In February of 1966, the NHL awarded the city of Philadelphia an expansion team, on the condition that they have a new place to play by the time the 1967 season began. Ground was broken on June 1, 1966, with Flyers part-owner Jerry Wolman and Philly Mayor James Tate doing the honors. Wolman, Ed Snider’s 41-year old brother-in-law who also owned Connie Mack Stadium and the Eagles, was the money behind the Spectrum.*
A complex financial agreement resulted in Wolman getting the arena and then selling it to the city for $1. Wolman, who also owned the Eagles and Shibe Park, would pay Philly $60,000 in annual rent in return for a 50-year lease. The sweetheart deal carried with it an ultimatum: Wolman had to get the arena done in 16 months, or Philly wouldn’t get an expansion hockey team.
As the arena came closer to completion, Wolman began to run out of money. To come in under budget, he got a building code variance on the roofing material. It was a decision that would come back to haunt him, the Sixers, the Flyers, and Philadelphia sports fans.
The first event at the Spectrum was a Jazz Festival in September 1967 featuring Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stan Brubeck. The first sporting event was a Joe Frazier fight against tomato can Tony Doyle in October. Frazier had little trouble knocking out the Utah native in the 2nd round. After the fight, Frazier told reporters that he had heard that Doyle’s wife had just had twins. “I figured, let’s get him home to see them.” The win moved the brash Philadelphian to 18-0 and cemented his status as the heavyweight district’s #1 contender.
On October 18th, Wilt Chamberlain and the Sixers, happy to no longer be playing in the Philadelphia Civic Center but rather in a state of the art arena, made their debut with a convincing 16 point win over the Lakers. The next night, the Flyers played their first ever home game, holding off the Penguins 1-0. Beers at those first games costed ten cents, with premium beers costing an outlandish forty cents.
The arena was off to a hot start, but in February of 1968, the roof caved in. Literally. High winds ripped a huge chunk of the roof off of the Spectrum shortly before an Ice Capades show, and the crowd found themselves staring up into the sky. (Showing a rather remarkable sense of humor, the Ice Capades band began playing “Into the Wild Blue Yonder”.) It was quickly patched up, but two weeks later it blew off again. This time Mayor Tate came down from City Hall to examine the damage, and closed the arena.
Philly politics took a fix that should have taken 10 days to repair into a month, as arguments erupted about who was going to pay for the repairs. Arlen Specter, who had narrowly lost to Tate in the recent mayoral election, sent his own investigators to the Spectrum, and announced that it had been built without the proper permits. The roof became a political football.
As Tate and Specter were trading barbs in the paper, the Flyers and Sixers were forced to play home games on the road, the Flyers playing home games in Quebec (where their farm team, the Quebec Aces, called home), the Sixers returning to their old haunt, Convention Hall.
“The Spectrum wasn’t a very valuable property back then,” co-owner Ed Snider would recall years later. “The roof had made it a national laughingstock.”
It could have have hardly been a more inauspicious start. But as we all know, the roof was finally fixed, and the Spectrum recovered from its early disasters to become one of the most historic venues in America. It would go on to host Stanley Cup Finals, Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley concerts, the greatest game in NCAA tourney history, and some of Dr. J’s most memorable dunks. It was a raucous yet warm venue that catered to the everyday fan, and not the well heeled like most modern arenas. Fans were very close to the action, almost every seat was a good one. As a result the home court and home ice advantages were undeniable. The Sixers won 65% of their games there, while the Flyers won 61% of their home tilts. Perhaps former Flyer Dave Poulin said it best, “The Spectrum is a unique, tiny building that somehow enabled the fans to be closer to you physically and as a result were much closer to you emotionally.”
You can wear a piece of the Spectrum’s remarkable history with this incredibly comfortable Spectrum shirt created by local artist Jon Billett. It’s an incredibly comfortable tri-blend shirt, and is part of our stadium series that also includes Shibe Park and Palestra shirts.
READ MORE: A very interesting story in the SI Vault about the political debate that erupted after the roof came off.
