View Full Version : Birth of The Nation: the Steelers of the '30s

09-09-2007, 06:45 AM
Birth of The Nation: the Steelers of the '30s
This is the first in a series on the Steelers' history Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, September 09, 2007
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In the beginning, with makeshift lights barely penetrating the darkness of a sooty Wednesday night in the depths of the Great Depression, the National Football League team that gave birth to The Nation flickered to life with the kick of a football shaped like an elongated pumpkin and painted white for better visibility.

They were called the Pirates and played in Forbes Field, because, in the humble roots of its genesis, pro football was the realm of rapscallions that took a back seat to baseball and just about every other sport.

The midweek start was one of necessity rather than the product of NFL marketing geniuses. At the time, the state's blue laws -- enacted for the "prevention of vice and immorality" when George Washington was president -- banned spectator sports, including baseball, on the Sabbath.

The blue laws would be rescinded within two months, which meant the reign of the Thursday morning quarterback was short-lived. Because Fridays and Saturdays were set aside for high school and college football, Wednesday was as good a day as any. Given the next four decades of the franchise's existence, however, it would have been wise to heed the old English rhyme that Wednesday's child is full of woe.

The date was Sept. 20, 1933. Kickoff was scheduled for 8:30 p.m., presumably to give spectators time to get there on a work night. A 20-minute delay of the start was not explained, but it most assuredly was not because of a pre-game music act or wardrobe malfunction. Prohibition was still in effect, so it was illegal to slake the thirst with an adult beverage before, during or after the game, and there wasn't a single beer ad underwriting the show.

But whatever the name or wherever it played, it was Pittsburgh's NFL team from the start.

In a color scheme taken from the city flag, the home team wore gold jerseys with black stripes. Each jersey was adorned with the city crest, which was based on the coat of arms of William Pitt the Elder, first Earl of Chatham, whose name was given to the city that started out as a frontier outpost protecting three rivers. And the franchise, then as now, was in the hands of the Rooney family.

The first game was a 23-2 loss to the New York Giants, with the first points in franchise history the result of Johnny Oehler blocking a punt for a safety. Dee-fense! Dee-fense! Yet somehow, a mystical bond was established between town and team, as documented by Chet Smith, sports editor of The Pittsburgh Press, which sold for three cents.

"Nearly 20,000 spectators whooped and hurrahed," he wrote. "They saw... enough savage and spectacular football to insure the professional league a permanent home here if it continues to furnish as much entertainment in the future."

If he had only known.

This year, the franchise that became the Steelers marks its 75th season with a diamond jubilee studded with the diamonds of five Super Bowl rings. If the steel industry faded long ago, the Steelers still provide a sense of identity for a reborn city and an extended community of fans. Heinz Field is laid out so that the long axis of the playing field aligns directly with The Point, symbolically joining the team and the origins of the community. Think of one as a football and the other the air that inflates it.

story continued below......

09-09-2007, 06:46 AM
All for $2,500

The pro league had existed for 13 seasons before Arthur J. Rooney, a 32-year-old politician and sportsman, was awarded a franchise on July 8, 1933. The entry fee was $2,500; the franchise is now valued at $880 million by Forbes Magazine.

Mr. Rooney was a boxer of note, but his first love was baseball, and he played for the Wheeling Stogies in the minor leagues before an arm injury ended his career. But he also founded and played for a couple of sandlot football teams -- the Majestics, which became Hope-Harvey (Hope being the fire station where the team changed clothes, and Harvey being the doctor who tended player injuries), and the J.P. Rooneys.

He played against the legendary Jim Thorpe, and he told friends he thought his sandlot teams could beat NFL clubs, so he joined the league.

The NFL was interested in Pittsburgh, which was the womb of pro football. In fact, the receipt of $500 paid to Pudge Heffelfinger in 1892 by the Allegheny Athletic Association is considered the birth certificate of pro football by the NFL Hall of Fame. The city was also centrally located on the railroad system used by the early NFL.

But the NFL also wanted Mr. Rooney for a practical reason. With his political connections, he could rescind the state law that banned the playing of sports, the operation of movie theaters and shopping on Sundays.

"He had the clout to get the blue laws lifted," said Art Rooney Jr., the second oldest of his five sons. "The movie industry sent him free passes every year until he died in 1988 because he got the law changed to allow Sunday events."

In many ways, 1933 was the beginning of the modern NFL. The league adopted its own rules to distinguish it from the college game. It also split into two divisions of five teams each to set up a championship game at the end of the season -- the forerunner to the Super Bowl, America's unofficial national holiday.

Also in 1933, City Hall was occupied by the last Republican to reign as mayor. President Franklin Roosevelt unveiled the New Deal. Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Imperial Japan was taking military steps that would lead to Pearl Harbor.

Unlikely hero

History was made in several ways on Sept. 27, 1933, the date of the franchise's first victory.

With Forbes Field a mud pit after an all-day rain, Butch Kottler intercepted a pass and raced 99 yards for Pittsburgh's first-ever touchdown. The length of the return still stands as a franchise record. Then after tying the Chicago Cardinals in the final minute, an unlikely headliner waddled onto the field to boot the extra point in a 14-13 win.

He was Christian (Mose) Kelsch, who at 37 was the oldest player in the NFL and five years older than the team founder. A North Sider who never went to college but played on the Majestics sandlot team, Mr. Kelsch was described in the newspapers as double-chinned and ample around the middle. Helmets were optional in those days, just as motorcycle helmets are today in Pennsylvania, and Kelsch's bald pate was exposed as he tallied the winning point without wearing headgear. Yinzers of any era could exult in the moment.

Also part of that game were the only two African-Americans playing in the NFL at the time.

From the U.S. Army to Major League Baseball, America was racially divided. Yet the year the Pittsburgh Crawfords became a charter member of the Negro National League and 14 years before Jackie Robinson broke through baseball's racial barrier, Pittsburgh's Ray Kemp and Chicago's Joe Lillard met on the same football field.

A 1926 graduate of Cecil High School, Mr. Kemp worked as a coal miner for a year before playing football at Duquesne University. While most NFL players were paid $100 a game, Mr. Kemp got $40. Still, a miner at the time would have had to load 16 tons a day for 14 days to earn that paycheck.

Not that race relations were exemplary at the time. Mr. Kemp played four games that year, the last one coming in New York. While his white teammates stayed at a Manhattan hotel, Mr. Kemp was relegated to the Harlem branch of the YMCA.

From 1934 to 1946, there were no black players in the NFL. The Steelers re-integrated in 1952 when they drafted offensive lineman Jack Spinks of Alcorn State.


09-09-2007, 06:46 AM

A 1933 team photo from the first year and the Steelers were named Pittsburgh Pirates. The city of Pittsburgh emblem is on their jerseys.

Atlanta Dan
09-09-2007, 07:27 AM
If the P-G ran a story this long on the 1930s Steelers, it will need to publish a Sunday supplement when it comes to its article on the 1970s.

09-09-2007, 08:29 PM
Good find, Great article!
I love those jerseys.