Once upon a time, Pittsburgh was the final stop for NFL players
By Evan Weiner
January 24, 2011
(New York, N. Y.) -- For younger Pittsburgh Steelers fans, it may be very hard to believe that Pittsburgh was once the last stop for marginal players in the National Football League after Green Bay. The Super Bowl matchup of Green Bay and Pittsburgh should make for big television ratings for FOX as both teams have massive national followings. But it wasn't always like that. Vince Lombardi turned Green Bay into winners in the late 1950s and it would not be until cash flowed into Steelers owner Art Rooney's pocket in the late 1960s thanks to the American Football League-National Football League merger that Rooney began investing in his team. Rooney also got a new stadium which helped out the franchise. Rooney's football team, a doormat from 1933 through 1969, has been the most successful franchise since the AFL-NFL merger took effect in 1970.
During World War II, there was not even a "Steelers" brand.
Art Rooney combined his Steelers combined other teams. The first was with Philadelphia in 1943 and the second was with the Chicago Cardinals in 1944. The "Steagles" split home games between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the "Car-Pitt" team played at both Comiskey Park in Chicago and in Pittsburgh.
“The Steagles, which was a great name, they had a very good team,” said the Pittsburgh Steelers chairman, Pro Football Hall of Fame member and U. S, Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney. “They started to win and had a quarterback by the name of (Leroy) Zimmerman who was really good. They won the first number of games. They won half of season and were really in first place and got a lot of injuries. In those days, you couldn’t replace them.
“Then the Cardinals the next year. That was disastrous. We had four coaches, none of whom was named the head coach. So it was the old story, who is in charge. We were 0-10.
“But the reason for it was, of course, the war. Not only was it difficult because guys were gone. But where you could have a good team was where there was a military operation. In both Chicago and Philadelphia, they had a lot of navy people because of being on water. So that’s the reason they were able to get the players and that’s the reason we combined with them.”
While the Americans were fighting on two fronts, sports went on for the morale of those who remained home. The Steagles were good entertainment according to Rooney, who was a kid hanging around his father Art and the Steagles in 1943.
“They all had fun. It was one of those things that was a tough time. They had a lot of fun,” Rooney recalled. “We had a receiver by the name of Tony Bova who was 4-F because he couldn’t see. But he was our leading receiver.
“In 1945, it looked like things were ending and we split and went on our own. We did start to get players like Bill Dudley, who was one of our great players. He came back in the middle of the season and played the end of the season.
Football was a part time endeavor for players, coaches and owners in the 1950s. Some teams didn't even provide shoes for players. Rooney said that wasn't a problem in Pittsburgh.
“I used to go to camp, actually since the time I was five years old, we did issue equipment. We didn’t just throw it out for them,” said Rooney. “We used to get in some battles with them about different things. I will tell you a great aside, when the union, their first demand was a second pair of football shoes. As you know today when you go into the locker room they have 30. But there was the demand back in 1958.
“Jack Butler, who was a great player for us and had gone to the Pro Bowl and probably should be in the Hall of Fame, he wore the same shoes for three years because they were his luck shoes and he had taped them on. We said, hey you can’t be doing that. We did give them one pair each year. We said use the new shoes. He thought they were good luck the shoes that he had. He wore them literarily out.”
Despite growing prosperity, not all of the NFL teams operated in a first class manner in 1958. Pittsburgh, long a league doormat, was considered the last chance stop on the NFL circuit. If the Steelers cut a player it meant the end of the line.
Buddy Dial had been cut by the Giants during the 1959 training camp portion of the season and tried out for the Steelers. Dial had been an All-American in college but was drafted by a start-studded team with no room for him or Don Maynard. When Dial got to Pittsburgh, he was in for a shock.
"I was with the Giants and we were in Los Angeles, the Giants were going to open the season with the Rams on the west coast," Dial recalled. "This was on a Friday. Every Friday at breakfast time they would make their final cuts.
"Lee Grosscup, the All-American quarterback from Utah and myself were going to be the last two cut. This Friday morning breakfast, Jim Lee Howell, the head coach, came around and tapped us on the shoulder
said come by his room and bring your playbook. We both were gone.