*Shortly after the SPectrum was completed Wolman ran into financial difficulties after the John Hancock Tower in Chicago, which he financed, turned into a white elephant. He could get financial help if he could sell the Flyers. To do that, he needed Snider to sell his shares. Snider refused, and Wolman was driven to bankruptcy. Snider then tried to buy the Eagles from Wolman for a song. Wolman needed the money, but refused to sell to Snider. He eventually sold to Leonard Tose. Wolman and Snider never spoke again. You can read more about it here.
The Philadelphia Ramblers that joined the Eastern Hockey League in 1955 were actually the second minor league hockey team by that name. The first had played in the American Hockey League in the 1930s as a farm club for the New York Rangers, but folded in 1941. One of the Ramblers players during their first go-round was a gentleman named Bryan Hextall. You’ve probably heard of his grandson.
After hockey sputtered in the city over the ensuing 14 years, the Ramblers made a return in 1955, coached by an English native named Chirp Benchley. The team was owned by a rather well-to-do fellow by the name of George L. Davis, who married Grace Kelly’s sister Margaret and who owned The Arena at 4530 Market, which is where the Ramblers played. They were later owned by Bud Dudley, who founded the Liberty Bowl.
The team was entertaining but not particularly good. Their best known players were Ted Harris (who would play for the Flyers second Stanley Cup team many years later) and John Brophy, who would later coach the Maple Leafs.
Perhaps the highlight of their existence was a thrilling 3-3 tie with the Soviet National Team in 1959, a game in which the Ramblers scored twice in the final four minutes before a sellout crowd of over 5,611 at the Arena. The Soviets had steamrolled their previous opponents but were stopped by Rambler goalie Ivan Walmsley.
In 1964, the team packed up and headed across the river, where they became the Jersey Devils, and played at Cherry Hill Arena. Players on the Devils included Bobby Taylor, who later backed up Bernie on the Flyers, and Vic Stasiuk, who would coach the Flyers for two seasons. That team would fold with the rest of the EHL in 1973.
One of the great things about the Ramblers was their game programs. The artwork on them was really, really cool. Here are a few game programs below. At the request of Ray Didinger, who used to attend Ramblers games as a kid, Shibe Sports has created a Ramblers shirt, which they decided to create in the style of one of the game programs. You can also check out some great old photos of the team posted online by the daughter of former player Rocky Rukavina.
On January 6th, 1972, the St. Louis Blues got into a fight with Flyers fans that made the Malice in the Palace look like child’s play. It started after the two teams had skated off the ice following the second period, with the Flyers taking a 2-0 lead into the intermission. St. Louis Blues coach Al Arbour went over to referee John Ashley to complain about a call on his way down the ramp. As the two spoke, a Flyers fan decided to pour beer down Arbour’s back. Soon other fans followed by throwing trash and taking swings at Arbour. Incensed at the treatment their coach was getting, several Blues players took off in the direction of the ramp and started to swing their sticks and climb into the stands to fight the fans in question. The cops at the arena quickly got involved, and the then-notorious Philadelphia police (Interestingly, the game occurred three days after Frank Rizzo was sworn in as Mayor) were all too happy to use their nightsticks on the Blues players, beating them back into the locker room. Legend has it that a Philly newsman who had rushed over to the scene of the mayhem asked a nearby cop what was going on.
“It’s the Saint Louis Blues against the cops, and we’re winning.”
Blues coach Al Arbour received a gash needing 10 stitches and Blues player John Arbour (no relation) needed 40 stitches. They were also among the four Blues who were arrested following the game. Bail was set at $500, and they weren’t released from the police station until Ed Snider paid their bail at 5 in the morning. They had an arraignment the next month when they came to visit the Flyers again, but all charges were dropped. You can see some video footage of the fight here.
After the 25-minute melee the Blues, seemingly inspired, came out in the third period and scored three unanswered goals to win 3-2. After the game, the Blues owner was furious, saying, “That was the worst case of police brutality I’ve ever seen or heard about.” He threatened a lawsuit against the city. Ed Snider disagreed, arguing that the Blues players had no right to go into the stands.
Remarkably, the win would be the Blues last one in Philadelphia until the late 80s. The Flyers would go 31-0-3 against the Blues over the next 16 seasons at the Spectrum until finally falling in November of 1988.
