#1. Blue laws
In the early 1930’s, then-NFL commissioner Joe Carr wanted to get rid of the small-to-medium franchises. He wanted the league to become major league, and to do this, they needed large cities. So, he made large entry fees for the small-to-medium cities and a much smaller fee to the larger city prospective owners.
The State of Pennsylvania has a deep connection into the roots of professional football. Pennsylvania native Art Rooney had played football and baseball as a kid while his dad owned a saloon. After graduating from Temple University, 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.
At the same time, he played semi-pro football for a Pittsburgh team called “Hope-Harvey” which later became “Majestic Radio” 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But in the spring of 1933, some of the blue laws were about to be repealed to accommodate the vastly popular Major League baseball Pirates. 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 games of the maiden 1933 season were home games played on Wednesday nights followed by four road games. The first Sunday contest was played on November 12, 1933 in a 32-0 loss to the Brooklyn Dodgers before just over 12,000 patrons. The final two games were both road games.
#2. Waiver wire beginnings
Things come up in the NFL’s history that enables a change. This was the case with the Pirates. Their first season Pittsburgh finished 3-6-2 and 2-10-0 in their second year and never were a factor in the Eastern Division. However, the Boston Redskins were chasing the New York Football Giants for the division in 1934.
Since Pittsburgh was already out of the running for the division title, Rooney then gave the rights to two of his best players to his friend Tim Mara of the Football Giants who were leading the Eastern Division. The owner of the Redskins George Preston Marshall protested as these actions would be a competitive advantage to the club he was chasing. In the end, the player movement was disallowed.
The following season at the owner’s meetings, the league introduced a “waiver wire” system where players could be cut during the season and then claimed by other teams in reverse order of the current standings.
#3. Rooney sold the team?
The Bears are charter members of the NFL and the Halas family has always owned the franchise. The Mara family has owned the Football Giants since they entered the league in 1925 whereas the Bidwill’s bought the Chicago Cardinals in 1932. With Art Rooney starting the Pittsburgh franchise in 1933 after the blue laws were relaxed, and today since the Rooney family still owns the Steelers, it would seem that the Rooney family has the fourth-longest ownership tenure.
Except Art sold the Steelers. In 1941.
Both the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers were annually at the bottom of the NFL standings. Th Eagles were owned by Rooney’s good friend Bert Bell. At the end of the 1940 season, the state of the Eagles was just as bad as that of the Steelers with few good players, no funds with small crowds for home games, rotten press coverage, bad head coaches, poor draft choices and a bleak outlook.
Rooney was introduced to a young New York City millionaire named Alexis Thompson. This vice president of a successful drug company, he gained his wealth with an inheritance made from the Republic Iron and Steel Company and wanted to own a professional sports team.
A meeting was then set up in early December with Rooney, Bell and Thompson, along with Eagles head coach Greasy Neale, Steelers head coach Walt Kiesling and assistant coach Hienie Miller. On December 8, 1940 it was announced that Thompson had bought the Steelers for $160,000 and the team would remain in Pittsburgh for at least one season before moving to Boston. At 34, Thompson became the youngest owner ever of an NFL team.
Rooney took one half of the funds from the Steelers’ sale and bought half-interest in the Eagles which saved the Eagles from collapse. Before the next season began, the two men swapped franchises which placed Thompson in Philadelphia which was closer to his New York City life, and Rooney was back in Pittsburgh where he still owned a home.