Floundering Foundry: The Pittsburgh Ironmen

The following article was contributed by David Pincus and originally appeared on his blog Broken Leagues. To see more of David’s work focusing on fantasy basketball, visit his blog and follow him on Twitter @brokenleagues.

(A mock-up of what the Ironmen logo should have looked like. Illustration courtesy of Matthew Wolff)
(A mock-up of what the Ironmen logo should have looked like. Illustration courtesy of Matthew Wolff)

Pittsburgh is one of the best sports cities in America. They have an historically-great football team, a thriving hockey team, and, at long last, a contending baseball team. Pittsburgh has so much going for it as a sports town that seemingly the only thing it lacks is an NBA franchise. But that wasn’t always the case. Way back in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson appeared in a game and when Harry S. Truman was still president, Pittsburgh had an NBA team: the Ironmen.

Well, a BAA team technically. In 1946, the Basketball Association of America was launched with 11 charter franchises, and of those 11, only the Knicks, Celtics and Warriors are still around today. In 1949, the BAA absorbed the National Basketball League, and the partnership of the two leagues officially spawned the NBA. The Pittsburgh Ironmen was one of the eight original franchises that didn’t make the cut.

There’s not much to say about the Ironmen other than that they were terrible in virtually every way. At 15-45, they were the worst team in the league, and considering they were worst NBA team in the first year of its existence, when the league was in all likeliness at its absolute worst, the 1946-47 Ironmen could reasonably be considered the worst team — talent-wise — in NBA history. Of the 17 players who suited up for the Ironmen in their inaugural/last season, just four of them would play another year.

The team did make history of a sort by rostering both Roger and Noble Jorgensen, becoming the first NBA team to feature siblings. (Roger averaged 1.5 points per game, and Noble averaged 4.4 points per game. So if you’ve never heard of them, you’re excused.) Coulby Gunther led them in scoring with 14.1 points per game, which he accomplished despite shooting a ghastly 33.6% from the floor. And if you think that percentage is bad (and it is), you might be shocked to learn that his was the best on the team. Yes, the Pittsburgh Ironmen shot 27.1% from the field in 1947, and to indicate just how sucky pro basketball was at the time, the Ironmen were only the ninth-worst shooting team in the league. (The best? The Chicago Stags at 29.8%.)

The most notable player on the Ironmen roster was Pete Maravich’s father, Peter “Press” Maravich, who averaged 4.6 points per game in his lone NBA season. But the most notable person on the 1947 Ironmen, without question, was head coach Paul Birch, an asshole of a man who only got the gig because he’d been a star at the local Duquesne University.

How big an asshole was Birch? “Birch was his era’s Bobby Knight,” Dennis Purdy wrote in Kiss ‘Em Goodbye: An ESPN Treasury of Failed, Forgotten, and Departed Teams, “routinely screaming at and demeaning his players on the court, throwing basketballs at players’ heads during practice, and throwing punches at their heads as well during games. At halftime, Birch was known to throw chairs at his players in the locker room. … Birch’s aggression was hardly confined to his own charges. When he occasionally punched out an opposing player on the road, the crowd would invariably threaten to riot. … One time, when a crowd threatened to beat Birch, his players refused to help him. On more than one occasion, he punched out referees and opposing coaches.”

Want more?

Mark Kriegel — Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich:

After an overtime loss, Birch threatened Press with a $100 fine if he so much as came out of the shower. … In Chicago, Birch threw him up against a locker. The players broke it up before Birch could get off any punches. That’s not to say the coach didn’t hurt him, though. As the season wound down, and the Ironmen were left with just eight or nine men, Birch would keep Press on the bench for entire games.

Charley Rosen — No Blood, No Foul: A Novel:

I’d played against him way back when, and knew him as a fire-breathing perfectionist who cursed his teammates every time they missed a shot. He was also the dirtiest player I’d ever had the displeasure to encounter.

Richard Birch, Paul’s son, in an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune:

He was Bobby Knight times 10. His modus operandi was fear and intimidation of everyone: referees, players, fans. That was his formula for success. He learned it very young and he never changed.

In essence, there was nothing even slightly redeeming about the Pittsburgh Ironmen. Their coach was a clown, their team was a joke, and the stadium that they played in, Duquesne Gardens, could only hold up to 7,000 people because it had been converted from a trolley car barn. The team did not return for a second season and it’s probably just as well. A lot of cities would love to have an NBA team, but Pittsburgh probably doesn’t need one nor does it want one, especially if it’s just going to be as dysfunctional as the last NBA team that called the steel city home.

Bullet Points:

  • The Knicks, Celtics and Warriors are considered the oldest NBA franchises, because the league recognizes itself as a continuation of the BAA. The oldest operating basketball team is really the Detroit Pistons though, who have been existence since 1941 when they joined the NBL as the “Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons.”
  • Pittsburgh did get an ABA team: the Pipers, who promptly moved to Minnesota after one year. In a bizarre turn of events, the Pipers moved back to Pittsburgh just one year later and later changed their name to the “Pittsburgh Condors.”
  • I only set out to write about the Ironmen because I was inspired by Matthew Wolff’s re-branded logo for them, which looks pretty awesome. Plus, I can’t imagine many people are writing about the Ironmen these days.

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