The Oregon Ducks won their third Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day over Florida State. Their first win in the Rose Bowl came against a local squad, the powerful Penn Quakers.
The Quakers were led by quarterback Bert Bell, who would later found the Philadelphia Eagles. The Webfoots were led by brothers Hollis and Shy Huntington. Shy was not only the QB, but also a star defensive back, and had been named All-American.
The Quakers came into the game heavily favored, as the East was known for a more physical brand of football than the West. The Quakers also featured four All-Americans. Before the game, Oregon coach Hugo Bezdek lamented, “I’ve got only overgrown high school boys, while Penn can field a varsity of big university strength. We haven’t a chance.” As humble as Bezdek was, Penn’s coach Bob Folwell was equally as boisterous: “We are going to put a team on the field that won’t be licked and consequently can’t be licked.” Aw snap!
It was a very different brand of football than we watch today. The forward pass was nothing more than a gimmick. In fact, if a team passed into the end zone and the ball fell incomplete, the other team got possession. The QB had to be at least 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage when passing. You could only throw the ball once per series of downs. The ball was stubby and nearly round, much closer to a rugby ball than a modern football.
It was also a very different world. Many of the players on the field that day would later serve in WWI, including Bert Bell. It took the Penn team almost two weeks to make the cross-country trip. And there was no radio yet, so it was impossible to hear the game live. But it was possible to watch it live…sort of. In Eugene, a vaudeville theatre advertised that they’d be carrying the Rose Bowl live, and an overflow crowd packed the theatre to “watch”. Here’s how: there was a guy backstage who received play by play via telegraph. He then relayed that info to an announcer onstage, and there was a large plywood board onstage that looked like a football field, similar to the one below.
There was then a production of the game onstage. There was a system of ropes and pulleys that sent the ball back and forth across the field as the announcer described the action he was receiving from the telegraph operator. (You can learn more about this contraption in an excellent piece on Benzduck.com) The telegraph operator, Mac McKevitt, would describe the excitement of that game in a 1931 newspaper piece:
McKevitt took the results of that game play-by-play off the wire and gave them to the announcer at the Heilig theater. The house was packed, Eugene fans were standing in the aisles and clear back to the top of the balcony. The little gridiron was rigged up on stage, and the miniature football was being worked back and forth with the plays. “Mac” remembers getting the message and giving it a word at a time to the announcer: “HUNTINGTON …. MAKES …. TOUCHDOWN!” Pandemonium broke loose, and Mac couldn’t find out whether Oregon converted the [extra] point because the place was so full of noise that he couldn’t hear the ticker, even with his ear down against it. McKevitt was sitting on the stage, with the footlights turned on, and he said as he looked out over the glare of the lights, the theater looked like a giant fountain with hats, coats, sweaters, everything being thrown into the air.”
The Huntington in question was the Oregon stalwart Shy, who would turn out to be the star of the game. The QB would run for 69 yards and a TD on offense, throw for a TD, secure three second half INTs on defense, and the Webfoots pulled off a 14-0 upset.
It was a turning point for college football, as it proved that West Coast teams, which had been held scoreless in the previous two Rose Bowls, could compete with the East Coast teams. As for the two teams involved, it would be Penn’s first and last appearance in a bowl game, though they would be named co-National Champions in 1924 along with Notre Dame. Oregon would lose their next four appearances in the Rose Bowl before finally getting over the hump in 2012.
Looks like I’m also gonna have to update the Phillies All-Nickname Team.
Phenomenal Smith was born John Francis Gammon in Manayunk in 1864, and made his pro debut with the Athletics of the American Association in 1884. The next year he joined the Brooklyn Grays. It did not go well. His teammates didn’t appreciate the cocky 20-year old, and when he said he didn’t need teammates to win, they taught him a lesson. In his first start, the Grays intentionally committed 14 errors and Smith lost 18-5. The team President fined the players $500 each, but in an effort to ensure team harmony, fired Gammon after only one game.
