Two and three years ago, we took a journey back to the beginnings of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ franchise. We provided a game-by-game breakdown of their 1933 and 1934 seasons based on press accounts from the time. I didn’t get around to continuing that series last year but I definitely wanted to bring it back for this offseason.
I get this isn’t a topic for everyone. Steelers’ history, the time before Chuck Noll arrived, is very niche. But I also know some of you guys enjoy it as much as I do; it’s one of my favorite topics to write about. Much of this history is forgotten but it certainly isn’t lost.
Hopefully you have as much fun reading it as I do writing it.
Two notes of clarification/detail. We are using the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and defunct Pittsburgh Press as our tour guides for the season. And the team was called the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1933 to 1940. We’ll call them as such throughout the article.
Game #1: September 13th, 1935 – at Philadelphia Eagles (17-7) W
Before we get into the details of the game, and the season, your starting lineups for the beginning of the year.
Armand Niccolai/Duquesne – End
Sandy Sandberg/Iowa Wesleyan – Tackle
George Rado/Duquesne – Guard
Ben Ciccone/Duquesne – Center
Bob Hoel/Pittsburgh – Guard
Stan Olejniczak/Pittsburgh – Tackle
Ben Smith/Alabama – End
Cy Casper/TCU – Quarterback
Johnny Gildea/St. Bonaventure – Halfback
Heinie Weisenbaugh/Pittsburgh – Halfback
Swede Ellstrom/Oklahoma – Fullback
From the 1933 team, no starters remained and there was high turnover from the 1934 roster. Typical for the times.
After spending three weeks of training camp at South Park, the season began with promise, beating the Eagles 17-7 at home. 20,000 fans watched, the most ever for an Eagles’ game. Philadelphia did score first, a 63 yard drive that ended with a TD pass on 4th and goal from the one.
To add injury to insult Ben Smith – the Pirates’ best receiver – suffered a nasty gash over his face in the early goings.
A fun excerpt, a sign of the era. Teams routinely punted before fourth down in order to try to gain a field position advantage. The PPG notes that in at least one instance, Gildea punted on second down.
The Steelers tied things up thanks to a couple of explosive plays. Niccolai took a lateral from Casper for a final gain of 39 yards and Gildea hit Weisenbaugh to the one yard line. Casper took it in on a QB sneak on third down to tie things up at 7, following the Niccolai kick. Niccolai took over full kicking duties after Mose Kelsch, the first true kicker in league history, died in the prior offseason.
Bull Snyder, the heaviest player on the team at 230 pounds, blocked a punt, and Olejniczak recovered it to take a 14-7 lead. Niccolai rounded things off with a 47 yard attempt. So far, so good.
Game #2: September 22nd, 1935 – vs New York Giants (42-7 Loss)
The opening win created a sense of optimism. Which the powerhouse Giants promptly squashed. The Steelers had record attendance, drawing 23, 298 fans, perhaps helped by the Giants’ march into town.
Pittsburgh came into the game dealing with hardship. Head coach Joe Bach was not on the sidelines, back home after his wife died earlier in the week. Assistant Cad Reese would take over for the day. On the field, the Steelers suffered several injuries. Art Strutt and Silvio “Sid” Zaninelli were injured in the first half. Ben Smith, who needed six stitches to fix his cut from last week, attempted to play. In a Ben Roethlisberger move, he ditched his “head gear” designed to protect himself almost immediately after the game started and wound up re-opening those stitches in the third quarter.
The Giants raced out to a 28-0 lead, mostly through the air, with star running back Ken Strong not participating w due to an injured ankle. Per the press reports, the Steelers defense played miserably, missing far too many tackles. One of the worst examples came for the Giants’ first touchdown. Kink Richards eluded three tacklers for a 14 yard scamper in the first quarter.
Pittsburgh went through the air for their biggest plays, which wound up being far and few between. Casper hit Bill Sortet for 42. On their scoring drive, Gildea found Smith for gains of 30 and 12 before hitting Weisenbaugh for 17 yards down to the Giants’ two. They hooked up again for the only home team score of the day.
