Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Little Pittsburgh Steeler Lore

This week, I saw the movie, "Fences" starring Denzel Washington in the role of a former Negro League baseball player who lived in Pittsburgh during the 1950s working as a garbage collector. Set in Pittsburgh, Troy Matson and his family were living in the Hill district of Pittsburgh, the city's main black community. There were references to a place called the Crawford Grill. When I was stationed in Pittsburgh with DEA from July 1987 to January 1990, we had many occasions to work in the Hill district. I recall that the Crawford Grill was still the place in that area. Actually, the Crawford Grill dated back to the 1930s as a jazz club and occupied more than one location during its existence.

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Crawford Grill #2

In 1958, three years after I became a Steeler fan as a kid living in Los Angeles, the downtrodden Steelers, who had never so much as won a divisional title, traded for Detroit Lions star quarterback Bobby Layne. The same year, they also brought in Layne's teammate from the Lions, Tom "the Bomb" Tracy a power running back.

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Bobby Layne

Tom "the bomb" Tracy

Layne was known for his hard play (He played without a face mask) and hard drinking. He regularly led his teammates in drinking bouts off the field. One night while I was stationed in Pittsburgh, we finished work late at night, and stopped at a bar located in the Hill district. We would not normally have gone to that area to drink, but we were with a couple of Pittsburgh cops who knew the place. (I don't believe it was the Crawford Grill. To the best of my recollection, I never went into that place.) One of the cops told of a story, possibly second-hand and handed down, that one Saturday night during football season, Layne came into that same bar we were sitting at after midnight with a few Steelers. They were scheduled to play that Sunday. After a few drinks, Layne told Tracy to get up on one of the tables and sing a song. When Tracy demurred, so the story went, Layne told him if he didn't get up on the table and sing a song, he wouldn't give him the ball during the game-not one time. So Tracy did as he was told. Supposedly, the Steelers won that Sunday's game. How much sleep Layne, Tracy et al got before the game is not recorded.

Both Layne and Tracy played with the Steelers from 1958 to 1963. so if the story is true, it would have happened during one of those seasons. Is the story actually true? I don't know. It came to me second or third hand, so you be the judge.

As it was, Layne never brought that first title to Pittsburgh as hoped. The Steelers would have to wait until the 1972 season before winning their first divisional championship. Their first Super Bowl came two years later.

By the way, in case you are wondering how a guy who had been a Steeler fan since he was a kid in LA wound up in Pittsburgh, it was purely coincidence. I was due to return to the US after a 5 year tour of duty in Italy, and somebody in DEA HQs in Washington probably thought they were screwing me by sending me to Pittsburgh. I was very happy with the assignment and enjoyed my time there.

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