Following that debacle, he joined the Newark Little Giants of the Eastern League. On October 3rd of 1885, he threw a no-hitter in which he struck out 16 and didn’t let a ball leave the infield. The performance was so remarkable that it earned him a new nickname, Phenomenal Smith.
He kicked around the majors and minors for the next several years, re-appearing with the Athletics in 1889, then joining the Phillies in 1890. He was cut in 1891, and never made it back to the majors, though he played and coached in the minors for another 15 years, playing for colorful teams such as the Green Bay Bays, the Hartfort Cooperative, and even a team that named itself after him, the Pawtucket Phenoms. While coaching a team in Norfolk, VA, he signed a young Christy Mathewson. Under Smith’s tutelage, Matthewson thrived, and by the end of the season he was signed by the New York Giants.
After retiring, Smith joined the Manchester, Massachusetts police department. He died in 1952 at the age of 87.
On December 7th, 1941, the Eagles took on the Washington Redskins at Griffith Stadium in the nation’s capital. They fell 20-14. Throughout the game, the players noticed that the PA had made numerous announcements paging all military personnel, but weren’t sure why. One of those players was Eagles rookie Nick Basca, who sent two extra points through the uprights. Later that afternoon it became apparent why the military had been paged during the game: the United States was at war. Three days after the Day That Lived in Infamy, Nick Basca enlisted in the army. He would never play in another NFL game.
Micheal Basca was born on December 4th, 1916 (some sources say 1917) in Phoenixville. As a young boy, he ran around town doing odd jobs for a nickel and got the nickname “Nickels”. It was later shortened to Nick. He was short and bashful, but on the football field the son of a coach was a beast. His senior season, the quarterback led his team to a 9-0 record and a Chester County Title. After some time at a preparatory academy, he attended Villanova. Again he excelled, making the all-state team and starring in the North-South game his senior year.
NFL teams were concerned with his small stature (5’8″, 170), and he went undrafted. But the Eagles quickly grabbed the local hero, and he made the team as a running back and kicker. He showed flashes of potential on offense, scoring a touchdown against the Lions and rushing 15 times for 44 yards. He also made all 9 of his extra point attempts and a field goal to boot.
He became a tank commander in Patton’s third army. He landed in France a month after D-Day and his division began aggressively attacking the Germans, trying to make their way to the city of Nancy. On November 11, 1944, the Americans received fierce resistance in the town of Obreck, near Nancy. A German 88mm round hit Basca’s tank. He was killed instantly.
Two of his brothers also served in the war, with Steve Basca receiving three purple hearts. Villanova’s Homecoming weekend was called Nick Basca weekend until the program discontinued in 1980 (the football program was revived in 1985, but Nick Basca weekend wasn’t).
This year will mark the 6th time the Eagles have done battle on Thanksgiving Day. Before them the Yellow Jackets actually had a Thanksgiving Day rivalry. Here’s a brief synopsis of every Thanksgiving Day NFL game played involving one of the two Philly teams.
1924-The Frankford Yellow Jackets defeated the Dayton Triangles, 32-7. In the pick below player/coach Guy Chamberlin and Johnny Budd chase down the Triangles Faye Abbot.
1926– The Yellow Jackets knocked off the Packers, 20-14, in front of a packed stadium of 12,000 people. The Jackets would go to on to finish the season 14-1-2 and win the NFL championship. They’re the last team to win an NFL title and later fold. The game also marked the start of a Thanksgiving Day rivalry with the Packers that would last until 1930. Here’s a great pic of that 1926 championship team.
1927-The Packers returned the favor, winning 17-9. You can read more about the Packers-Yellow Jackets Thanksgiving rivalry here. (The games were all played in Frankford. Once November hit, the Packers would play most of their games on the road.)
1928-The Yellow Jackets edged the Packers 2-0, the only score coming on a bad snap during a botched punt attempt by the Packers.
1929– Hard to believe that the 1929 game could be lower scoring than the 1928 affair, but it was. 0-0 was the final. The Yellow Jackets got the ball down to the 2-yard line at one point, but couldn’t punch it in. The tie would be the only blemish on the Packers 12-0-1 championship season.
