The Story of the Steagles

By Barbara Maranzani

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!

Categories: Sports, World War II