LIKE MOST interests Art Rooney would pursue during his 87 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers were a gamble. The team seemed a long shot to play its first game in 1933, with the NFL (then a distant second banana to the college game) facing slim odds of making it out of the Depression. An expert horse handicapper, Rooney suffered through four decades as the team's losses piled up—until one day in December 1972, when his team's fate was changed forever, fittingly, by one huge gift of good fortune.
THE BLIND WAGER
IT WAS THE LOUISIANA PURCHASE OF SPORTS TRANSACTIONS: In 1933 Rooney, a 32-year-old sports promoter, paid $2,500 for an NFL franchise and dubbed it the Pirates, after his hometown baseball club. For the time it was quite the ante given that the country was in a depression and jobs and food were scarce.
Crowds for NFL games were small, and the turnout for the Pirates' first game at Forbes Field in September 1933 figured to be even smaller—thanks to the state's blue laws, which, among other things, prohibited charging admission to sports events on Sundays. Pittsburgh police superintendent Frank McQuade and director of public safety Harmar Denny were the only ones with the power to enforce the law, but neither showed much passion for it. Denny skipped town on the eve of the game, while McQuade searched for his own excuse. "Give me a couple tickets, and I'll go to the game," he told Rooney. "That'll be the last place they'll look for me if they want me to stop the thing." So on Sunday, Sept. 20, while clergymen and protesters vainly searched the town for a moral authority figure, Denny vacationed with his family, McQuade hid out at Forbes Field and the Pirates got started in the NFL, falling 23-2 to the New York Giants in front of 4,000 curious spectators.
A COLD STREAK
THE PIRATES ENDED THEIR INAUGURAL SEASON 3-6-2 and remained at .500 or below for the decade with rosters that seemed to favor colorful names over capable players. Byron (Whizzer) White might've been the only player to boast both. A former All-America halfback at Colorado, White won the league rushing title in 1938 before going on to serve a 31-year term on the U.S. Supreme Court. But the best-named Pirate might've been Bill Shakespeare. A tailback and the team's first-ever draft pick, Shakespeare—to borrow a line from The Taming of the Shrew—didn't budge an inch, at least not in a pro game, failing to make the squad in '36.
After the 1940 season the franchise staged a fan contest and renamed the team the Steelers, but the on-field product still looked like the same old Pirates. Then, during World War II, to mitigate the loss of players sent to fight overseas, the Steelers merged rosters with the Eagles to form the Phil-Pitt Combine, or the "Steagles" (page 14).
DOWN TO THE FELT
BACK IN PITTSBURGH BY WAR'S END, THE STEELERS HAD mixed results over the next 20 years. Except for 1947, when the team won eight games and made its first playoff appearance, the only thing that came consistently to Pittsburgh was losing—on both the field and the balance sheet. The team didn't turn a profit for decades and often lost out on signing good players as a result. The few the Steelers could afford they often let slip away ( Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown and Len Dawson).
Coach Buddy Parker was certainly guilty of his share of curious personnel moves over his eight-year tenure. So famous were his tantrums that opposing coaches habitually called him after a bad game to goad him into unloading a player or two. Parker's last year on the job proved fittingly turbulent. After the Steelers narrowly missed the playoffs in 1963, he traded popular tight end Buddy Dial to Dallas, then quit for good in '64 after Rooney's oldest son, Dan, blocked another trade. "I always felt a little sorry for Buddy," Art Rooney said of Parker, who guided the Steelers to five seasons at .500 or better. "I think he wanted to make this club a champion just as bad as I ever did."