1930– The Yellow Jackets franchise was starting to fall apart, and the Packers were on their way to a 2nd straight NFL title. The result of this game was never in doubt. The Packers, led by QB Red Dunn, won 25-7.
A fire to their stadium right before the 1931 season forced the Yellow Jackets to scramble to find places to play. Playing outside of Frankford meant that their fans couldn’t make it to the games, and fans in other parts of town didn’t come out to support a team from Frankford. The team folded midway through the 1931 season. Two years later the lesson was learned…don’t just represent a small section of the city, represent the whole city. The Philadelphia Eagles were born. They would play on Thanksgiving far less frequently than the Frankford Yellow Jackets did.
1939– The Eagles defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates, 17-14, on Thanksgiving Day. It would be the Eagles only win all season. Their young QB Davey O’Brien led the way with 208 yards passing.
1940– The Steelers (having changed their name from the Pirates) got their revenge, knocking off the Eagles 7-0. The Birds would finish the season 1-10. Of course, these two teams would join forces a few years later.
1968– The Eagles would finally play on Thanksgiving 28 years later. Once again they were one of the worst teams in the league, heading into their Thanksgiving Day tilt with an 0-11 record. A torrential downpour over the previous 36-hours turned the field into a swamp. The Eagles won the game 12-0 on four Sam Hall field goals, a rare bright spot in a disastrous season, one best remembered for the “Santa game”.
1989– This one is deserving of it’s own post, which I may do later in the week. The Bounty Bowl ended with the Eagles winning 27-0, the team trying to injure Luis Zendejas, and Jimmie Johnson screaming about Buddy Ryan’s big fat rear end. Here is Jimmie Johnson talking about that game a few years ago.
2008– The Eagles entered this game against the Cardinals with some quarterback controversy. The week before Andy Reid had benched a struggling Donovan McNabb against the Ravens and played Kevin Kolb. He didn’t announce McNabb as his starter until late in the week. McNabb seemed rejuvenated, and his 4 TD passes led the Eagles to a 48-20 win. Of course, these same two teams would meet in the NFC championship game later that season, and the Cardinals would knock off the Eagles 32-25.
And so the Eagles head down to Dallas for only their 6th Thanksgiving Day game in 81 years. The same number that the Yellow Jackets played over a 7-year stretch. Let’s hope the Eagles improve upon their 4-1 Thanksgiving Day record.
Excited about Scott Alberts of the Athletic Club of Philadelphia coming to speak at the store on Saturday, I was doing a little research on the Athletic Club and came across this amazing lithograph. It was drawn by John L. Magee in 1867, and it shows a highly detailed picture of a baseball game between the Athletic Club of Philadelphia and the Atlantics of Brooklyn. The game in question took place on October 22nd, 1866, and was named the Second Great Match Game of the Championship.
Be sure to click on the photo to check out some of the detail. A few things to note. For one, it appears that men have all the Standing Room Only seats, but there a considerable amount of women at the game, all of them sitting in the bleachers. The game was played at the ballpark the team used in the 1860s. It didn’t have a name, but it was located right beside the Wagner Institute (more on that soon). There is a pickpocket who has just gotten busted, it appears, in the lower left, with the stolen pocketwatch in hand.
In the middle, bottom, we see a man holding a sheet of paper with the words Toodles on it.
That man appears to be Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, and he’s presenting Toodles to his business partner, John Sleeper Clark. Booth and Clark managed the Walnut Street Theater at the time, and Toodles was a popular play that Clark regularly starred in. Below is a photoraph of Clark, proving it to be him. And not only would it make sense for the other man to be Booth, but the aquiline nose and prominent jaw certainly make it look like him.
(Before we go any further, I want to be sure to give credit where credit is due. The picture comes courtesy of Baseball Researcher, and his friend Rob Pendell found out about Toodles. Just incredible detective work, and I thought a few more people might be interested in this.)
Booth and Clark weren’t only business partners, they were also brothers-in-law, as Clark had married Booth’s sister Asia. In fact, Clark spent time in prison after the Lincoln assassination because he handed over letters John Wilkes Booth had sent him before the assassination to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which then published them. Less than a year after attending this ballgame, he moved to London with Asia and his kids.
