Pittsburgh Steelers: How They Went from Pirates to Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers have established themselves as one of the NFL’s most dominant clubs season after season. They are commonly referred to as “The Team of the 1970s” largely in part of their four Super Bowl victories during this period and famous “Steel Curtain” defense.
Pittsburgh has once again become one of the elite teams each of the experts discuss when predicting the following year’s playoff teams. Since 2005, the club has played in three Super Bowls (winning twice), played in the AFC Championship game three times and won their division three of the past four seasons.
The Steelers were founded in 1933 by Art Rooney. As a teenager and collegian, Rooney played football, baseball and was named to the Olympics as a boxer. He would establish a semi-pro football team called the Hope-Harvey Majestics which competed in the Western Pennsylvania Senior Independent Football Conference. His team would win two titles in the early 1930s.
The Majestics played their games at Exposition Park in Pittsburgh, a baseball park located on the north side of the Allegheny River across from the downtown area. The roster was comprised mainly of former local college players and factory workers.
The entire state of Pennsylvania was a hotbed for football, especially the college game. With the pro version, however, there was a major roadblock. The state had “blue laws” designed to enforce religious practices on Sundays. The Sabbath was set aside as a day of rest and had restrictions on just about everything from shopping to restaurants to athletic events. Conversely, the game of pro football played its games on Sundays.
In the spring of 1933, some of the blue laws were about to be repealed. Rooney, who was well-known at horse races and as a boxing promoter, submitted an application to the NFL for a franchise. In May, he was granted a team for the $2,500 franchise fee and thus the Pittsburgh Professional Football Club, Inc. was born. Because the blue laws would not be voted on until November, the first four home games were played on Wednesday nights.
For the next 40 years, Pittsburgh was a perennial loser and usually made the cellar its habitat. The club had a winning record only eight times and never came close to a championship. Their player signings and draft selections were horrid—and so were their coaching choices. They were dreadful in every way possible.
Once, in 1938, head coach Johnny Blood missed the team train home after a road game. On his return trip he stopped off in Chicago to see his former team, the Packers, play against the Bears. At the game, a sportswriter asked Blood why he wasn’t with his team, to which Blood replied that they weren’t playing on that weekend. Blood had no sooner uttered those words when league scores were announced over the stadium loudspeaker, one being: Philadelphia 14, Pittsburgh 7.
Pittsburgh’s original nickname was the “Pirates,” named after the baseball team. At the time, Major League Baseball was the only national sports game that mattered in the United States. It was truly the “National Pastime” and was considered a part of everyday life.
Professional football was basically still in its infancy and was more regarded as a violent, bloody scrum with few highlights and basically a boring affair. Even though the forward pass was legalized in 1906, few teams threw the ball except in times of desperation, so the running game and subsequent pile-ups dominated the pro football landscape.
Because of baseball’s popularity, many pro football teams named themselves the same (or similar) nickname as their baseball counterparts (i.e. Cubs-Bears) taking on the assumption that fans of the diamond would inherently become fans of the gridiron. Since tickets sales were the lone source of revenue for clubs back then, team association was critical to survival.
The colors chosen for the Pirates were black and gold, which is derived from the city’s flag. The first uniforms were even ornamented with the city crest.
At the conclusion of the 1939 season and years of futility on the field as well as the gate, along with five head coaches in seven seasons, Rooney wanted a new start and decided a new nickname was in order.
With assistance of the local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a promotion began through a “name-the-team” contest. Several different entries were submitted, but in the end Rooney chose the moniker “Steelers,” which was also the nickname of a local high school. Dozens of fans chose the name Steelers and the winner drawn was Margaret O’Donnell.
The handle Steelers was chosen in respect to the area’s production of steel and the industry as a whole.
Several years earlier, the Portsmouth Spartans were sold for $225,000 and moved to Detroit. In March of 1940, word was out that the Steelers had offers from groups representing the West Coast, Boston and Cincinnati. At the time, it was estimated the Rooney had lost over $100,000 during his tenure with the team.
On Dec. 9, 1940, Rooney sold the Steelers to Boston millionaire Alexis Thompson for $160,000 after a 2-7-2 season and another year of financial setbacks. It was speculation that the club would relocate to Boston but was agreed upon that the Steelers would play in Pittsburgh for at least one more season.
Rooney then bought half-stock into the Philadelphia Eagles, owned by his good friend Bert Bell and subsequently became half-owner although he retained his residence in Pittsburgh.
Thompson vowed to make Pittsburgh into a winner and paid handsomely for new head coach Greasy Neale. In the Jan. 17, 1941, issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it was reported that the club would receive its third nickname. “The local eleven will henceforth be known as the Pittsburgh Iron Men,” the article states. Thompson renamed the team while in attendance at the owner’s meeting in Chicago.
Philadelphia Football Club, Inc.
Thompson was brand new to professional football. He held his business office in New York City. Plans were announced that a football operations office would open in Pittsburgh by March 1, 1941, and in the meanwhile, Rooney was making rumblings of his cross-state travels from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.
March 1 came and went as Thompson did not open an office. He commented that he preferred to transfer operations closer to home and work and that Philadelphia would be more convenient to his lifestyle. His thinking was that it was just as easy for a novice to make a start in one city as it would be in another. Rooney contacted Thompson and made an offer.
On Thursday April 3, 1941, Rooney announced that the Eagles would move to Pittsburgh and that the Iron Men would relocate to Philadelphia. Except for uniforms and team colors, everything was swapped without any exchange of money: players, equipment, front office and coaches.
