Playing through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town

Playing through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town

by S.L. Price


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In the early twentieth century, down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company built one of the largest mills in the world and a town to go with it. Aliquippa was a beacon and a melting pot, pulling in thousands of families from Europe and the Jim Crow south. The J&L mill, though dirty and dangerous, offered a chance at a better life. It produced the steel that built American cities and won World War II and even became something of a workers’ paradise. But then, in the 1980’s, the steel industry cratered. The mill closed. Crime rose and crack hit big.

But another industry grew in Aliquippa. The town didn’t just make steel; it made elite football players, from Mike Ditka to Ty Law to Darrelle Revis. Pro football was born in Western Pennsylvania, and few places churned out talent like Aliquippa. Despite its troubles—maybe even because of them—Aliquippa became legendary for producing football greatness. A masterpiece of narrative journalism, Playing Through the Whistle tells the remarkable story of Aliquippa and through it, the larger history of American industry, sports, and life. Like football, it will make you marvel, wince, cry, and cheer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802125644
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 1,223,828
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

S. L. Price, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated since 1994, is the author of three previous books: Heart of the Game; Pitching Around Fidel, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and Far Afield, which Esquire named one of the top five reads of 2007. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his family.

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The Red and the Black

They came for the money. Years later, once purchase had been gained at the steel mill, early-twentieth-century immigrants to America would speak of luxuries like liberty or freedom of worship. But the prospect sketched by industry agents who fanned out, then, through Europe's destitute cities and farms had less to do with steeples and voting booths than the squat outline of blast furnace, powerhouse, and ore yard, high chimneys belching volcanic ash and endless fire. The pursuit of happiness? Being "happy" was never the point. Old-World peasants were near starving. The Serbs had a motto: Covek mora da radi: A man must work. America had the work. America had money.

So they kept coming in that first decade and half, 15 million strong, most uneducated and unskilled and speaking no English, a constant flow of labor being drained from ancestral homes and hills and fields and streaming to the nearest big ports. Some were young boys, and alone. But they were mostly young men at first, cast out blindly by families like fishhooks, fleeing threat of war, natural disaster, the crumbling order of king and czar. They came from Italy, Germany, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Croatia, Serbia, Slovakia, Lebanon, Greece; they were Slavs and Roman Catholics and Jews and Eastern Orthodox sardined together into boxcars, sometimes legally. Other times the men hopped down and dissolved into fields at border crossings, crouching silent until the officials went away. The journey was tedium, filth, spasms of fear. They kept coming.

It was, too, the first era of movement for movement's sake, of speed as a virtue. The human rush was on: to cities, to empire, to battle, to getting wherever there was faster. Steel made speed possible. Expanding rail systems, rising skyscrapers, Henry Ford's automobile, and the buildup of European armies created a near-bottomless hunger for the light, flexible metal, made Western Pennsylvania an industrial behemoth and magnet for all the "mill Hunkies" filing then through New York's Ellis Island. Sent funds in 1903 by an older brother in Pittsburgh, Martin Zelenak, a twenty-year-old from the Czech-Slovak slice of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, set out for Hamburg; en route he was dragooned into the Austrian cavalry and shipped to the eastern frontier. Two years later, Corporal Zelenak arrived in New York and began walking the 370 miles West to his brother's home. When his shoes dissolved, he stole potato sacks off porches and wrapped his feet in the burlap and walked on.

In 1905 Pittsburgh's Jones and Laughlin Steel Company, founded in the 1850s by the self-made B. F. Jones and James Laughlin — or, as one observer quipped, an old firm "when Andrew Carnegie was still a telegraph messenger boy" — began buying up acreage twenty-six miles down the Ohio River: Crow and Hog Islands; the untouched farmland above sleepy Woodlawn; a small, adjoining manufacturing village, Aliquippa; and the remains of a once-bustling amusement park.

The original village name, applied randomly by a railroad company looking to entice customers in 1878, was lifted not from some local feature but from Queen Aliquippa, a pro-British Seneca chief who never set foot there and whom George Washington, when he met her miles away in 1753, tendered "a present of a match-coat and a bottle of rum, which latter was thought much the better present of the two." General "Mad Anthony" Wayne — en route to his victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers — trained troops cross-river in the winter of 1794; legend has it that his soldiers rowed over so often to the Woodlawn whorehouse that Wayne had it leveled with a blast of cannon shot.

