The National Football League (NFL) began in 1920 as the “American Professional Football Association”. And just like the league name, a lot of NFL clubs began as something completely different.
The Arizona Cardinals started as the Morgan Athletic Club. The Los Angeles Rams began as the Cleveland Rams. What used to be the Houston Oilers later became the Tennessee Titans.
And with some NFL teams, they took on the name of their pro baseball counterpart. Back then, college football and Major League Baseball were really all anyone cared about in sports; unless you lived north of the border in Canada so apologies are extended there. The logic to convening the pro football squad the same as the pro baseball team was that hopefully patrons would simply claim to be fans of both. Plus, it stated immediately that they were a professional team instead of a minor league squad.
The Washington Redskins began as the Boston Braves and played in the same stadium as the baseball Braves. The New York Giants called themselves the same as the baseball Giants, and when the baseball franchise moved west, they started calling themselves the New York Football Giants. And when Pittsburgh was granted an NFL team in 1933, they were called the “Pittsburgh Pirates” so that the association with the love of one sport would hopefully gravitate to another sport and be immediate.
League Weeding-Out Period
The NFL commissioner in 1933 was Joe Carr, and he was on a quest. The league had been created with small and medium-sized cities. With the exception of the Cardinals in Chicago and the Detroit Tigers, there weren’t any large-market franchises. Carr felt like for the league to succeed, it needed large venues with the ability to get lots of press coverage. To achieve this he did two things: 1) set the entry fee into the league at $2,500 unless you were in a large city then the fee dropped to $500, and 2) at the conclusion of the 1926 season he offered to any club that wanted to, that they could take a year off to regroup financially and still keep their membership intact.
Ten NFL clubs took his offer and did not play in 1927. All 10 were either small markets such as Racine, Illinois and Akron, Ohio, or medium-sized cities like Hartford, Columbus, Brooklyn and Louisville. In fact, none of the 10 teams ever came back – which is exactly what Carr wanted to happen.
The Decatur Staleys club had moved to Chicago and were renamed the Bears in 1921 as well as New York got the Giants in 1925. A team based in a Philadelphia neighborhood called Frankford had joined the league in 1933 at the same time that a bookmaker from Pittsburgh was awarded a team to begin also in 1933.
The boxing promoter, Art Modell, called his new team the “Pittsburgh Pirates” after the baseball team. He chose the colors black and gold which originated as the colors of the city’s flag and arms developed in 1816. The baseball Pirates also used these colors.
Pennsylvania Football Hotbed
The State of Pennsylvania has a deep connection into the roots of professional football.
The Allegheny Athletic Association is credited with having the very first professional football player. This team was formed in the North Shore of Pittsburgh in 1890. They played other regional athletic clubs and organizations in various sports and began to organize football games for its members.
The AAA competed against other city athletic organizations for members, so adding football boosted their enrollment over associations such as the Pittsburgh Athletic Club and the East End Gymnasium Club. Several members of AAA had played the game of football in eastern colleges and were huge supporters of the sport. On October 11, 1890, Allegheny defeated Western University of Pennsylvania 38-0 in front of less than 600 spectators. The field for this game is the parking lot that is situated between Heinz Field (Steelers home stadium) and PNC Park (Pirates home stadium).
The following year AAA played a handful of games after they joined the “Amateur Athletic Union.” In 1892, after starting the season 1-0-1, AAA had a game against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club on November 12. AAA paid Pudge Heffelfinger of the Chicago Athletic Association $500 plus $25 in travel expenses to play against their city rival. AAA won 4-0 on a single TD scored by Heffelfinger (touchdowns originally were four points). This marked the first record of a player being paid to play football.
Other professional teams have called Pennsylvania their home. The Frankfort Yellow Jackets won the NFL title in 1926. The Pottsville Maroons had the 1925 NFL Championship stolen from them. The Pittsburgh Americans and Philadelphia Quakers were American Football League clubs. From 1905-1917 the Wilkes-Barre Barons competed in the New York State League, a precursor to the NFL. In 1902 there was a league that had only three teams – all based in Pennsylvania. Then there was the Anthracite League and the Eastern League of Professional Football with all teams based in the state.
Acceptance of the Pirates into the NFL
Art Rooney had played football and baseball as a kid while his dad owned a saloon. Rooney went to Temple University on an athlete scholarship. What he was best at was boxing. After graduating from college, he won the AAU welterweight title and was named to the 1920 USA Olympic team but did not compete in the summer Olympics in Belgium. He then signed to play professional baseball and was an outfielder in the minors. In 1925 he was named player/manager of the Wheeling Stogies of the Middle Atlantic League.
At the same time, he played semi-pro football for a Pittsburgh team called “Hope-Harvey” which later became “Majestic Radio” which was named for a sponsor who sold a line of radios. He bought the club to form the “Hope-Harvey Majestics” which later was renamed the “J.P. Rooneys.”
The Rooneys played at Exposition Park in Pittsburgh which was the former home of the baseball Pirates and had a capacity of 16,000. They competed in the Western Pennsylvania Senior Independent Football Conference. His team would win two titles in the early 1930’s. The roster was comprised mainly of former local college players, coal miners and factory workers. Several home games attracted over 12,000 spectators.
The entire state of Pennsylvania was enthusiastic for the game of football - especially the college version. With the pro adaptation, however, there was a major roadblock. The state had “blue laws” designed to enforce religious practices on Sundays. The Sabbath was set aside as a day of rest and had restrictions on just about everything from shopping to restaurants to athletic events. Conversely, the NFL game played its games on Sundays – which was on purpose to not interfere with college games played on Saturdays or high school contests on Friday nights.
