How many of you have heard of John “Cap” Oehler? He was on the inaugural Steelers football roster back in 1933. The NFL had just increased their roster size to 26 active players for the first two games but then a cutdown to 22 players for game three and beyond.
I’m not sure how Oehler caught Pittsburgh’s attention. He was named several times in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Press from 1930-1932 as a starting guard then center for the Purdue Boilermakers. He was captain of the team and on the East roster for the 1933 East-West Shrine game held in January 1934. Dick Guy, the team’s first business manager did attend an all-star game in Chicago on August 24, 1933 but no one who played was signed and Oehler did not play in that game.
The earliest mention of Oehler in connection with the Pittsburgh football team I could find was an August 23, 1933 Pittsburgh Press blurb.
“The Pittsburgh Pirates professional football league team today boasted three of the strongest centers in the entire league. President Art Rooney has just received the signed contract of Johnny Oehler, Purdue’s all-America center of last year, to round out the triumvirate. Tony Siano, Fordham’s captain and all-America, and Bob Erickson, Northwestern’s crack pivot star, had previously entered the fold. Oehler is the third Purdue graduate to cast his fortunes with the Pirates. Jim Letsinger and Clarence Janacek, last year’s Boilermaker guards were the others.”
Interestingly, neither Siano nor Erickson ever played a down for Pittsburgh. While both Letsinger and Janacek along with a 4th Purdue rookie, Paul Moss, did play in 1933. There was a bit of turnover as some players decided they did not want to play professional football or went down with injuries. The first training camp opened on September 1, 1933 at Newell’s Grove (near Greensburg, Pa) to prepare for their first game less than three weeks later.
Not only did Cap Oehler survive training camp; he was named a starter in Pittsburgh’s first NFL game as a rookie center. In fact; 8 of the 11 offensive starters were rookies and one had only one-year experience in the NFL. The team was led by 28-year old player-coach who was a three-year NFL veteran – Forrest ‘Jap” Douds.
Pittsburgh’s first four home games were held on Wednesdays since the repeal of the “Blue Laws” that enabled Art Rooney to successfully bid for an NFL franchise did not go into effect until November 1933. So, the Steelers first home game was held on a Wednesday at Forbes Field. They expected a crowd of 10-15 thousand but got 20 thousand instead.
That first game did not go well. The Giants had a rookie of their own. Former Michigan star Harry Newman who reportedly, “did everything with the football except swallow it.” But going into the 3rd quarter the Giants only led the Black & Gold 7-0 when Cap Oehler and two others blocked a Giants punt in the end zone for their first points ever – a safety. They pulled within 5 points. Oehler is credited with the safety so he is the first Pittsburgh player to score points in a game. Ok, so the Giants scored 16 points in the 4th quarter to take a 23-2 win back to New York. The Cap scored our first points!
Cap had another first as a Pittsburgh Pirate (Steeler). In 1934, five organizations selected All-Pro teams with the Chicago Daily News being one. Mel Hein; an inaugural member of the NFL Hall of Fame was a consensus All-Pro center being named first team by all five organizations but the Daily News selected Oehler as 2nd team behind Hein. Thus, he is the first Steeler to be named to a post season team. Also, true to his nickname; Oehler had been named captain of the Pittsburgh team in 1934 and started all 23 games Pittsburgh played in their first two seasons – playing 60 minutes a game. Even with only two seasons as a Pittsburgh Steeler, Cap Oehler is currently ranked # 362 on this average fan’s all-time Steelers list
Alas, following the season there had been trade talks between Art Rooney and the Philadelphia Eagles involving Oehler, but he informed the team that he planned to retire from football to pursue a full-time business career in New York City. Oehler ended up playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers football team for two more seasons before giving up on football altogether. In those days the team he had signed with owned his rights. To Art Rooney’s credit; he transferred Oehler’s rights to the Brooklyn without compensation other than a “thank you.”
Ironically, Oehler had a chance to sign with the Giants after Mel Hein was injured and could have played on a championship team. The Dodgers had released him toward the end of his second season with them (today he would be a free agent) but the Dodgers invoked their rights and put him back on their roster and then just sat him on the bench which soured his view of the business side of football.
Oehler must not have left Pittsburgh with too many hard feelings. He returned in 1937 to marry a Pittsburgh girl he met while playing for the team. In 1942 he was commissioned in the navy and served for 37 months during World War II. He later lived in Glenshaw.
In 1954; he addressed a group of Pittsburgh High School All-Stars and provided this advice:
“Have you fellows thought of your future – and not just playing football? About your days to come? Ask what, where and when then be sure to set your course in that all-important direction. Remember, select a school for what it will be able to do for you – and then work every minute to achieve your ambition, your goal. I attended Purdue … to study engineering…. All along the way, I kept that in mind as I used my sports participation toward the realization of getting into my chosen work.”
Sounds a bit like Chuck Noll’s “your life’s work.”
Cap Oehler passed away in 1983. He did live through the Steelers four Super Bowl wins. I wonder what he thought about that.
Just a blast from the past. As an average fan, I like to learn about the Steelers history from the very beginning. Let me know if there is a player you’d like to know more about.
The top pop song of 1933 was apropos for the Pittsburgh Steelers then known as the Pirates. Ethel Waters must have had a notion as she sang that song to the top of the charts in 1933. They came into the NFL optimistically; not knowing that they were in for a few decades of Stormy Weather. Art Rooney & his Pirates must have muttered as years of frustration rolled by, “Stormy weather; Just can’t get my poor old self together; I’m weary all the time….” Then picked themselves up to play another season.