The Pre-Noll Era: Recapping The 1933 Season (Part One)
By Alex Kozora
Today’s world is one filled of information. Especially in the sports’ sector. Want to know Kent Graham’s yards per completion in 2000? I don’t know why you would, but it’s out there (13.3 by the way).
However, not everything is readily accessible. Football’s early years are understandably not well recorded. Specifically, focusing on the early years of the Pittsburgh Steelers. There is general information about the 1933 season that typically include one or two notable stories. But delve much deeper than that and search results turn up empty.
Maybe there are comprehensive accounts to be found for free somewhere, but to my knowledge, such a place does not exist. So to potentially make a little bit of history, let’s leap into the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 1933 season. A game-by-game breakdown using newspaper accounts from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Pittsburgh Press.
This isn’t going to be appealing to everyone, I know, but for Steelers’ buffs and historians, sit back and enjoy. We’re going back in time, starting on September 20th, 1933.
Game #1: September 20th, 1933 – New York Giants (27-3 Loss)
The Pittsburgh Press’ headline the day of the game has some foreshadowing: “Newman’s Passes May Spoil Pros’ Grid Debut.” They are referring to Harry Newman, a rookie runner who starred at Michigan. On the page, there rests a huge drawing of the Pirates’ Angelo Brovelli, right leg in the air as if he just punted.
The old-timey caption makes it fun to read.
“The Galloping Gael From St. Mary’s Who Makes His Professional Debut With the Football Pirates
Speed!! That’s ‘Ange AllOver!”
Keep in mind that from 1933-1940, the team was called the Pirates to try and receive a recognition boost from their baseball brothern. A relatively common tactic for the time. Throughout this article, they will be referred to as the Pirates.
An op-ed by editor Chester L. Smith sits in the left column, a daily edition he wrote entitled “The Village Smithy.” He wrote this is Pittsburgh’s first taste of professional football since December of 1925 when Red Grange’s Chicago Bears came to town to take on a group of Pittsburgh All-Stars. Grange got hurt, left the game, and the home team would go on to win 24-0.
College football still reigned supreme but make no mistake, there was genuine excitement and anticipation for the Pirates.
Lot of names to be referenced throughout so let’s start with the opening lineup. Your starting eleven, as it appeared in the paper.
Paul Moss/Purdue – Left End
Don Rhodes/Washington & Jefferson – Left Tackle
Jim Letsinger/Purdue – Left Guard
John Oehler/Purdue – Center
Clarence Janecek/Purdue – Right Guard
Corwan Artman/Stanford – Right Tackle
Wilbur Sortet/West Virginia – Right End
George Shaffer/Washington & Jefferson – Quarterback
Angelo Brovelli/St. Mary’s – Left Halfback
Bill Moore/Loyola of New Orleans – Right Halfback
Tony Holm/Alabama – Flanker
The Pirates ran a two wingback offense. It probably looked a lot like this, although both ends may have been next to their respective tackle.
Just to get an idea of the size of these players, center John Oehler is listed at 6’0 204 pounds. Pipsqueaks compared to today’s standards.
Another sign of the times. In the Press’ edition, there’s a list of rules that are different in the pro game than college. They include a note that “Use of hands on defense is not prohibited” and “clipping is 25 yards.” Offensive holding is also a 15 yard penalty.
The Press also remarked that end/punter Ray Tesser was injured and unable to play, but in the recap, he is mentioned to have participated. No stopping someone from playing the first game with the Pirates!
Kickoff was slated to begin at 8:30 but reports show the game began 20 minutes late for reasons I couldn’t quite figure out. Ostensibly, the game doesn’t begin until 8:50. With a turnout of 20,000, a lot of bedtimes were surely missed.
As noted above, the Pirates lose 27-2. The Press’ prediction of Newman causing problems ring true and the headline the day after reads, “Harry Newman’s Debut Wrecks Pirates.”
The Post Gazette was highly critical of Brovelli, calling him a disappointment. They added he was “smashed to Earth whenever he sought to run the ball.”
The Press was kinder but makes a passing at his poor punting. The PPG piled on stating, a “quartet of booters” – Brovelli Tesser, Moss, and Holm had attempts – were tried and only Holm looked competent.
The Press also spoke highly of Holm and right tackle Corwan Artman. They make a special note that the trio of the two guards and center: Letsinger, Oehler, and Janecek, were “consistently brilliant.”
Let’s get into the scoring. Ken Strong was responsible for scoring the first points against the Pirates, taking a 34 yard pick six to the house on the second quarter’s first play from scrimmage. It was a pass from Brovelli intended for the Purdue All-Star, Paul Moss.
The Giants’ take that 7-0 lead into the half.
Pittsburgh’s first points came in the third quarter. Tony Holm recorded a 65 yard punt, with the aid of a bounce, that pinned the visitor’s near their own goalline. The Giants’ attempted to punt (it is not clear if this came on 4th down or earlier; it was not uncommon for a team to punt before they had to when backed up to avoid a potential turnover. I vaguely remember a story that a few years later, the Steelers’ once punted on first down late in the game with the lead).