The Sunday games was an issue in the city of Pittsburgh and in fact prohibited.
But in the spring of 1933, some of the blue laws were about to be repealed. Rooney (who was well-known at horse races and as a boxing promoter) submitted an application to the NFL for a franchise. In May, he was granted a team for the $2,500 franchise fee. He then formed the Pittsburgh Professional Football Club, Inc., and the team itself was called the “Pittsburgh Pirates” after the beloved baseball team.
Because the blue laws would not be voted on until November, the first four home games of the maiden 1933 season were played on Wednesday nights. The first head coach was Jap Douds who was once an All-American at Washington & Jefferson College. He had played three seasons with three different NFL franchises and was named to the 1930 NFL All-Pro Team.
The Pirates played their home games at Forbes Field where the baseball Pirates now called home. Built in 1909, it had been renovated several times to accommodate more seating and now could hold 41,000 patrons. The first game for the Pirates was a home game against the Giants, who had gone 4-6-2 the year before. This Giants roster was quite a bit different than a season before and eventually won the Eastern Division. They spanked the Pirates 23-2 in front of just over 20,000 giddy spectators.
At first the media who covered the football Pirates would regularly refer to the team as the “Rooneymen” in their articles to differentiate between the two sports.
The Pirates were not a good football team. In those days, the NFL was devoid of a college draft system so teams put together their rosters any way they could. The problem with that method, however, was that the clubs with the most money signed the best college athletes to a roster spot. Naturally, any man would want to make the most of his limited playing days and the Pirates were not only a new team, but also one which had to watch its bank statements each week.
Douds himself played right offensive tackle as player/coach which was somewhat common in those days. Several players were inserted at the QB position and the team only attempted 196 passes all season with a paltry 30.6 completion percentage. The franchise barely scored 67 points (6.09 per game average) with a 3-6-2 record and gave up a league-high 208 points (18.9 per game average). They lost to the Green Bay Packers 47-0 and to the Brooklyn Dodgers 32-0 as examples of their ineptitude.
Pittsburgh Perennial Bottom-Feeders
Rooney and Douds were not very good at judging talent or contacting players before they had reached agreements with other NFL clubs. The most successful teams such as the Giants, Packers, Chicago Bears, Portsmouth Spartans and Boston Redskins all would contact the blue-chip college players during their current season, and then once they had played their final regular season or bowl game, would sign the athlete to a contract.
Back then, every player had another job besides being a pro football player while the season was going on. The premiere athletes could make $200-250 a game whereas most players made $100-150 a game. Generally players fit practices around their day jobs, and some lived out-of-town and came in only on the weekends to play.
Today, coaching staffs center around a dozen coaches and about the same amount of college scouts. Back then, the coaches numbered only a few, and scouts were only an idea. Teams could not afford too many employees and still pay the players and stadium rent. Each game’s gate was everything, and if two bad clubs played on a Sunday you can bet the crowd would be minimal. Pro baseball was much more of an attraction than the violence and boredom of professional football.
Often, Rooney would rely on scouting publications of the day to sign players. Magazines such as Street & Smith’s and also the Sporting News were what the Pirates relied upon to seek out quality players. The problem with these publications, however, is that they were annuals printed before the college football season had even begun so the information was only subjective and outdated once the year had concluded. Players that were never even mentioned in these magazines would later become very good pro players, and sometimes projected star players featured were wash-outs.
The Pirates would also telephone college coaches to ask about players, or simply inquire if they had a tackle about to graduate, what that player’s name was and what kind of player he was. Obviously, a coach was going to be positive regarding his own players for their sakes, but also his roster was a direct reflection of him as a coach and his abilities. So much of the information they got from coaches was more fluff than truth.
Year-after-year, this is how the Pirates put together a team and as a direct result, the Pirates were one of the worst teams in the NFL. From 1933-1939, Pittsburgh did not have a single winning season. Even though the NFL instituted a college draft beginning in 1936, the scouting of players did not change.
A New Name for a New Beginning?
Before the 1940 season, Pirates’ owner Art Rooney knew he had to break the losing cycle and decided to rename the club. His boxing background taught him that if you wanted to change your luck you had to change your strategy. He was also tired of the confusion with the baseball team. He then held a “name the team contest” thru the local paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Entries into the contest were Smokers, Puddlers, Wahoos, Buckaroos, Yankees, Condors, Triangles, Ingots, Rollers, Millers, Bridgers, Pioneers, Steelers, Tubers and Vulcans. Several of the entries paid tribute to the local steel industry such as Muddlers. Rooney appointed a panel to choose the winning entry. 20 men and one woman had submitted the moniker “Steelers” which was chosen as the new team name. All 21 contest winners were given two season tickets for the upcoming 1940 season which sadly produced a 2-7-2 record.
The new Steelers practiced in a vacant lot that used to be a steel mill. The following year Rooney sold the club to Alexis Thompson of New York who renamed them the “Iron Men.” Rooney then bought one-half stake in the Philadelphia Eagles. Before the 1941 season began, Thompson and Rooney traded franchises.
The 1940 Eagles had gone 1-10-0 and were now the 1941 Pittsburgh Iron Men. Rooney renamed the club back to the Steelers and officially the team never played a single game as the Iron Men. The 1941 Pittsburgh Steelers would then finish 1-9-1.
The coaching was the same as was the scouting process with a sparkling new team name, but at the time the perennial losing remained.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.