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This Day in History
Challenger explodes, 1986
At 11:38 a.m. EST, on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Christa McAuliffe is on her way to becoming the…
As one of the producers here at History.com, I’m hard at work on a new project for later this fall that has me digging up the most interesting “wow” facts I can find. Rather than bombarding my coworkers with each new incredible find, I thought I might share some of the facts—and the stories behind them—with you. And so…
Did you know that due to World War II player shortages, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles briefly merged to form a single team popularly known as the “Steagles”?
Here’s the story:
The National Football League faced an uncertain future during World War II. Due to government restrictions on travel, the NFL nearly canceled the entire 1943 season before agreeing to slash team rosters and reduce the regular season schedule. The military draft had already claimed more than 600 players—a vast majority of the sport’s elite athletes. So the Cleveland franchise, unable to put forward a competitive team, opted to sit out the season entirely. Which meant that, in order to create an evenly balanced league, another team would have to do the same. Or one team could choose to merge with another. Amazingly, that’s just what happened; even more amazingly, it was two intra-state rivals from Pennsylvania.
Among those hardest hit by the loss of drafted players were the Pittsburgh Steelers, who entered the off-season with just six players under contract. The team had long been one of the league’s worst—although they were coming off a somewhat successful 1942 season. The Philadelphia Eagles were even worse, once drawing fewer than 100 fans to a home game. Though both franchises were losing money, they stood to lose even more if they didn’t play at all. So the respective owners agreed to a one-year-only merger that created the “Phil-Pitt Combine.” It didn’t take long for fans and journalists to devise a far more interesting nickname: the “Steagles.”
Combining teams on paper was the easy part, but combining personalities proved to be far trickier. Each team already had its own coach—Walt Kiesling for Pittsburgh and Earle “Greasy” Neale for Philly. It turned out the two men hated each other. They bickered constantly, once storming off the field in different directions during a flare-up at practice. Eventually, they simply divided the responsibilities in half, with Kiesling coaching the defense and Neale the offense.
The caliber of the players presented another challenge—there was a reason, after all, why they had been declared ineligible for the draft. There was a profoundly deaf lineman, an ulcer-riddled running back and a partially blind receiver. And while these players may have struggled on the field, their lives were no easier off the gridiron. They were all required to support the war effort by putting in 40-hour work weeks in the defense industries, after which they would show up for the three-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week practices in Philadelphia.
Despite these difficulties, the season, which opened on October 2, got off to a surprisingly good start. After going 2-0, however, they began to falter and eventually ended the regular season at 5-4-1. For the teams that made up the Steagles, this was actually an improvement of sorts. Up until that season, the Eagles had never had a winning record , and the Steelers had only managed to do it once before in their 10-year history.
The following year, the Eagles resumed solo operations while the still-depleted Steelers once again joined forces with another team, the Chicago Cardinals. Formally known as Card-Pitt, this new combine fared far worse than the Steagles, finishing the regular season at 0-10. This dismal record earned the team another clever nickname, the Car-Pits—or Carpets for the ease with which other teams “walked” over them. But it’s the Steagles, Pennsylvania’s most unlikely team, that continues to capture the imagination of sports fans 70 years after its brief moment in the spotlight.
Thanks for listening, and stay tuned for more facts!
We’re marking our calendars for the upcoming release of “Lincoln,” the new biopic directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Here are three reasons why the History.com staff can’t wait for November 16:
1. Team of Rivals
We love the book the film is based on—the best-seller “Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. (She’s the presidential biographer and author of the Pulitzer Prize- winning “No Ordinary Time,” about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.) In “Team of Rivals,” Goodwin delivers a unique assessment of Abraham Lincoln, focusing on his successful run for the presidency and his attempts to forge a political coalition among his former opponents. Mindful of the need to avoid conflict while civil war loomed, Lincoln chose to include his major rivals in his administration, regardless of their divergent political views. Lincoln’s decision to appoint these men—William Seward, Edward Bates, Salmon P. Chase and, later in his first term, Edwin Stanton—to his Cabinet has been hailed by historians as one of the shrewdest political moves ever made by an American president. Of course his plan was not 100 percent successful—several Cabinet members left during his first term—but Lincoln’s skill as a manager of personalities, as well as armies, is an essential part of what made him so extraordinary.
2. The Screenplay
Pulitzer- and Tony-Award winning playwright Tony Kushner wrote the screen adaptation. From what we can tell, the story told in Goodwin’s book has been streamlined in the film. Instead of the full four years of Lincoln’s presidency, the movie focuses on its final months, as Lincoln struggles to win the war, plan for a post-war peace and fights to secure passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. Yes, we’re sad to see some of the backstory go, but the final months of both the Civil War and Lincoln’s own life are sure to make for an exciting ride.
3. The Cast
Of course, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis, a famously intense actor who’s had great success playing real-life figures in the past (Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in “Gangs of New York”; disabled artist Christy Brown in “My Left Foot”; accused IRA militant Gerry Conlon in “In the Name of the Father).” Then there’s Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the powerful, and sometimes obstinate, head of the Radical Republicans in Congress, who often butted heads with Lincoln. And, of course, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. Our 16th first lady was whip smart, emotionally complicated and brimming—ok, overflowing—with nervous energy, and our bet is that Field will be pretty convincing.
We’ve been waiting for this movie for years—through casting changes and production delays—so you can imagine how psyched we were a few weeks ago when the official promotional poster was released. We emailed it around the office, and gathered at each other’s desks to dissect it. The consensus? It’s awesome. The beard is almost eerily perfect and it’s such a strikingly iconic image that several people we know thought it actually was a photo of Lincoln. Needless to say, we’re eagerly awaiting our first glimpse at a full trailer, which is due to be released later this week–both online and live in Times Square, on Thursday, 9/13, at 7pm ET.
November 16 can’t come soon enough.
Here at the History.com office, we talk about a lot of things. What to eat for lunch. The best way to get from Park Slope in Brooklyn to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. The likelihood of the Jets making the playoffs. Also, what really happened to the ancient Maya, whether Burr meant to kill Hamilton and which Civil War general we’d choose to lead our army.
Yes, believe it or not, we spend a lot of time talking about history—when we’re not writing about history, doing research, tracking down archival photos or checking facts. And so, rather than simply continuing to discuss—and debate—amongst ourselves, we thought it was time to launch our new HISTORY Blog. From now on, when one of our producers emerges from their cubicle with yet another new history fact of the day, we’re not the only ones who get to hear about it. You, too, will discover Sitting Bull’s childhood name (Jumping Badger), which U.S. president was the first born in a hospital (Carter) or how many living descendants Genghis Khan might have today (16 million!).
What do we have in mind for this new forum? A closer look at amazing images and sites we love, our take on the latest history books and movies, first looks at brand-new videos on our site, what we’re looking forward to down the line and much more. We’re excited for the chance to share our love of history on a more direct and personal level, and we hope you enjoy what we have to offer.