Now second in size only to Carnegie Steel, J&L had only recently come under full control of the next generation of the Jones family. Freshly incorporated, its ambitions increasingly squeezed in its South Side works, the company as pure business animal needed to expand to capitalize on the mushrooming global markets in tin, tube, and wire. But "The Family," as the Jones management entity came to be known, didn't only view the rolling expanse along the Ohio as a blank slate upon which to write their financial future. They had something more elevated in mind.

President B. F. Jones Jr., the only son of B. F. senior and Princetontrained, and his more voluble cousin, vice president William Larimer Jones, considered themselves part of an enlightened subset of industrialists in that Darwinian era, touting a management bent as paternal as it was profitable. Tom Girdler, the mill's de facto superintendent from 1914 to 1924, never had a stranger job interview: W. L. Jones and he barely talked business. Starting with the Mayflower, Jones lectured Girdler on the nation's history of immigration, on the poorer, darker, oft-bewildered horde now pouring in, on the real estate and criminal interests that funneled them into shantytowns thick with typhoid and cholera. Aliquippa would be the corrective, Jones believed, a utopian machine designed to make citizens as well as steel.

"We can make a fresh start," Jones told Girdler. "When the plant is fully built the men who work there will constitute, with their families, the population of a good-sized town. We want it to be the best steel town in the world. We want to make it the best possible place for a steelworker to raise a family."

By then, the task of town-building was well under way. The first blast furnace had been fired up — or "blown in" — on December 1, 1909, and over time Woodlawn, the original Aliquippa (later named West Aliquippa), and the highland area known as New Sheffield would all be bound by the company's implacable will. Separated by railroad tracks, linked by a downtown viaduct — always known as "The Tunnel"— that later marked the divide between the North and South Mills, Aliquippa's work and living quarters rose together. By the end of 1912, three more furnaces were roaring, and the tin mill; rod, wire, and nail mill; blooming mill; open hearth; Bessemer converter; and beehive coke ovens began operation on a spread that would stretch a full seven and a half miles.

Across the tracks, through the tunnel, J&L sliced the town into 12 "Plans" that kept ethnic groups separate, reinforced old-country language, customs, and suspicion of outsiders, and — not incidentally — made any attempt at labor organizing that much more difficult. Its land company threw up a two-story house — hot and cold water, indoor plumbing, base price of $2,200 — a day in 1908, built a half-dozen schools and a community pool, financed and laid out the bus lines. The central commercial district, Franklin Avenue, was built atop a channeled river, the Logstown Run, and anchored by a company store called Pittsburgh Mercantile. J&L owned the water company and 674 homes. Downtown streets were paved with brick. Residential streets glowed with fresh-laid macadam.

"It has every modern utility such as natural gas, electric light, a pure and potable water supply and ample police and fire protection," read a promotional brochure for the town in 1910. "Its opportunities for delightful home and neighborhood life are not equaled in this end of the state." City fathers in Vandergrift or nearby Midland, other model steel towns, might take issue with the claim. But in light of the day's industrial slums, it felt like true progress.

Serbs, Croats, Poles, Slovaks, and a small scattering of blacks were sent to Plans 1, 2, 4, and 9 along the tracks, making up much of what was known as Logstown. Plan 7 held Serbs and other Slavs, Plan 11 the Italians and some Poles. Jews held down Plan 8, along Franklin Avenue; Greeks and Lebanese settled at its eastern end, by the tunnel, in the area known as the Wye. Italians dominated West Aliquippa. The higher in the surrounding hills you went, the whiter, richer, and quieter it became. Plan 6, with its three clay tennis courts, was reserved for management: "cake-eaters," in the slang of the day. Anglos, Germans, and Nordics lived in Plan 12, spilling over the bridge into a neighborhood soon to be dubbed "Hollywood" because of its decadent parties, its wayward wives.

The line between each Plan was invisible but known to all. Crossing entailed risk. Each enclave transplanted Old-World rivalries along with food and music, and in rich precincts police jailed anyone who seemed out of place; if you worked at J&L, the cost of arrest — $10 — came out of your pay. Class rules levied a different kind of sting.

