by Greg Nichols
For reasons that had nothing to do with Eisenhower, Taft-Hartley, or the Supreme Court, the air above Braddock was electric on November 6, 1959. It was game day, and the Tigers were playing their biggest rivals, neighboring North Braddock Scott, for a chance at the post-season. Braddock had had a few close calls leading up to this game, which was the last of the season, but with a win over Canon-McMillan the week before, Klausing and his Tigers had captured the national record. A fawning Sports Illustrated article was circulating through town, although Joe Stukus, the Braddock High principal, was burning every copy he could get his hands on. The article described Braddock as a down-and-out town, and said several of the Braddock players came from slums. Stukus, a proud civic booster, couldn’t stand the depiction.
Braddock fans began their march into North Braddock, toward Scott High, well before sunset. Under the best circumstances, neighboring towns will have some manner of rivalry. Braddock and North Braddock did not live together under the best circumstances. Braddock hugged the polluted Monongahela and was home to a giant steel mill. North Braddock sprawled high on the slope above Braddock; it was wealthier and whiter. A set of train tracks separated the towns.
The rivalry, not surprisingly, spilled over into football, the mutual enmity made more intense by the fact that the teams shared a field. Braddock, with no stadium of its own, played its home games at North Braddock Scott High. Between 1915 and 1970 the schools played 29 times. During the ’31 game, a fistfight broke out between players and spectators and resulted in a 16 year hiatus. During each of Braddock’s five previous title runs, they’d needed to beat Scott to earn a place in the championship. They’d been successful each time, though some of the victories had been won on a prayer. A year earlier, in 1958, a last minute field goal saved the season. The ball actually hit the crossbar. It limply rolled over, falling into the hands of the referee waiting below. Now, once more, both teams were undefeated. The championship game was the prize.
The game didn’t disappoint. Ray “Butch” Henderson had terrible hands. Klausing must have known before the game that drastic measures would be necessary. As the team was taping up earlier that afternoon, he’d told Henderson about a favorite trick of NFL receiving great Ray Berry. Berry wrapped his wrists each game, pulling the tape tight so it cut circulation to his fingers. Half asleep, his fingers relaxed. Relaxed fingers meant soft hands. Intrigued, Henderson had decided to wrap his own wrists.
The gimmick worked. Ray Henderson was suddenly Braddock’s go-to man. At the end of the fourth quarter, with Braddock trailing 12-9, Butch caught two passes for 35 yards. The crowd of 10,000 went wild as the boy dusted himself off. Quarterback John Jacobs made two more completions for gains, putting Braddock in Scott High territory with just over thirty seconds to play. Down by three, a tying field goal would jeopardize Braddock’s chances at the postseason. There was no overtime. Klausing called another passing play. Jacobs saw Butch streaking for the back of the end zone. He let one fly. Henderson hauled in the 26-yard pass, a beautiful over-the-shoulder grab for a touchdown. The kid with boards for hands had come through. Half of the fans in Scott Stadium went nuts. The other half looked on in disbelief. The Tigers had done it again.
Braddock beat Waynesburg 25-7 in the championship game. When Klausing had arrived in Braddock in 1954, the Tigers were a mediocre team with a long losing streak. In six seasons the coach hadn’t lost a game. Braddock had become a winning town by association, a point of pride in the region.
Braddock HS PA Football Highlights 1954 to 1959.
For steelworkers and the American steel industry, things didn’t turn out so well. The Supreme Court upheld Eisenhower’s Taft-Hartley injunction on November 7th, the day after the big game. In a daze, workers returned to the mills.
Things only got worse. With 85% of the industry nonoperational during the strike, American corporations found suppliers in Japan and Korea. Imports of steel doubled in 1959. Efficient sea transport was coming into its own and Asian steel was less costly. Over the next decade, the American steel industry went into a free fall.
Braddock’s population declined with it. Younger generations left in search of work. With the arrival of strip malls and the proliferation of the automobile, established workers settled in nearby suburbs. Unknowingly, Braddock’s half-dozen car dealers had sold their customers one-way tickets. In 1950, Braddock had 16,488 residents. By 1970, that number was down to 8,682. The decline persisted. The big stores closed down or moved on. The smaller shops simply dwindled. Many walked away from their buildings, from the town, leaving empty storefronts and vacant houses in their wake. The Edgar Thomson Works is still operational, but the men and women who work there drive out of Braddock when the whistle blows, away from the embattled town that was once the pride of the Monongahela.