In Defense Of The Steelers' Throwback Uniforms

The internet has spoken, and it hates the uniforms the Steelers unveiled yesterday to mark their upcoming 80th season:

"Absolutely terrible"
"Bumblebees in prison"
"The NFL reclaims the low ground"
"A nice gesture, but a cringe-worthy result"
"Really, really, really ugly"
"Ugliest-looking uniforms in NFL history"

The point missed by every one of these critiques is that the uniforms are throwbacks. They are not designed with any sort of modern sensibility, and they would not work in 1962, let alone 2012. They are a homage to the team's founding, a noble reminder of the franchise's Depression-era roots. They are based on what was worn in 1934, for the simple reason that that's what the Steelers wore in 1934.

Tradition is something Steelers fans often like to bleat about—the uninterrupted local family ownership, the three coaches since the moon landing, those "classic" uniforms that have remained largely unchanged since the early '70s. But many of those same fans tend to overlook what the franchise looked like—literally and figuratively—for the 40 years prior to the Immaculate Reception. And you know what? For pretty much all of those years, the Steelers sucked. From 1933 until 1971, they had just seven winning seasons. Their only postseason game in all that time was in 1947, when they were shut out by the Philadelphia Eagles in what was actually a playoff tiebreaker. During World War II, because of a player shortage, the Steelers combined with the Eagles and the Chicago Cardinals in back-to-back seasons just to survive; in '44, during their merger with the Cardinals, they didn't win a game. Until 1940, the Steelers were called the Pirates, and the Pirates remained the city's more popular franchise right up until the '70s.

In Defense Of The Steelers' Throwback UniformsThe Steelers only plan to wear the '34 throwbacks twice next season, and then they'll be put away, at least until they decide to bring them out again, much like they occasionally do with those duds from the early '60s. And for all the talk about unchanging traditions, Steelers fans will likely add them to their jersey collections. Sure, sporting one of these will make you look like you're auditioning for a Stryper tribute band. But history is just another stock of inventory at the team store. At $160 plus shipping, the NFL and the Steelers know you'll do it anyway.

Ed Bouchette, the longtime Steelers beat reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, shares a great anecdote today about the team's 1934 uniforms. The story involves the first time Bouchette was invited into Art Rooney Sr.'s office in the mid-1980s. Bouchette's article is behind the newspaper's pay wall, but the relevant part is right here:

Rooney's office was something to behold, especially all the photos on the walls, many of them autographed. On one wall, he had team photos from the early years. He sat behind his desk as I gawked at many of the photos. When I began looking at the team photos, I laughed at the picture of the 1934 outfit. It was in black and white, and I said outloud to the Chief, "They look like jailbirds.''

Art Rooney did not laugh. He did not smile. He said nothing. I knew immediately I committed a faux pas, and began talking about some of the other uniforms and asked questions about some of the teams to dig myself out of the hole. The Chief never rebuked me, but I could tell he still had a sense of pride in that team. It could not have been their 2-10 record. Who knows? Maybe he was just proud he was able to pay them during that year of the Great Depression and able to keep afloat so he could field another team in 1935. Maybe he designed those uniforms himself, for all we know.

Here, in fact, is how dreadful the Steelers were, and for how long: My 83-year-old father has been a Steelers season-ticket holder for longer than I've been alive. To this day, he remains convinced that Rooney Sr., the team's late founder and the closest thing Pittsburgh has to a patron saint, took money to have the Steelers lose on purpose during those early years. My dad has nothing to base this on, other than Rooney's known propensity for gambling, which includes the fact that he bought the team with money he won while betting on racehorses. My dad's theory proves nothing more than when you watch a team lose so consistently for so many years, and you find yourself still giving a shit about them, you'll believe pretty much anything. And how ugly is that?