Art Rooney’s Pirates team didn’t get over .500 once in their first five seasons. The best they managed was in 1936. After starting that season 6-3, they lost their next two games, but went into their final game against the Boston Redskins with the eastern division title still within their grasp.
The Pirates were the underdogs, but the players were confident they could earn their first playoff berth and beat the odds. It would not have been too long into the game before they realized they should have kept their money in their pockets. They fumbled away a 30-0 loss and the $500 bonus each player was due for winning the division.
Following the 1937 season when his team went backwards and only managed four wins, Art Rooney decided to improve his team by bringing in a star player. An athlete of stature, a player who would attract some of the significant number of football fans who turned out in Pittsburgh to watch collegiate football.
The Pirates proved in 1936 they could get the fans into Forbes Field if they were playing well. The Pittsburgh Press noted the organization were $3,000 in profit for that season although that figure went nowhere near covering the losses of the previous years.
According to reports at the time, Art Rooney lost $21,000 in 1937.
The Pirates’ coach, Johnny Blood, also explained the type of player he was looking to add to his team to make an impact.
“I want self-starters,” Blood said. “I want players who need no urging from the coach and little of that psychology to get out there and put out. I can see that Pittsburgh is a great football town and while we get more competition here owing to the fact that the city has three great college teams (Pitt, Carnegie Tech and Duquesne), I am sure , from what I have seen here that a winner or a runner-up will cash in heavily.”
The outstanding player available to be drafted was Byron “Whizzer” White of the University of Colorado. He led collegiate football scoring with 122 points and was the only player to be unanimously named All-American by the nation’s football writers.
The major problem for any team thinking of drafting him was his lack of interest in joining the professional ranks. He was an outstanding law student and was focused on winning a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University, England.
White’s aim was to continue his studies. Asked if he would consider a pro offer if he failed to win a scholarship, White replied, “I don’t think that would make any difference.”
When the NFL owners convened in Chicago for their annual draft meeting in December 1937, the Cleveland Rams, who were selecting first, had already named White as their pick.
“If he doesn’t play, that will be our tough luck,” admitted the Rams’ President Homer Marshman. “We are not going to risk the possibility of losing him by not taking him in the draft. He can always change his mind. If he doesn’t play for us next year, he won’t play for any other pro team.”
On draft day, the Rams decided against taking the risk and chose fullback Corbett Davis instead. Philadelphia and Brooklyn, who were picking second and third, also overlooked White leaving the way open for Rooney to gamble and select the player who he thought would bring in the fans.
Back in the day, there was not the razzmatazz surrounding the NFL draft as there is today, so no announcement about White’s signing with the Pirates wasn’t made until January 26, 1938. UP reported that a $15,000 contract had been mailed to White as Rooney attempted to make an offer the player could not refuse.
With his friends urging him to accept the generous terms, White took some time to contemplate signing. At least Mr. Rooney would have been initially pleased his offer had not been rejected outright.
When White was successful in obtaining the scholarship to Oxford, the odds against him putting on a Pirates jersey increased. After confirming in June that he would not play for the Pirates, the drama took a last twist.
His brother Sam, who was in his final year at Oxford, arranged for a delay of Byron’s entry to the university until January of the following year. This led White to have the best of both worlds – the scholarship he desired and a hefty addition to his bank account.
White finally arrived in Pittsburgh on August 9 to be greeted by several hundred fans and a gaggle of reporters. With his good looks and scholarly demeanor, one wag reminded him pro football was a pretty tough sport. White replied, “I’ve heard all the bad things, tell me some of the good things.”
White signed his contract and how he and the Pirates fared together will be revealed here next week.