|The Pirates fought for more than 40 years before achieving victory. By then, it was too late. At least that was the case for the home to which the fruits of their battle were presented. It all started on July 8, 1933 when Arthur Joseph Rooney, Sr. bought the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise for $2,500. The seventh U.S. professional team was one of three NFL expansions that year including the now-defunct Cincinnati Reds and cross-state rival Philadelphia Eagles. Rooney’s love of the game was Hall of Fame worthy from Day One. In his first eight years of ownership, the team racked up only 24 victories. Every year, the team lost money. The defeats were not for a lack of trying.
In 1938, as the country was scraping out of the Great Depression, Rooney signed Byron “Whizzer” White, the Colorado All-American for a then unheard of $15,000. In 1940, in a nod to the industrial juggernaut its hometown had become, the team’s name was changed to the Steelers. The team’s first winning season finally arrived in 1942. But this moment would not mark a run for history. A tie for 1947’s Eastern Division title was as close to greatness as the Steelers got in their first four decades.
Within three years of that glimpse of glory, Pittsburgh’s population peaked at 677,000, ranking the city America’s 12th largest. By 1950, labor tensions in Steel City had been on the rise for decades as unions increasingly flexed their muscles. Through the inevitable multitude of strikes that followed, the city’s industrial growth roared on. Then came the summer of 1959. On July 15th, the United Steelworkers of America took a huge gamble. More than 500,000 members walked off their jobs, shuttering domestic steel production. The 116 days that stretched into that fall remain to this day the largest work stoppage in U.S. history. Downstream customers saw the strike coming and “hedge bought” as they’d been trained, stockpiling what they thought would be enough to see them through.
Call this the great miscalculation. The union pressed on for so long, customers were forced to foreign steel producers. Imports more than doubled to 4.4 million tons making the U.S. a net steel importer for the first time since the 1800s. As more than 150,000 layoffs spread to coal mining and shipbuilding, President Eisenhower invoked the Taft-Hartley Act which required workers get back on the job for a “cooling off” period between the union and management. Though the Act was contested in court, in mid-November the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that Eisenhower was within his rights.
By the time the decade of the 1970s arrived, annual U.S. steel imports were approaching 20 million tons. And the Steelers were relieved to kiss the 60s goodbye given they’d finished 1-13 in 1969. This weak stance did afford the new Head Coach Chuck Noll prime position in the 1970 NFL draft. The first overall pick was a 21-year old from Shreveport, Louisiana – Terry Bradshaw. Mel Blount was also among Steelers’ recruits that year; he joined team veterans Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Andy Russell. Thence began one of history’s greatest streaks. The Steelers earned eight consecutive playoff berths, seven AFC Central titles and four AFC Championships between 1972 and 1979. The team became the first to win four Super Bowls and the only one to win back-to-back Super Bowls twice. Many maintain the Steelers of the 1970s were the finest ever in pro football.
That magical decade’s end also coincided with Pittsburgh’s economy’s final capitulation. The industrial city to which the New York Stock Exchange had once contemplated relocating, steeped in the mystique of giants of industrialism including Andrew Carnegie, H.J. Heinz, George Westinghouse, Andrew and Thomas Mellon and Henry Clay Frick, would be dragged to its knees. In the 1920s, Pittsburgh produced around a third of the nation’s steel output. By the end of the 1980s, as one mill after another was closed, Pittsburgh had lost more than 75% of its steelmaking capacity. The number of the city’s steel workers more than halved from 90,000 to 44,000 in the four years through 1980.