Art Rooney 1931The Great Depression began at the end of the twenties and lasted throughout the thirties. It wasn’t the ideal time to start a new venture, especially in the leisure industry, but that is what Art Rooney decided to do in industrial Pittsburgh.

Starting up a professional football team in a baseball city that was swamped with good collegiate football was certainly taking a risk, but Mr. Rooney was a gambler and obviously had calculated the odds for success.

Born within the metropolis of Pittsburgh, Art Rooney played football, baseball and boxed to a high standard before taking a natural step into sports entrepreneurship. After enjoying the mantle of player/manager for the Wheeling baseball team, in 1916 he brought semi professional football to Pittsburgh with his Hope Harvey team.

College ruled the roost when it came to football in Pittsburgh, although even that popular sport had to take a backseat to baseball. Portrayed as “sandlot gridders,” the semi pro circuit attempted to scratch a living from sports entertainment with little media attention. Often games would have to be organised with just a few days notice.

Owners would have to display plenty of enterprise to generate interest in their games and often relied on local rivalry to bring in the paying customers. It was tough football with players having to play offense, defense and kick-offs while having limited numbers on the teams.

Art Rooney later described the games as “a lot of pushing and shoving,” and some of the scores from that era would suggest he wasn’t straying too far from the truth.

At the National League’s annual owner’s meeting on July 8 1933, the Staten Island (formerly the Stapletons) Stapes left the league and three new franchises were added to the existing list of Boston, Brooklyn, New York, Portsmouth, Green Bay and the two clubs in Chicago.

Cincinnati and Philadelphia joined Pittsburgh in being awarded new franchises. Pro football had finally arrived in Pennsylvania with Art Rooney making the first mistake in naming his team Pirates. In a city engrossed with a baseball team with the same name, it would lead to confusion, especially to this writer when conducting his research many years later.

Early Art RooneyMr. Rooney purchased his franchise in the National League for $2,500.  That might appear to be an insignificant amount today, but on July 8 1933, during the depression it was a princely sum and setting up a pro football team in baseball-crazy Pittsburgh, was not exactly a guaranteed good investment.

Even before the contract with the League was signed, Art Rooney was preparing for his new venture. It had been rumoured that Rooney wanted Luby DiMeolo for his coach and in April they had discussed the possibility. Captain of the undefeated Pitt university team of 1929 and the coach at New York University, DiMeolo appeared to be the ideal fit, especially as he was projected to add the additional talent of playing guard for the new team.

Despite the initial projections regarding DiMeolo, within a few days of the announcement of the new franchise, Forrest “Jap” Douds was named the first head coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Douds had been an All-American tackle at Washington and Jefferson before playing professional football for three years, including two with the Portsmouth Spartans.

Mr. Rooney and Douds were part of the football culture around Pittsburgh at that time, specifically through the semi-pro James P. Rooney football team that Art managed. Together with Mr. Rooney, Douds started putting the pieces of the Pirates first team together.

The local papers gave the occasional mention to new signings for the forthcoming season, but as usual in Pittsburgh, baseball and college football dominated the sports pages. Professional football was still a novelty that just didn’t sell newspapers.

While coach and owner focussed on choosing their players, Mr. Rooney had the additional challenge to resolve regarding where the Pirate were going to be play.

The archaic “Blue Laws” that were introduced in Pennsylvania in 1794 to encourage patrons to attend church, while prohibiting any kind of “work or toil” activities on the Sabbath, were not due to be rescinded until November of that year. As a consequence, the Pirates were unable to play their first few games on Sundays in Pittsburgh and Mr. Rooney had to investigate alternatives.

Saturdays were college football days and the newly established professional football was unlikely to compete, so consideration had to be given to weekdays if Sundays were out of the question. With prospective punters at work during the day, Mr. Rooney’s attention was drawn to playing the Pirates games midweek, and at night.

This option to play after sunset was only available to Mr. Rooney as four years earlier, Duquesne’s John Holohan had conceived the idea of introducing lights at Forbes Field. On Friday evening November 2, 1929, the Dukes played the inaugural night game in Pittsburgh’s when they defeated Geneva College, 27-7, in front of more than 27,000 spectators.

While Art Rooney negotiated the availability of Forbes Field, he also considered the option of playing at Greenlee Field.  Gus Greenlee spent $100,000 to construct Greenlee Field to enable his team to play in the Negro Baseball League. The stadium opened in 1932 and the owner spent another $6,000 on lights for night baseball.

