The Strange and Fascinating History of the Phil-Pitt Steagles

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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and the Steelers (initially called the Pirates) were born on July 8th 1933, a few months after Pennsylvania voters repealed the law banning sports on Sundays.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).

packsteaglesNot 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.”

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Art Rooney (left) and Bert Bell.

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.

 


How Have Previous Eagles Coaches Done After They Left Philly?

3058876188_46d15b4c4e_oAndy Reid just signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. He’s far from the first coach to leave Philly and find work elsewhere as a head coach in the NFL. So let’s see where previous Eagles coaches ended up, and how they did in a new town. (Spoiler: Other than Vermeil, the answer is “terribly”.)

Bert Bell- (Eagles coach from 1936-1940. Details on his disastrous tenure can be read here.)  This one is complicated. But long story short, Bell helped Art Rooney sell the Steelers to Lex Thompson in 1940, then let Art buy half of the Eagles, but after buyers remorse Rooney and Bell traded the Eagles to Thompson for the Steelers (it was  known as The Pennsylvania Polka). Anyways, Bell coached the Steelers for the first two games of the 1941 season. They lost their first two games of the 1941 season, then Rooney convinced Bell to step down. His combined coaching record with the Eagles and Steelers was 10-46-2, and for coaches with at least three years coaching experience, it’s still the worst win % ever.

Nick Skorich-  (Eagles coach from 1961 to 1963. Pictured left.) He took over a team that had just won the NFL championship, and within 3 years, they were 2-10-2. He then got a job as an assistant for the Browns. He worked his way up to head coach in 1971. He had some success in Cleveland, leading them to a 10-4 mark in 1972, and nearly upsetting the undefeated Dolphins in the playoffs before falling 20-14. He would be fired after the 1974 season and then served as supervisor of officials for the NFL.

Mike McCormack(Eagles coach from 1973-1975.) Canned by the Birds after the 1975 season, he took an assistant job with the Bengals, then got a shot with the Colts in 1980. After leading them to a 7-9 record in 1980, the bottom fell out in 1981, as two wins over the Patriots by a total of 3 points were the only thing that stopped them from going 0-16. They were really one of the worst teams in NFL history, losing 12 of their 14 games by double digits, including 8 by 20 or more points. They were 26th in the league in scoring, and 28th in points allowed. He was fired after the season, and then got a front office job with the Seahawks. When Seattle fired its head coach two games into the 1982 season, he took over and guided the Seahawks to a 4-2 record in a strike shortened season. After the year he moved back upstairs, and eventually became GM and president of the team. He was later the first ever GM and president of the Carolina Panthers.

Dick Vermeil(Eagles coach from 1976-1982.) Interesting to think how different things might have been here. It’s well known that Vermeil took over as Rams coach 15 years after burning out with the Eagles in 1982. But he interviewed for the Eagles job again in 1995, after Rich Kotite was fired. (I was not here and did not know that, and look forward to researching it further and writing about it in the coming days.) Anyways, he did not get the job and went on to coach the Rams to a Super Bowl victory in 2000, retiring after the game. He didn’t stay retired long, as he signed with the Chiefs in 2001. By 2003 he had led them to a 13-3 record and an AFC West title, but they lost a shootout to Manning and the Colts in the playoffs, 38-31. He would coach them for two more seasons, going 10-6 in 2005 before retiring for good.

Marion Campbell- (Eagles head coach from 1983-1985.) Campbell, Vermeil’s defensive coordinator and Chester native, was brought in to coach the Birds when Vermeil stepped down. The team hovered at mediocre for his three years there. In 1985, with a game left to go in the season he was fired. In 1987, he was hired by the Falcons to be their head coach for the second time (he had coached there for a season and a half in the 70s). Things were worse in Atlanta than they had been in Philly, and 2 1/2 seasons later he was out the door with a 11-32 record. His final NFL coaching mark was 34-80-1, third lowest all-time winning percentage for coaches with more than 3 years experience (only Bert Bell and David Shula had a lower mark.)

