Building Bridges Through Smoke and Glory

photo: John Vachon

continued from the previous post…

By sending their sons to war and their daughters to the mills, immigrants saw themselves as full-fledged Americans. And those who packed into every square inch of Ambridge began calling themselves “Bridgers.” As such, they did more than build spans that allowed Americans to cross rivers, bays and chasms; they completed their own crossing into American life. As much as the steelworkers, tradesmen, and teamsters may have derided those outside their own ethnic groups, they wanted to believe in the “melting pot” and they began to see how a nation succeeded when people of all ethnicities worked together. It was an ideal, like that of being a good Catholic, which meant you maintained a charitable attitude, helped the poor and the sick, regardless of their origins.

New River Gorge Bridge

Sports helped Bridgers transcend their ethnic rivalries and class jealousies. The Catholic churches made Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball an institution, a training ground for boys who would become professional stars. The Sokol, an Eastern European athletic club, turned out Olympic gymnasts (and operated card-playing, whiskey-slamming social clubs to supply the funding). The mills sponsored baseball leagues, their teams playing in the park along the river, flanked by homes of executives and railroad tracks. Teams came from the ethnic and religious clubs, but just as the men had fought together in foxholes and on beaches, they played together, adding to their identity as Americans and Bridgers.

Bartender at Sokol -- by John Vachon

New rivalries pitted one town against another, most viciously in football. Although Ambridge High School had fielded a team since 1906, it became a dominant force with the arrival of a diminutive coach in 1928. Maurice “Moe” Rubenstein had grown up in a tough neighborhood in Pittsburgh. He nearly dropped out of Fifth Avenue High School until a coach there recognized his speed, skill and determination on the basketball courts and sandlots. Sports helped Rubenstein focus on his studies and stay in school, ultimately earning him a scholarship to Geneva College, a teachers’ college in Beaver Falls. He came to Ambridge for his first teaching and coaching job, brimming with gratitude for the coaches that had molded his life. He vowed to do the same for the scrappy kids in Ambridge.

Moe Rubenstein and his 1941 coaches


Rubenstein couldn’t rely on the best athletes coming to tryouts, so he walked all over town, watching kids play ball. He learned their names and found out where they lived, and then approached their parents. George Corey, now a lawyer in California, lived in Anthony Wayne Terrace in the 1940s. He remembers walking home from a pick-up football game when a friend came to him with the news that Moe Rubenstein was at his house, talking with his mother. The coach had already established himself by that time, and Corey tore for home. “I went batshit. I couldn’t believe Moe Rubenstein came to my house.”

George Corey

Corey weighed ninety-five pounds. “And there were smaller kids. But he specialized in undersized kids,” Corey said, “maybe because he had been one himself.”  Those who knew Rubenstein say that the coach usually found smaller players easier to coach: they had more motivation, more energy, more speed, and their confidence grew quickly every time they outplayed a bigger guy. “We were fast and we believed we could beat anybody,” Corey says. “Size didn’t matter. And the smaller players believed it more than the bigger ones.”

Though Rubenstein stood only five feet-seven inches he commanded respect by listening and speaking with careful authority. “Every word he said, we listened to,” Corey recalled. “He said ‘no girlfriends,’ and we obeyed. He forbade us from walking home down Merchant Street where there might be gamblers and temptation, and we obeyed, finding another way home.” Composed on the sidelines and nattily attired, Rubenstein handled his players with subtle manipulation. “He never yelled. Never.” Corey says. “If I blew a play or missed a block, he’d just look at me and hold his head, saying, ‘Why do you do this to me, Georgie, why?’”

Other players commented on the certainty of Rubenstein’s authority, testifying that he drove through town after curfew on Thursday nights, and if he saw a player out late, that player didn’t start on Friday, no matter who they were. If he saw one of his players walking with a kid who was smoking, he told that player he didn’t want to see him with that kid again.

Maurice "Moe" Rubenstein

Moe Rubenstein’s methods found traction immediately. In his first season, the team won six games and lost only two. In his second season, the team went undefeated through eleven games, scoring 180 points and allowing zero. The streak continued into the following season as his team won twenty consecutive games without giving up a single point. In his first six years, his fast, gritty teams would win two championships, scoring a total of 890 points to the opponents’ 113. The Bridgers suddenly dominated Western Pennsylvania football – the most competitive and fertile football breeding ground in the nation.

