by Greg Nichols
Big Bertha, a massive driving sled, haunted the Tigers’ dreams. It was rare for high school football teams to use sleds in the late 1950s, and rarer to see anything larger than a two-man version. Big Bertha was ten yards wide and had spots for seven players. Head Coach Chuck Klausing had enlisted a manager at the Edgar Thomson Works, the local U.S. Steel plant, to weld the mammoth contraption together. A latticework of scrap steel and thin padding, the finished product weighed a ton. Steelworkers borrowed a crane from the mill to hoist it off the truck and onto the Braddock High practice field. When Klausing instructed the first group of players to hit it, they bounced off.
Improbably, the Edgar Thomson Works is still around, still making steel. It’s a rare survivor in Western Pennsylvania, a region that’s lost most of the heavy industry that made it the economic engine of the 20th century. Braddock, where Edgar Thomson is located, also lives on. A mile-long stretch of vine-lashed buildings and vacant lots perched on the , it is home to 3000 kind, weary souls, about ten percent of its peak population. Braddock High football, once a matter of barroom pontificating, heavy betting, and unparalleled enjoyment across the Mon Valley – and, for a brief moment, a subject of real national interest – is a distant memory.
Image is in the public domain via 15104.
In 1959, the Braddock High Tigers set out for a sixth straight undefeated season under Chuck Klausing, a 34-year-old coaching phenomenon who had turned his group of scrappy, undisciplined teens into champions. The Tigers had been undefeated in 46 straight games going into the season and were within spitting distance of the national record, which stood at 52 games. But the real stakes that season were even higher than a national record. On July 15, 1959, more than half-a-million steelworkers walked off the job after contract renegotiation between the United Steelworkers and the major steel companies ended in failure. It was the largest work stoppage in the nation’s history, and overnight America’s industrial inertia ground to a halt. Steel production, America’s marquee industry, fell silent. Workers waited for U.S. Steel’s quick surrender, for the other companies to follow suit. A 1956 strike had resulted in record pensions and wages, and workers believed another strike would bring the same windfall. Families sang defiant songs and met one another for potluck dinners, a nostalgic fraternity that recalled ’56.
Only this time, the steel companies didn’t seem eager to make a deal. Without salaries, workers grew uneasy. Summer’s momentum stopped right along with the slab rollers and blast furnaces, as though the cycles of nature were linked to American production. When fall finally arrived, the stoppage seemed years old. Families were eating donated food out of cans. The union helped where it could, but with little money saved and dues inconsistently collected, it could intervene in only the direst circumstances. Braddock High football was the sole bright spot for families whose prosperity was inextricably linked to steelmaking, and every single Tigers player knew what he was playing for when he took the field: a town’s wilting pride.
Three months after the strike began, President Eisenhower was getting anxious. The country needed building girders, sewer grates, and thumbtacks, to say nothing of tanks and Polaris missiles. All of it required steel. Whatever quantities manufacturers had stockpiled before the strike was now depleted. American automakers, which consumed about 20% of the country’s steel, had already started laying off workers. General Motors alone let go of 60,000 of its production employees, and the company was announcing that another 60,000 layoffs were on the way. The economy had slowed, and now the Pentagon was warning of declining military preparedness. To top it off, the country was heading into an election year.
The Taft-Hartley Act, a federal law that passed the senate in 1947, gave the government enormous power over the activities of labor unions. Among other things, it allowed the president to order strikers back to work if their actions contributed to a national state of emergency. Seeing no resolution in sight, Eisenhower ordered his Justice Department to petition for a Taft-Hartley injunction. Against a wall, the union’s only option was to challenge the constitutionality of Taft-Hartley itself. The union lost its challenge in district court, but adjudicators stayed the injunction until higher courts could weigh in. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals again upheld the government injunction on October 27th. On November 3rd, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments for and against the constitutionality of Taft-Hartley. Workers around the country awaited the decision.
Part II of this installment will be available on September 16, 2014.
GREG NICHOLS is an author and journalist that has followed his penchant for place-based reporting from the barrios of South America to the steel towns of Western Pennsylvania. His article on Braddock for Pittsburgh Quarterly won the 2012 Golden Quill Awards for Best History/Culture Feature and Best Sports Feature. Nichols holds a B.A. in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College. He lives with his wife in Los Angeles, California. His latest book is Striking Gridiron.