"The fathers and mothers didn't allow you to talk to their girls," said steelworker Joe Perriello, a five-year-old when his family moved to Aliquippa in 1919. "If you wanted to date one of these Anglo-Saxons, you came to the door and even if you were a football player or a star or anything, they didn't give a damn. You knocked at the door and you asked for the girl, they said, 'Who the hell are you? Well, get out of here, you goddamn Dago, and don't you come back.' That's the way it was."

That first generation filling the Plans didn't argue — not when they were told where they couldn't walk or live, not when they were told how to work. Nothing mattered more than the job early on, both the job and the idea behind it. That a man could leave his parents, wife, and life behind in Vilnius or Minsk, ride steerage in a fetid steamship, and land employment that allowed for periodic returns back home, cash in hand, felt like salvation. So what if the cake-eater at the desk couldn't navigate the mash of consonants, and in seconds wiped out generations of family history by telling some proud Serb named Bozidar Sucevic, "From now on, your name is 'Mike Suder'"? You nodded. You took it. Complaint was a vice broken back on the docks of Hamburg.

Soon after the mill's opening, Martin Zelenak, the corporal, landed a job in J&L's boiler room, blacksmithing, swapping out pipes in 130degree heat, inhaling coal dust and oil fumes. "Twelve-hour shifts in those days," said his son, Martin Jr., a boilermaker at J&L himself for thirty years. "He'd get carbon-monoxide gas from working in the boilerhouse. When we worked in there we had a gas mask and a meter; if there was too much gas we had to get out. But my father, they didn't have it. He'd get gassed, go out in the alley, lay down, and throw up — and go back in there and keep working. If he wouldn't, they would fire you."

In moments of repose, sipping a cup of home-brewed wine or puffing a pipe, older Italians would take in the thick woods slanting above Franklin Avenue and say that Woodlawn — the name officially changed to Aliquippa in 1928 — reminded them of the Seven Hills of Rome. J&L built playgrounds, gave money to the Boy Scouts, bought neighborhood baseball gear. But good intentions aside, its main order of business was still filth-ridden, dangerous, and fully in line with a business ethos that saw ravaged hearing and scorched skin — or worse — as a fair trade for a day's pay.

"In the Aliquippa plant of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company Eli Skylo, 22 years old, of Woodlawn, was injured in an accident at 11 o'clock Sunday and died shortly afterward," read an item in the July 15, 1913, Pittsburgh Post. "And in the evening Jack Reynolds, 17 years old, a water boy who resided with his mother in Woodlawn, was killed. Skylo was crushed in an ore dump and the boy lost his life beneath ladle cars."

Within a year, the Great War had changed the dynamic. Demand for barbed wire, shell casing, spikes, rails, steel sheet, and tin food containers had the mills running at full capacity, and fighting across Europe dammed the labor flow. Three thousand J&L workers would go off to fight; in Aliquippa, jobs abounded. Schools ran year-round. The air hummed with twenty-four-hour clamor by the river; every nine minutes or so, flashes of flame bleached the night sky. That was steel's signature, the Bessemer converter in blow, beautiful and monstrous and illustrating like nothing else the dazzling might of "industrialization."

In use since 1875, the Bessemer — egg-shaped, steel-plated, taller than three men — reshaped a craft once dominated by artisans into a mass production manned by unskilled labor. B. F. Jones may have been the first in Pittsburgh to experiment with the process, in 1864, but it wasn't until a decade later, when Andrew Carnegie introduced the method at his Edgar Thomson Works, that it became industry standard. By 1916, Aliquippa had three Bessemers online. Each blow was a small apocalypse — 50,000 pounds of molten iron ore and carbon poured into the egg, colliding with 7,000 pounds of forced oxygen. A blossom of red, then yellow, then white flame exploded out of the top.

"It was a terrifying site, and hypnotic," author Stewart Holbrook wrote of the scene inside a Bessemer shed in Aliquippa. "The roar was literally deafening; and little wonder, for here was a cyclone attacking a furnace in a brief but titanic struggle, a meeting in battle of carbon and oxygen, cleverly arranged by the sweating gnomes whose red faces appeared white in the Bessemer's glow. Both carbon and oxygen would lose, each consuming the other, and men would be the winners by twenty-five tons of bright new steel."

All darkness above the mill, meanwhile, was obliterated by sheets of crimson and gold. "Hell with the lid lifted," is the line Charles Dickens borrowed to describe Pittsburgh, but it fit Aliquippa, too. Come the next morning, a film of soot and fly ash — "J&L pepper," "black snow" — was swept from countertops and porches all over town.

