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History of the Eagles/Steelers - The Swap (1941-1942)

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 20, 2007 3:26 pm    Post subject: History of the Eagles/Steelers - The Swap (1941-1942) Reply with quote

NOTE: In a continuing series I'm writing in the Eagles forum about the team's history, the second and third parts have to deal with both the Eagles' and Steelers' histories. In these two stories, I chronicle two of the strangest and greatest stories in the history of the NFL. It is because of these events that I feel that Eagles fans and Steelers fans are not unlike step-brothers. This week I've posted the Part II: The Swap, and next week I'll be posting Part III: The Steagles. I hope you enjoy my recounts of history!

The History of the Philadelphia Eagles

Part I: In the Beginning…

Previously on History of the Eagles:
In 1940, Pittsburgh Pirates (of football) owner Art Rooney sold the team to Alexis Thompson, a 30-year old heir to a six million fortune in steel stocks. Rooney then bought half interest in the Philadelphia Eagles to become co-owner with Bert Bell. While this move seems insignificant in just this context, it would have major and tremendously positive repercussions for the future of the Eagles franchise.

Part II: The Swap (1941-1942)

This is a story that when fully researched, proved to be so shocking and remarkable that I had to give a full, complete recount on its own, separate from the rest of the decade. I will then give a history up until the 1943 “Steagles”, and will make the rest of the decade Part IV. As an infamous man once said, “Get your popcorn ready.”

In 1933, Arthur Joseph Rooney, Sr. traveled to Saratoga Race Course, where after placing and cashing in on a parlay of long shot winners, used his $2,500 in winnings to purchase the rights to create an NFL franchise in Pittsburgh. A lifelong resident of the city, he brought football back to the city that hosted the first ever professional football game in 1895. Pittsburgh had been without a professional football team because of financial troubles exacerbated by the state’s blue laws forbidding any money making activity taking place on the Sabbath Day. Art Rooney named the team the Pittsburgh Pirates, after the city’s established baseball club.

Faced with surmounting losses upwards to the amount of $25,000 a year (a tremendous sum in the 1930s), Art Rooney was forced to sell his franchise in 1940. The transaction was completed with Alexis Thompson, a man who at the age of 16 inherited six million dollars worth of steel stocks. Now 30 and a drug company executive, Thompson was said to be eager to spend some of his vast fortune. Not wanting to remain out of the NFL, Art Rooney bought a 50% stake in Pennsylvania’s other professional football franchise, the Philadelphia Eagles. Friends with Eagles owner Bert Bell, the two became business partners. Bell had bought out partner Lud Wray’s stake in the franchise in 1936, and apparently was keen on taking on another business partner. “I certainly hated to give up the franchise in the old hometown, but it would have been poor business to refuse the proposition for a second-division ball club at the terms which were offered,” Art Rooney said at the time. Thompson promptly hired Earl “Greasy” Neale to coach the franchise from Pittsburgh, and changed the team’s name from the Pirates to the Iron Men. One further planned change should be noted: Thompson wished to move the team from Pittsburgh to Boston. The city of Pittsburgh was in danger of losing a football team again.

Born and raised in the area of Pittsburgh, Art Rooney grew homesick, and together with Bert Bell devised a strategy that would rename the Philadelphia Eagles the Pennsylvania Keystoners, and have the franchise play half of its games in the city of Philadelphia, and the other half in the soon-to-be-football-abandoned city of Pittsburgh. However, this idea failed to gain the approval of one important fan: Dan Rooney. Often accompanying his father to Steelers home games and immersing himself among the players, young Dan Rooney – who at the time had just entered grade school – wasn’t fond of the idea of not being able to see half of his father’s team’s home games. “I remember reading it in the paper - my dad was in Philly, working out the details,” said Dan Rooney, now the Steelers' chairman. “My mother called him and said, ‘Dan is really concerned about what's going on with the team.’ And I remember, very vividly, him explaining everything would be all right and that we're going to have a team.” The solution would result in the banning of a head coach and lawsuits from players against their team’s owners.

Although Thompson had been quick to name a head coach and create a new moniker for the Pittsburgh Iron Men, as the 1941 season edged closer he had yet to set up an office and sell tickets. This highlighted Thompson’s reluctance to run a football team in Pittsburgh. A swap was proposed: Thompson would move his franchise to Philadelphia, and Bell and Rooney would move their club to Pittsburgh. You read that correctly. The owners would not swap franchises, as is often reported, and officially stated by the National Football League; the owners swapped cities! Bert Bell and Art Rooney renamed the Philadelphia – or Pittsburgh – Eagles the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Alexis Thompson renamed the Pittsburgh – err, Philadelphia – Iron Men the Philadelphia Eagles. Though all front office personnel switched along with a majority of players (which will be broken down shortly), the NFL considers the teams that currently hail from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to be continuous. That is, the Pittsburgh Pirates are officially the team that became the Pittsburgh Steelers – not the Philadelphia Eagles – and the Philadelphia Eagles have always been the Philadelphia Eagles (see the first paragraph of Part I to find out why the NFL doesn’t consider the Frankfort Yellow Jackets the precursor to the Eagles).

