Steagles to the Rescue! How a Misfit Bunch of Military Rejects from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles Became a Team Won Games, Made Money, and Helped Save the NFL

By Algeo, Matthew | America in WWII, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Steagles to the Rescue! How a Misfit Bunch of Military Rejects from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles Became a Team Won Games, Made Money, and Helped Save the NFL


Algeo, Matthew, America in WWII


AL WISTERT WAS 22 AND FRESH OUT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN when he showed up for his first National Football League training camp in early September 1943. An All-American tackle at Michigan, Wistert had been drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles that spring. He could hardly believe his eyes when he arrived in the City of Brotherly Love. The team practiced on a hard, rocky field behind a Standard Oil station on City Line Avenue. The locker room was cramped and musty. Three dim lightbulbs hung from the ceiling. It was a far cry from the pristine facilities that Wistert had enjoyed back in Ann Arbor. "I was thinking that the NFL was the next step up," Wistert recalled. "I could hardly see my way around the locker room, and the lockers were so small that I couldn't get my shoes in. I had to stand them on end to get them in the locker. And I'm supposed to be stepping up in class? Holy smokes!"

An even bigger shock was still in store. "I was there for a day or two before somebody told me that some of these guys are from Pittsburgh." Unbeknownst to Wistert. the Eagles had merged with the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier that summer. Al Wistert had just found out he was a Steagle.

A month after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt sent a letter to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the stern and humorless commissioner of baseball. Roosevelt urged Landis to keep baseball going for the duration of the war. "There will be fewer people unemployed and everyone will work longer hours and harder than ever before," he wrote. "And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before."

Roosevelt's letter made no mention of professional football, which ranked far behind both baseball and college football in popularity at the time. But NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden assumed the letter gave his league permission to carry on as well, and in the spring of 1942, he announced that the NFL would continue to operate in the fall. It wouldn't be easy. By May 1942, nearly one-third of the players under contract with the league's 10 teams were in the military.

The league managed to muddle through the 1942 season, but by the spring of '43, the situation was dire. So many players had gone off to war that some teams had fewer than 10 players under contract. The Steelers had just six. When the owners met in Chicago that June, they seriously considered suspending operations for the duration. Instead, they decided to do something that Layden considered "ingenious." The owners voted to temporarily disband one team--the Cleveland (now St. Louis) Rams--and merge two others: the Steelers and the Eagles.

To further address the manpower shortage, the maximum number of players each team was allowed to carry on its roster was lowered from 33 to 25, mitigating some of the advantage larger teams would have had. And to get the most out of the smaller rosters, the owners approved an important rule change: unlimited substitution. Previously, the 11 players who started a game were expected to be on the field for all 60 minutes, playing both offense and defense, with little or no respite; just one substitution was permitted in each of the first three quarters and two in the fourth. For the 1943 season, substitutions were permitted at any time. The owners hoped the change would reduce injuries, since rested players were less likely to get hurt. The change heralded the beginning of the end of the league's heroic 60-minute men and ushered in the modern era of platoon football, with its separate offensive and defensive units.

Meanwhile, Eagles owner Alexis Thompson and Steelers co-owners Art Rooney and Bert Bell hashed out the details of their merger. Since the Eagles had twice as many players under contract as the Steelers, they agreed to base the team in Philadelphia. Four of the team's six home games would be played at Philadelphia's Shibe Park. The other two would be played at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. …

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