(It wasn’t Magee’s first time drawing a Booth. Around the same time, he had drawn this picture of John Wilkes being tempted by the devil to kill Lincoln.)
The ballpark was located right next to the Wagner Institute, as you can see in the picture below. I have posted it next to picture I took at the Wagner a couple of weeks ago. I believe the place I took the picture would have been right around where the Athletics clubhouse was. Which makes it appear that John L. Magee was probably drawing from a window in the back of the Institute while he was watching the game. It would make sense, as the picture does seem to drawn from an elevated vantage point.
As for the game itself, the two teams had built quite a rivalry, and three weeks previous a record crowd of 30,000 had come out in Philly to see the two teams play (that’s more people than the Phillies average per game this season). The crowd had been so large that the game had to be cancelled. One week previous to the October 22nd game, they had gone to head to head again, in the first game of the championship, and 18,000 had shown up in Brooklyn to see the Atlantics win 27-17. The Athletics had been hurt by the 44 errors they made. It was a rare loss for the Athletics; they would finish 23-2 that season in league play, averaging almost 50 runs a game. Atlantic wasn’t too shabby themselves. They finished 17-3.
As for the players, after consulting with Scott Alberts, who is speaking at Shibe Sports on Saturday at 5:30 p.m., here they are:
- At bat is Dick McBride. He was a star pitcher for the team.
- On deck is Al Reach. Once his playing career was done, he ran a sporting goods store that made him millions. He also helped found the Phillies and was their first team President. His partner at his store was Benjamin Shibe, the man who the store is named after (he co-founded the A’s with Connie Mack). You will now find a historical marker at Reach’s stores former location, 1820 Chestnut.
- Dan Kleinfelder is running to second. He batted leadoff and played outfield.
- Checking in at the table is Charles Gaskill. An outfielder, he would die at the age of 32 in 1870.
- Sitting next to him is Count Sensenderfer. Born on Spring Garden with the name John Phillips Jenkins Sensenderfer in 1848, he was called the Count because of his aristocratic air. He was a star, but his career was beset with injuries. He later served two terms as Philadelphia County Commissioner.
- Standing with bat in hand is Wes Fisler.The son of Camden’s Mayor, he was a short first baseman who today is best known for scoring the first run in MLB hisory.
- Sitting next to him is Patsy Dockney. This Ireland-born star was renowned for his toughness. The night before a game in St. Louis, he got in a knife fight and needed 50 stitches. The next morning, he asked a nurse to fetch him some water, slipped out the door while she was gone, and ran down to the ballpark to catch that days game.
- Standing next to him is Ike Wilkins. Don’t know much about the Athletic shortstop except that a trophy bat presented to him was found in a Philly attic a few years ago.
- And sitting to the far right is Lip Pike. The first Jewish baseball star, he was a 21-year old rookie at the time of this game. He had hit 6 home runs in a single game earlier that year. Nonetheless, he was kicked off the team the next year. He was born in New York, however, and according to his SABR bio, non-native players were frowned upon by the A’s. By the time baseball officially went pro in 1871, he was a star for the Troy Haymakers. There’s a pic of him below.
In Game 2, it was all Athletics, as they were leading 31-12 when the game was called of rain after 7 innings*. The bad weather didn’t stop people from coming out to see the game, however (including at least one well-prepared man, standing near the batter, with an umbrella). 20,000 were on hand to cheer on the home squad, including a pickpocket, an assassin’s brother, and a bleacher full of ladies. Thank you, John L. Magee for creating something so remarkable almost 150 years ago.
*Game 3 was never played; there was an argument about gate receipts.
We have Athletic club t-shirts you can purchase here. Scott Alberts, of the vintage baseball club Athletics, will be speaking at Shibe Sports at 5:30. Admission is free, and beer and snacks will be provided.
You can purchase the unique Steagles shirt to your left by clicking here. Get free shipping by using discount code “birds”.
