Camp flashback: 1974 opens with player strike

Written by Dan Gigler on .

This being the 40th anniversary of the Steelers first Super Bowl season, the Post-Gazette will periodically run reprints of articles from that season in print and online. 

The '74 campaign got off to an inauspicious start, not just for the Steelers, but for everyone in the NFL via a players strike that began on July 1, but became 'official' on July 14, when veteran players were to report to training camp (rookies, then not covered by the CBA, had reported a week prior). 

 Below is legendary Pittsburgh sportswriter Phil Musick's column about that first day. While it reads as quaint then -- a 'labor strike' in a town that really knew labor strikes -- it is fascinating to read with the hindsight of what the NFL has become: a multi-billion dollar industry dealing with a grave health crisis regarding it's current employees and retirees. 

(also, late in the column, Chuck Noll gives a great quote regarding the disruption. The ultimate coach.) 

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Steeler Vets Vow They Will Block Pre-Season Games

(From ‘Sound of Musick’ column)

By Phil Musick / Pittsburgh Press

LATROBE – The strikers dismounted their Lincolns and Porsches to fight the good fight against management tyranny. Their leader shook hands warmly with his company counterpart. The pickets lolled in the sun and sipped beer and signed autographs.

It was not a labor battle Samuel Gompers would’ve recognized.

Nevertheless, as the mid-morning heat rays shimmered up from the two-lane blacktop road where they were encamped for the non-confrontation, the Pittsburgh Steelers struck their first blow in behalf of organized labor yesterday.

Caught firmly in the grasp of tedium as the day wore on they held their ranks staunchly and fell back only after, as one wit put it, “the beer ran out.”

So it was yesterday when the Steeler Chapter of the National Football League Players Association, some 13 veterans strong, took to the picket line in defense of the sort of personal and professional liberties Vince Lombardi would have termed treasonous.

Armed with the sage admonishment of Teddy Roosevelt, the Steelers pickets spoke softly – “We’re not trying to eliminate the system, just change it,” said player rep Preston Pearson – but they spoke freely of a big stick.

In this adult version of Blind Man’s Bluff, the NFL owners have adopted the posture that they will, if necessary and unconcerned with the aesthetics of such a maneuver, play the exhibition schedule with rookies.

Sitting in the trunk of his car, Pearson pulled up an NFLPA big gun and swung it into position.

“We’ll shut down the preseason games,” he said. For the very first time, here was talk a red-blooded union man could’ve warmed to.

“We’re not true-blue pickets,” Pearson went on. “But if it gets to the preseason games, then we’ll talk about something different. Then we’ll put up a picket line for that purpose.”

The implication was clear – that here in this two-lane, eight-tenths of a mile from, and out of sight of, the Steeler training facility at St. Vincent, there was something of a charade taking place. But the charade will stop if the owners attempt to use rookies in the exhibitions.

“We feel, after speaking with other labor unions, that we can close down those games,” Pearson said. Beyond the threat, and Dan Rooney’s reaffirmation that the vets would not be permitted entrance to the facility, the first day of confrontation was one of cordiality.

The mood was struck early when Pearson stopped in the Steeler dining hall at breakfast time and was informed by a grinning Steeler official, “No football, no food.”

Pearson and Steeler vice president Dan Rooney shook hands before Pearson, Rocky Bleier and Sam Davis spoke for an hour with the rookies and free agents on the advantages of supporting the strike. Their words fell upon deaf ears and drills will begin in earnest today.

But if the players’ mood was low-keyed, the commitment of most to the goals of the NFLPA seemed resolute.

“The sooner they realize they need the players to play, they’ll start talking and we’ll be able to get going,” Pearson said. “We’re not all wrong; they’re not all wrong. I’m just saying ‘let’s talk.’”

Pearson sought to move the site of the picketing closer to the training facility. The idea was turned down by Rooney, who didn’t want the veterans in sight of the practice fields. Otherwise, everything was harmonious.

“We don’t have it that bad here,” Pearson said. “The club has been good. But other teams are running their camps like concentration camps. But we’re not just concerned about here. What happens if you get traded and slapped with a $1500 fine for not wearing your helmet on the field?”

Still, on the picket line, there seemed no imminent danger of sign swinging. Bored with the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift for the cause, Jack Ham toyed with the idea of a diversion. “It’s no freedom, no football. They didn’t say anything about basketball,” he told Gerry Mullins. “Let’s go up to the gym.”

Somehow later it seemed more to the point when Dan Rooney sternly insisted Ham would not have been welcome. But, with as much of what took place yesterday, the point was moot. The gym was closed.

*          *          *

Coach Chuck Noll indicated that time lost because of the strike will be made up. “We’ll work Sundays and go to three-a-days,” he said. “We lost 10 days during the last strike (in 1970) and never did catch up.”

*          *

The rookies began two-a-day drills this morning and, for the duration of the strike, the training camp will be closed to the public ...

Top draft pick Lynn Swann hasn’t arrived ... Pearson said the striking veterans will not set up their own camp ... Picketing yesterday were: John McMakin, Jack Ham, Jon Kolb, Sam Davis, Roy Gerela, Franco Harris, Frenchy Fuqua, J.T. Thomas, and Gerry Mullins.

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