In total, the Pirates netted only 37 total yards. They completed 9 of 23 passes for 116 yards and picked up just six first downs.
Game #3: September 29th, 1935 – vs Chicago Bears (23-7 Loss)
A crowd of nearly 12,000 on hand watched the Bears put up all their points in the second quarter. The team was evidently unprepared by George Halas’ vaunted “man-in-motion” defense that per the Press, made the Pirates’ defense to look “quite stupid.” Very Twitter-like analysis.
One stat tells the story of how outclassed Pittsburgh was. The Bears completed 13 of 28 passes for three touchdowns while the Steelers completed only 5/26 and five interceptions. Even Kent Graham thinks that is bad.
The Bears’ special teams were also strong with halfbacks George Grosvenor and Keith Molesworth having long punt returns. The latter caught a touchdown pass, too.
Even when things went right for Pittsburgh, they found a way to go wrong. Rookie John Turley picked off QB Bob Dunlap deep in Pirates’ territory. But inexplicably, he tried to lateral the ball to no one and Chicago recovered. They’d go on to kick a 23 yard field goal. On another play, Cy Casper returned a punt from his 33 to the Bears 40. He would’ve gotten farther had he not collided with a ref.
Some minor positive for the Pirates that day. Ciccone blocked a field goal, and for the team’s lone score, Gildea hit Sortet for a 21 yard gain, who lateraled to Casper for the score. The Press said linemen George Rado played “brilliantly.” Beyond that, there isn’t much to say, except for same old Pittsburgh.
If you’re curious, the starting lineups for the game.
Game #4: October 6, 1935 – at Green Bay Packers (27-0 Loss)
The road didn’t get easier for Pittsburgh. And for the papers, their game reports got shorter with the game being far away on the road. It only made a tiny excerpt on the 4th page of the PPG’s sports section.
Apparently the team added a “half-dozen new players” and made one key lineup change, benching their QB – Cy Casper – for Turley.
Similar story to Chicago. The Packers scored three touchdowns in the second quarter. Don Hutson caught a pair of them, including one from 50 yards out.
Casper would look to redeem himself, busting off a long run in one of the only highlights included. Through four games, the Pirates had allowed a league-high 99 points.
Game #5: October 9th, 1935 – vs Philadelphia Eagles (17-6 Loss)
And you thought Thursday Night games were bad. It was the shortest of weeks for Pittsburgh, playing Green Bay on Sunday and Philadelphia on Wednesday. Only 6271 fans showed up on a foggy workweek night. The Steelers wore their 1934 “throwbacks,” now known as the Bumblees.
Making his Steelers’ debut was Jim Leavey, a major leaguer and Pittsburgh’er who played four seasons with the St. Louis Browns. He would turn out to be on of their best weapons.
The Eagles scored within the first five minutes and held the lead for the rest of the night, rarely being threatened. They raced out to a 17-0 advantage thanks to a two yard run, a 40 yard field goal, and 56 yard pass. Warren Heller, a carry over from the previous year, threw an interception that set up Philly’s field goal.
Pittsburgh’s lone score came via a John Doehring 10 yard TD pass to Weisenbaugh. That drive included Doehring hitting Vic Vidoni for 18 yards and Ben Smith making a spectacular catch, wrestling the ball away from a pair of Eagles.
Other odds and ends. Gildea was hurt very early in this one. Leavey is described a making a couple of “nice runs,” praised by both publications. And Stan Olejniczak was ejected after clocking Eggs Manske in the face. Per the rules of the time, the penalty was half the distance to the goal, 41 yards in total.
Team stats from the game.
Game #6: October 20th, 1935 – vs Chicago Cardinals (17-13 Win)
11 days off did the Steelers plenty of good. It was arguably the best game the team played in their short three year history.
“There hasn’t been anything like it in Pittsburgh in years and certainly not in the last three years since Pittsburgh put a team in the National Professional League,” wrote the PPGs’ Volney Walsh to headline his game recap. It was their best game. Also a violent one. By the end, three players were ejected, one knocked out cold, and a lot of controversy. We’ll get to that.