In April of 1941, the deal was officially completed. Seven Eagles stayed in Philadelphia. 14 former Eagles moved with the club and became Steelers. Seven Steelers stayed in Pittsburgh. 16 former Steelers moved with the club and became Eagles. Several former Eagles players were so unhappy with being sent to Pittsburgh that they sued Bert Bell and threatened to quit the league. The NFL stepped in and ruled that they be returned to Philadelphia, in an attempt to keep them in the league (a shortage of manpower becoming a growing issue for the league at the time). “Back in those days, it wasn't unusual for nearly the whole team to change from year to year,” said Dan Rooney. “It was mostly guys out of college who wanted a little extra money and enjoyed playing football. Contracts were done on the back of an envelope.” Included in the swap of players were two key acquisitions for the Eagles that would be the first pieces of a franchise that would become a dominating force for the remainder of the decade.

The first, and most important piece, was head coach Earl “Greasy” Neale. Hired by Thompson, the former Virginia and West Virginia instituted many changes that would revolutionize the game of football, including the implementation of a defense that would evolve into the traditional 4-3 defense, still widely utilized today. The Hall of Fame coach would ultimately lead the Eagles to three second-place finishes in the division and three division titles, with two championships – but this is a story for the next part. The Steelers would be coached by Bert Bell. Those of you who have read the first part of the History of the Eagles are probably either snicker or rolling your eyes at this trade-off – unless you’re a Steelers fan, in which case you’re probably slamming your fist/head into your desktop.

The second important piece would be halfback Tommy Thompson, whom Neale would convert to quarterback for his other revolutionary concept, the T-Formation. Although blind in one eye – a handicap he would successfully hide for most of his life – he was one of the greatest, if not the most successful quarterback in franchise history, and would set numerous records in passing that were years ahead of their time.

Fortunately for the Steelers, it would take only two losses for Bell to step down. Rooney would tap highly-respected Duquesne University head coach Aldo “Buff” Donelli. Donelli, viewing the professional game as inferior to its collegiate counterpart – and perhaps rightly so – chose not to leave his other post and instead to coach both teams simultaneously. Donelli would coach the Steelers in the morning and the Dukes in the afternoon. The system worked well enough to satisfy all parties until a road game in California prevented Donelli from coaching the Steelers. Enraged, NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden expelled Donelli from the league – the first and last ever banishment of a coach in NFL history. Former Pittsburgh Pirates (of football) head coach Walt Kiesling was Donelli’s replacement, finishing the Steelers’ 1-9-1 season.

The history between the Steelers and the Eagles didn’t end there. Following the 1942 season, World War II had so sapped the NFL of capable players that the league was on the threshold of folding. To save the league, as well as the Steelers, from collapse the Steelers and Eagles agreed to merge teams and play as a single squad, with half of the home games played in Philadelphia and the other half in Pittsburgh, much like Bell and Rooney’s proposed Pennsylvania Keystoners. Officially named “Phil-Pitt Eagles,” the club was affectionately nicknamed the “Steagles.” To learn more about this event, read the next installment of The History of the Eagles, Part III: The 1943 Steagles.

Much of the information gathered for this installment came from an AP article, which can be found here.
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PostPosted: Fri Apr 20, 2007 3:51 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

cool read, thanks.
"I'm no relief quarterback. I don't mop up for anybody."
-- QB Bubby Brister, after refusing to go in for Neil O'Donnell in a 31-6 loss at Houston (1991)
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PostPosted: Fri Apr 20, 2007 4:27 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Great job Steegles. Given that it occurred in the dark days of the Steelers franchise, many Pittsburgh fans may not be aware of the franchise swap and as well read as I am on Steelers and NFL history, I wasn't aware that Thompson had renamed the team and planned to relocated them.

Great stuff, thanks!
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PostPosted: Fri Apr 20, 2007 5:29 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I wasn't aware that Thompson had renamed the team and planned to relocated them.
Same here, I was unaware of this, not suprising though. Steeler football pretty well sucked since it began in 1933(untill the 70's )...Im seriously suprised the team lasted through 4 decades of horrid seasons, but im glad they did Very Happy

Great job Steegles46, it was mor then worth the time of me reading it Wink ...and id expect no other poster to post this Wink

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 20, 2007 5:32 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

good read, the only part I knew was of the 'Steagles' merger during the war.
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