Pittsburgh Steelers Book Review: The Ones Who Hit The Hardest: the Steelers, the Cowboys, the '70s, and the fight for America's soul

Bookcover_mediumSeveral months ago, I mentioned that there would be several new additions to the already rich historiography of the Pittsburgh Steelers this summer. First, Tim Gleason's (aka maryrose) book, 'From Black To Gold: The Pittsburgh Steelers',  came out to glowing reviews by the likes of Rocky Bleier, Dick Hoak, Art Rooney Jr., and last and certainly least, myself. For being written by a fan without a press credential or the backing of a big publishing house, Gleason did just about as stellar a job as humanely possible telling the story of the Pittsburgh Steelers from the eyes of a passionate, season-ticket holder.

Then there was the 2010 Maple Street Press Annual edited by yours truly. There are some highlights in there thanks to the outstanding contributions of others I was fortunate enough to bring on board  - including a handful of BTSC regulars. I was proud of it, but it was more a preseason magazine than a book.

Though I hope many of you have plans to purchase maryrose's book this holiday season, I'm very pleased to announce a simply standout addition to the rich lore of the Steelers, available now. It is titled, 'The Ones Who Hit The Hardest: the Steelers, the Cowboys, the '70s, and the fight for America's soul'.

When I first introduced the project here early this summer, I wrote the following about the book's two authors based on my preliminary research of the two of them, as well as what little but recent opinion I had formed about Milman:

[The book is authored by] Chad Millman, a senior deputy editor of ESPN The Magazine and the man behind the witty, informative, and conversational 'Behind The Bets' blog on ESPN.com. You may be familiar with his name if you ever listen to Bill Simmons' 'B.S. Report Podcast'. Simmons likes to wager on sports and his go to guy for a good long talk is Mr. Millman. 

The book is co-authored by Shawn Coyne, a Pittsburgh native now enjoying the freedom to be a choosy and particular literary agent following his tremendously successful career in the publishing industry.

Those initial descriptions still hold true, but as I discovered by reading the book and from chatting with Millman on the phone earlier on Wednesday, Coyne is a far cry from a suit in the publishing world who's simply taking a crack at a project he's projected will be profitable. No, the Coyne family is a Pittsburgh family, and in many ways, the ideal embodiment of the city's fabric and ethos - from its rich tradition as a fertile breeding ground for football talent, a city of hard-nosed industrious and self-reliant workers, to its central place in the history of organized labor and union activity throughout the 20th century.

In fact, a guy by the name of Coyne was directly involved in Art Rooney's rise to political prominence in Iron City many moons before the Chief would assemble a Super Bowl winning squad. Without the tutelage and favor of Mr. Coyne (the co-author's grandfather), the Chief's life, or at the very least his operations as the owner of the Steelers,  could easily taken a different path, and with it, conceivably so could have the entire city's

Before I continue, a quick regrettable note: a technical error stood in the way of me being able to record my conversation with Millman. That's too bad, because I would have preferred to have let his answers to my questions tell the story of the project (or at least part of it). Instead, I'll try to intersperse his general thoughts, and some interesting facts I was able to get down while we spoke, into my thoughts about the book.

 

* First off all, a word on the scope of the project - the Steelers, the Cowboys, and their respective hegemonic reigns during the 1970s. The first thought many might have is:

'great, another book about the '70s, the decade when the Pittsburgh Steelers turned their fortunes around as a franchise, putting behind them decades of futility and enjoying an unprecedented run of success that countless have tried to make a buck writing about.'

Well, color me skeptical too. At least at first.

Howver, what made me excited about the project initially (before I received and read an advanced copy) was the book's authors. Millman, while not a Pittsburgh guy, or even a Steelers fan for that matter, clearly has a penchant for story-telling and cultivating relationships. How else do you make it in with the 'wiseguys' in Vegas? The mythical guys  behind the sports gambling scene with names like Frankie, Stevie, and Howie? And then parlay that insider knowledge and crucial access into an illuminating and well received book (The Odds) about the industry? The short answer is you don't, but you certainly don't stand a chance if you're not trustworthy, or lack cool and versatile personality, and a keen sense for story telling.