Greenlee Field is recognised as the first African-American-owned Park in the Negro League and this in the thirties, when segregation existed, even in the north.


Throughout July and August, players were sought and plenty signed contracts with the Pirates. There was a mix of experienced pro-players with semi-pro and several drawn from the college ranks. Many players were locals, if not in origins, but in residence due to playing for colleges in the Pittsburgh area.

August and September 1933 must have been exciting times for coach Douds and Art Rooney as they put the Pirates team together. As you would expect, their enthusiasm knew no boundaries.

They didn’t always succeed in attracting the players they wanted. Christian Cagle, one of football’s great college and pro fullbacks was one that got away. Douds expressed confidence that the team would acquire Cagle’s rights from the New York Giants, informing the press, “We believe we will land him.”

Despite the coach’s zeal, Mr. Rooney and Tim Mara of the Giants were unable to come to an agreement so the search for players continued.

Missing out on one great fullback didn’t hold the Pirates back for long. They soon obtained the signature of Angel Brovelli, a fullback who had excelled in the 1932 football season and was now due to begin his first year as a pro with the Pirates.

Out of St. Mary’s, Oakland, Brovelli was the son of a wealthy fruit ranch owner and Mr. Rooney claimed he had to offer an unusually high salary to entice the player to Pittsburgh. Brovelli was due to report for the start of training camp, September 1st.

The previous year, Brovelli was playing his final season with St. Mary’s and, after an outstanding performance for the Galloping Gaels in a loss to Fordham at New York’s Polo Grounds, was projected as signing pro with the New York Giants.

A couple of weeks later, Brovelli and three teammates were suspended by the team for failure to observe training rules. After competing in a game in Los Angeles, they had remained in town without permission.

Perhaps this disrespect for discipline had unnerved the owner of the Giants, Tim Mara. So Brovelli now found himself a Pirate and the local newspapers were licking their lips with anticipation at having such an outstanding football player on their team.

Mose Lantz, a local lad who excelled at center with Grove City, was a natural choice for Art Rooney to become a Pirate. Lantz had played for Mr. Rooney in Pittsburgh with the semi-pro Majestic Radio and coached at Scottdale High.

August 10 1933 was another milestone in the Steelers history when the Pittsburgh Pirates Football Club filed incorporation papers in the state capital Harrisburg, showing a capitalisation of $24,000 and interestingly stating the purpose of the company to “hold, promote football and hockey games.”

Mr. Rooney was working hard to put together his team. Brovelli joined his backfield teammates Martin Kottler of Carnegie, who had been the captain and fullback of Centre College the previous autumn. Kottler followed Elmer Schwartz, former Washington State All-America fullback and George Shaffer, a quarterback from Washington & Jefferson College.

More players quickly followed. Thomas (Tony) Siano expanded the number of centers registered with the Pirates to three, adding to Milton Erickson out of Northwestern and Herbert Eschbach from Penn State.

Stew Wilson, former W&J football star and an end with the pro team Stapleton was offered the coaching position at Kittanning High, but turned it down when the school wouldn’t give him over $1000. His request for $2400 by the school was refused so he signed with the Pirates.

Ted Dailey, the left end on the Pitt eleven for the previous three years then signed with the Pirates. Dailey graduated from Pitt the previous June and had an offer to coach a college team in the Mid-West, but preferred to remain in Pittsburgh. Dailey had a unique record at Pitt in that he did not lose a minute of play in his freshman and varsity career through injuries.

Robert Galloway, who played at left end for four years with the George Washington University eleven was next up for the Pirates. The signing of Bob Deacle, W&J fullback, brought another fast moving giant into the backfield of the local team.

Lawrence Critchfield, captain of the 1932 Grove City College team then signed a contract. He played guard and end during his four years at Grove City.

Rooney added yet another center in Wayne Johnson, out of New River State College. He was then joined by Johnny Oehler all-America center. Oehler was the third Purdue graduate to cast his fortunes with the team. Letsinger and Janacek, the previous year’s boilermaker guards being the others.

Tony Holm, Alabama’s old iron-horse from Ensley was added before the team entered training camp. Holm was transferred from the Chicago Cardinals to a fullback position with the Pirates.