The Pirates blocked the punt. The Press did not make it clear who got a hand on it, but the Post Gazette singles out Oehler, and that’s what the history books reflect. The ball rolled out of the end zone for a safety. Giants still led, 7-2 after three quarters.
Newman took the game over in the 4th quarter. He ran for a three yard touchdown early in the period, capitalizing on a Pirate fumble. To cap the scoring, he tossed a 37 yard touchdown to Dale Burnett. A field goal was sandwiched in-between.
The Press claimed the game was closer than the score appeared, and to an extent as I’ve shown, this is true. It was a 7-2 game three quarters in. But in an article a week later previewing the next game, their own numbers show how one-sided of a battle it really was. The Giants had 14 first downs, completed seven of fourteen passes, and had a total of 298 yards.
The Pirates had just one first down, 1/8 through the air (the PPG states 1/7 but it’s a minor quabble) and 57 total yards.
The lone first down came via the feet of back Jimmy Clark, subbing in for Bucky Moore. Moore may have earned the dubious honor of being the first player in franchise history to get hurt in-game, breaking his leg. Although Pro Football Reference says Moore played in five games, starting three, it doesn’t seem likely if his leg was truly broken.
Giants’ fullback Reb Russell ran well late in the game, wearing the Pirates’ defense down. He recorded at least three first downs in the fourth quarter.
Also of note is Ray Kemp, one of two black players in the league during 1933. He is noted as to having subbed in at tackle. He would eventually be cut a few games into the season and a black player would not play in the league again until Kenny Washington in 1946.
NYG: 0 7 0 16 = 23
PIT: 0 0 2 0 = 2
Game #2: September 27th, 1933 – Chicago Cardinals (14-13 Win)
The first victory in team history and a well-earned one at that. A tremendous comeback vaulted the Pirates over the Chicago Cardinals. Too bad not many got to see it as only 5-6,000 people showed up due to rain that persisted throughout the day, though the skies reportedly cleared up right before kickoff.
The Pirates would use a loud speaker and public address announcer for the first time. Not particularly important information but I’m nothing if not thorough.
Chicago raced out to a 13-0 lead. In the first quarter, Captain McNally, not to be confused with later Pirate and Hall of Famer Johnny “Blood” McNally, snatched a lateral attempt from Tony Holm, returning it 55 yards to the house. The extra point was missed.
Running back Joe Lillard, the other black player in the NFL, and a great back at that, tossed a touchdown pass to Hal Moe in the second. Lillard tacked on the extra point, making the score 13-0.
The Pirates’ responded with their first touchdown in franchise history. But it wouldn’t come on offense. Martin “Butch” Kottler intercepted a pass shortly before the half and raced 99 yards into the end zone. The Pittsburgh Press reports this as a 96 yard return but records hold the 99 yard figure (this seems likely as the Press probably got their figure from where the LOS was, not where the pass was intercepted). Mose Kelsch would add the extra point, cutting the Cardinals’ lead to six, 13-7.
Sometime in the second half, the Pirates catch an odd break. Holm and Lillard are ejected after a skirmish. Meaning, the Cardinals have lost their top threat.
Pittsburgh tried but failed to tie it up sometime in the second half. They put together a lengthy drive, even executing a “Statue of Liberty” play, but couldn’t push over the goalline. Chicago brought in 235 pound Walt Kiesling, who would later become the coach of the team, gutting out an injury suffered earlier in the contest.
With four minutes remaining in the game, the Cardinals seem assured of victory. But John “Cap” Oehler, who had a strong game throughout, recovered a Cardinal fumble. On fourth down, Jim Tanguay would hit Paul Moss in the end zone with just over two minutes to play. The length, though negligible, is disputed even in the PPG’s own article. They write it’s a nine yard touchdown but the sequence of plays seem to describe it as an 11 yard pass.
Regardless, the game is tied at 13. Out trots Kelsch for the extra point. Kelsch was no ordinary player. 36, never attended college (Steelers’ media guides are either confused or try to hide this fact, placing “Christian” next to where the college is typically listed, but that’s not his school – it’s his birth name), and a fan favorite.
He booted the extra point and a few moments late the Pirates’ could enjoy their first win, 14-13.
The Press has Kelsch’s name in the headlines the following day, writing, “Old Warhose Jumps Off Bench Twice To Boot Points That Whip Chicago, 14-13.”
An excerpt of the article is listed below giving an account of Kelsch, arguably the first specialist in NFL history.
“Everybody wondered why they took on old Mose as a member of the squad when the Pirates professional footballers were recruited. There was no college degree hanging on his wall at home, no All-America insignia dangling from the watch chains that span the ample middle. At Forbes Field last night they found out why. Old Mose has a degree. It’s B.P.K – Bachelor of Placement Kicking – and Mose is a post-graduate!”
Pro Football Reference claims he had eight carries throughout the season. While it is known he played halfback in at least one game, it seems unlikely a 36 year old would receive any carries.
Some other notes to throw in. Jimmy Clark ran admirably. Written to have multiple tough runs throughout – gains of 30, 20, and 19. Additionally, he had a 19 yard punt return and a couple tackles while playing safety. Tony Holm hit Brovelli on the longest pass of the game, 59 yards.