But you said Millman's not even a rabid Steelers fan, so why be excited about what he has to add to the narrative of the Steelers? That's where Mr. Coyne comes in handy, and in a big way. But before I explain, I'm compelled as a history major (got to get some utility out of that degree!), and as one who often misuses his entirely laissez-faire editorial oversight to say that....

It's simply not possible for a historical subject to ever fully be exhausted. Perhaps singular events that lasted but a few hours, or even days, but certainly not those chapters in history that involved a diverse cast of characters and unfolded over the course of many years.  There are concrete reasons why dozens of new Civil War books are published each year, for example, Granted, a percentage will be mediocre, and another group might be mildly enjoyable but very unimaginative in its scope. (Sports books typically fall into this category). 

However, without fail each year, a handful of interesting Civil War books will be published that are (or will be) thought of as legitimately 'important' contributions to the field because of their fresh, new, valuable insights about the fascinating, unsettling and bloody time in our American experiment. How can that be, given how historians and novelists have been publishing books about the era for over 150 years now? Because there's always a different lens with which to view and analyze the same event or period in history; a different type of seemingly innocuous story that in fact leads to a more a more emotional and satisfying understanding of the big picture.

Though it's part salesmanship on my part to help out the site, I remind Mr. Gleason of this frequently. He's told me many times he's 'out of arrows in the quiver' to share with the site. First time he said that to me was probably around this time last year. Raise your hand if you haven't read anything fresh and interesting from him this past 12 months. No hands up, I see.

* Back to the book project, and my initial mentioning of how the book's co-author, Mr. Shawn Coyne, was able to differentiate the project thanks to his unique upbringing in Pittsburgh. At first, before reading the book, having my conversation with Millman, or doing follow-up research, I surmised that Coyne's stature in the publishing world was as responsible for his involvement in the project, as was the fact that his family was incredibly well connected and beloved by legions of individuals and families thanks to the men's prominent leadership positions amongst union ranks or in influential political circles around town.

I was wrong.

I had no idea just how deeply rooted the Coyne family is in the city of Pittsburgh. If I did, I might have initially been able to better understand how the younger Coyne was in a unique position to add something fresh and compelling to the literature of organized labor and professional football in Pittsburgh - two disparate but very-much-intertwined histories that only a native son can truly tell. As it turned out, I just had to be pleasantly surprised, then put the pieces of the puzzle together after I had made my way through a chunk of the book.

* If I had to guess, I would guess that approximately 40 of the book's 285 pages are devoted to the history of the steel industry. Most of the attention is paid to the history of organized labor and the unions in the steel industry during the years leading up to and during the 1970s. But I know many BTSC readers would appreciate the brief but fascinating excerpts about the actual steel making process - scientific terms and all. 

To me, the story line of the steel industry, makes the book more than just an accessible and entertaining sports story. Mind you, most every book about the Steelers will allude to the collapse of the industry, the 'blue-collar' nature of the blah blah blah. All touch on the subject, few, if any, that I know of, thread a significant piece of cultural, social, economic and historical commentary into an accessible story about football. It ain't easy to do, and short-cuts certainly don't work. But not just anyone can get the job done right, and that's why the book is so well-done in my estimation. 

As was mentioned, Coyne's father, Pat, was a eminent and beloved figure in town, in a salt-of-the-earth, 'you can count on me' kind of way. During the all-too-frequent downtimes in steel production when the younger generation of workers in particular struggled while awaiting the next uptick in demand, invite herds of rabid Steelers fans with all the time in the world on their hands over to watch the Steelers play on Sundays. Men from the mill, those mythical ghosts of Pittsburgh past that gave the city an identity that lasts to this day. And Shawn, as a young boy, was along for the ride, the young boy who hundreds of men still remember to this day.

