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Old 11-05-2011, 10:31 AM   #1
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Default 75 years ago, Pittsburgh pro football team played at Point

November 5, 2011
75 years ago, Pittsburgh pro team played at Point
Mike Mastovich mmastovich@tribdem.com

JOHNSTOWN — Seventy-five years ago today, Point Stadium hosted its one and only NFL game.

Art Rooney Sr. brought his then Pittsburgh Pirates franchise to Johnstown for a regular-season date against the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 5, 1936.

Rooney, who died in 1988, became a Pittsburgh sports legend after his Steelers evolved from the role of the league’s lovable losers to that of a dynasty with four Super Bowl victories in six seasons during the Steel Curtain era of the 1970s.

But back in ’36, Rooney and the league were relatively unknown on the national scene. In fact, when he founded the franchise three years earlier, Rooney took the name of the much more popular and successful baseball team.

The football franchise was renamed the Steelers in 1940.

So, how did the football Pirates and Eagles end up at the Point?

“We used to take games out of town all the time then,” Rooney said in a 1979 Tribune-Democrat interview. “In those days, it wasn’t that unusual. We just didn’t draw well in the city. I liked Johnstown. I played baseball there and a lot of football.

I always liked that town and the people, so we decided to move a game up there.”

Rooney even promised to bring his team to Johnstown on an annual basis if the attendance merited such a move.

He had friends in the city. Rooney had attended Indiana State Normal School, now IUP, and later played professional baseball for Wheeling in the Middle Atlantic League, which also included the Johnstown Johnnies.

‘Experimental affair’

“The game is an experimental affair,” a preview story in The Johnstown Tribune said.

The paper billed the game as “the biggest football spectacle in this city since Wash-Jeff and Carnegie Tech played here in 1926, the year the stadium opened.”

Of course, heavy rains and mud dampened what had been promoted as a marquee event in the city’s two daily newspapers and on one local radio station.

“Less than 6,000 fans attended the pro contest,” The Tribune reported.

Decades later, a story in The Tribune-Democrat listed the attendance at a much more respectable 7,891. But by comparison, attendance at high school games involving rivals Johnstown, Windber and Altoona often surpassed

10,000 in those days.

One well-documented Trojans-Ramblers battle drew more than 20,000 to the Point.

Unfortunately, those future Johnstown dates Rooney had mentioned never materialized.

The two teams’ share of the gate receipts was $1,750, which the newspaper reported, was “not sufficient to pay their expenses.”

There was some good news for local football fans who weathered the storm.

The Pirates defeated the Eagles 6-0 on “two booming field goals by Captain Armand Niccolai.” Pittsburgh moved into a tie with the New York Giants for first place in the NFL’s Eastern Division.

The performance wasn’t unusual for Niccolai, who had seven field goals in 1936 when he was voted the NFL’s top kicker. He led the league in scoring in 1935 and 1936.

‘Professional gridders’

Now, the Steelers have won more Super Bowls than any other NFL team and are an institution in western Pennsylvania and far beyond.

Football fans in the region wear black and gold and plan their Sunday activities around the Steelers’ schedule from August through January – and occasionally, February. Steelers-themed bars and restaurants can be found from Ocean City, Md., to Los Angeles, and to Fairbanks, Alaska. There’s even a Steelers outpost in Rome, Italy.

It might be difficult to imagine it these days, but in 1936 the public wasn’t overly excited by the pro league.

Owners, coaches and players frequently had to operate their own marketing and public relations campaigns. Rooney, Pirates coach Joe Bach and four players traveled to Johnstown on Nov. 2, 1936 to promote the game on WJAC Radio.

Cad Reese, a Pirates assistant coach with ties to Johnstown, built up the game on the air: “I say the professional gridders are fundamentally superior as football players, not so much because they have spent

10 years or so learning the game, perhaps, but because they are a chosen group selected by nine National League clubs from a very large field of college players from all over the country.”

But all of the hype couldn’t change the weather.

Originally, the Pirates and Eagles were to play on Wednesday, Nov. 4. Three days of rain washed out those plans.

“Officials of the Municipal Recreation Commission, after conferring with Bert Bell, president and coach of the Philadelphia club, and Art Rooney, president of the Pirates, decided to defer the game 24 hours,” The Tribune reported on Nov. 4, 1936. “Both local and government weather forecasts indicated continued rain with clearing late tonight (Nov. 4) and fair weather tomorrow (Nov. 5).

“Mud and water on the gridiron would have prevented the pro teams from playing in their usual spectacular style and the dampness would have been very uncomfortable for spectators.”

85 cents worth

So the game was rescheduled for 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 5.

Before the contest officially was set, though, the organizers had to receive cooperation from the East Conemaugh and Portage high school teams, which originally were scheduled to play their game that night at the Point.

The Iron Horses and Mustangs obliged by switching to an afternoon kickoff.

General admission tickets to the Pirates-Eagles game cost

85 cents, with reserved seats ranging from $1.15 to $1.65.

Paul Sullivan, a public-address announcer from Pittsburgh, was coaxed to travel east and call the game at the Point.

Johnstown’s steel mills produced a large work force that Rooney and Bell were counting on to support the game.

Johnstowners did have other entertainment options in the pre-television era

On the night of the Pirates-Eagles game, the new Hollywood Theater in Cambria City had a double feature, “My American Wife,” with Francis Lederere and Ann Sothern, and “Coming Round the Mountain,” with Gene Autry.

The Cambria Theater had big-name star Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland in “Charge of the Light Brigade.”

The downtown Embassy Theater highlighted the “Big Broadcast of 1937” with Jack Benny, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Martha Raye and Benny Goodman and his orchestra.

Variety show

Despite the rain and small crowds, the game was a success on the field. Fans also were entertained by the American Legion Post Blue Devils Trumpet and Drum Corps and the Johnstown High School Band.

Johnstown Mayor Daniel J. Shields introduced National Football League President Joe F. Carr.

Johnstown High’s band had practiced for several weeks, and director Charles I. Aikey promised “a special treat to be given those attending the game.”

The pre-game hoopla included speeches by Walter Krebs, publisher of The Tribune; George S. Cooper, the paper’s longtime sports editor and chairman of the Municipal Recreation Commission; Shields; and Councilman Dan Schnabel.

The halftime show called for the lights to be off as the musicians formed the outline of an airplane while holding flashlights.

The play on the field wasn’t exactly a lights-out performance.

The Pirates and Eagles were scoreless until the final five minutes produced two field goals for Pittsburgh.

Pirates kicker Niccolai was good “on a tremendous kick from the 40-yard line. The ball sailed straight and high over the goal posts, which had been placed on the goal line in accordance with the rules of the professional game,” The Tribune reported.

“The second followed two minutes later from the Philadelphia 33-yard line after Pittsburgh had recovered an Eagle fumble on the kickoff.”

In another example of how the game has changed in more than seven decades, the Pirates finished the Thursday night game and prepared for a Sunday date in Detroit. The Eagles also played three days later, in Chicago.

The Pirates’ won their sixth game of the season while in Johnstown, and finished with losses to Detroit, Chicago and Boston.

Dreams of a championship faded as Pittsburgh settled for a 6-6 record.

That’s how it went for Rooney’s team in those early days – the consistent winning came four decades years later.

The franchise’s next visit to Point Stadium was in 1987 when the Steelers held their replacement team camp in Johnstown during the 24-day NFL players strike.

But for one cool and damp November night in Johnstown 75 years ago, the football Pirates were winners and the Point was a true NFL venue.
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