From that moment until as late as 1945, the ownership group of Pittsburgh was officially listed as the Philadelphia Football Club, Inc.
With Rooney bringing the club he and Bell owned to Pittsburgh, he renamed the team back to the Steelers. Officially, the team never played a single game as the Iron Men nor the Eagles, and Rooney never spent a season in Philadelphia. Bell became head coach and Rooney served as general manager.
In a cost-cutting move, Thompson renamed the relocated Iron Men back to the Eagles.
To explain the swap, things were just different back then and funds were tough to come by. It has since become known as one of the most unusual trades in the annals of sports in the United States. To say the least, the team’s history certainly became twisted and convoluted at best.
World War II placed an enormous strain on NFL rosters. By May of 1942, 112 of the league’s 346 players were involved in the war effort. And to make matters worse, college graduating seniors and juniors were drafted into the armed services as well. Talent was scarce.
NFL team rosters were cut from 33 players to 25. The Cleveland Rams closed down completely for the 1943 season. The Eagles had 16 players while the Steelers only had six, so the two clubs combined to form “Phil-Pitt” with the nickname “Steagles.”
The club sported a respectable 5-4-1 record, just one game out of first place in the Eastern Division. The home schedule was split between the dual cities, with Philadelphia hosting four games and the other two in Pittsburgh. The Steagles wore the green uniforms of the Eagles, marking the first time Pittsburgh did not don black and gold.
Several players were aging or draft rejects. Veteran end Bill Hewitt, well-known for never wearing a helmet, came out of retirement to help fill the roster. Running back John Butler was graded 4-F on Saturday by the war department and the proceeded to play the next day. Receiver Tony Bova was blind in one eye. Two offensive linemen, Ray Graves and Ed Michaels, had severe hearing problems. The team was also devoid of a quarterback and was forced to purchase Roy Zimmerman, Sammy Baugh’s backup, from the Washington Redskins.
Even though these two teams combined for one season, the owners only allowed the merger for the 1943 regular season. This meant the new team could not compete in the playoffs if it had qualified.
With the 1944 season, the NFL had 11 teams. The Eagles were able to fill a complete roster, but Pittsburgh was not. In order to field a favorable schedule, the league contacted Pittsburgh to inquire if they would again combine rosters. At first, a combination of Pittsburgh and the Brooklyn Tigers appeared imminent. Rooney eventually rejected that idea and instead merged with the Chicago Cardinals, who had several players called into the war and was short on players. The two teams officially formed “Card-Pitt.”
The year before, the Cardinals had gone 0-10. Unfortunately for fans of the black and gold, the players that vacated were the better ones. And once again, a suitable quarterback was an issue as Zimmerman remained with the Eagles and starting QB Coley McDonough was drafted into the Army after the first game against the Packers. Left on the roster was 37-year-old Walt Masters and 155-pound rookie Johnny McCarthy. Running back John Grigas was the lone star player on a roster full of hard-pressed football players.
After the third game of the season, a 34-7 loss to the Bears and an 0-3 start, the team became affectionately known as the “Carpits.”
As the club lumbered along to its own 0-10 season, they scored seven or fewer points in seven of the team’s 10 games. For the year, the team missed every field goal and did not throw a single touchdown pass. Once, while pinned down on their own 1-yard line, they punted on first down, which sailed a paltry nine yards.
Since World War II, only five teams have gone winless in a season. The Carpits led the way.
Pittsburgh and Chicago could have merged again in 1945, but with the disastrous season beforehand, each club decided to go at it alone. With World War II coming to an end, many players returned to the NFL including Pittsburgh star running back Bill Dudley. The name “Steelers” was once again reinstated as the official team moniker, marking the third time the nickname was utilized.
Reverting back to their familiar epithet certainly did not guarantee success right away. To be factual, it was basically back to being the same old doormat Steelers the league had known. Draft picks continued to be terrible selections and were often chosen based on hearsay.
Personnel decisions were made from what college coaches told them, magazine articles or newspaper clippings. Often when a Steelers pick would come up at the draft and the team needed say, a defensive lineman, a scout would run out to the payphone and call a certain college coach to inquire who the best defensive end his squad played against all season.
For example, in 1956, the Steelers held the first overall pick. One of the coaches had a high recommendation from a scout about a player that was both a quarterback and defensive back named Gary Glick. The Steelers were in need of a stellar defensive back and also a backup QB. Although they never saw the kid play, Glick was drafted with the club’s first pick. After the draft, Rooney received film of their prized selection from Colorado State where Glick had just completed school. The game reel showed dogs running on the field and a player that wasn’t very good.
In that same draft, the Steelers could have had Lenny Moore, Forrest Gregg, Earl Morrall, Sam Huff or Bart Starr. Such was the Steelers back in the day.
Over the team’s history, they would draft—and cut—Johnny Unitas. Jim Brown was selected by the Cleveland Browns directly after Pittsburgh’s first round pick in 1957. Throughout the years, the franchise passed on Sonny Jurgensen, Don Maynard, Erich Barnes, Jerry Kramer, Fran Tarkenton, Deacon Jones, Lance Alworth, John Hadl, Darryl Lamonica, Buck Buchanan, Paul Warfield, Mel Renfro and Bullet Bob Hayes.
The turning moment in Steelers lore occurred when Chuck Noll was hired as head coach beginning the 1969 season. The club began to draft correctly with selections such as Mean Joe Greene (1969), Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount (1970), Jack Ham the following year, Franco Harris (1972) and in 1974, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert.