The Economics of Aliquippa, PA, and the Evolution of S.L. Price

The Economics of Aliquippa, PA, and the Evolution of S.L. Price
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“Memory need not deceive, but it is mercifully selective”– C.J. Maloney, Back to the Land

In 1983 All the Right Moves, a film about a high school football team within a dying steel town (the fictional Ampipe, PA) was released.  The movie didn't receive great reviews, but its cast (including Tom Cruise and Craig T. Nelson) succeeded in portraying the desperate struggle of the town’s athletes to escape the drudgery of mill work through success on the football field; success that would hopefully lead to football scholarships at colleges and universities far away from Ampipe. 

All the Right Moves has come to mind a lot in modern times given the odd economic nostalgia that has reared its unfortunate head in 21st century political campaigns.  Left or right, Republican or Democrat, it’s become popular in the 2000s for politicians to promise the return of the factory and mill jobs from the past that were once a ticket to a middle-class life.  Leaving aside the sad economics that inform promised blasts to the past for the moment, all this rhetoric about bringing back manufacturing jobs was eyebrow raising simply because those most familiar with factory work have historically been the ones most eager to shield their children and grandchildren from just that kind of work.

All of this speaks to the importance of S.L. Price’s recently released book, Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football and an American Town, about once-vibrant Aliquippa, PA.  Price is a senior writer for the endlessly excellent magazine Sports Illustrated, and as readers can probably imagine, Aliquippa High School football’s storied past and present looms large in his history of the town.  But this is ultimately a book about economics, and a very necessary one at that.  Through the stories of Aliquippa’s residents, their successes and many failures, Price has produced a history that all politicians, economists and pundits would be wise to read.  In this essential book, he exposes all the overdone calls by politicians (including our current president) to revive the past as not just unrealistic, but much more importantly, wholly undesirable.  Simply put, our memory of manufacturing’s glorious past ignores just how much those who benefited from it wanted their kids and grandkids to escape it altogether. 

As Price writes toward book’s end about the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company’s (J&L Steel) Aliquippa-based mills that used to employ thousands, “Nobody grew up with the dream to work such jobs.  They were filthy, boring, exhausting grinds, a drain on health, a daily assault on the senses.” Getting right to the point, parents worked in the mills so that their children wouldn’t have to.  Evidence of the latter is found throughout Playing Through the Whistle.     

Mike Ditka, Hall of Fame tight end and Super Bowl winning coach, is the son of Big Mike Ditka, who worked at A&S, which was J&L’s railroad.  While he felt J&L employment rendered its employees “set for life,” Price writes that Big Mike “didn’t want his four kids working the mill, too.” As such, he pushed his offspring hard to keep their grades up, and in the case of his athletic oldest son, to pursue an athletic scholarship that the top football recruit eventually won from the University of Pittsburgh.  Ditka adds that a “high school tour of J&L killed any interest in a job there.” He was hardly alone. 

Frank Marocco’s football success in Aliquippa earned him a scholarship to North Carolina State, but to ensure that Marocco wouldn’t come back, his brother Dominic got him a job in a J&L tin mill so that he could see up close through the sweat and sand that the work was not a future option.  Despite intimately experiencing the misery of J&L, Marocco quickly decided NC State wasn’t for him, only for the Aliquippian to scrape enough money together for a flight back to Pittsburgh. Waiting for Marocco upon arrival at the airport were all thirteen of his brothers, at which point Dominic handed him a return ticket along with a demand that he “Get back on the goddamned plane at five o’clock and go back down to school.  If you don’t, you ain’t got a family.” Another Aliquippian, Joe Casp, “made damn certain his son Bill worked the worst mill jobs when he came home from Princeton – so he’d hate it.” Wes Dorsett, father of future Hall of Fame running back (and 1976 Heisman Trophy winner) Tony, had the same message for his kids: “Come in this place, you don’t know if you’re coming out.  And if you do you might be missing an arm or eye or leg.  Do something for yourself.” Only someone who has never worked in a factory or a mill could have such a romantic view of that which was brutal.  That more and more Americans don’t work in factories and mills is a feature of the U.S. economy and a sign of progress, as opposed to the bug that witless members of the U.S. political class presume it to be. 

Despite the truth about mill work that Price so descriptively reveals, the fact remains that exactly this kind of work was at one time a lure for European immigrants, along with southern blacks eager to escape Jim Crow racism down south.  Though the wondrous act of human migration in pursuit of something better has modernly been perverted and politicized, Price hits on the greater truth that the appeal of the U.S. and locales like Aliquippa in the 20th century was the same as it is for the world’s strivers today: “America had the work” is how Price put it.  And it has the work today; albeit not in cities like Aliquippa.  More than anyone in the political class would like to admit, the purest market signal of prosperity – and nothing else really comes close – is where humans migrate to for better opportunity.  We’ll truly know the U.S. is no longer great when foreigners cease risking their lives in order to get here.  Notable here is that Aliquippa is no longer great.  Not only is it not a destination for immigrants, it’s also not a destination for striving Americans.  For the longest time Aliquippa has suffered an outflow of its once abundant human capital.

