80 seasons worth of Steelers-Giants

Posted Nov 4, 2012

It is a fortunate quirk of history that has the Steelers celebrating their 80th season in the NFL with games against three of their oldest rivals – the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, and New York Giants. This is a look at some of the history between the Steelers and the Giants.

By the time Art Rooney Sr. had paid his $2,500 franchise fee to join the National Football League for the 1933 season, the New York Football Giants already had lived a lifetime in the rapidly expanding world of professional football.

Tim Mara plunked down $500 in 1925 for the NFL rights to New York City, and he immediately began to operate in a manner commensurate with being in America’s biggest city. In their inaugural year of operation, Mara’s team hired and fired Jim Thorpe, hosted Red Grange in front of 70,000 at the Polo Grounds, and finished 8-4-1. By the end of the following season, Mara already had lost $40,000 on this venture, but he was not deterred and soon the Giants were regular challengers to the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears for the annual NFL Championship.

But first Mara sought to distinguish his football club from the many other professional sports franchises operating in New York City, and so in 1929 Mara changed his franchise’s corporate name to New York Football Giants to separate it from the Major League Baseball franchise that was a part of the National League at the time.

From 1925-32, the Football Giants were awarded the 1927 NFL Championship based on finishing the season with an 11-1-1 record that was the best in the league; the franchise was gutted by Mara after the 1928 season when Coach Earl Potteiger and 18 players were asked not to return after a dismal 4-7-2 finish; and in an era when college football was deemed the far superior version of the sport, the Football Giants upheld the honor of the pro game by routing a team of Notre Dame All-Stars coached by Knute Rockne, 22-0, in 1930, after which Rockne told his players, “That was the greatest football machine I ever saw. I’m glad none of you got hurt.”

By the time Art Rooney Sr. entered the NFL for the 1933 season, the Football Giants were a force, and his team was to learn that lesson again and again, the hard way, through the first nine years of its existence.

For the 1933 season, the NFL divided its 10 teams into two divisions – Eastern and Western – and began playing a game for its annual championship instead of simply awarding the title to the team with the best overall record. As neighbors in the Eastern Division, Rooney’s team and Mara’s team played a home-and-home series every season except 1936, and it turned out to be decidedly one-sided. From 1933-41, the Giants went 14-2-1 against Rooney’s club and enjoyed a 331-166 edge in total points. But from there, the Steelers learned to hold their own against the Giants, at least when it came to head-to-head competition.

After World War II and through the 1950s, the Steelers and the Giants were polar opposites with respect to the identities the franchises projected. The Giants were Madison Avenue, they became the first franchise to make playing defense seem glamorous, their players were sought after pitchmen, Frank Gifford graced the covers of magazines with his helmet off.

That didn’t mean the Giants were soft, because they certainly were not. In the 18 seasons that spanned 1946-63, the Giants won the Eastern Division eight times, and often they had their defense to thank. Guys like Sam Huff and Andy Robustelli and Emlen Tunnell and Rosey Grier were as rough and tough as necessary, and on Coach Jim Lee Howell’s staff in the late 1950s were an offensive assistant named Vince Lombardi and a defensive assistant named Tom Landry.

The Steelers were neither as decorated, nor as successful, nor necessarily as well-groomed as their rivals from New York City. But on a late-November Sunday afternoon in 1952 none of that really mattered.

The 1952 Pittsburgh Steelers were 3-6 as they were preparing to host the 6-3 Giants at Forbes Field, a Giants team leading the NFL’s Eastern Conference at that point in the season. Those Steelers were a rough and tumble bunch – as usual – led by a defense that included ends Bill McPeak and George Tarasovic, tackle Ernie Stautner and safety Jack Butler. The offense was led by quarterback Jim Finks, halfbacks Ray Mathews and Lynn Chandnois, fullbacks Ed Modzelewski and Fran Rogel, plus veteran end Elbie Nickel.

This Steelers team was 3-6, yes, but a pair of those losses were one-point defeats to the eventual conference champion Cleveland Browns, with three others coming by a combined 15 points. This Steelers team almost won a lot more games that season, but you know what they call “almost winning?” Losing.

