By David Finoli
This is an excerpt from the book Pittsburgh Sports Firsts Published by the History Press in 2021
There are few, if any people, who were as passionate about their hometown as Carl Mattioli was. He was the president of the Latrobe Historical Society and was referred to often as “Mr. Latrobe.” Until the day he passed away in 2011, there was nothing but joy that came to his face when he talked about the history of his beloved Latrobe. The one subject about the town’s history that caused his joy to quickly evaporate was that of the “Birthplace of Professional Football,” particularly the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
You see, in 1945, two years after Mattioli graduated from Latrobe High School, the city was considered the undisputed birthplace of professional football and was also given the opportunity to become the home of the Professional Football Hall of Fame. Two decades later, both the designation and opportunity were gone; suddenly, Canton became Mattioli’s mortal enemy.
The town’s entry into pro football’s history books began in 1895, when a team representing the Latrobe YMCA decided to form a football squad to play against some of the best teams in the country, exceptional squads that were located in towns across western Pennsylvania. The opening game was scheduled against nearby Jeannette on September 3, and the town was thrilled to see their new team. The stores in Latrobe were closed for the contest, and the city had a parade to celebrate the event. Team manager Dave Barry and coach Russell Aukerman had put together a formidable team, but, unfortunately, their quarterback, Eddie Blair, would not be available for this important contest against Jeannette. He had already committed to playing baseball for Greensburg on that day, sending Barry and Aukerman scrambling to find a replacement.
They had remembered a good high school quarterback they had seen who was now playing for Indiana Normal School (IUP). His name was John Brallier, and they tried to entice him to play by offering to pay for his expenses. This wasn’t enough, so Brallier turned them down. The two knew they needed to sweeten the offer, so they threw in ten dollars on top of the expenses. The extra money was music to Brallier’s ears, so he accepted it and led them to a 12–0 victory over their new local rivals.
At the time, losing your amateur status by being paid to play the game of football was thought to be on the same level as robbing a bank. It was something you just didn’t want to do, and if you did, you sure as hell didn’t want to admit it.
Brallier, however, was a different sort. He became the first to admit he was a professional, and it ended up making him a celebrity and gave Latrobe proof that it was the Birthplace of Professional Football.
Brallier enjoyed his newfound fame. He received a lifetime pass to attend any NFL game and always proudly talked of his date with history whenever he could. On a radio show hosted by former Pittsburgh Pirate Pie Traynor, Brallier was invited to be a guest in 1945 as pro football was celebrating what it thought was its fiftieth anniversary. When asked by Traynor what he did with the ten dollars, Brallier claimed he spent it on a girl but later would admit he bought a pair of pants as he prepared to go to Washington & Jefferson College. It was also in that year that the NFL designated Latrobe as the home of the Football Hall of Fame.
The league was in a battle with the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) for supremacy and wanted to use Brallier to its advantage. It thought building a Hall of Fame in a town that it considered the birthplace of its sport, such as baseball had done in Cooperstown, was the appropriate thing to do. In return for the designation and the opportunity to build a Hall of Fame, Latrobe agreed to acknowledge the NFL as the preeminent professional football league. The only requirement Latrobe had other than the acknowledgement was to raise money to build the place. While the league offered to donate some money to the project, the NFL was not the financial giant that it eventually became and couldn’t afford to take on the finances to build the entire museum. The onus would be on them to find the money to complete the project. It was a job that proved very difficult.
Many leaders in the town felt that a community center should be part of any plans to build the Hall of Fame. The plans drawn up in 1947 included a football stadium to house NFL exhibitions, baseball fields, an additional football field, tennis courts and a community center to be constructed alongside the hall. Another part of the community felt that building the museum would make Latrobe a tourist town, upsetting the blue-collar workers who made up a majority of the town. It started to feel that the Latrobe leaders were more focused on these discussions than on actually building the facility. The city leaders were correct on this thought. It would have made it a tourist town—and as it turned out, it put several million dollars into its economy every year, a fact that the Latrobe community failed to account for.
Latrobe eventually built the football field in 1951 and called it Memorial Stadium in honor of those who had died in the Second World War and the Korean War. In 1952, the Steelers faced the Packers in an exhibition contest there to raise money for completing the project. In the program that evening, Brallier graced the cover, and an extensive story of Latrobe’s football history and its quest to raise money was written inside. Still, the support was not there, and those trying desperately to raise the money continued to struggle.
By the 1960s, progress toward Latrobe’s goal was still far from complete. Another keeper of the flame was newspaper writer E. Kay Myers. Myers, who passed away in 2012, was very frustrated at the lack of progress. The NFL had not come through with its pledge of financial backing, and the committee was having a difficult time finding the money. It received support from Latrobe Steel, but the support wasn’t in the form of money. Nonetheless, Myers and his crew set off to Cleveland to meet with Paul Brown to see if they could get the cash the league had originally promised. It was there that they found out some disturbing news.
“In an article in the AP, Myers said: “Although we didn’t receive any money from Latrobe Steel, we did get a letter from the company’s president Marcus W Saxman (a former Latrobe player himself) supporting the project. We went to Cleveland to get some funds from the league and ended up at Browns Stadium where we met with Paul Brown. He was very cordial, but he said, ‘you boys are too late’, as he had received a check from the Timken Ball Bearing Company for $200,000 to locate the building in Canton. Mr Brown told us if we could match that money, ‘we could talk then’ but we couldn’t match it.”
Because Timken did have the money, the NFL decided to bring the subject back up for a vote as to where the facility would go. Even though Steelers owner Art Rooney was a staunch supporter of Latrobe, the league decided to accept Timken’s money and build it in Canton, where it remains six decades later, bringing millions of dollars into its economy every year.
Mattioli was angry. “The forefathers of Latrobe sat on their rear ends too long. They kept asking where are they going to get the money? The money would have been there if only someone had followed through. Nobody followed through though.”