The legend grew as the years rolled on. Hobbled by the Depression that began in Rubenstein’s second year, the fans felt the sting of mass layoffs and deepening poverty, but his teams gave them something to cheer about every week through football and basketball seasons. When players’ parents despaired that their boys would never find work after high school, Rubenstein set his sights higher for his players. “The greatest pleasure I got in coaching,” he told a reporter in 1997, “is that I could sit down and write a letter to recommend a kid to college.”

And he did. Dozens of players went to some of the best schools in the nation. George Corey went to Michigan, and Len Szafaryn, the man who would become his brother in-law, went to the University of North Carolina. According to Corey, Szafaryn (pronounced zafrin) played in the band as a freshman in high school, and Rubenstein noticed that the kid stood taller than the rest and moved gracefully. He located the Szafaryn family house and found Len’s parents sitting on the porch. Rubenstein introduced himself and asked if they would consider letting their son play football. Szafaryn’s parents spoke and understood only Polish, but they knew the word “football,” and they didn’t like it. Not for their son. It was too rough. Rubenstein accepted their decision, but asked if he could try to talk to them again in a few months. Fine. That’s fine.

Steelers' Michelosen and his staff

After three months of tutoring from a friend, Rubenstein returned, and this time, he spoke only Polish. Len Szafaryn went on to become an All-American and was drafted by the Washington Redskins. He started for the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles. He was one of many young men Rubenstein sent to stardom. Another, quarterback John Michelosen, led the Pitt Panthers to two national championships and became the youngest coach in the National Football League when he took over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In his later years at Ambridge, Rubenstein became the dean of coaches in Western Pennsylvania. Paul “Bear” Bryant, the legendary Alabama coach, kept in touch and made regular visits to consult with Moe. Paul Brown, the coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Cleveland Browns, conferred with Rubenstein every week during the season, devising plays that the Bridgers would try on Friday nights. Rubenstein then reported the results and suggested refinements for Brown to try the following day.

Paul Brown

Much has been said and movies have been made about the supremacy of football around these parts. The names of local boys line the Hall of Fame – Unitas, Blanda, Namath, Ditka, Montana, Marino, Lott, and one whom I (very briefly and badly) played against, Tony Dorsett. Football and other sports had a way of unifying us, of giving us an identity, of placing our town on a map, even though—if  NASA had taken pictures from space back then—the town would have been invisible under their perpetual layer of smoke.

Rubenstein retired a few years before I was born, but he planted football squarely in the psyche of every kid growing up in Ambridge. Over his twenty-two year career, his teams scored nearly four times as many points as they allowed. The high school stadium had become a shrine to Rubenstein’s excellence, and it bears his name today.

From my earliest days I can remember my parents bundling us up in more layers as the season went on, to cheer for the Bridgers at the stadium on Friday nights. Two bands would play; the stands would be full, and when the Bridgers in garnet and gray took the field, we threw confetti that we had made ourselves out of shredded newspapers. We saw everyone we knew. On the track that surrounded the field, politicians shook hands, and the small-time Mafiosi strutted in front of the grandstands, wearing topcoats over their shoulders like capes and smoking fat cigars. The public address announcer identified every player who carried the ball or made a tackle, and those names became household names. Every young boy I knew wanted to become one of those football heroes, and we chased our dreams through backyards and empty lots.

Ambridge Icons -- the Economy steeple, an old factory, and football

In a place where schooling was seen as a compulsory American process, academics took a back seat to other accomplishments in life. In fact, educated people aroused suspicion and petty jealousy, while the faults and even crimes of athletes only added to their status. Those who knew Moe Rubenstein emphasize that he never granted nor sought special treatment for his athletes, but they got it anyway. George Corey said, “I didn’t deserve to be on the National Honor Society, no way, but somebody got me on—all because I was a football player.”