Coyne was hardly a man of means, but he was better off than the younger elements of the steel workforce that got shortchanged by the impregnable rules of seniority. Despite having a growing family to worry about and plan for, Coyne would lend out money to the struggling ranks, money he would have likely stashed away for his kids' education.  Even though television sets had found their way into the homes of middle-class family rooms by the 1970s, working class mill men couldn't afford the luxury item. Knowing the satisfaction Steelers football would bring the out-of-work and anxious rank, Coyne made it a point to share in his few material possessions - his house, his television set, and his food.

I'll move on, but after speaking with Millman today, several questions I had about the Coyne family were answered. It should be noted that only until the later parts of the book did it become clear that the author was in fact so closely tied to the central people and developments of that part of the city's history. I won't track down the exact page, but I believe it wasn't until the photo insert mid-way through the book that it was even clear that the Coyne family was so prominent at the time.  And even after that point, the authors never  veered away from their fast-paced but information-packed prose in an attempt to divert attention to the Coyne family story. Instead, it was all done very tactfully and unassumingly, and I respect that.

There are however several distinct moments when father Pat is in the spotlight. In addition to the unwavering hospitality and brotherhood he shared with his friends and fellow workers, readers will also get a sense of just how much respect the Coyne's had for Art Rooney. Part of that was the product of The Chief making a point of reaching out to and mingling with the legions of working class young men in Pittsburgh, the backbone of the city who gave the city its personality and supported the team, even through the prolonged dark days of the franchise's early history. Part of the connection though between the Coynes and Rooneys stemmed from the close encounters of Rooney and Pat Coyne's father, Shawn's grandfather.

I alluded to this earlier, but it's worth repeating once more. That kind of special heritage, and the access and goodwill it buys when setting out on such a project, are what help make the book great. It's a story about Pittsburgh, by a native son. Not by a wildly wealthy or privileged native son mind you. Instead, readers enjoy rare and unheard stories about the city and its prominent figures thanks to the work of a Aliquippa product who, like all the honorable Pittsburgh elders I've gotten to know,  has never or will ever be 'above' certain things.

* How 'bout 'dem Cowboys?!? They are in the title after all, no? The Ones Who Hit The Hardest also explores Dallas' entirely different, yet similarly important history during the same time period. Though not in nearly as much detail as it does the city of Pittsburgh. Thank God for that, no???

I asked Millman today how much consideration they put into expounding further on Dallas' economic and geographic explosion, a juxtaposition to Pittsburgh's decline that the authors of course referred to throughout the narrative.  Despite these intelligent parallels, the authors opted not to write as extensively about Dallas - the city of the team - like they did with Pittsburgh.

Even though I joke about being glad there was less time devoted to the Cowboys, I wouldn't have minded one bit if there had been an extra 100 pages devoted to America's Dallas' team. I'm sure they would have done a good job if they had opted to take that route, which Millman confirmed was a consideration. But ultimately, they decided to make it largely a story about Pittsburgh and the rarefied decade that will almost assuredly delineate its history forever more. After realizing just how tapped in Coyne was with the city, I nodded my head in final agreement that they wisely chose to focus on bringing the goods in the way they knew best, rather than over-extending and potentially doing a B+ job in all areas, rather than turning in a A performance on a slightly more narrow scope.

* Millman's favorite interview subjects throughout the process? Dan Radakovich, Joe Greene, and Franco Harris. Radakovich, according to Millman, was extraordinarily candid with his reminiscing. About many things really, but particularly about Franco Harris and how Chuck Noll was resolute at first in not wanting the Steelers to draft the mellow, and on the surface disinterested, Penn State product. Playing his college ball in the backyard of the Steelers for Joe Paterno, who the Rooneys admired immensely, played a major role in Harris winding up with the Steelers. Too many of the team's army of talented scouts had seen Harris' ability. They were convinced it was far greater than what his statistics as a reserve back in college might suggest.