Pittsburgh got on the board first with Doehring, nicknamed “Lefty,” finding Casper on a 14 yard touchdown pass. The Cards’ Phil Sarboe tied things up with an 80 yard pick six in the second quarter. Pittsburgh caught a break late in the half. Armand Niccolai missed a field goal but Chicago was ruled offsides. He made the re-try, going up 10-7 into the third quarter.
Chicago went up 13-10 but this time, it was the Pirates turn for a long defensive touchdown. Art Strutt raced 74 yards the other way, retaking the lead, 17-13. Late in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh clung to their four point advantage. Last play of the game, Chicago with the ball 19 yards away from the end zone.
Sarboe dropped back and looked to pass but there wasn’t anything available to him. He tucked the ball and ran, dodging defenders but in Super Bowl Mike Jones style, was dragged down at the one yard line as time expired. Chicago argued there was a second left, trying to get off a timeout, but the refs weren’t having it. A scrum ensued, and somehow in the mess, Cy Casper was sucker punched and knocked unconscious. It’s not known who socked him.
But it was worth it, Pittsburgh getting a much-needed victory. Sortet was said to have one of the “best games he has ever played” while the offensive line was credited for doing the dirty work.
Game #7: October 27th, 1935 – vs Boston Redskins (6-0 W)
Welcome to the first winning streak in franchise history. It was a special teams dominated game, one that would make Danny Smith swoon. The games only points came from Niccolai’s toe, going 2/3 on the day, connecting from 41 and 43 yards out. The headline reflected that accurately.
And it was the leg of punter Sid Zaninelli that flipped field position.
Jack Sell of the PPG wrote the following of his play.
“[He] kept the sailing leather far over the head of the safety man or out of reach to his right or left…”
That “safety man” was Hall of Famer Cliff Battles, shut down that day by Pittsburgh. Vidoni and Sortet got the bulk of the credit.
According to dual reports by the local papers, there’s also some history to fill in the blanks of. Zaninelli recorded an 80 yard punt. Booting from his own 19, the ball sailed over Battles’ head, touched down at the 13, and then rolled two feet shy of the goal line. Assuming that’s accurate, and there’s no reason to doubt it, it’s the second longest punt in franchise history, beating out Jordan Berry and Drew Butler, tied for “second’ place with 79 yarders. It’s only two yards behind the record holder Joe Geri.
Officially, such a punt isn’t listed because most data from then in scarce. But it should be in the record books. The Press also commended Zaninelli for a “bang-up defensive game.”
Victory came on a day where the offense recorded just one first down, a 37 yard completion to Casper. That drive ended in an interception. Good field position came from special teams and defense; Levey had a long punt return and Rado recovered a Battles’ fumble on Boston’s 40. That set up each field goal.
There was one penalty the entire game, offsides on Boston.
Boston had one final chance, throwing a Hail Mary on the Pirates’ 48 on the final play. It fell incomplete and with the victory, Pittsburgh moved into second place in the Eastern Division, trailing only the Giants.
Game #8: November 3rd, 1935 – Brooklyn Dodgers (13-7 Loss)
Over 13,000 fans showed up, per the Post Gazette. Two potential firsts in this one. The first “what is a catch” and the first “Johnny Cueto” moment. Here’s what happened.
Dodgers’ receiver Wayland Becker (love these names) caught a pass in the right corner of the end zone. But press reports say his right foot was clearly out of bounds, on the white chalk line, meaning it should’ve been incomplete. The ref ruled it a touchdown, leading to an argument from Pittsburgh. The call, of course, stood (Mike Carey said it was incomplete).
But the fans heckling and the yelling from the players apparently got in the refs head and he spotted the ball incorrectly on the following drives, off by a good five yards. The “stands roared,” according to the paper.
Awesome picture, one photographer capturing the controversial play.
The Pirates caught another bad break later in the game. Strutt tipped a long pass downfield but the Dodgers caught it anyway, racing 56 yards into the end zone. Sortet blocked the point after bu the Dodgers remained in command, 13-0.