About all this, it’s this reader’s guess that when he set out to tell the economic side of Aliquippa’s story, Price was ready to let J&L Steel, and big business more broadly, have it.  It’s again just a guess, but his J&L history in the book’s early pages is to a high degree all about a powerful business dictating the terms of work life at the expense of the town’s allegedly powerless workforce.  Further evidence supporting this claim is his elevation of Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, a rich New York heiress and wife of Pennsylvania’s governor.  Her story is a familiar one whereby the inheritor of millions turns her back on the capitalist system that made her wealth possible.  Though never elected herself, Pinchot was an early activist fighting for the working man against the alleged predations of big business.  As she put it, “I am against Jones and Laughlin first, last, and all the time – because of the brutal and un-American way they have been behaving towards their workers.”

Price seemed to agree, but as his story unfolds, so does a more favorable truth about J&L, along with a more fair and balanced truth about the unions and workers themselves.  To Price’s credit, he gradually reveals just how generous J&L was in its more prosperous days, and perhaps more importantly, just how ridiculous and demanding the unions became.

Though Price never hides from the “filth-ridden, dangerous” realities of J&L work, he notes early that this seemingly heartless corporation “built playgrounds, gave money to the Boy Scouts, [and] bought neighborhood baseball gear.” About Aliquippa, B.F. Jones, son of the founder, made plain that “We want it to be the best steel town in the world.  We want to make it the best possible place for a steelworker to raise a family.” Jones meant what he said.  In the real world, low wages are very expensive precisely because they signal low productivity in concert with high rates of turnover.  Seemingly eager to avoid the latter, during the Great Depression J&L “opted against mass layoffs.” When Aliquippa needed a hospital, J&L sold the town thirty-two acres of land for $1, and provided another $1 million in matching funds.  As long-time J&L employee Gino Piroli recalled to Price about the steel company, “if you needed a bandstand for the Italian festival? They built it.  Memorial Day? They built the bandstand for the ceremonies.  You needed a flagpole; they’d give you the flagpole.  They really looked out for the people.” Piroli concluded that “J&L made us all middle class.”

That J&L was once highly generous only to reverse course decades later as economic progress rendered its operations non-essential, is history that says a great deal more.  For one, it calls into question this feverish desire within some on the left to aggressively tax the big and prosperous of the business world, all the while fining those same big and prosperous corporations anytime they slip up in the eyes of lawmakers.  Interesting here is that the left have taken up the cause of the workingman, but then as the J&L story reminds us, the steel behemoth was most generous to its workers when times were good.  Stating what should be blindingly obvious to even the mildly sentient, profits are what enable – and indeed encourage – the kind treatment of the workingman. 

Thinking about the above in terms of companies that the sportswriter in Price would be very familiar with, when Nike’s headquarters amounted to a space above a bar with broken windows that the shoemaker lacked the funds to fix, management (realistically Phil Knight alone) couldn’t be very spendthrift with those in its employ.  Fast forward to the present, and a visit to Nike’s Beaverton, OR headquarters is a visit to a campus that is stunning in its opulence.  Nike employees today enjoy high pay and myriad benefits precisely because the company does very well.  More than the left would like to admit, it’s again very expensive for companies to lose employees, which means the successful ones go out of their way to reward the ones they have. 

Bringing it even closer to home for Price, a read of legendary Sports Illustrated columnist Frank Deford’s memoir (Over Time) brings with it a reminder of just how prosperous the magazine industry used to be.  Deford’s travel in the 70s was exclusively first class, and interesting about it is that the players on the NBA teams he covered would frequently travel on the same planes as Deford, only in coach.  The NBA wasn’t doing very well in the 1970s, but Time Inc. (owner of SI) was.  Deford added that his endless expense account made him extra popular with those same players flying behind him, and who wanted free drinks.  Fast forward to 2017, Price could doubtless articulate how the tables have turned for sportswriters vis-à-vis NBA players.  Or maybe not.  Figure that the players in the flush NBA of today travel from city to city in private jets chartered by their teams. 

