Updated: May 29, 2020
Before long, the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh will be filled with drunk Irish and non-Irish alike celebrating St. Patrick's Day. It's been one of my favorite holidays since I was a child marching in the parade for Pittsburgh Brewing Company (my dad worked there).
And thanks to a tip from Thomas Holmes here at Jagoff Sports, I've been inspired to celebrate the occasion this year by remembering some of Pittsburgh's greatest Irish characters of all time. This week we start with a bang.
I always knew "Blood" McNally was one of the first Pittsburgh Steelers inducted into the Hall of Fame (1963), but I never looked into the man beyond that. Boy was I missing out on a legend. From scaling hotel balconies to sneak back into his room past curfew, to Hawaiian whorehouses, this guy was crazy.
In 1937, Art Rooney hired Blood was both a player AND coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It wasn't long before he made his impact. Rooney called McNally the most memorable character he knew during his career. "As one of our veterans once said, 'This is the only team I've been on where the players worry about the coach instead of the other way around.'" Rooney said.
On one occasion, McNally missed the team train to a game due to being out all night before. His solution? He caught up to the train in his car and blocked its path.
Alan Robinson of the Associated Press recalled that Blood “pulled his car directly into the path of the team train that he’d missed during a late night of wine, women and song. He wasn’t even fined, or suspended--after all, he was the coach.”
One year later, the Pirates were slated to play against the rival Philadelphia Eagles in West Virginia. Where was head coach and running back Johnny McNally?
He thought the Pirates were on a bye week. So he went all the way to California to party and watch another game at the Rose Bowl. It wasn't until the announcer began reading scores from around the league that McNally realized the Pirates were, in fact, playing a game that day.
"I was going to fire him", Rooney later said, "But the players loved him. So I told him, 'John, you have to make the games."
Art Rooney must have been all too familiar with McNally's antics before hiring him. After all, it was during Blood's tenure with the Green Bay Packers that his legacy of being a loose cannon carouser began.
Myron Cope had the chance to speak with one of McNally's former teammates, Red Grange, about the legendary halfback. From the book Vagabond Halfback: The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally.
"I remember a couple of girls wanted Johnny to sign a program, and he said 'I'll do better than that. I'll sign it in blood.' He cut his wrist with a knife and signed that program in blood, and had to have four stitches taken in the wrist." Grange told Cope.
What a maniac.
Those were certainly different times. In today's NFL, players are forced to walk the straight-and-narrow. In McNally's day, he was constantly breaking the rules, and during the 1931 off-season, he practically made the rules.
Quoted from Blood's Teammate Clarke Hinkle in Vagabond Halfback:
"...one day he came to us and said, " Do you want to play a few postseason exhibition games in Honolulu? All you got to do is say yes, and I'll arrange it." Nobody took him seriously.
Coach Lambeau said, "Okay John. I'll let you handle it. You make all the arrangements." Well, darned if Johnny didn't get us all lined up for Honolulu.
McNally somehow managed to arrange for the entire team to sail on the SS Mariposa from Los Angeles to Honolulu where they would play in two charity exhibition games. It was the longest journey that any American football team had ever taken to play a game at the time.
From Blood McNally's own notes about the trip:
"We expect to arrive in Honolulu next Wednesday and will immediately begin working out for the contest with the University of Hawaii Christmas Day. The Packers will be "strictly business" until this game, and there will be no sightseeing until after Christmas."
According to his teammates, McNally had to be rescued from a flagpole on the stern of the ship where he was dangling over the edge attempting to do chin-ups. "He'd been drinking that Okolehau, the native drink made from pineapple juice or tea roots or something. Hell of a drink... if he'd have dropped off that stern, nobody would have ever found him."
These are just a few of the tales of the legendary Johnny "Blood" McNally, but there's plenty more online if you're interested. I'd suggest a place to buy the man's jersey for this weekend because that would essentially be the best way to show your Pittsburgh Irish pride, but they're impossible to find.
So if you're planning to celebrate at the parade or at the local pub, do so with the spirit of Johnny Blood in mind, and I assure you it will be a good time. Stay tuned for my next article in this series where I will be featuring another Pittsburgh Irish legend, Billy Conn.