Byron White media photoProfessional football in Pittsburgh in the thirties not only had to compete against the nation’s game of baseball, but also with the successful university football teams at Pitt, Carnegie and Duquesne, .

Art Rooney was a sports entrepreneur who also gambled on horses. He took a gamble when he purchased the pro football franchise for Pittsburgh in July 1933. Mr. Rooney was gambling that he could compete with collegiate football and also that Pennsylvania’s blue laws would be repealed.

The blue laws not only prevented alcohol from being sold on Sundays, they also prevented organised sport from being played. The rule against baseball was rescinded in 1931 and it was expected that football would follow in late 1933 and he was proved right.

Art Rooney’s mistake of giving the new franchise the same name as the city’s baseball team the Pirates, was not helped by the failure of his team to produce victories.

In the first five years the Pirates operated, the team managed 19 wins, but they conceded almost twice as many defeats. Pittsburgh was a city that thrived on football; college football. Pittsburgh’s college teams were successful and every sports fan loves a winner, whereas they will quickly deserted a loser.

Against a background of college success, the professional football team was miserably inept. Art Rooney had to come up with a radical idea in an attempt to change the team’s losing ways and to get the attention of the city’s football fans.

In 1936, the NFL decided to introduce the process of the college draft. With college players turning to professional football, it was an opportunity to try and balance the talent on the teams, With the worst team having the first pick and the best team choosing last in each round, the intention was to strengthen the weaker teams – if they chose their players wisely.

In 1937, Art Rooney wanted to take this principal a step further. He proposed that each team selected in the first round with the worst team picking first and the best last, but in the second round, only the worst five teams having a pick and the best five not having a choice. In the third round, it would revert to all teams having a pick, then in the fourth only the worst five teams selecting. Further rounds would follow the same arrangement.

Another rule change proposal on the table aimed at helping the poorer teams, would allow 35 players on the roster with “player suspensions” effective for six weeks, not the current two. This change was intended to prevent the practice of wealthier teams keeping large rosters of players available for games, but suspending the surplus before each game as they were only allowed 23 players to suit up. The so called “surplus” players were suspended.

Johnny Blood, the Pirates’ coach, thought the team had sometimes played above themselves in the 1937 season when they finished 4-7. He believed that with a break here or there, the team could have won more games and been challenging as opposed to languishing in the Eastern conference.

The coach pledged he would improve the Pirates by working hard through the winter scouting new players. “I’m not foolish enough to predict a winner for next season, but we will get better and within a couple of years, we will be right on top,” he said. “See if I’m not right,”

Art Rooney would try and do his bit to improve the team by opening his cheque book.  The most talked about player coming out of college that year was Colorado’s Byron “Whizzer” White. He broke both scoring and yardage records in the Rocky Mountain Conference.

He averaged 14.4 points per game; gained a total of 1,188 yards, completed 24 of 52 passes with 2 interceptions, punted an average 43.3 yards, ran back 37 punts for an average 21 yards and scored 27 more points than Dutch Clark.     


On December 8th, the headline on the sports pages of the Pittsburgh Press highlighted, “Whizzer Spurns Pros.” Their story reported White as saying he had “no intention of playing professional football next year with the Pittsburgh Pros, Cleveland Rams or any other team.” He had been approached by Cleveland who had first pick in the draft and had indicated they would be selecting White.

When the draft took place on December 12th, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Brooklyn with the first three picks all selected backs, but all passed on the opportunity to select White because of his warning he was going to focus on obtaining a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and study law and that he wasn’t going to play football.

It may have been the gambler in Art Rooney that made him use his draft choice on White. Perhaps he was hoping to offer enough money to encourage White to change his mind about playing in the NFL.

Within days of his selection, White was due to take the examinations for the scholarship he valued. Before he was drafted, in response to the possibility of playing football, White told reporters, “It all depends upon my luck in the exams. I want to win one of those scholarships if possible.”

Pittsburgh Press image from the Cotton BowlIt was obvious that the Pirates needed to offer a big enough incentive to convince White to play. He always gave the impression his studies came first. “If I am selected (for the scholarship),” he continued, “then I will devote my future to school. If not, well I’ll have time to think whether I shall go to Pittsburgh to play next season.

With the team dispersing for the winter, no negotiations were anticipated with the player until the spring. The Pirates business manager, Eddie Berhart, said, “A lot of collegiate stars say they will have nothing to do with professional football, but when a bundle of money is held before them, they frequently change their minds.

I don’t think Art Rooney intended to waste a choice when he selected White in the league draft, so he must be planning to make him a real offer.”

In Colorado, White told reporters that he hadn’t received an offer, but would not be turning pro regardless of the outcome of the exams he was due to take.

On December 20th White achieved his ambition and won one of four scholarships and told reporters that winning the scholarship definitely ended any thoughts of him turning pro.

Just over a week later on January 1st 1938, White played his final game for the University of Colorado in the Cotton Bowl (picture left) where his team were defeated 28-14 by Rice. The Pittsburgh Press headline ran, “’Whiz’ White Stands Out But Rice Triumphs 28-14”. Their report of the game said White was all that could be expected of him. Before the first period was over, he threw a pass to Joe Antonio for the first touchdown, and then intercepted a pass he ran back 47 yards for another touchdown.

There is a video of the Cotton Bowl on YouTube, please click here>>>

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