Blood Brothers: The 1943 Steagles became an unlikely product of the war years

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When the Steelers switched to the AFC in 1970 and the Eagles stayed put in the NFC, a cross-state rivalry that once included two meetings a year pretty much went by the wayside.

The two franchises at opposite ends of Penn's Woods still meet regularly in the preseason. Tonight's game at Heinz Field is the 23rd time since 1973 they will have gotten together in games that don't count.

In truth, they wouldn't exist today if they hadn't been blood brothers.

Through the prism of history, there's a lot of Steelers in the Eagles and a lot of Eagles in the Steelers, beyond the hybrid known as the Steagles of 1943, when an NFL home team playing in Pittsburgh wore green and white instead of black and gold.

Before that, two full years before the Steagles became a single entity out of the two weakest teams in the NFL, a plan was floated in which a franchise that rotated games between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia would play as the Keystoners. It never got beyond the talking stage.

Volumes have been written about the divide, cultural and otherwise, separating the City of Brotherly Love where snowballs are hurled at Santa Claus and America's Most Livable/Leave-able/Lovable City. One city is Dick Clark, the Liberty Bell and the fictional Rocky Balboa; the other is Porky Chedwick, the Liberty Tubes and the real-life Rocky Bleier.

One won three NFL titles prior to the AFL-NFL merger, the last one in 1960, so surly fans expects things to go awry; the other won five Super Bowls after the merger, the last one in Super Bowl XL, with towel-wavers who think title rings are a birthright.

Both teams are marking their 75th anniversary seasons this year, and the kinship starts with a shared birth date -- July 8, 1933, the first year of the New Deal but hardly the last year of the Depression. Both initially played their home games on Wednesday nights while state laws that banned games on Sundays were being repealed.

The only question in the early days is which was worse. In 1939, for example, the two teams played on Thanksgiving in Philadelphia -- the only Eagles win of the season -- and met again three days later in Forbes Field -- Pittsburgh's only win of the season.

Then came a franchise two-step that still exists with the most convoluted in sports history, when founding father Arthur J. Rooney sold the Steelers to become co-owner of the Eagles before getting the Steelers back about four months later.

As documented in the newspapers of the day, neither team had posted a winning record in their first eight years of existence. Losses on the field were compounded by the combined loss of about $190,000 in Depression dollars. And in 1940, a suitor named Alexis Thompson approached Eagles owner Bert Bell about purchasing an NFL team that he wanted to move to Boston.

The story goes like this:

Bell brokered a deal in which Rooney sold the Steelers for $160,000---- 64 times the start-up fee of $2,500 -- and Rooney in turn invested $80,000 to become partner with Bell in the Eagles. The deal, which also involved the trade of 11 Steelers to the Eagles and eight Eagles to the Steelers, came to light on Dec. 8, 1940, the day the Bears walloped the Redskins, 73-0, in the NFL title game.

The Pittsburgh team was renamed the Iron Men, but the move to Boston fell through. The Rooney/Bell idea to have one Keystone franchise with games in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh was vetoed as well.

Rooney, meanwhile, had second thoughts about leaving Pittsburgh, and he caught Thompson just at the right time. Rooney and Bell would take their Philadelphia operation back to Pittsburgh and rename it the Steelers while Thompson, who lived a playboy lifestyle in New York City, could move a franchise to Philadelphia and play as the Eagles.

Because the Steelers never actually missed a game in Pittsburgh, the NFL considers the Rooney reign to be unbroken. But from 1941 to 1946, when Bell became NFL commissioner and gave up his half interest in the Steelers, the club's operating name was Philadelphia Eagles Football Club Inc.

Then in 1943, when the loss of players to the U.S. military in World War II depleted the rosters of NFL teams, the two teams found survival in a merger. The Indianapolis 500 was shut down that year to save gasoline. So was the U.S. Open golf tournament. The rubber used to make golf ball covers was needed for the war effort.

The Steelers, coming off the first winning season in their existence, had only six players under contract. Rooney and Bell sought out Thompson, who was serving in the Army as a corporal. They got the NFL to approve a merger known as the Phil-Pitt Eagles-Steelers Combine. Within two weeks, however, sports editor Chet Smith of The Pittsburgh Press called them the Steagles.

This new entity was not without problems. The coaches -- Walt Kiesling of Pittsburgh and Earle (Greasy) Neale of Philadelphia -- hated each other. Neale eventually coached the offense and Kiesling worked with the defense.

All of the 25 players on the roster were required to keep full-time jobs in defense plants. One of Pittsburgh's players, Ted Doyle, worked at Westinghouse and figured out later he was a small part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, according to Matthew Algeo's book Last Team Standing.

And even though it was a merger, the team practiced in Philadelphia and wore green and white uniforms. That color scheme was worn in the two home games played at Forbes Field, which were wins over the Cardinals on Halloween and over Detroit on Nov. 21. Four home games were played in Philadelphia, where the team went 2-1-1.

For the season, the Steagles finished 5-4-1, the first winning season ever for a team in Philadelphia, and box office totals exceeded any profits the teams had managed on their own. They had spilled blood on each other's turf, and they would survive the hard times. The Steagles also set one NFL record that has since been equaled but never surpassed -- 10 fumbles in the Oct. 9 win against the New York Giants.

The only other appearance of the Steagles was at a pre-season game at Heinz Field in 2003, with surviving players introduced on the 60th anniversary of their campaign.

The Steelers and Eagles stayed on each other's radar in other ways, however. They were tied for the Eastern Division lead at the end of the 1947 season and went to a playoff -- the first post-season games in Steelers history. The Steelers lost at home, 21-0.

For many years, however, the two franchises had the dubious distinction of playing for last place. The epitome of that may have come in 1968 when they both were winless in their first six games. They went head-to-head in what was called the O.J. Bowl, because the loser would presumably get the right to draft O.J. Simpson.

The Steelers won, 6-3, in a dreadful game. But as it turned out, the Eagles drafted third and picked Leroy Keyes. The Steelers -- picking fourth with new coach Chuck Noll -- selected Joe Greene, now the public face behind the 75th anniversary season.

In 1969, Bert Bell died of a heart attack. He was at the Sept. 28 game at Franklin Field in Philadelphia between the Steelers and Eagles, one team that he co-owned in Pittsburgh, one he founded in Philadelphia and one that played a season together.


Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1959.


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