* I liked the Lambert tidbits myself, but I always do. His quip that he hoped the Cobwoys got eaten by sharks during their stay at posh hotel digs along the coast in Miami made me chuckle. Anecdotes about Mike Webster, Ernie Holmes, Tony Dorsett, Hollywood Henderson, and others were all captivating as well, even though we've been lucky enough at BTSC to get a heavy dose of exceptional history from our own Gleason and a few others of note. 

* Also loved the reminders of how players smoked and drank like it was no big thing at all. Rum and cokes on the eve of the Super Bowl, stogies to calm the nerves for some, beer chugging contests (dominated by Ernie Holmes and Joe Green, woot woot!) - all par for the course for the Steelers back in the halcyon days of ignorance about what was and wasn't good for an athlete.

* I also really enjoyed learning a bit more about Chuck Noll. I had read he was a Renaissance Man', most recently when Mike Silverstein (Homer J.) wrote in his 2010 MSP article about Myron Cope that  Noll, after long days of work, would often moonlight as Mr. Fix-It at the Cope household. 

In The Ones Who Hit The Hardest, I got more evidence of Noll's remarkable personality. Noll would treat his assistant coaches and their wives to vacation at the conclusion of every season. On these trips, Noll largely was interested in talking about the vast world away from the gridiron. Noll's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge about a dazzling array of subjects, combined with his inherent inclination and talent for teaching, will never be forgotten by friends and colleagues like Dick Hoak. The 50-year veteran of the Steeler shared enjoyable memories about his boss's  passionate pursuit of hobbies away from the game: the art and science of grilling, flying friends around in his plane, golfing, and astronomy, to name but a few.

* I suppose you shouldn't or won't be surprised, but I chuckled when I read that Ernie Holmes was the only, and I mean only, one who was immune to the wisecracks of the team's most prolific clubhouse pranksters. Yes, that includes Lambert.

* As for the writing and stories about actual football games and the dominant decade of winning enjoyed by the Steelers and Cowboys in the '70s, it's all very well written, and meticulously well-researched.  Even the most well-versed fan of the team will learn something new. We've been treated to some of what I consider to be the very best historical writing to be found on the internet by our own maryrose, but as is the case in every well-done book, there's definitely something new and captivating in Millman and Coyne's book.

All told, the book certainly has to be considered fresh, relevant and a must-read for Steeler fans. The Ones Who Hit The Hardest and From Black To Gold are worth every cent, even for fans who are disinclined to spend hard-earned money on books, or who do not particularly derive much enjoyment from reading books compared to magazines oar articles online. Can't legislate people's particular tastes and proclivities, but both books need to be on the bookshelves (or Kindles, iPads, etc) of Steelers fans sometime in the near future when budgets permit or when it's time to gift.

 

Though I've promoted MR's book at least in the background for over a month now, I still feel more than comfortable saying that I dismiss 95 out of 100 requests or inquiries about promoting books, events, websites, or products. I know things have already gotten far more 'sponsor-y' (definitely not a word, but I know you know what I mean) and what not in recent months, but much of that is not in my control.

Things like this are however, so I still do my best to appreciate and respect you all enough to try to keep vapid promotional crap off our main page as much as possible - that includes turning down things like talking to Ryan Clark for 5 minutes about the ultimate man cave', etc. etc. On the surface, that may seem cool, but it's a waste of everyone's time really. Those types of situations certainly don't lead to interesting talk about football or our favorite players taking the field each Sunday. But when I do dive in, I'd just assume not waste any

So,when I do dive in, it's for a good reason, at least in my mind. Thanks for y'alls support of the site, particularly this summer when I was finishing graduate school and wrapping up the preseason publication. Now we're almost ready for our first Sunday of action in months. I can't wait.

 

HOW TO ORDER/PURCHASE:

  • Amazon
  • Amazon via Kindle
  • Barnes & Noble (and Borders too, perhaps?) stores in Pittsburgh (and I presume throughout the country)
  • Other downloadable options out there, Just search and you'll find, I can't list them all here.

PITTSBURGH BOOK SIGNING AND TALK:

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