'Last Team Standing' by Matthew Algeo

The Story of the World War II Steagles

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It's seldom recalled today, but Art Rooney sold the Pittsburgh Steelers for an alleged $160,000 to New York playboy Lex Thompson in late 1940 and joined his football buddy Bert Bell as a co-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles.

   
"LAST TEAM STANDING"

By Matthew Algeo
Da Capo ($26)

   

It was one of the countless oddball deals and arrangements that typified the National Football League in its years as a poor also-ran to baseball, both major and minor.

Rooney had a change of heart. He and Bell traded franchises with Thompson the following spring, keeping "The Chief" in his North Side home and setting the stage for yet another wacky NFL operation, "The Steagles."

As Matthew Algeo recounts, in his history subtitled "How the Steelers and the Eagles -- 'The Steagles' -- Saved Pro Football During World War II," the hybrid team kept the flickering flame alive in both Pennsylvania cities where it now blazes white-hot.

Rooney and Bell nursed the Steelers through a 7-4 season in 1942, the team's first winning record, but the war's demand for manpower made prospects for the '43 season bleak.

Cleveland dropped out of the NFL earlier that year and the rosters of other teams were shrinking faster than the cheap uniforms supplied by Rooney. His team was reeling from the departures, so he and Bell proposed a wartime merger to Thompson, who realized that if Pittsburgh also dropped out of the league, the NFL was probably doomed.

The result was an unwieldy arrangement with two coaches -- Greasy Neale of the Eagles and Rooney's pal Walt Kiesling -- who hated each other. Dominated by Philadelphia players, the Steagles dressed in the green and white of the Eagles, lived and practiced in Philly and played only two games at Forbes Field.

Adding to the strain was Thompson's requirement that the players, though rejected for military duty, had to work in defense plants during the week. Ted Doyle, one of the six Steelers on the hybrid team Algeo dubbed "Birds of Steel," worked at Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh during the week, hopping the train most Fridays to make the games.

The Steagles finished 5-4-1, out of the running, but gave fans in both cities their money's worth.

Algeo's account, which includes an instructive overview of life on the homefront during the war, is a colorful and sympathetic one about the struggles and determination of a handful of men who had no idea that they were preserving a sickly plant that would grow into a financial redwood in the next 50 years.

It was a fun while it lasted, which was only one season. The next year the Eagles returned to single ownership, but the Steelers were forced into a merger with the old Chicago Cardinals, with disastrous results. The Card-Pitts lost all 10 games. That was not fun.


Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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