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The Steagles and World War II

Hundreds of NFL players left to fight in World War II 

When World War II broke out in 1939, the United States waited and watched afar as objective observers. Most of the country’s European allies were already involved, but the U.S. government decided to see if those allies could take care of themselves without American intervention even though Germany was gobbling up countries.

Then the Empire of Japan, a German ally, attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. And the world would never be the same.

As the U.S. would now be fully involved in WWII, all across the continent American men signed up to go overseas and fight. Scores of men eligible to participate in the war effort were already playing professional sports in the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Hockey League (NHL). The question was asked whether professional sports should continue while the war to stop their enemies continued. And it was a fair question to ask since the war effort needed as many able-bodied men as possible.

And who was more able-bodied than professional athletes?

As the U.S. entered the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent out what is now called the “green light letter” to MLB owners telling them to continue their efforts and give the military overseas something to cheer about with their favorite teams. No such letter was sent to the league offices of the NFL nor the NHL. Back then, the entire sports world revolved around professional baseball and college football. It was up to the NFL and NHL owners to decide whether to continue forward or suspend operations. Events such as the Indianapolis 500 and the U.S. Open were canceled.

All three leagues continued to play a full schedule of games during the war years, however, there were plenty of issues. For one, lots of players were drafted by the war department. Other athletes simply left their sports clubs and signed up. Pro sports lost the services of Stan Musial (Cardinals), Turk Broda (Maple Leafs), Bobby Jones (golf), Joe DiMaggio (Yankees), plus Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey (boxing). The playing field wasn’t the only casualty either. The Los Angeles Rams’ owner, Dan Reeves, left to become a member of the U.S. Army Air Forces. Philadelphia Eagles’ owner Alexis Thompson was a corporal in the Army.

Lack of Players in NFL

In the NFL, rosters were suddenly getting thin. Over 600 players and coaches had joined the military; which also included men who were just drafted from the college ranks but had not signed to play yet. In 1943, every club suddenly had an issue fielding a complete squad. Thoughts were that only three of the 10 clubs could actually fill a team so roster limits were shortened from 33 players to 25. There was a discussion about whether the league should suspend operations for at least a year. The Chicago Bears held a tryout after losing 10 players and hired anyone who could run around the practice field twice. The Rams closed shop for one full year.

In 1942, the Pittsburgh Steelers finished 7-4-0 and almost made the playoffs. It also marked the first winning season for the black and gold since joining the NFL in 1933. The following season, only three players remained. Other teams were just in dire straits. One such club, the Eagles, were down to 16 players. With the Rams already dormant, losing three clubs meant a seven-team league - or perhaps even less.

Art Rooney, the owner of the Steelers, brought the idea to NFL commissioner Elmer Layden to merge his players with the Eagles so that the league would be an eight-club entity. Plus, there would be that intra-state connection of two blue-collar cities. The league approved the merger by a narrow 5-4 vote.

Steagles in Eagles’ uniform and colors

Thompson, the Eagles’ owner, had stipulations though. For one, he wanted the team to play under the name “Philadelphia Eagles” and play all games in his home stadium. He also wanted the club to wear the green and white uniforms of his club. Rooney negotiated that two of the six home games would be played in Pittsburgh and that the team name would include his squad in some form. The name “Steagles” was coined by fans during the upcoming season, but the name in the official NFL standings of this team for this one year was “Phil-Pitt Combine.”

The Steagles did indeed wear the Eagles uniforms, a year in which plastic helmets were now mandatory throughout the league. This marked only the second time in Steelers’ history that they did not wear their familiar black and gold regalia.

Merge Two Clubs with Two Head Coaches. Now What?

With now one squad, how would the head coaches gel? What occurred naturally was that Steelers’ head coach Walt Kiesling would coach the offense while Eagles’ head man Greasy Neale took on the defense. All 25 players were required to keep full-time employment at a local defense plant in addition to abbreviated evening practice schedules after work, plus the actual games. Because of the war effort, everyone in the U.S. was conscious of saving, so the Steagles could only use half the lights during practices.

War on everyone's mind: Steagles vs. Giants program

After going 0-2 in the preseason, the Steagles won their first two contests over the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. Less than 27,000 fans attended both games at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. After two road losses, the club beat the Chicago Cardinals 34-13 in front of 16,351 spectators at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Needless to say, folks were not spending their hard-earned money on pro football games.

Kiesling and Neale hated each other. What made the transition tolerable was the fact that Neale was a defensive mind whereas Kiesling loved offense. Each was an excellent coach whereas Neale was known as an outstanding talent evaluator. His Eagles would eventually capture the NFL title in 1948 and 1949. In all likelihood, this is where the modern offensive and defensive coordinator positions originated.

The roster was anchored by QB Allie Sherman, who would eventually go on to become the head coach of the Giants in the 1960s, and WR Bill Hewitt was already cemented as one of the league’s best.

After nine games, the franchise was 5-3-1 and had a chance at the division title if they could beat the Green Bay Packers in their final game plus a Washington Redskins victory over the 5-3-1 New York Giants. However, neither occurred as the Giants trounced the Redskins 31-7 and the Packers won 38-28 in front of an enthusiastic Philly home crowd of 34,294. The end result was a 5-4-1 finish and third place in the Eastern Division.

However, it would become the first winning season in Eagles’ history and only the second for the Steelers.

Later that evening after the home loss at the Hotel Philadelphian, the Steagles were presented with a farewell banquet. All of the Steelers’ players headed back for Pittsburgh afterward.

Merger Aftermath

In 1944, the Eagles got some of their talent back from the war and were able to field a complete squad, but the Steelers were still short. They almost merged with the Dodgers, but instead melded rosters with the Chicago Cardinals and became “Card-Pitt” for one season. With a 0-10-0 season, this club was nicknamed the “Carpits.”

Steagles Pub

Today, there is a “Steagles Pub” located in Melbourne, Florida which specializes in Penn State, Eagles and Steelers games. Somebody had to keep the moniker alive, and what better way to do it than with cheesesteaks, spicy wings, and cold beer?

Those men who stayed in the U.S. during the war that couldn’t go overseas did everything they could to ensure a victorious conclusion whether it was saving rubber or metal or working back home in a factory that produced ammunition or built tanks.

Did the Steagles help America win World War II? Not directly, but this country had men and women in uniform whose directive was to win the war and had people out of uniform at home who had the same objective. As the World War II poster states, “Remember! We at home have to help win this war.”

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.