"Goddamn you!" one old Serb screamed at a complaining daughter. "You don't have that dirt? You don't have no food! Shut up, get a hose, clean it off!'"

Franklin Avenue offered dozens of bars to wash down the dust. Wages were paid in a mix of coupons, redeemable only at Pittsburgh Mercantile, and cash, snatched up by wives waiting outside the tunnel before their men could blow it playing cards or the numbers or shooting craps. "They called us 'Little Las Vegas,' if you please: gambling joints. Every other store was a gambling joint," said Joe Perriello, who came of age in Aliquippa in the 1920s. "When we got paid twice a month, they'd gamble from Friday to Monday. Everybody played for money. It was a money town!"

Debt was a constant. J&L deducted house, gas, and electric payments out of paychecks. To be fired meant eviction, and the loss of any mortgage payments made on a company home. Such power invited abuse: mill foremen demanded kickbacks — drink, cash, sex with a worker's wife — or else. The notorious Black Hand ran extortion schemes out of Plan 11; when an Italian fruit seller refused to pay $2,000, they blew up his downtown store and the whole three-story building that held it. More and more, the Family's Utopia had the feel of the Wild West.

"It is said that the region is largely peopled by uneducated foreigners, who invariably carry concealed deadly weapons; that murders are common," a state supreme court judge summarized in 1918. "And that when a quarrel ensues, the question as to who shall be the murderer and who is murdered is, largely, if not wholly, determined by the ability to draw such a weapon quickly."

But crime — in deed or mind — was a small chaos, and chaos was never good for the making of steel. Enamored with its own goodness, left militantly antiunion by Pittsburgh's savage Homestead Strike of 1892, terrified that its Slavic workers, in particular, would spread the infection of anarchism or communism, J&L surveyed the mess from the head office in Pittsburgh — and cracked down. Tom Girdler, its top official in town, fancied himself "an unofficial caliph, an American Harun al-Rashid obliged by my office in a big corporation to consider a whole community as my personal responsibility.

"There was in Aliquippa, if you please, a benevolent dictatorship. We policed it our own way and we policed it well. We began policing it because we had to — if we were to keep faith with the fine intentions of The Family."

As the implement deployed to shape such intention into day-to-day practice, The Family couldn't have chosen a more dangerous man. Not because Tom Girdler was inherently cruel, but because he was plagued by a limitless certitude. Because he was the hero of every story he told, no matter that it didn't always match fact. It takes a healthy dose of self-delusion to be solid money-born and management-bred, a fraternity man at Lehigh, yet look back from the prospect of old age and decide to call one's autobiography Boot Straps. But then, Girdler came of age in an era where every politician needed to be born in a log cabin — and every millionaire needed to start off as a version of Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick.

That Girdler was shrewd, and worked relentlessly, was never in doubt. He grew up mowing hay on his father's farm in 1880s Indiana, stacking endless dense sacks in the family cement plant, steeped in a narrative that marched in lockstep with the nation's own. Girdlers had fought the British in the Revolution, captained ships in the War of 1812, manned a ship alone in San Francisco Bay when the crew deserted to chase gold. Every Girdler man enlisted in the Civil War. "So, good or bad," Tom wrote, "every fiber of me is American."


Excerpted from "Playing Through The Whistle"
by .
Copyright © 2016 S. L. Price.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part 1 1

Chapter 1 The Red and the Black 7

Chapter 2 Little Hell 30

Chapter 3 Free Men 52

Chapter 4 Bootstraps 70

Part 2 87

Chapter 5 A War Game 95

Chapter 6 Father Backs Up 119

Chapter 7 Crossfire 141

Chapter 8 Mother's Oats 162

Part 3 179

Chapter 9 Mr. Lucky 187

Chapter 10 Halls of Anger 203

Chapter 11 The Crack 227

Chapter 12 Darkness on the Edge 250

Part 4 273

Chapter 13 You-Know-Who 279

Chapter 14 Up in Smoke 300

Chapter 15 Mauling Apollo 325

Chapter 16 Shiny Things 350

Chapter 17 Last Ones Laughing 367

Chapter 18 When the World Opens 383

Chapter 19 Iron Buttons 398

Chapter 20 Family Matters 416

Acknowledgments 445

The Town, The Players 451

Notes 459

Index 537

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