Both the Eagles and the Steelers (initially called the Pirates) were born on July 8th 1933, a few months after Pennsylvania voters repealed the law banning sports on Sundays. The Pirates were brought into existence by Art Rooney, while the Eagles were created by a syndicate headed by Bert Bell. Both teams were a disaster on the field and off: they lost almost every game they played and hemorrhaged money. The other Eagles investors dropped out, and Bell was left as the teams coach, owner, GM, scout, and ticket salesman. (By the late 30s, he would actually hawk tickets to Eagles games on Philly street corners. Can you imagine Jeff Lurie or Chip Kelly doing that today?).
The Birds played at the 102,000 seat Municipal Stadium (later known as JFK) with over 100,000 people disguised as empty seats. They won one game in 1939 and again in 1940: both of those wins were against the equally pitiful Pirates (In 1939, the Eagles lone win was against the Pirates and the Pirates lone win was against the Eagles). In 1940, the Eagles averaged less than a yard per carry.
Things weren’t much better for the Pirates, and in 1940, things got so bad for the Pittsburgh team that Art Rooney sold them to a 26-year old steel heir living in New York named Alexis Thompson, who planned to move them to Boston and call them the Ironmen. Rooney then bought a half interest in the Eagles, and Rooney and Bell decided to field a combined PA team known as the Keystoners that would play half of their home games in Pittsburgh, and half of their home games in Philly. But Thompson changed his mind about moving and decided to keep his team in Pittsburgh, foiling Bell and Rooney’s dream of the Keystoners (There would later be a PA soccer team called the Keystoners, or “Stoners” for short).
Not wanting to set up headquarters in Philly and having some regrets about leaving his hometown, Rooney asked Thompson if he would simply swap teams: Thompson would move his new Steelers to Philly to become the Eagles, and Bell and Rooney would take their players to Pittsburgh and come up with a new team name. Thompson agreed. So the players on the 1940 Eagles became members of the 1941 Pittsburgh team, and members of the 1940 Pittsburgh team moved to Philly and became the Eagles. Make sense?
To further confuse matters, Rooney decided he wanted a break from the past and held a contest to come up with a new name for his team. The winner was Steelers. The two teams actually went head to head in week 2 of the 1941 season, with the Eagles prevailing, 10-7. It would be one of two wins the Birds had all season. The Steelers had one. A change of scenery didn’t seem to do the players on either team much good.
Two seasons later, both teams still stunk, but the Steelers were in a further bind: most of their players had been drafted into the armed forces due to WWII, and with only a few weeks to go before summer practice, they had six players under contract*. That’s when Rooney and Bell decided to revisit their idea of a few years previous and combine the two teams. Thompson wasn’t crazy about the idea but agreed, and the “Phil-Pitt Combined” were born (they were never officially called the Steagles. The Philly press still called them the Eagles, but a writer for The Pittsburgh Press named Chet Smith coined the term and the name stuck). They were scheduled to play four home games at Shibe Park and two home games at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. They wore the Eagles kelly green.
The team was co-coached by Steelers coach Walt Kiesling and Eagles coach Greasy Neale. The primary problem with this arrangement was that the two men hated each other. They decided to split the team, with Neale coaching offense and Kiesling coaching defense. According to former Steagle Jack Hinkle,”There was a big blow-up about halfway through the season when Neale called one of the Steelers a ‘statue of s**t.’ Kiesling pulled all of the Steelers off the practice field.”
Despite the awkward arrangement, the team was fairly successful on the field, going 5-4-1. It was the first winning season for the Eagles franchise ever, and they actually defeated and tied eventual division winner Washington. The team played well and Rooney and Bell probably would have been up for reuniting when the leagues asked them to in 1944. Thompson was not. The rift between Kiesling and Neale was too wide to repair, and Thompson had supplied most of the manpower for the 1943 season and didn’t want any more credit going to Bell and Rooney.
The Steelers instead teamed up with the Chicago Cardinals in 1944 to become “Card-Pitt.” The team was awful, and sportswriters called them the “Carpets”, since everyone walked all over them. They finished the season 0-10. The Eagles, meanwhile, drafted Steve Van Buren in the draft that year, and went 7-1-2, missing the playoffs by a mere half game. The year as the Steagles would set into motion their greatest run in team history, as they would finish 1st or 2nd in the division in the following six years, appear in three championship games, and win two of them.
