Now that we’ve had a day or two to digest the striped bumblebee / prison break uniforms worn by the Steelers in last Sunday’s win over Washington, it might be a good time to remember what, exactly, we were remembering.
The 1934 Pittsburgh football team, one of ten and a half teams in the fifteen-year old National Football League, were not spectacular. In fact, so inconsequential were they that the team shared its field and name with the much more popular pro team in town, the Pirates.
The NFL in the early thirties was an afterthought at best to American sports fans that followed boxing, horse racing and baseball (in that order). Teams moved from town to town. Players were part-time employees and few had contracts. Stands were often nearly empty.
Heading into the 1934 season, the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans moved to Detroit and became the Lions. The Cincinnati Reds (sharing the name of your baseball team was commonplace) lost eight straight, failed to pay their league dues and were kicked out of the NFL with three games left in the season, replaced by a semi-pro team from St. Louis made up of members of the 126th Field Artillery of the Missouri National Guard.
To give you some idea of how the Pittsburgh Pirates played that year, they were beaten by the St. Louis Gunners, 6-0. To give you some idea of how cheap NFL owners were during 1934, the fifth year of the Great Depression, they unanimously rejected St. Louis’ offer to become a full-time member of the league because none of them could afford to put their teams on trains west.
The players played on both sides of the ball, often without helmets, sometimes without shoulder pads or cleats. In fact, the 1934 season is remembered most for its championship game, when the New York Giants coaching staff sent an assistant down to Manhattan College to borrow nine pairs of sneakers from their basketball team. They gained traction on the icy Polo Grounds field and came from behind to beat the Chicago Bears, in what has been called “The Sneaker Game”.
In the midst of this, their second official season of professional football, Art Rooney’s Pirates took the field in those stripes with a collection of former college players, steel workers and bar room cronies that included names like Zvonimir Kvaternik, Silvio Zaninelli, Jap Douds, Mose Kelsch and Johnny “Blood” McNally, future Hall of Famer, a man Rooney rented for one season in hopes of drawing more fans to Forbes Field.
It didn’t work.
People simply did not have money to spend on football games, no matter the price.
That the NFL survived the great depression is a minor miracle. The Pirates, who in 1940 officially became the Steelers, hung on by a thread most seasons, with Art Rooney skirting foreclosure and bankruptcy year after year.
Those black and yellow horizontal stripes on the throwback jerseys used this past Sunday are truly the only likeness the modern Steelers (and the NFL) have to those early days of the Pottsville Maroons, Milwaukee Badgers and Duluth Eskimos.
I, for one, would like to see today’s NFL players step onto the field in true “throwback” fashion. Don’t just wear the same jerseys. Try playing with few pads, fewer fans and for nearly no money – just play the “sandlot style” game for the shear joy of football.
The question is “How many of the athletes on the 2012 roster would show up, Sunday after Sunday, to do that?” I’m betting quite a few.
I know I would pay to watch.