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Buddy Ryan- (Eagles head coach from 1986-1990.) I don’t need to tell you much about Buddy Ryan’s tenure here in Philly. He was one of the few coaches in Philly to end his career with a winning record, a fairly respectable 43-38-1, though to hear the locals tell it he finished up undefeated with 5 Super Bowl wins. Anyways, he was fired after 1991, spent a year as defensive coordinator with the Oilers, and then returned to coaching with the Arizona Cardinals. It did not go well. He ended his two year stint with a 12-20 mark and retired to his farm in Kentucky.

Rich Kotite- (Eagles head coach from 1991-1994.) Kotite’s career in Philly started with promise, as he led the team to 10 and 11 win seasons. But then they went 8-8, and a 7-2 start in 1994 turned into a 7-9 finish, and he was out the door. He was quickly scooped up by the Jets, and the results were beyond disastrous. In two years with the Jets, he went 4-28 (Taking into account his last Eagles season, he was 4-35 in his last 39 games coached). He stepped down after the 1996 season and never coached anywhere else again.

Ray Rhodes- (Eagles head coach from 1995-1998.) Rhodes’s career in Philly also started with some promise, but like Kotite’s it ended poorly. After back to back 10 win seasons, the team slipped to 6-9-1, and then came 1998, which I wrote about recently. He was out the door after that disaster, but landed quickly on his feet, as the Packers scooped him up. He lasted all of one season in Green Bay, going 8-8 before being shown the door. He has been a defensive coordinator and assistant ever since, and currently works in the Browns front office.


So What’s the Longest Losing Streak In Eagles History?

“Yes, we’ve got to put Eggs Manske in a better position to make plays.” -Bert Bell

It’s looking right now that the Eagles might honestly not win another game this year. If that is in fact the case, they will end the season with 12 straight losses. That would bring them close to the team record, and it would set a record for most consecutive losses in one season.

1936 was the first year that the NFL had a draft, which was done on the insistence of Eagles owner and coach Bert Bell (left), whose team had gone 2-9 the year before. Bell not only made the first selection of the draft as owner of the Eagles, he acted as emcee for the evening, as the draft was held at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia!

With their first pick, the Eagles selected the first ever winner of the Heisman Trophy, Jay Berwanger. (Incidentally, with the 3rd pick of the draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected a  player named William Shakespeare, who had possibly the greatest nickname in NFL history: “The Merchant of Menace”). But the Eagles couldn’t meet Berwanger’s money demands, and he was traded to the Bears (he never signed with them either). Much like the Eagles now, whose inability to sign even moderately effective offensive lineman has cost them the season, in 1936 their inability to sign a player of Berwanger’s ability hurt them greatly, both on the field and at the box office.

The season started promisingly enough, with a 10-7 win over the New York Giants at Municipal Stadium (below right). Then things went downhill, and fast. In their next 5 games, they were outscored 101-3. Finally, in week 7, they scored their second TD of the season, but still lost to the Boston Redskins, 17-7. The next week, they cracked double digits again, again versus the Giants, but lost a shootout 21-17. They then went on to score a total of 2 TDs for the rest of the season to finish 1-11, with 11 straight losses. They were outscored that season 206-51, with over half of their points coming in two games against the Giants.

Their stats for the 1936 season are absolutely hilarious. They had 8 different players throw at least one pass that season. These QBs combined to complete 22.9% of their passes for 603 yards, with 3 Touchdowns and 36 interceptions. The Eagles completed 39 passes that year, and threw 36 interceptions. Not a good year for the likes of Swede Hanson, Stumpy Thomason, and Reds Bassman. The leading receiver on that team was Eggs Manske with 325 yards. Hanson led the team in rushing.

1937 started out no better. They lost their first 3 games, then broke their losing streak at 14 with a thrilling 6-6 tie against the Chicago Cardinals. They would lose the next week, then finally go into Washington, where the Redskins were playing their first season after moving from Boston, and win 14-0. They would finish the 1937 season 2-8-1.

Their first decade as a franchise (1933-1942) has to be some sort of record for futility. They went 23-82-4 (23.8%). The 14 game losing streak was no apparition. Let’s hope the Eagles current losing streak is just a sign of a bad season, not of a franchise heading backwards to 1930s levels of ineptitude. And let’s hope we can sign this year’s first round draft pick. (Special thanks to Reuben Frank who told me on twitter what the longest losing streak in Eagles history was.)