At the end of the August, the Pirates business manager Dick Guy attended the East-West college football match at Soldier’s Field. The contest was billed as “the greatest collection of stars ever assembled,” and Guy was there for one purpose – evaluating potential Pirates.

Coach Douds copyright unknownCoach Douds (pictured right) brought the basis of his team together September 1st for the Steelers first training camp in Newell’s Grove, Greensburg, not too far from the Steelers’ current training camp location in Latrobe.

Only one contracted player failed to arrive. Center Milton Erickson wired he had sickness in the family and would be delayed. That probably blew Erickson’s chances of making the final 25 as the coach had John Oehler, all American from Purdue, along with Herb Eschbach and Wayne Johnsen keen to make their presence felt at center for the team.

With the players he had on hand, coach Douds set about putting together a team that he was preparing to compete at the highest level. This was professional football and a high standard had to be achieved.

Hopes were high – as they should be in every team’s training camp every year. If you didn’t believe you were going to be the best, why would you turnout to play? But this was Pittsburgh, where the enthusiasm for football was not that receptive towards a pro team. College football ruled the city and the introduction of football began more as a novelty to most football fans.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described the assembled players as “a classy array of talent.” The level had been set and throughout camp, the expectations never waned. Everyone involved with the team thought the Pirates were going to be a team that could compete from the start and be considered contenders.

Coach Douds was always optimistic about the progress of his team. “It’s a fine group of players and right now I believe we have a good team,” Jap told the media. “But these players have no idea what they are going up against when we meet the other pro eleven.”

Douds’ confidence was obvious when he observed, “There isn’t a soft spot along the line. Every game you’re up against the best that can be found in the country. That’s why you’ll notice most of the players here are of the chunky type. We need that kind so they can withstand the punishment they are subjected to game after game. There’s no room for the angular type unless he’s exceptionally good.”

Attempting to pursue a rational training plan, coach Douds was trying to follow a scientific method to bring his players to a peak. It was a week into camp before the players donned full kit to participate in their first scrimmage in anger. Douds had decided his players were now ready to step up their training.

The coach went into camp passionate about his team suggesting that it was a strong team, but he was also a realist offering, “It’s a fine group of players and right now I believe we have a good team. But these players have no idea what they are going up against when we meet the other pro eleven.”

Coach Douds had played three years as a tackle with the Chicago Cardinals and knew what his team would face in the pro league.

“You know,” Mr. Douds continued. “There isn’t a soft spot along the line. Every game you’re up against the best that can be found in the country. That’s why you’ll notice most of the players here are of the chunky type. We need that kind so they can withstand the punishment they are subjected to game after game.

There’s no room for the angular type unless he’s exceptionally good.”

The Pirates training camp moved into a routine with the players being called out at 0700 to be on the field for 0800. A three-hour training session is followed by lunch and rest until 14.00, when the players take to the field again until 16.30.

Four days into camp, Pittsburgh’s interest in their first pro football team began to increase with the news that WWSW would be broadcasting the Pirates games.

Douds was reported as being highly pleased with his squad and with the assistance of Jimmy Rooney as backfield coach. Douds confirmed he would continue his twice a day drills until the opening game against the New York Giants on September 20.

Like the coaches, the newspaper reports were always enthusiastic:

“Douds pushes pro grid stars; team rapidly rounding into shape; players have responded splendidly to the preliminary work and are in good physical condition.”

The Pittsburgh Press reported West Virginia’s coach Greasy Neale, with a career that included a spell in professional football, predicting Pittsburgh would take a quick liking to its new eleven in the National pro league.

“The difference between professional and college football is that you see a finished player in every position. I mind the day when Bronko Nagurski, as hard hitting a fullback as there has been in 10 years, was unable to take the ball over from the one-yard line in three tries in a game I saw in Chicago. I don’t suppose Nagurski was ever stopped more than once from that distance all the time he was at Minnesota.

Pro games nearly always end in low scores because the defense is almost perfect. A college team may have one side of its line weak and so have a lot of touchdowns made through that section, but when you try to puncture a line like the Packers for instance, that average well over 200 pounds from end to end, you’ve got a job on your hands.”

Halfway into training camp, the Pittsburgh Press reported that the Pirates donned their war equipment for an afternoon session when they engaged in their first real scrimmage of camp.

The Press observed that coach Douds had trained the team along scientific means and that the men were in the proper condition to enter a red-hot scrimmage.


1933 Pirates

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