And today we kick off a series of posts that should take us through the off season and get us to preseason. Assuming we'll be having the latter somehwere near it's usual time. Hopefully you'll find some interesting stuff and get a better understanding of how fortunate we are as Steelers fans. It's a bit grim through the sixties. But starting with 1970, I'll break this down into five year blocks. The numbers are really impressive. The posts will vary in length, but I can assure you a lot of research went into the numbers and the stories. So....here we go!
Steelers – The 1930’s (1933-1939)
On July 8, 1933, the Pittsburgh Pirates were born: No, not those Pirates. This was an NFL franchise, founded by Art Rooney and playing home games at Forbes Field. Yes, the Forbes Field that was home to the baseball Pirates. In fact, both franchises would play at Forbes from 1933 through 1957. The Steelers split their home games between Forbes and Pitt Stadium from 1958 to 1963 before abandoning the baseball stadium altogether.
Tag Line – Pro football comes to Pittsburgh
16-49-1 (.242 pct)
Winning Seasons: 0/7
.500 Seasons: 1/7
Playoffs: 0 seasons
The people of Pittsburgh had professional football; albeit, bad football. The 1936 team managed to go 6-6 under Charlie Bach. This high water mark was the only non-losing season of the decade. But when the team lost the season finale to the Boston Redskins, Art Rooney fired Bach.
THE WHIZZER – Other than playing their first game (a 3-22 loss to the Giants), the thirties were pretty much a wash. However, one notable event did occur. Byron ‘Whizzer’ White was an All-American halfback for the University of Colorado. Coming off a 1-7 season (real momentum builder after that .500 year), the Pirates signed White to the biggest contract in the history of the sport ($15,800). He paid immediate dividends, leading the league in rushing and giving Pittsburgh football fans a rare gift: something to cheer about.
White was a Rhodes Scholar but had put his education on hold to play for the Pirates. After one season he went off to Oxford and returned to the NFL for the 1940 season: as a Detroit Lion. He led the league in rushing, played one more season, went into service for World War II, graduated from law school after the war and ended up as a Supreme Court Justice. The Pirates/Steelers are a footnote in the story of one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable men. Of course, it was also a kick in the teeth, which summed up the Steelers’ fan experience for decades.
JOHNNY MCNALLY – Nicknamed ‘Blood’ because he played for Notre Dame on Saturdays under his real name, and for pro teams on Sunday as Johnny Blood, McNally was a hard-drinking, hard-partying halfback and head coach. He won six games in almost three full seasons in charge. To give you an idea of how different the game was back then, he was the team’s leading passer in1937: 10 completions for 168 yards. Passing was unmanly in the thirties. McNally is in the Hall of Fame, but for his earlier work, not his Steeler accomplishments.
SUMMARY – 1933-1939 was exciting in that Pittsburgh received a franchise in the still young and developing (read: struggling) National Football League. The Pirates were simply bad. They were coached for two-plus seasons by future Hall of Fame running back Johnny ‘Blood’ McNally. He was succeeded by another Hall of Famer, Walt Kiesling (who had three stints as head coach). Unfortunately, neither man won very many games.
TRIVIA – The common belief about the founding of the Steelers is really a myth. Legend says that Art Rooney had a particularly good day at the Saratoga horse track and used his winnings to buy the NFL franchise. That’s not true, as it happened several years after he obtained the franchise (for a buy-in of $2,500!), although it is generally agreed that he helped keep the team afloat in the lean years with his gambling earnings.