"I'm out in Los Angeles and I find out from Sam Huff, the great middle linebacker that I was picked up by the Steelers."
Huff's news did not help Dial's bruised feelings in anyway. Pittsburgh was the end of the line for NFL players.
"Man, I am not going to Pittsburgh because Bobby Layne is their quarterback and he's drunk all the time. I didn't know he was the finest quarterback who ever lived and the funniest and most beautiful guy I would ever meet.
"So I flew all night long to Pittsburgh and I walked into Forbes Field and the stadium and they didn't have a football uniform for Me." said Dial.
"The Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team had just finished their season the Wednesday before and this is Saturday. The Steelers are going to open the season on Sunday against Cleveland, so Bobby Layne said Dial get your butt in the huddle.
"I said I have been flying all night and the equipment manager said Buddy get your uniform on. I went into the locker room; there wasn't a football suit. There was a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball uniform left over from the season and I put that thing on and trotted out to the field. My first time with the Steelers and Bobby Layne in a daggummed Pittsburgh Pirate baseball uniform.
"They had a good season, but a professional football player don't wear a baseball uniform. I felt like an idiot."
Dial was a graduate of Rice University, an All-American football player and his first day with his new employer left quite an impression.
"That was my introduction to the Steelers. A baseball uniform from the Pirates. No," he continued. "No helmet, no hat either, no gloves just a football. It was a Pirates jersey and pants. I had football shoes because I brought my own shoes. I got baseball pants, a baseball jersey and no hat and no gloves. I kept the football!"
As more money came into the operation from CBS, conditions improved and Dial said the Steelers had plenty of uniforms available for other players to try out. Pittsburgh would become a perennial winner once the team got a new stadium which happened in 1970.
“Forbes Field was a great stadium, it was a grass field and had a great tradition, but there were only 10,000 good seats for football. The rest of them were all in the end zone. Home plate was in the end zone,” recalled Rooney. So that made it very difficult. But those 10,000 they were right there on top of the game. They could see it better than anywhere.
“And then, of course, we went to Pitt Stadium which was a typical college field that they had made in the 20s and 30s. It was a bowl cut out of hill. Three Rivers Stadium was much better, but the new stadium will be the state of the art.
“(Forbes Field) was really the old days when you walked down the tunnel, and there was dirt underneath the stands, the locker room was overly crowded, the coaches had to dress on the bench on the side and had a nail to hang up their suit coat. But hey you played great games there.
When the merger officially took effect in 1970, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle managed to convince Art Modell, the Baltimore Colts Carroll Rosenbloom and Pittsburgh's Art Rooney to switch to the American Football Conference.
"Nobody else wanted to go," recalled Modell. "Pittsburgh went with me and Baltimore went on their own. "I announced it and went to the hospital as sick as a dog and made my decision in the hospital. I broke the long jam. (Steelers owners)Dan Rooney, Art Rooney and (New York Giants co-owner) Well Mara came up to my hospital room we talked about it. I said Art, if you go with me, I will go into the American Football Conference.
"Dan said under no conditions would the Pittsburgh Steelers play in that conference. Art chomped on a cigar and said Dan that's okay you can stay where you want but I am going with Art Modell."
Rosenbloom's Colts, Rooney's Steelers and Modell's Browns each received
$3,000,000 to go into the AFC. In the NFL money talks and without the compensation, they would not have switched conferences.
For the Rooneys, moving to the AFC was a great decision. The team became dominant after being perennial doormats in the NFL and won four Super Bowls with a star studded team between 1974 and 1979. The Steelers used the $3,000,000 to help improve its football operations, and thus directly contributed to the team's on-field success. Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl in 2005 and 2008.
The team's success since 1970 is nearly a 180 degree turn for the franchise. Between 1933 and 1971, the team made just one playoff appearance, that in 1947. In the last 39 years, Pittsburgh has been in the playoffs 25 times and has six Super Bowl victories.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, Barnes and Noble's xplana.com, kobo, literati and amazonkindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org