The Man of Steel(ers)
Let me tell you about my father-in-law...
I first met Andy Kroft in the summer of 1970. He was a big, imposing guy – well over six feet tall, ex-Army with the crew-cut to match – and a stare that could burn a hole right through you, which I think from the very beginning, in my case anyway, was kind of what he was hoping to do. After all, I was seeing one of his six daughters – one of his younger daughters I might add – and he already had experience dealing with guys like me: the long-haired skinny punks that we were. But this really isn't about me or the punks I rolled with.
Andy Kroft was a promising young pitcher at St. Ignatius when WWII intervened. Andy felt it an honor to serve his country and enlisted right out of high school in 1944. Only later did he find out the Philadelphia Phillies had been trying to contact him for a tryout shortly after he had left for Officers Training at Ohio University. It was all rendered moot when in 1945 while in Germany, a white phosphorous grenade he was about to toss malfunctioned and exploded in his right (pitching) hand. Damage included the loss of his right eyebrow, hearing in his right ear, and his pitching hand would never again be fully functional. Also, there were some painful burns to deal with.
In 1948, as Andy was nearing the end of what would be fifteen months of physical rehab, he met a delightful young lady – courtesy of a blind date – by the name of Marion Noll. They were engaged in 1949, and wed in 1950. Now, you may be asking yourself, "Noll...Noll...Where do I remember that name from?"
Give up? Okay...Marion Noll was first cousin to Chuck Noll, who played for the Browns (hooray) but then moved on to a very successful career as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers (boo).
The timing was good for Andy, who had denounced his loyalty to the Browns years earlier, just as many of those who witnessed Art Modell's dismissal of Browns head coach Paul Brown had done. Heck, with the coach of the Steelers being a blood relative and all, it was easy for him to shift his allegiance to just southeast of the Ohio-Penn border.
It's important to remember that when Chuck Noll took over as coach of the Steelers, they stunk, and the Browns routinely beat up on the Steelers twice a year. Early on, it was more of the same, for in Noll's first year, 1969, the Steelers would win their first game and not win again the rest of the season. Soon – oh yeah, baby – SOON, after a few years of sound football beatings at the hands of my powerhouse Browns, Andy would come crawling back, begging to be a Browns fan again. And of course, I would have to "think about it" and get back to him. It all sounded so good on paper...
Last time I checked, the Steelers had like six Super Bowl trophies and the Browns had – I'd better double-check my math to make sure I get the numbers right – oh, yeah... we have, like, ZERO!
The amazing thing is, Andy could have really rubbed it in, too, but chose to take the high road and never really let me have it, when I probably – okay, totally – deserved it. "I'll give you one of our trophies, if it will make you feel better," he'd say whenever he needed to shut me up.
"One of these days, my Browns will show you and your stinky Steelers..." I'd say, but in truth stopped believing about twenty years ago.
Well, "one of these days" never came – and now it never will, for Andy – who passed away on July 19, at age 85.
As far as the trophy goes, I really don't need one. See, I got something of immeasurably greater value from Andy almost forty years ago: my life partner and spouse, Patti.
And I suspect Andy is on the pitcher's mound and impressing the hell out of a Philadelphia baseball scout right about now.
Go get 'em, Andy. A reformed "punk" is pulling for you.
Lifelong Westlake resident who dabbles in writing whenever the real world permits.