Steagles: When the Steelers and Eagles were One in the Same

Since this is Philadelphia Eagles Week here in Steeler Nation, I thought I'd share the story of how the Steelers and Eagles actually combined teams during World War II to keep the NFL alive. Once again Art Rooney rose to the occasion with his creative entrepreneurial thinking and his standard practice of looking out for the good of the league.  Matthew Algeo wrote a fabulous book titled "Last Team Standing."  It is the story about how the Steelers combined with the Philadelphia Eagles during the 1943 war year.  If you love history and the Pittsburgh Steelers, this book is for you.  I will jump this story so as not to hog the front page.

 

In 1943 America was entrenched in World War II, both in European and Japanese theaters.  Most young men who were of the age to play professional football were also of the age to fight for their country.  This badly damaged the well-being of the NFL, but obviously the well-being of the country was the top priority. 

At the annual spring meeting, the NFL decided to play through the roster adversity for much the same reasons that Major League Baseball continued to play.  While at war, the country needed some form of entertainment and sense of normalcy.  Sports were a much-needed diversion.  At the time baseball far surpassed football as America's game (that since has reversed).  President Roosevelt wrote an inspirational decree on how important it was to the country for baseball to continue.  He made no mention of football.  

What was good for baseball was good for football.  The young men who remained in the States to play football were by and large deferred from the draft.  There were basically three types of deferment that defined 1943 NFL players.  The first group was called 3-As.  If a man was supporting a family Uncle Sam would not make him a draft priority.  To keep things clean, the government defined a 3-A as a father whose child/children was born or conceived prior to Pearl Harbor.  The cutoff date for birth was September 15, 1942, precisely nine months and one week after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The second group consisted of those men who worked in the war industry, producing and preparing ammunition, weapons and materials.  The third group were those deemed physically unfit.  They were called 4-Fs.  Common ailments were ulcers, perforated eardrums, partial blindness or deafness and even flat feet.

Even with these deferments, NFL rosters were hurting.  The Cleveland Rams suspended operations.  The Steelers had only six men left under contract.  The Philadelphia Eagles had 16.  Steelers' owner Art Rooney knew that the league needed at least eight teams to survive.  The 1943 NFL draft was a waste, with most players going off to the war instead of joining NFL teams. 

Rooney's idea was to merge with the Eagles.  This idea came quickly to him since two years earlier he thought about combing the two teams into the Pennsylvania Keystoners.  Lex Thompson, who owned the Eagles, was not as keen on the plan since he at least had 16 players under contract.  Thompson remembered 1941 and how Rooney actually swapped cities with him, allowing him to keep the Eagles in Philadelphia, close to his New York City home.  He agreed to combine teams.

The two cities were married in many ways anyhow.  They were anchor cities in Pennsylvania, one in the east and one in the west.  They were both industrial cities. Pittsburgh, with the nation's 10th largest population, manufactured raw materials such as steel, iron, glass and aluminum.  Philadelphia, with the country's third-most population, refined those materials into finished war products, tanks, ammunition and the likes.

The merger had its price.  The league approved the plan by a slim vote of 5-4.  The league stipulation was that the merger would expire as soon as the regular season ended, keeping the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia combine out of any playoffs.  The other owners feared the merger would produce a team with an unfair advantage. 

The other stipulations were imposed by Thompson.  The team would be known as the Philadelphia Eagles and be based in Philly.  Rooney had very little leverage, bringing only six players to the table.  He was successful in landing two home games in Pittsburgh.  The team was also to wear the Eagles' green and white colors instead of black and gold.

Two other business items of note occurred during that spring meeting.  The first was that helmets were mandated for the first time.  The second was the approval of expansion in 1944.  The Boston Yanks paid $50,000 for entry into the league.  It may seem strange that a league on the verge on non-existence would agree to expand, but the $50,000 was much needed for operations in 1943.  The owners divided that money faster than my kids divide Halloween candy.

