One chilly November day in 1961, Ernie Stautner and Bobby Layne and a few other Steelers were knocking back beers at a Brentwood watering hole called Dante’s.
Practice had finished and most players were relaxing, but Stautner was miffed. A few days earlier, fans at Forbes Field had booed his pal Layne during a 30-27 victory over St. Louis. How could the fans jeer Layne? Stautner wondered. By golly, Layne was the league’s toughest quarterback.
Stautner’s audience was a sportswriter named Pat Livingston. Livingston was familiar with football players and not easily intimidated, but you have to wonder how he felt once Stautner began to unload. Stautner was a solid, square-jawed man with a bashed-in nose. His smile was a bit crooked. In pictures, he looks like a pleasant-enough guy who, if crossed, could rip your arms off. A lot of guys who began their playing days before facemasks had that look.
Stautner exploded. “This is a lousy sports town,” he roared. “And if Art Rooney had any sense, he’d get out of it.”
Heck, he said, he’d gone to a Pirates game and the fans booed Elroy Face. Elroy Face! Of all people! “The guy gives you great baseball for six years, wins a pennant for this town and they boo him. What’s wrong with these people? Do they have an inferiority complex or something?”
Perhaps most shocking was this: “I’m not happy playing in Pittsburgh. I never have been happy here and I wouldn’t have been here in the first place if I had any choice about it.”
Print that, Stautner demanded of Livingston, if you have the guts.
Livingston wasn’t sure he should quote the angry musings of a player who’d had a few beers.
Sitting nearby was Layne. Layne drank so much he sweated Cutty Sark. Players hated going into huddles with him because of the deadly fumes from his breath. But on this day he offered sober advice.
Don’t do it, he warned Stautner. “They’ll kill you in this town.”
But Stautner was adamant. “I said it, you write it,” he told Livingston.
So Livingston wrote it.
After more than a decade with the Steelers, Stautner had become one of the city’s most admired athletes, ranking with Billy Conn, the Waner brothers and maybe even Honus Wagner. And so, to a number of fans, his comments seemed a betrayal.
“Will someone please tell Ernie Stautner … that us ‘lousy’ sports fans pay him upwards of $12,000 for a position lasting a little over four months,” one fan wrote in a letter to The Pittsburgh Press.
“Ernie owes this city an apology,” wrote another.
Layne, apparently recovered from his sobriety, figured the next Sunday at Forbes Field would present an excellent opportunity for a monumental practical joke. He was not about to let it pass. On the sly, he told his teammates to hang back while Stautner, as team captain, led the charge onto the field before kickoff. Surely his friend, trotting alone across the gridiron, would catch hell from the fans.
Years later, Livingston recalled the scene in his Press column:
“I can still see Stautner, in that rigid-hipped stride of his, in calf-hugging shoes, waddling through the mud behind first base. And then it started, a whisper along the third base line, almost inaudible at first, but reverberating into a deafening roar.
“As the solitary figure in the black jersey crossed the field to the Steeler bench, the crowd had risen in a standing ovation to the outspoken star.”
Stautner retired in 1963 and began an extensive coaching career. In Dallas he developed some of the game’s best defensive linemen, including Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Randy White. Stautner died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 2006. He was 80.
He remains the only Steelers player to have his number retired.
See Bob Dvorchak’s take on Ernie Stautner in the PG’s weekly sports video feature “Sports ‘n ‘at.”