Another Levey long punt return, fielded at his 36 and returned to the opposing 26, helped set up the Pirates’ long TD of the day. Rookie Buzz Wetzel plunged over center from one yard out for the score.
Pittsburgh wasn’t without additional chances. Johnny Gildea hit Ben Smith for a 31 yard gain on another drive but it ended in an interception. Ditto with another promising drive. The score would’ve been worse had Brooklyn not missed two of their field goal tries.
Game #9: November 10th, 1935 – at Brooklyn Dodgers (16-7 Win)
The rubber match proved to be better for Pittsburgh. Another away game so there isn’t much information available. Per The Press, Levey was responsible for both touchdowns and Niccolai tacked on a field goal. Heller also busted off a rare long run for him (1935 was a down year for him).
The only other piece of information I could cobble together was linemen Lee “Butch” Mulleneaux was injured and stayed at St. Mary’s Hospital in New York. The paper describes it as “some sort of spinal cord injury,” a fairly unalarming statement for a very alarming injury. He would play for the Steelers in 1936 so I suppose it turned out to be benign.
Game #10: November 24th, 1935 – vs Green Bay Packers (34-14 Loss)
For the final home game of the season, a touch under 13,000 fans punched their game ticket. The Packers were without star receiver Don Hutson due to appendicitis but that didn’t make them much easier to contain. George Sauer scored twice for the Pack, a three yard rush and 75 yard interception return of Gildea, to put them up 13-0.
Offensively, the star of the day once again went to Levey, who scored the Pirates only touchdowns. A lateral who ran in for a score and a 13 yard pass from John Turley.
By the end of three, the Packers led only by six, 20-14. Pittsburgh had some great chances but repeatedly shot themselves in the foot. Zaninelli had an 84 yard kick return. But the team was turned away when George Svendsen picked off a pass. The Steelers threw two fourth quarter interceptions, both by Gildea (who threw a league-high 20 picks in 1935) that squashed the chances for a comeback. Clarke Hinkle and Blood McNally, a Steeler in 1934, scored in the fourth quarter to salt the game away.
Ed Skoronski and Mike Sebastian, a pair of rookies, made their NFL debuts for Pittsburgh. Another photo from the game. The Press always had excellent pictures compared to the PPG, either because they had better equipment or they were scanned better when transferred online.
Game #11: December 1st, 1935 – at Boston Redskins (13-3 Loss)
A cold, snowy December day, the Steelers took the lead off a Niccolai 27 yard field goal in the second quarter and would lead by that score going into halftime. But Boston would break through in the fourth, trudging 85 yards downfield and finishing it off with a rushing touchdown.
Buzz Wetzel fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Boston scored again to create the final score. Wetzel did attone for his mistake by picking off a pass but it wasn’t enough.
Both of Boston’s scores came on 4th and goal. Pittsburgh was held to just two first downs and because of weather, Niccolai connected on one of six field goals. Misses from 14, 18, 45, and 47 yards out. And you all gave Josh Scobee a hard time…
Game #12: December 9th, 1935 – at New York Giants (13-0 Loss)
The Giants were in total control in this one. A field goal in the first, a 65 yard touchdown in the second, and a 44 yard field goal in the fourth. Oddly, the Press gives a different account, listing a 40 yard touchdown and 34 yard field goal.
Securing the division, the Giants went modern day, Week 17, with head coach Steve Owen benching his starters to begin the game. But after a less-than-stellar start, the starters were put into the game.
Not many highlights for the Steelers. A 33 yard completion from Gildea to Strutt is all I got. The season was over, Pittsburgh finishing at 4-8. Still the best record they had in their existence. And the papers were pleased.
Game #13: Bonus Game – vs College All-Stars (14-0 Win)
Short bonus game for you. The Pirates would always play a final game for charity against college all-stars. The professionals were victorious. Tackle Maury Bray scored his first touchdown, scooping up a fumble for 20 yards and Sortet had a 20 yard touchdown off a blocked punt.
The proceeds went to the Vincentian Center Fund. There’s the Pirates’ Art Strutt in the left third of the picture below.
If you want to read about the 1933 and 1934 seasons, follow these links.