The toughness and work ethic required of football players drew unmitigated respect in a culture that esteemed two aspects of life above all others: working and fighting. During recess at Divine Redeemer, we were called to the playground by air-horns that marked the shift changes at American Bridge. Footballs filled the air over the playground. For every football star, hundreds of hopeful and competitive boys trained to work together and fight to win. As for the girls, they were taught to admire or at least tolerate men who worked hard and fought well.

My heroic fantasies went beyond saving the timid churchgoers at Divine Redeemer from imaginary vandals or saving their souls with inspiration from the pulpit. I wanted to become a sports hero, too. I studied athletes as closely as I had studied priests and nuns. As early as first grade, I knew that piety and cleverness could work for me, and sports could make me an icon.

Another young man with an immigrant’s name fueled the fantasies of my generation—the Baby Boomers—and breathed new life into the smoky towns surrounding us. On Tuesday, October 13, 1960, while Betty worked at the stove, I sat on the kitchen floor, peeling potatos with a sheet of newspaper between my legs, listening to the radio. The slight lisp of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ broadcaster Bob Prince, articulated every curve ball and pop-up of the seventh game of the World Series against the mighty Yankees. With the score tied at nine in the bottom of the ninth, number nine, Bill Mazeroski lifted a homerun over the head of Yogi Berra. Betty slapped her spatula on the counter and covered her gasp with her hands, spun and hoisted me in the air, peppering me with kisses. Neighbors had already begun banging pots in their front yards and we grabbed spoons and saucepans and went out to join them.

Maz after his homer -- photo JG Klingensmith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A Polish, pierogi-eating hero from the coal fields of West Virginia, whose footsteps I could easily imagine following, knocked his name into the national consciousness. Mazeroski made Mickey Mantle cry. “Maz” and his recently immigrated teammate, Roberto Clemente, made me want to play baseball and work my way onto Forbes Field.

coming:  a thrilling ride from parochial to public

5 thoughts on “Building Bridges Through Smoke and Glory

  1. Paul

    I can’t begin to tell you how much I look forward to these articles & how they bring back so many vivid memories. After someone sent me the first one & I enjoyed it I went back to the very first one & read them all so I am up to date. I forward them to several of the “Bridgers” here in CA & now you have even a larger audience. Please keep them coming.

  2. Thank you, Paul, for taking all the time and expending the effort to make this an exceptional series. I have read all the installments, and saved them as .pdf files. I’m sure that my mom and Aunt Marge will enjoy reading them as well.

    You have helped me put my own experience into perspective. I always longed to get out of Ambridge, and now I understand why even more. Growing up in a town where “who you know, not what you know” and sports as all-important did not play well with this budding intellectual who was totally indifferent to sports ( I have yet to actually ever watch a football game). Viewing the hypocrisy of all the “good Catholics” going to church on Sunday, then supporting mobsters by playing the numbers all week left a bad taste in my mouth. The schools ignored all the rich history of the area. But high school really cemented it for me. Luckily for me, I knew how to take tests, became a National Merit Finalist, and was invited to apply to Cornell, where I obtained my undergraduate degree.

  3. Paul,
    Celebrating my 41st B-Day today, I was looking back at my roots and found this article. While my family moved away from Ambridge in 1983, our hearts stayed in Western PA forever. We were a football family for sure. My Father, Don Kerr was the Bridgers Trainer for years and players from all around (Steelers, Pitt, all local HS’s) visited his Beaver County Sports Med Clinic for treatment and to work out year round. Not to mention, I played for the Economites from the time I was 7 through 13 years old (before we moved to Stuart, FL). However, never truly understood who Mo Rubenstein was. Thanks for great background. This is something all who play for the Bridger’s should read before each season starts…tradition is everything. Scott Kerr

  4. I am Moe Rubinstein’s grandson. You wonderful blog about him made my family so proud. It brought my mother, Moe’s daughter, to tears. Thank you for your beautiful tribute!

  5. I grew up with stories about Moe Rubenstein. In fact that’s how I found this article. I remembered that my Dad, Carl Gozur who played football for Moe told us that Moe always said to the players “If you say you can, you can and if you say you can’t, you’re right” (obvious paraphrase of the Henry Ford quote). He also talked about curfews and the respect everyone had for their beloved coach. I know he had a big impact and my father, so I was so happy to learn more about him and to find this series. My mom was born and raised in Ambridge too.

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