As usual, the Giants arrived with a defense loaded with talent and experience, but their offense was hampered by injuries to some key people, including Gifford, who did not make the trip,  and starting quarterback Charley Conerly, who would try to play with a bruised shoulder.

Chandnois, who would retire with a 29.6-yard kickoff return average, was the deep man for the Steelers for the opening kickoff that day. “The trouble with kickoff return men today,” Chandnois once said, “is that they stand there and wait for the ball to come down. I liked to take the ball on the run. In fact the pitchers mound in Forbes Field was just to the side of the line, and I used to like to stand on the mound to get a good start downhill.”

He used that running start to return the opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, and the Steelers had a 7-0 lead just 17 seconds into the game. Another Chandnois touchdown – this one on a 5-yard run – gave the Steelers a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, and then shortly after that, Finks threw touchdown passes to Nickel and Mathews to double the Steelers’ lead to 28-0.

The Steelers defense was not about to be left out of this party, and before the end of the first half, the unit had knocked both Conerly and backup quarterback Fred Benners out of the game. Emergency quarterback Kyle Rote was knocked out with a concussion, which meant the Giants had to throw Landry, who still was a player, in there and hope for the best – or a quick end to this disaster of a Sunday.

They got neither. The Steelers ended up with seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries; they held the Giants to 15 yards rushing; and they scored five more touchdowns in the second half on the way to a 63-7 victory that remains the most decisive win in franchise history.

“We always played the Giants tough,” said Chandnois, “but in that game we couldn’t do anything wrong.”

At a press conference the following day, Giants’ coach Steve Owen confessed he would have problems fielding a team for the next game because of all the injuries inflicted by the Steelers. That fear was realized when the Giants lost the following week to the 2-8 Washington Redskins to hand the conference title to the Cleveland Browns.

Eleven years later, the Giants would repay the Steelers by quashing their hopes of a spot in the NFL Championship Game.

As the final weekend of the 1963 NFL season began, nobody knew which two teams would meet in the Championship Game. The options were: Bears-Giants, Steelers-Bears, Steelers-Packers, or Packers-Giants. The Steelers were still in the conversation so late because they owned one victory over the Giants already – 31-0 at Pitt Stadium – and because of three ties and a rematch with New York as their finale, they had a chance to qualify for their first-ever Championship Game.

About the 1963 Steelers – a team Cleveland great Jim Brown dubbed the Gas House Gang – Myron Cope once wrote, “You get a fair idea what the Steelers are like when you see Mike Sandusky, a tubby offensive guard, chug before the TV cameras during pregame introductions. Already his shirttail is out. He looks like a hoodlum. At the team’s annual bowling banquet last season, Sandusky was presented with a trophy designating him ‘the best-dressed bowler.’ Ray Lemek, a piano-shaped guard, whom intimates gaily refer to as Ramon LeMek, was moved to remark, ‘Sandusky is the only man in America who feels well-dressed in Texaco pants and a T-shirt’ … You can best grasp (the offensive line’s) style of play by knowing that in the offseason Sandusky is a saloonkeeper, center Buzz Nutter is a beer salesman, and fat-boy tackle Dan James is a collector for a finance company … No man, however, reflects the essence of the Steelers so much as Ernie Stautner, who doubles as assistant coach and emergency defensive end. Martini-for-martini, this may be the toughest man ever to have come down the NFL pike … Stautner’s 15 seasons of pro football are a testimonial to good gin.”

The 1963 Giants were an aging group, but in Yankee Stadium that day they had more than enough to send the Steelers home, 33-17, and advance to the Championship Game, where they would face the Bears and lose. In 1964, the Giants and the Steelers finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, but in the game at Pitt Stadium – won by the Steelers, 27-24 – Pittsburgh defensive end John Baker ended New York quarterback Y.A. Tittle’s career with a sack that cracked his helmet and left Tittle on his knees and bleeding from the head. The cracked helmet is on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The most recent intersection of Steelers and Giants history came in 2004, when each franchise used the draft to pick a franchise quarterback. Both Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning have led their teams to two Super Bowl championships, and both quarterbacks are among the select few to have winning records as starters in the playoffs.

Eighty seasons ago, these franchises were polar opposites in terms of competing for championships. Today, they are peers in that department after having won four of the past seven Lombardi trophies.