Steagles: The 1943 Combination of the Steelers and Eagles
During the 1940s, many of the players in the NFL were fighting in World War II. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles had lost so many players to the military that they were forced to merge in order for both teams to survive. The official name of the team by the NFL was the Phil-Pitt Combine. The unofficial name was the Steagles; it was given to the team by a Pittsburgh sports reporter. The name was never registered with the NFL, but many people used Steagles when speaking about the team in the media.
In the early years of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt gave an inspirational talk to the country about how important Major League Baseball was to the morale of Americans. During the spring meeting by NFL owners in 1943, they decided to continue operating their league just like the president had asked professional baseball. Other football leagues such as the American Association, Dixie League, and the American Football League decided to suspend league play. The NFL and Pacific Coast Professional Football League decided to continue operating.
The Steagles had 25 players on their roster. Most of the players maintained a full-time job working in a manufacturing plant. One of the Steagles players was Ted Doyle. He worked at Westinghouse during this time. Doyle later shared that he had a part in the Manhattan Project that was focused on building the first atomic bomb. The two team coaches agreed to work together during the season. Greasy Neale was the coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, and Walt Kiesling was the coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Each player had to be at least 60 inches in height and weigh in at least 105 pounds. Things that would make a person unable to serve in the military did not make them unable to play in the NFL. Players had all sorts of physical ailments such as high blood pressure, perforated eardrums, ulcers, chronic sleepwalking as well as diabetes. Many of the players also had bad knees, flat feet and more. A Steeler receiver named Tony Bova only had sight in one eye.
The owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers was Art Rooney. He realized the NFL needed to have a minimum of eight teams to have a season. He had made a proposition to combine the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles two years earlier. Rooney suggested they could call the team the Pennsylvania Keystoners. At this time, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles was a man named Alexis Thompson. He was serving in the US Army at the time with the rank of corporal. He didn't like Rooney's idea because he had 16 players under contract. Then just prior to the 1943 season, Alexis Thompson and Art Rooney approached the NFL about combining the two teams for the 1943 season. The NFL approved the merger by a vote of 5 to 4. Those that voted against it were worried that the combination of the Steelers and Eagles would give the new team an unfair advantage.
Team Colors and Home Field
It was agreed that the combined team would be referred to as the Philadelphia Eagles. Its home field would be in Philadelphia. Art Rooney had nothing that could provide him with leverage in this negotiation. He only provided six players for under contract for the team. Rooney was able to negotiate two home games to be played in Pittsburgh. The combination team would wear the Eagle's green and white colors. This was only the second time in Steeler history that green and white would be used with black and gold. Helmets were required to be used by all players for the first time in 1943.
During the previous four years in the NFL, the Steelers and Eagles had a combined record of 13-65-7. Nobody in professional football expected much from the team. The players and the two coaches didn't get along well at first. Tempers flared as players and coaches ideas of how to play the game clashed with one another. It seems they were able to work out their differences before the start of the season.
The team used a field at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia for practice. The practices usually started around 7 pm. This enabled the people who played for the Steagles to make it to practice after working their jobs from 7 am to 3 pm. Players from Pittsburgh regularly took the train across Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. It took time to develop a team attitude. By the time the season arrived, the players and coaches had come together.
It seemed as if the fans from both cities enjoyed the combined team called the Steagles. Attendance for the games increased in both cities. People were often looking for something to do with their free time and watching a football game became quite popular. The Steagles were a self-confessed ragtag team. All of the players had full-time factory jobs, minimal athletic abilities and struggled put in enough practice time. To everyone's surprise, they started the 1943 season with an impressive 17-0 victory against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next game they were able to beat the Giants 28-14. The players and coaches manged to have a 5-3-1 record with one game left in the season. Tony Bova, their receiver with sight in one eye was able to have a team-high five touchdown receptions. Their last game would be against the Green Bay Packers. If the Steagles won the game, they could be in a first-place tie with four other Eastern Division Teams. They did need the Redskins to beat the Giants in their game during the following week. The Steagles, Green Bay game took place in front of 35,000 people in Philadelphia's Shibe Park. A large audience from Pittsburgh listened to the game on the radio. At halftime, the Steagles were down 17-14. In the third quarter, they were down 31-14. During the fourth quarter, they fought back to make the score 31-28. Then the Steagles fumbled the ball. Green Bay was able to get a touchdown pass of 24 yards with less than five minutes to play. The final score was Green Bay 38 and the Steagles 28.
The Steagles had a farewell banquet in December of 1943. It was held at the Hotel Philadelphian. This was the last time the owners, coaches and team members would be together as Steagles. The next season the Eagles would be able to provide a full roster and have its own team. During the same time, the Steelers merged with the Chicago Cardinals. The team would be called “Card-Pitt” and go 0-10 for the 1944 season.