Thompson would sell the team a few years later and die of a heart attack at the age of 40. Rooney would continue to own the Steelers until 1974 when he handed it off to his son Dan. Dan’s son Art II now runs the team. Bell relinquished his role as c0-owner when he became NFL commissioner in 1945. He was still commish in 1959 when he died of a heart attack…while attending a game at Franklin Field between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles.
*The vast majority of NFL players who weren’t at war didn’t serve because they were either too old or classified 4-F. The Steagles leading receiver in 1943 was Tony Bova, who was blind in one eye and partially blind in another.
You can read a more in-depth report about the Steagles here, and there is also an excellent book on the topic. You can watch a short video history of the team, featuring Ray Didinger, here. The Steagles shirt is a Shibe Vintage Sports original. You will not find it anywhere else.
On July 15th, 1984, the Philadelphia Stars met the Arizona Wranglers in Tampa, with the USFL Championship on the line. The Stars had lost the championship game the year before, 24-22, in a thriller against the Michigan Panthers, and they did not want to get denied again. They stormed through the regular season, finishing a league best 16-2, then easily dispatched of Brian Sipe, Herschel Walker, and the New Jersey Generals in the first round of the playoffs, 28-7. In the Eastern Conference Finals, they cruised past the Birmingham Stallions, 20-10.
The Wranglers had a tougher road into the finals, finishing the season 10-8, then knocking off two future Hall of Fame QBs in the playoffs, Jim Kelly of the Houston Gamblers and Steve Young of the LA Express.
The Stars were led by their superstar running back, Kelvin Bryant, who had outgained Herschel Walker that season, running for 1406 yards and 13 TDs. At QB, they had the solid if unspectacular Chuck Fusina, who looked for receivers Scott Fitzkee and Willie Collier. The Stars had a terrific O-line, anchored by Irv Eatman and Brat Oates. Their defense, known as the Doghouse Defense, had allowed a stingy 12.5 ppg in the regular season.
Tampa Stadium was packed, and the 52,662 fans on hand were about to be treated to a clinic. On their first possession, the Stars methodically moved downfield, grinding up 66 yards on 10 plays before little used Bryan Thomas scored on a draw from 4 yards out to make it 7-0. After their defense shut down Greg Landry and the Wranglers offense, the offense went back to work, moving 54 yards in 9 plays before a Fusina QB sneak made in 13-0. The 2nd quarter was more of the same, but two Stars fumbles and a missed FG meant that Arizona was only down 13-3 at the half, despite being outgained, 249 yards to 49.
The second half saw more of the same, with the Stars dominating in every phase of the game, and when the final gun sounded, the Stars were USFL champions, having won by a score of 23-3. The Doghouse Defense had allowed Arizona a mere 119 yards of total offense and less than 17 minutes Time of Possession. Kelvin Bryant had rushed for 115 yards despite a bad toe, and Chuck Fusina was named MVP after a methodical game at QB.
The team would have a parade at LOVE Park the following week. It would be their last game as the Philadelphia Stars. The owners, spurred on by Donald Trump, made the fatal error of voting to move to the fall in 1986. KNowing he couldn’t compete with the Eagles, owner Myles Tanebaum moved the team to Baltimore that offseason. They would win a title as the Baltimore Stars in 1985 (despite practicing and maintaining their headquarters in Philly), but the league would fold before the 1986 season.
The Stars would finish as the best team in USFL history with a 48-13-1 record, and there were some who thought they could have competed in the NFL. In fact, legend has it that Tanenbaum and Tose once ran into each other at Old Original Bookbinders. Tanenbaum challenged Tose to a game between the Eagles and Stars. Tose wanted to bet $1 million on his Eagles. Tanenbaum replied, “Leonard, if I thought you were good for the money I’d do it in a heartbeat.” The two men had to be seperated, and sadly, the two teams never played. Sadder still, the most succesful pro sports team in Philadelphia history only called Philly home for two years.
If you want to learn more about the Stars, I highly recommend this piece in Jerseyman Magazine.