A Pittsburgh Steelers History Lesson: Baby Steps

TJ JenkinsAnalyst IJuly 28, 2009

This is a little history lesson on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Most of the information was before my time and thus I have no first hand accounts of games, player attitudes, skills, etc. Bear with me though, as it’s sure to open your eyes to something you may not have known about the team. The first part will concern the baby steps of the team as it emerged as an NFL franchise and paid its’ dues as a perennial punching bag for opponents.

On Sept. 20, 1933 the football franchise now known as the Pittsburgh Steelers was born. Then known as the Pittsburgh Pirates they were manhandled that day at Forbes Field by the New York Giants (23-2).

The 1930’s was an immensely disappointing decade for the fans of the Pittsburgh team—they never managed to achieve a winning record. In fact the best record boasted by the club was a measly .500 posted during the 1936 campaign. The futile efforts of the squad never got them the division crown either.

In 1938 they awarded future Supreme Court Justice Byron White the largest contract in NFL history at the time and then watched him bolt to play for the Detroit Lions the following year.

Realistically the only good that came out of the first decade or so in the team’s history was the adaptation of the name in use today (The Pittsburgh Steelers) prior to the 1940 season.

Not many people know that in 1940 Steelers owner Art Rooney actually sold the franchise to Alexis Thompson and became half-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles along with Bert Bell. Soon after the two decided to switch places, and once more the Steelers were in Pittsburgh.

Due to a loophole, the Steelers were considered an unbroken entity as NFL franchises are distinct from corporate entities.

In 1946, Rooney once again became the majority owner of the club as Bert Bell sold his share to accept the job of Commissioner of the National Football League. Rooney held 58 percent of the team’s shares and his brother in law, Barney McGinley held 42 percent. 21 percent of that has since shifted to the Rooney’s control.

In 1942 Bill Dudley led the Steelers to their first winning season in franchise history, with a 7-4 record. Dudley finished the season with 696 rushing yards, which was an NFL best for the year.

When World War II broke out, it certainly effected the entire world, and in smaller fashion affected the NFL, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Twice during the war the team was forced to join forces with a separate NFL franchise due to shortages in players, who were serving their country overseas.

The first team merge was in 1943 with the Philadelphia Eagles and the team was referred to as the Steagles. The record was 5-4-1. Not impressive by a long shot, but not horrendous either.

The next year they were forced to merge with the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) and became Card-Pitt, though they were often referred to as the ‘carpets’.  This team failed to win a single game during the season and the Steelers returned to being just the Steelers in 1945.

In the 1945 season they posted a final record of 2-8. Come 1946 Dudley returned from his services to win the League’s Most Valuable Player Award en route to a 5-5-1 record.

In 1947 the Steelers faithful got a taste of what the NFL’s post-season was like, as the team tied for first place in the division which was decided by a tie-breaker with the Philadelphia Eagles at Forbes Steelers quarterback Johnny Clement finished second in rushing yardage in the league with 670 yards on the ground.

The Steelers lost this game 21-0 and wouldn’t see the playoffs for 25 long years after. This also marked the first and last time that the two teams based in Philadelphia met in the playoffs as after 1970 they were placed in two different conferences with the Eagles in the NFC and the Steelers in the AFC.

In 1948 the Steelers suffered a loss worse than any they’ve ever received. During the off-season Coach Jock Sutherland died and the emotional toll it took on the players was evident.

The team struggled throughout the year, with Ray Evans throwing only five touchdowns and 17 interceptions en route to a 4-8 record.

From 1950-1957 the Steelers were unable to achieve a winning record. During that nine year time span the Steelers drafted and cut future Super Bowl winning quarterback Johnny Unitas.

The lone bright spot was the hiring of Lowell Perry, the NFL’s first African American coach, as the wide receivers coach for the team.

During the 1958 season the Steelers made a trade for Bobby Layne, who had led the Detroit Lions to the promise land and an NFL championship. His impact was immediate and obvious as the team finally had a winning record (7-4-1) though it was still not good enough for them to make the playoffs. The Steelers home games were moved to Pitt Stadium this year as well.

During the 1962 season Layne regained his starting quarterback spot and led the Steelers to a winning record with help from John Henry Johnson, Ernie Stautner, and Clendon Thomas. This season marked the best record from the team to date at 9-2 and it enabled them to reach The Playoff Bowl.

The Playoff Bowl pitted the number two teams in both conferences against each other, this time it was the Steelers VS. the Lions. Layne’s old team was victorious 17-10.

The rest of the 1960’s were nothing short of a disaster for the team, as player retirements took their toll. The team lost Layne, Stautner, and coach Buddy Parker during the decade.

2-12 was the worst record in the league in 1965 and it belonged to the Pittsburgh Franchise that used eight different starting quarterbacks between 1965 and 1969.

The Steelers efforts would not be futile for long as the 1970’s began the start of an era…and a dynasty.