At the end of The Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s article, they write the Pirates were “…ready for the best of them.”
CHI: 6 7 0 0 = 13
PIT: 0 7 0 7 = 14
CHI: Five first downs, 4/11 passing, 2 INTs
PIT: Nine first downs, 4/18 passing, 4 INTs
Game #3: October 4th, 1933 – Boston Redskins (21-6 Loss)
Before the game, it was announced guard Letsinger (he’s referred to as “Howard” here but also called “Jim”, media guides show the latter) was injured and would not play. Replacing him is Larry Critchfield.
Redskins’ running back Cliff Battles, one of the best in a group of strict competition that year, dominated. He picked up 145 yards rushing and returning in the first quarter alone, including scoring on a 70 yard punt return. Despite not playing in the second quarter, he had punt returns of 18 and 11 and a rush of 49. By the end of 1933, he led the league averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
Other Boston touchdowns came from Jim Musick in the third and Walt Holmer in the 4th. The latter was set up by a 30 yard pass to backup running back Bennie LaPresta, Boston sported a 21-0 lead before Pittsburgh got on the board, an Angelo Brovelli run in the fourth.
The PPG described the home team as being “listless” through the first three quarters but there were a couple of bright spots. Ray Tesser punted well. Paul Moss recorded two of the team’s four catches for 80 yards, including a 55 yarder from Shaffer that set up the lone TD.
BOS: 7 0 7 7 = 21
PIT: 0 0 0 6 = 6
BOS: Nine First Downs (Press Reports 8) 2/12 passing, 2 INTs
PIT: 5 First Downs, 4/18 passing, 3 INTs
Game #4: October 11th, 1933 – Cincinnati Reds (17-3 Win)
League rules stipulated that after three games, each roster could not carry more than 22 men. The Steelers were forced to cut four: Jim Letsinger, George Shaffer, Jim Tanguay, and Martin Kottler. So despite scoring the first touchdown in team history, Kottler got the ax. Tough break.
Head coach Jap Douds inserted himself into the starting lineup at tackle, becoming a player-coach. Obviously means he didn’t start the year playing like most probably assumed, myself included.
With the roster shifting, Brovelli was moved to quarterback (though realize in that offense, anyone in the backfield is a threat to throw). The Pirates purchase the contract of Ed Westerfall who faced the Pirates the week before playing for Boston. Not an uncommon tactic for a team to snag a few players from the team they were in town with. Not the last instance for the Pirates during 1933.
The day of, there is a feature on the “huge” tackle from Southern Methodist, John Burleson. His weight? 230 pounds. Again, times sure have changed.
The Reds struck first with their only points of the ballgame. Tesser’s punt was blocked after a poor snap on the Pirates’ first drive. Cincy settled for a 12 yard drop kick field goal.
The Pirates quickly respond with a touchdown in the first quarter. Tackle Don Rhodes blocked a punt from the Reds’ 22, then pounced on the ball at the two. Westerfall made an impression early in his Pirates’ career, scoring over left tackle the next play.
Not much else doing in the first half. The Pirates do threaten to score near the end of the half, putting together a 73 yard drive to the away team’s 12. On the drive, Broveilli had runs of 16 and 19 and Westerfall hit Moss on passes that netted 17 and 12. Westerfall also connected with back Elmer Schwartz for 11. But it’s foiled by a poor snap at the very end of the half and the ball somehow ends up near midfield.
Different quarter, same story in the third. Holm hits Tesser on a long pass of 33 yards to the Reds’ 20 but the team couldn’t come away with points. Interesting sidenote of how the game was policed for that time. Holm was called for “slugging” on the Reds’ two, a half the distance penalty. Meaning, it’s half the distance from the offensive’s own goal, 98 yards away. In the end, a 49 yard infraction that pushes the team back to midfield. Bizarre.
The Pirates finally punched through in the fourth. Kelsch booted a 23 yard field goal after the Pirates’ Whitey Engebresten recovered a fumble. Later in the 4th, tiny Harp Vaughn ran back a punt to the 12 and scored four plays later. With the PAT, we reach the final score of 17-3.
In the game, Tesser had a 73 yard punt that went from his own five to the Reds’ 23, though it was aided by a bobble from the return man. Jap Douds came in at quarterback in the fourth and promptly threw a pick.
One of the papers makes a mention the Reds had a player, “Tiny” Powell, who stood at 6’7, tall even by today’s standards.
5,000 people made the trip to Forbes Field to watch the home team win.
But despite that, the headline on the opening page of the sports’ section in The Pittsburgh Press did not talk about the Pirates. It read, “South Hills and Perry Fight For League Lead.” The Pirates’ game is not mentioned until Page Three. Pro football was not shunned but it certainly wasn’t the hot topic.
In the recap, writer Lester Biederman quips the best opening line imaginable. “More games with Cincinnati. That’s what our football Pirates need.”
CIN: 3 0 0 0 = 3
PIT: 7 0 0 10 = 17
CIN: 4 first downs
PIT: 21 first downs
Part Two will be posted tomorrow, recapping the rest of the Pirates’ season.