The Philadelphia Eagles began training camp with co-head coaches:  Greasy Neale of Philadelphia and Walt Kiesling of Pittsburgh.  They couldn't stand each other.  Co-head coaches would be difficult to begin with, let alone two guys at each other's throats.  Kiesling's own players didn't like him anyhow.  Asking the Eagles to like him was too much to ask.

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Walt Kiesling (L) and Greasy Neale Were Co-Head Coaches of the Steagles

As the season got underway, fans and newspapers, everywhere but in Philadelphia, began calling the team the Steagles, a combination of Steelers and Eagles.  It had a nice ring to it and was fair to both cities.  In Philly, the writers and even the team insisted on Philadelphia Eagles.  Steagles eventually became nomenclature throughout most of the country. 

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The Steagles jumped out to a 2-0 start after defeating Brooklyn and New York at home in Philadelphia's Shibe Park.  In the New York game the Steagles fumbled the ball 10 times, still an NFL record, but managed to win 28-14.  The team stumbled on the road and after seven games was 3-3-1.  Washington was 6-0-1 and the Eastern title (though just four teams) seemed hopeless.

Two straight wins over Detroit and Washington gave the team hope again.  The final game, at home in Shibe Park against the Green Bay Packers, would make or break the season.  A packed house of 35,000 fans was on hand, but Green Bay receiver Don Hutson was too much and the Steagles fell 38-28.

The team finished 5-4-1.  In many ways 1943 was a major success.  Total attendance was 129,000, a record for both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.  Total NFL attendance experienced a huge spike, averaging 24,000 per game.  The premise of playing football during the war as a diversion was obviously correct.

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Individually, the Steagles' Jack Hinkle ended the season with 571 rushing yards.  He lost the rushing title to New York's Bill Paschal by one yard.  Against those very Giants Hinkle was not given credit for a 37-yard run (they gave it to Johnny Butler).  Hinkle did not complain about not winning the NFL rushing crown.  He figured with a war going on there were better things to cry about.  Tony Bova, a half-blind 4-F, led the team in receiving with 417 yards.  It should also be noted that all the Steagles' players were full-time war workers in Philadelphia.  Playing football was extracurricular.

Playing football was also an oxymoron.  On one hand they were playing for the fans who needed a sense of routine.  On the other hand, many of those same fans were critical of the players.  There was a feeling that if guys could play football they could fight in the war.  This was a logical train of thought, except that the players weren't making the decisions as to who could fight and who couldn't.  Men with flat feet weren't drafted.  They could lead normal lives and even play football, but the Army deemed that flat feet was not conducive to marching long distances.  Similar reasons existed for other 4-F deferments.

Most NFL football players wanted to join the war.  In the early 1940s there was patriotic gravitation to serve and fight for the country.  Being classified as a 4-F was an embarrassment.  Playing football and being ridiculed was added embarrassment.  One Steagle, Bill Hewitt, quit in the middle of the season.  He couldn't take the ridicule and subsequent guilt feelings anymore.  Hewitt was good enough to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

The next season, 1944, the NFL was back on solid footing.  The Army had declared that it had enough soldiers and men over 26 years of age would not be drafted.  The league had another problem.  With the Cleveland Rams back in operation, the expansion Boston team in the fold and the Eagles and Steelers back in their separate ways, the NFL had 11 teams.  this created a nightmare with divisions and scheduling.  The league's owners could not resolve these issues during the spring meeting.

Commissioner Elmer Layden begged for two teams to combine again in 1944.  Ten teams made for a perfect league and 11 seemed impossible.  Art Rooney, who lived his life for the good of the league, volunteered to combine his team with the Chicago Cardinals.  The Cardinals were chosen since they recorded an 0-10 record in 1943.  Rooney did not want to do this.  It was another of his lifetime examples of benevolence.

The Card-Pitts as they were called, went 0-10 in 1944.  Fans started calling them "carpits" since everyone walked all over them.  Better days were ahead though, for the Pittsburgh Steelers and America.  In August of 1945 the Japanese surrendered and the war came to an end.

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