Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Steelers Mystique, the early Superbowl years and the Pittsburgh mythos

A couple months ago there were some thoughtful comments from the diaspora on the meaning of sports, the Steelers and Pittsburgh.  See this blog post.

It reminds me of something that has always been curious to me. The implosion in steel jobs was something that came to a head in the early 1980's. The first 4 superbowls were won between 1972 and 1980. The mythos of the rabid Steeler fans supporting the team while the economy collapsed around them is missing something in the timing. For sure, there were some bad times in the 70's. Two national recessions in the 70's were having big impacts here, but there were also periods when the region was faring better than the nation . It was a boom.bust cycle that what pretty common for Pittsburgh because the national business cycle had always been magnified here.  So looking at the economy back then through the prism of the 1970's, there was no vast economic collapse going on... certainly there was no appreciation for what was to come. The real miasma that would get the region to move past denial was years in the future.

So as Steelers fans were rooting for victories in Superbowls 9, 10, 13, and 14, the idea that the steel industry was permanently collapsing in the region was just not conceivable. Steelers Nation did not exist yet in part because the diaspora that fuels it had begun.  We are still stuck with the branding that America's Team (cough) was the moniker given to the Dallas Coyboys in 1979.   It was only after that run of Superbowl victories ended, when the regional economy did collapse, that migration out of the region accelerated... then the folks leaving were likely to have Terrible Towels packed with their other valuables in the moving vans as they left town. 


Anonymous Martin Andelman said...

I beg to differ with you. Having grown up in Pittsburgh during the 1970s, I have to point out that the steel mills started shutting down as a result of the downturn of the American auto industry, and the emergence of the Japanese steel industry, both of which had certainly begun by the early 1970s. The first gas crisis pretty much kicked the wind out of the American auto makers and Pittsburgh never recovered. Mills started closing by the middle of the decade, workers threatened strikes, coal mining suffered for numerous reasons, and the city of Pittsburgh visibly ached.

You're also correct when you say that it wasn't until the 1980s that the city's steel industry met it's demise. But that demise began years earlier during the 1970s and it was, in my opinion anyway, the Steelers... that gave the city hope and helped it maintain its pride during trying and turbulent times.

I'm just saying...

Thursday, September 10, 2009 7:19:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

Thank you for posting, I do think your comments were thoughtful on many topics. Lot's there, and I certainly agree that the decline in the steel industry happened before the 80's..but it wasn't a 70's thing either. Pittsburgh based steel had seen challenges since the 1930's and had been struggling against lots of competition for decades. The idea that it was all or even mostly Japanese imports is also part of the mythos that is missing a bigger piece of how mini-mill based production elsewhere in the US was impacting Pittsburgh based jobs.

But those are large topics. The 70's had two national recessions that impacted Pittsburgh hard for sure... there were good times in the 70's as well. but the recessions were national events more than regional ones... as were the gas crises which gets caught up in the memories of the time. Arguing memories is hard, but maybe here is a concrete point... I would be interested to know what major steel plants actually shut down in Pittsburgh in the 1970's. not the 80's but the 70's? I have a list somewhere of the top steel plants in the region at the time and when most of them closed and I am pretty sure most were not considering shutting down until the 70's. manufactring employment in the region actually stabilized a bit in the 1970's and was actually very stable through the entire decade near 300K workers. Probably more stable than it has been in recent years where the declines (at least in percentage terms ) is larger. I have a figure showing that long term trend on page 2 of this:

take a look at the manufacturing employment in Pittsburgh in the 70's.... it just isn't what people remember. at the end of the 70's it was even trending up, I am pretty sure some thought that was going to be a longer term trend.

Thursday, September 10, 2009 8:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I have a list somewhere of the top steel plants in the region at the time and when most of them closed and I am pretty sure most were not considering shutting down until the 70's."

Is that a list of the plants or their specific lines/mills in the plants? It's a subtle distinction for sure but a necessary one. Sure Homestead was open until 1987 but was a shadow of itself well before then. Point being that while a plant may have stayed open, certain parts of it were idled earlier. For example, I recall that Homestead was getting either hot metal or steel from ET by the end of the 70s instead of from Carrie Furnaces. Simialrly, certain plate mills and finish lines were closed long before the larger facility itself were closed.

I think Serrin covered this well in "Homestead" in noting that in the early 70s, USS seemed to stop investing in the plants and in the late 70s started (permamently) idling certain facilities, then by the mid 80s was closing whole plants.

Thursday, September 10, 2009 9:20:00 AM  
Blogger Jim Russell said...

The 70s were troubled times in Steeler Country. Black Monday in the Steel Valley was in 1977. Movies such as Slapshot and Deer Hunter, rightly or wrongly, paint a picture of an economically depressed region. 1978 was when my family left Erie, PA.

Not Pittsburgh per se, but certainly Rust Belt woes that impacted Steelers fans such as myself.

Thursday, September 10, 2009 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

I have colleagues who might have that level of detail. I’ll check, but I’ll take the point that there were changes within individual lines and disinvestment.. The disinvestment was certainly not a 70’s event. At the end of the day isn’t it the jobs and wages that really matter? In 1971, before the Superbowl run started, manufacturing employment in the region was 290k. In 1979, the last Superbowl season, manufacturing employment in the region was 288K. The difference measurement-wise is virtually noise. Only after the final whistle of XIV at the beginning of 1980 did you see the structural decline start, or re-start, or accelerate depending on your time perspective. Through the whole superbowl run was a period far better than what came after, or what had happened before for that matter. Even real (i.e. inflation adjusted) wages were up both on average and in aggregate for manufacturing jobs across the region.

There is a real disconnect somewhere. As the comments suggest, most people think the massive layoffs and the plant closings happened during the superbowl years, but it just isn’t the case. As that last superbowl season was progressing, the jobs and the wages were much as they had been before the first superbowl victory. If there was some collective depression over foreknowledge of layoffs to come… then it would be an amazing case of rational expectations. Lots that is clearer in retrospective was not so obvious at the time.

For Jim’s point which is true enough for a particular region… but manufacturing employment in Pittsburgh was increasing 1976 and 1979. Increasing! One of the very few periods in the last 50 where that has been true here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

and just because mining was mentioned. I looked it up. Mining employment in Pittsburgh in 1970: 12.9K. in 1979: 17.4K. So not the biggest number in absolute value, but still a significant percentage increase. There also the declines would come in the 80's as energy prices again came down.

Thursday, September 10, 2009 2:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Might be worth considering that the real sports analogy for Pittburgh in the 1980s might be ... Cliff Stoudt. Seriously. Read his Wikipedia page. Left the city in the mid-80s for a stint in the USFL.

And how about them Maulers? Remember the helmet? A steel worker of some sort, swinging a hammer. Still clinging to the imagery in 1985. What's the psychology of THAT? Plus... was Mike Rozier the last Heismann winner to play for a Pittsburgh team?

Saturday, September 12, 2009 12:00:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

Wasn't Cliff Stoudt the guy who earned his NFL retirement without ever starting a game or some factoid like that. Or am I thinking of someone else? It was one of those backup Steelers' quarterbacks around then. There is another actuarial issue in itself.

Speaking of imagery issues... Steely McBeam?!

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