and most touchdown passes. Mr. Unitas, who was especially effective in the waning seconds of a game, was the league MVP in 1964 and 1967, and he played in 10 Pro Bowls. Sid Luckman called him the greatest quarterback of all-time.
Vic Eaton played one season and didn't complete a pass.
Tough practices, weak drafts
The Unitas decision was made by coach Walt Kiesling, one of the more curious characters in franchise history.
A Hall of Famer, Mr. Kiesling played 13 seasons in the days of leather helmets. He had three different stints in three different decades as a coach, compiling a 30-55-5 record. He did coach the Steelers to their first winning season and their first win ever against the Browns, but he also was Art Rooney's pinochle partner and frequent companion at the racetrack.
Mr. Kiesling is credited with breeding toughness into the Steelers image.
"We'd practice two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon every day. We'd kill each other," Mr. Butler recalled of the last three Kiesling years. "If there weren't a bunch of guys bleeding or fighting during practice, we were loafing."
Personnel decisions were another matter.
When the Steelers had the bonus pick in the 1956 draft and could choose any player in the country, Mr. Kiesling selected Gary Glick, a back from Colorado State who had had a non-descript career. Chosen later in that draft were Hall of Famers Lenny Moore, Forrest Gregg, Sam Huff, Willie Davis and Bart Starr.
Supervising the following year's draft, with Jim Brown still on the board, Mr. Kiesling picked Purdue quarterback Len Dawson. Mr. Dawson had a limited role with the Steelers in three seasons but later became a Hall of Famer and Super Bowl winner with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Mr. Kiesling resigned for health reasons prior to the 1957 season, and Raymond (Buddy) Parker took over. The new coach promptly traded two No. 1 draft picks to San Francisco for quarterback Earl Morrall. He later peddled Morrall and two draft picks to Detroit for bar-hopping quarterback Bobby Layne.
A rivalry is born
The '50s had their notable moments.
In a 1952 game against the New York Giants, with snow flurries swirling around Forbes Field, Lynn Chandois returned the opening kick for a touchdown only to see it negated by a penalty. But he returned the re-kick 91 yards for a touchdown, and the Steelers were on their way to the biggest win in franchise history. In that 63-7 victory on Nov. 30, the Steelers knocked out two New York quarterbacks, leaving defensive back and future Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry to finish the game.
In addition, the rivalry with the Browns was born. Cleveland joined the NFL after winning four titles under Paul Brown in the All-American Football Conference.
The Browns dominated the NFL and won the first eight meetings with the Steelers -- it wasn't until this season that the Steelers finally took their first lead in the all-time series -- until a historic game on Oct. 17, 1955, at sold out Forbes Field. Led by a four-touchdown performance by receiver Ray Mathews, the Steelers won, 55-27.
As a kid playing football at McKeesport High School, Mr. Mathews used to sneak into Forbes Field to watch Bullet Bill Dudley play. He joined the Steelers in 1951 and was the Hines Ward of his day. Also a member of the Legends Team, he wore his throwback jersey as he exchanged stories with Mr. Dudley last week.
"It was a different atmosphere back then. The game was rough, but it was fun," said Mr. Mathews, 78. "You had a chance to get somebody back, because after a play was over and the whistle blew, you could hit anybody. They used to send me in motion a lot, and a guy would hold me. Then the play would go the other way, and I'd race over and hit him just as the whistle was blowing. That was fun."
Although he never played on a championship team, he enjoyed his time in the arena.
"The main thing about it, we weren't getting the best players. We'd have two or three guys who were the nucleus of the team. It wasn't that the other guys weren't trying, their heart wasn't in it," Mr. Mathews said. "If you don't have the heart to play this game, I don't care how much you cuss or yell. You have to hit somebody. You have to draw blood somewhere. You have to think about getting that elbow up. That's the name of the game -- just getting somebody's attention. The right way. That's football."
First Published September 23, 2007 12:00 am