Moving on to unions, arguably even more interesting about Price’s seeming evolution is that a quarter of the way through the book he addresses the popular communist “Workers’ Paradise” notion only to proclaim that the latter was a “contradiction” that “was impossible to take seriously.” Just the same, and more importantly, Price concludes on the subject of actual Workers’ Paradise (s) that “nowhere came closer to realizing it than profit-driven [my emphasis] company towns like Aliquippa.” The problem, beyond economic progress that invariably leads to today’s business successes being replaced by the more nimble replacements of tomorrow, is that union bosses increasingly exploited the profits of large companies with flabby work forces to the detriment of both.  Price, as mentioned previously, happily doesn’t hide from this truth.

Indeed, in their efforts to squeeze everything they could out of management, Price acknowledges J&L’s unionized workers had by the 1950s “gone too far.” And they became ridiculous.  Job descriptions were increasingly used to limit the amount of work that union workers could perform.  Price cites the story of Aliquippian John Evasovich who, back home one summer in the 1950s, went to work in a J&L wire mill.  Eager to do more work than had been assigned to him, he recalls that he “wasn’t allowed to do it because that was not in my job description.” And when he finished his assigned work only to volunteer to do other things, union rules prohibited him from doing so.  Legendary Aliquippa High football coach Don Yanessa (seen as the opposing team’s head coach in All the Right Moves) hit on something even more crucial; specifically about the stereotypical tough and hard-working steel worker. According to him, the rosy perception didn’t stand up to reality.  As he explained to Price, “they [the mill workers] were tough guys, a lot of ‘em, but a lot of ‘em were lazy, laid-back, didn’t do a good job on the job.  They ended up union employees and a lot of it led to the demise of the steel industry in America.” Later on, Price cites the United Steelworkers Union’s negotiation of 13 weeks of paid vacation as another example of overreach that fed what Aliquippian Gary Grandstaff described to the author as an “aura” of laziness that was “appalling.”

Going back to Yanessa’s fairly explicit dismissal of the popular mill worker stereotype that’s all about nobility and intensely hard work for a day’s relatively meager wages paid out by exploitative management, Price has thankfully revealed a truth that many would perhaps like to avoid.  Contrary to the popular view that tireless factory and mill workers have been “victims” of globalization, management and bad luck, the actual reality is quite a bit more nuanced.  As they say about pawn shops, few enter them solely due to the mistakes of others.  Notable here is that it’s not just in his discussion of union error that Price tells the ugly truth as opposed to pulling the proverbial punch.

Indeed, while he perhaps overstates Aliquippa’s “knack for producing excellence” (a reference to Aliquippa’s various successful sons, including: Ditka, Dorsett, Darrelle Revis, Henry Mancini, Press & Pete Maravich, etc.), he’s also honest about the town’s similar knack for “promise squandered.” Aliquippa, then and now, is littered with former “could have been great” individuals who didn’t quite pan out.  Rather than making excuses for the town’s many failures, Price draws a direct line between bad decisions and failure.  Aliquippian Georgie Suder could have been a great professional basketball or baseball player, but “he seemed more interested in gambling at cards” than perfecting his baseball skills.  Before flaming out in minor league baseball, he was thrown out of the University of Maryland (where he starred in basketball) “for stealing.” One of Dorsett’s older brothers was the much more accomplished athlete, but bad decisions meant that he never made it out of Aliquippa.  Monroe Weekley was a legendarily good Aliquippa High player 1998-2000, earned a scholarship to Pitt, but in 2012 was sentenced “to a minimum of 24.5 years for a third-degree murder over a $600 debt.”

Tommie Campbell similarly starred at Aliquippa High, rated a scholarship to Pitt, but by the age of 22 he was back in Aliquippa “with two sons, no future, no job.  He tried to enlist in the Marines, but a slew of unpaid parking tickets - $2,000 worth – ended that.” You get the picture.  Campbell’s story has a happy ending, however. Allowed to hit rock bottom to the point that he was working as a janitor at Pittsburgh International airport (take home pay every two weeks: $460), Campbell eventually got his life back on track, including a return to college: California University of Pennsylvania.  His blinding speed returned after he quit smoking, and in 2011 he was taken in the final round of the NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans, only for the Titans to sign him to a four-year, $2.09 million contract.  As Campbell explained his turnaround to Price, “I quit putting blame on everything around me.  Because in reality it’s your choice.  You have a choice to get up in the morning or not.  You have a choice to work out or not.  You have a choice to go to class or not.  You’re reflected by the choices you make and I was making no choices at all – by sleeping.”

The interesting stories of Aliquippians gone good and bad are many in Price’s book, and the good news is that he again doesn’t pull punches.  Almost as interesting as the book itself might be a shorter one by the author explaining how his views – political and economic – perhaps evolved as he wrote this important history of a town that, if not for its football team, would be unknown today.

