Fly Steagles Fly
During WWII the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles joined forces to create a not-quite-super team
|Eric Nusbaum||Dec 4, 2019|
We’ve been hanging out around World War II a lot lately at Sports Stories. Last week we learned about Wat Misaka, a heroic, quiet man who became a basketball superstar in Utah, even as fellow Japanese Americans were being interned -- then went on to play with the Knicks. With December 7 coming around on the calendar, it seems like a good time to linger in the historical moment.
In fact, let’s linger on that particular day. December 7 was a Sunday. Then, as now, Sundays in December in America were filled up with the beautiful destruction of professional football. As Japanese fighter planes descended on Pearl Harbor in the minutes before 8:00 a.m. Hawaiian time, the Washington football team and the Philadelphia Eagles were preparing to take the field for their final regular season game at Griffith Stadium in D.C.
News didn’t travel very quickly in 1941. The teams were oblivious to the fact that just before kickoff, the world had completely changed. But word of the attack slowly filtered into the stadium. The public address announcer began paging reporters who were in the crowd, then military personnel. Fans started to whisper.
The game has been written about extensively. The last moment of innocence. Like everything else, football became irrelevant after the attack on Pearl Harbor. But pro football did not stop. It just sort of plodded along, even as players were drafted and rosters were decimated. By the end of the 1942 season, the NFL was in bad shape. The losing team in that game on December 7, 1941, the Philadelphia Eagles, were in especially bad shape.
They finished that season with a record of 2-8-1. The next year, they went 2-9. The next year, they weren’t the Eagles anymore. The 1943 NFL season, coming right at the peak of the war, brought some major changes for the league: the Cleveland Rams suspended operations, the commissioner made helmets mandatory for the first time, and the Philadelphia Eagles merged with their cross-state rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers to form a new team: the Steagles.
The Steagles was not an official name, but it sounded better than “Phil-Pitt Combine” and it caught on quickly. The merger was one of necessity: the Steelers were down to just six players on their roster, and the Eagles sixteen. They added six more to reach the league’s 28-man mandated roster size. Many of their best players were unfit for service in the military -- which means they were not exactly prime NFL material either. It didn’t help that the league was still segregated.
Here’s Matthew Algeo, author of a book called Last Team Standing on what the Steagles brought to the table:
The Steagles were indeed better than any Eagles team in franchise history up to that point, and better than any Steelers team but one. They finished 1943 with a record of 5-4-1. They allowed more points than they scored. But they carried on, even as their co-head coaches, Walt Kiesling and Greasy Neale constantly bickered. (The idea of two high-testosterone football coaches who hated each other being forced to work together and share a job should definitely be optioned and made into one of those Will Ferrell-ish comedies; movie studios, please contact Adam and I if you agree.)
The Steagles came to embody the fighting spirit, and cometogetherness of wartime. They gave the fans something to watch, something to root for, something to do on Sundays… at least until the following season, when the Eagles refused to continue the partnership. (The entire time, the Eagles had refused to acknowledge the name Steagles, and insisted on still being referred to as the Philadelphia Eagles despite the obvious fact that they were a combined team.) As quickly as it began, the Steagles experiment was over.
The next year, the Steelers joined forces with the Chicago Cardinals and that combined team (called Card-Pitt) finished 0-10. The sportswriters at the time used to call them, instead of Card-Pitt, the Carpets. Meanwhile, the Eagles finished 7-1-2, which was good for second place in their conference but still not enough to qualify for the playoffs.
The Steagle (Singular)
The Steagles, and the concept of the merged team, became the central metaphor in an early ‘70s movie called...The Steagle starring Richard Benjamin and Cloris Leachman. At the start of the film, a professor (played by Benjamin) is on a train and helps a guy doing a crossword puzzle answer a question to which Steagles is the answer. Then, as the Cuban Missile Crisis plays out, and everything seems pointless, he abandons his identity and his job in New York and sets out on a hedonistic road trip to Los Angeles.
I think the connection is a stretch, but the entire movie is on YouTube and you can watch the opening scene in which Benamin recites some Steagles facts to the dude on the train:
Both of the Steagles co-head coaches are in the pro football hall of fame. But only one of them is also a quasi-baseball legend. Alfred Earle “Greasy” Neale played nearly a decade in the majors. He was a below average hitting outfielder for the most part, and not especially memorable. But the greatest moment of his career came in arguably the darkest moment in the sport’s history: the 1919 World Series.
Neale batted .357 with 10 hits to lead the Reds to a massive upset over the Chicago White Sox. The only thing was that the White Sox were (probably) losing on purpose. Regardless, Greasy Neale led a notable sporting life.
I enjoyed reading Matthew Algeo’s book Last Team Standing which does a great job of placing the team in the context of America at war, and zooms in really nicely on the lives of the individual players. (Or, if you’re feeling lazy, the Wikipedia page for Steagles is basically all taken from Algeo.)
The December 7, 1941 game has been covered extensively. But one write-up I really liked was this from the blog Boundary Stones. It’s both well sourced and well written.
This has been Vol. 11 of Sports Stories by Eric Nusbaum (words) and Adam Villacin (art). If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please reply to this email or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you.
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