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How the Steelers Were Named

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How did the Pittsburgh Steelers get their name? They weren’t always known as the Steelers.  Art Rooney founded the team under a different name and the team almost started using another nickname before Steelers became permanent. Let’s dig into the story and the history behind the famous Steelers.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS NAME HISTORY

You know them as the Pittsburgh Steelers – the Steel Curtain. The team’s all-time roster contains some of the NFL’s most storied players: Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, and Rocky Bleier are just three of the legendary names that decorate one of the most legendary franchises in pro sports.

What if the Steelers had a different name? The team actually started under a different moniker and used it through the 1930s. The team then briefly changed names again when founder Art Rooney sold the team the next year. He regained the team in such a short amount of time that many people don’t know that he actually sold the team in the early 1940s. Rooney immediately reinstated the Steelers nickname.

STEELERS ORIGINALLY NAMED PIRATES

Art Rooney founded the team and the franchise joined the NFL in 1933. Rooney named the team the Pirates, after Pittsburgh’s major league baseball team. Pro football teams occasionally shared nicknames with their major league baseball counterparts into the 1980s. Other NFL teams that used the same name as their baseball counterparts include the New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, and St. Louis Cardinals.

The NFL Pittsburgh Pirates lasted through the 1930s. Rooney decided it was time for a change.

Looking for a great NFL history book? Check out The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL available at — Amazon.comBarnes and NobleUniversity of Nebraska Press

ROONEY HOLDS NAMING CONTEST

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Steelers owner Art Rooney held a naming contest. An estimated 3,000 people entered. Twenty-one people entered the name “Steelers” but the first entry received with that name was from a sportswriter in Uniontown, Pennsylvania named Arnold Goldberg. All twenty-one entrants who submitted “Steelers” won free season tickets.

Mary O’Donnell was also one of the people who entered “Steelers.” She claimed her tickets and simultaneously met her future husband – Steelers ticket manager Joe Carr.  

Rooney liked the name “Steelers” because it honored the city’s high stature in the steel industry. The team started the 1940 season with its new nickname.

ART ROONEY SELLS STEELERS

Art Rooney sold the Steelers between the 1940 and 1941 season. He purchased part ownership of the Philadelphia Eagles and shared the team with Eagles founder Bert Bell.

Alexis Thompson (pictured below in 1941 with actress Lana Turner) bought the Steelers from Rooney. Thompson announced a new team name – the Iron Men.

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Rooney regained the franchise a few months later when he and Bell traded the Eagles to Thompson for the Pittsburgh club. Rooney and Bell quickly reinstated the Steelers nickname.

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The team kept the name Steelers through the present day, although the franchise fell on hard times during World War II and merged with the Eagles in 1943 and the Cardinals in 1944. The 1943 team is often referred to as the “Steagles.” You can read about that piece of NFL history here.

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ABOVE: FRANCO HARRIS AND ROCKY BLEIER WAVE “TERRIBLE TOWELS.”

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