Does Playing Through the Whistle have weaknesses? Figure that all books do.  Everyone reads a different book, but this reader could have done without all the heavy-handed race and racism talk.  In Price’s defense, the Aliquippa of the 70s was defined by race problems, but it seems he overdid it in his constant allusions to J&L discriminating against black workers.  If we ignore how many blacks ascended to middle class status through their work at J&L, we can’t forget Price’s statistics on black migration from the south into towns like Aliquippa precisely because opportunity at one time was quite impressive. It also can’t be forgotten that where profits are greatest, so is color-blindness most prevalent.  Price himself reveals this through Aliquippa’s Steals brothers, who briefly attained songwriting fame with “Could it be I’m falling in love.” According to Price, Steals found that the business of music was largely color-blind; that “it didn’t matter what race you were so long as you could bring it.”  Was race in Aliquippa the problem, or did a slowly dying industry exacerbate general tensions?

Going back to the World War II years, and a war that Price refers to as a “war of production,” his veiled suggestion seems to be that the killing, maiming and mass destruction of wealth had an economic upside. In his defense, most economists promote the fiction that WWII was good for the U.S. economy despite such a horrid view being incredibly easy to disprove.  Price’s broad point is that Aliquippa helped to win the war with record production of steel, and that the town grew prosperous in the process.  Something tells this reader that’s not how Aliquippians felt during the war when some of their sons didn’t come back, and then with the long-term in mind, was J&L perhaps rendered less nimble by government spending that, while lucrative in the near-term, somewhat blinds its recipients to the very market realities that must be understood for businesses to survive over the long term?  J&L was ultimately acquired in the late 60s, and while mill jobs were still abundant in the 70s, the wheels started to fall off after that. 

But the biggest error concerns Price’s expressed belief throughout that Aliquippa’s decline was a function of J&L’s.  Price’s mistake there was in not pulling up lists of the largest and most prosperous U.S. companies in 1900, 1950, 1975, and 2000, only to compare them to today.  Most – particularly the older ones - no longer exist.  Paradoxical as it sounds, the U.S. is the world’s richest country precisely because the present rarely defines the future.  In business, what matters today rarely matters tomorrow.

Thinking about the 1920s and 30s, New York City and Los Angeles were the #1 and #4 ranked manufacturing cities in America.  Nowadays both are afterthoughts in the factory sense, yet neither city went the way of Aliquippa despite the truth that the prominent businesses of 100 years ago in each are mostly gone today.  Goodness, the Manhattan factories of 100 years aren’t abandoned as much as they’ve been re-populated by modern businesses doing the opposite of manufacturing. 

Thinking about all this through the lens of Aliquippa, J&L’s decline didn’t wreck it as much as the departure of its excellent people did.  Here lies a lesson for the partial economic nostalgist in Price, and more importantly the confirmed nostalgists like President Trump and Steve Bannon: the investors who create all the jobs aren’t interested in what worked in the past.  The profits from what was prosperous have been competed away already.  Investors are more interested in what will be prosperous.  Of equal or greater importance, the human capital that has largely vanished from Aliquippa is most interested in what will be.  J&L’s decline didn’t kill Aliquippa, but clinging to the past surely did.

And while Price doesn’t hide from the truth that those of us lucky enough to live in the United States are invariably major authors of our own misfortune, he’s arguably a little too sympathetic toward those living in a town that is largely bereft of opportunity today.  That he is probably makes it more of a story, but as Price made clear early in Playing Through the Whistle, 20th century Aliquippa was built by people from around the U.S. and around the who world who left situations that in most instances would make today’s Aliquippa appear paradise-like by comparison. They migrated there because at least at one time, Aliquippa “had the work.” Though the work was filthy, it was surely an improvement on where they had been.  Ok, so what’s keeping today’s remaining Aliquippians from doing what their ancestors did and moving on?

That’s why Ty Law (another Aliquippa football great who has moved on) is so correct when he says money is not what will fix what is dying.  It won’t simply because Aliquippa doesn’t have a money problem or a poverty problem as much as it has a problem of citizens who routinely make bad decisions that correlate with failure.  When Law asserts that Aliquippa will revert “right back like it was before” after money’s spent on its revival, he knows well of what he speaks. 

Quibbles aside, S.L. Price has written a very important book that is about much more than sports.  His book shines an essential light on what happens when people and places remain stuck in the past.  The U.S. political class needs to read his book so that they can wake up to just how crippling are their solutions that are all about reviving a past that was never that great to begin with. 

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, a Senior Fellow in Economics at Reason Foundation, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). He's the author of Who Needs the Fed? (Encounter Books, 2016), along with Popular Economics(Regnery, 2015). 

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