June 19, 2010

1943: NFL Approves Merger of Eagles & Steelers for ’43 Season

By 1943, with World War II raging, American professional sports were suffering an acute manpower shortage. Major league baseball, with the active encouragement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, continued play while most of the best players went into the military. The NFL also stayed in operation, but by February 1943 a total of 330 players were serving in the armed forces. Teams made do with players who had medical deferments, and several retired players, such as Bronko Nagurski of the Bears, returned to action.

The NFL briefly considered canceling the 1943 season, due not only to the lack of players but wartime travel restrictions. However, the owners voted to continue although the Cleveland Rams received permission to suspend operations for one year. On June 19 they also gave approval to the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers to merge for the ’43 season. At the same league meeting, roster sizes were slashed from 33 to 25 (they would eventually rise to 28).

Officially, the name of the combined team was the Phil-Pitt Eagles-Steelers, or Phil-Pitt Combine, but it didn’t take long for them to be dubbed the “Steagles”. The club wore Eagles uniforms but split home games between Shibe Park in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. They also split the head coaching duties between Earle “Greasy” Neale of the Eagles and Walt Kiesling of the Steelers. Players were required to work 40 hours a week in defense plants, with practices held in the evenings.

The outlook didn’t appear promising, even with the pooling of two rosters. The Eagles had never had a winning season and finished with a 2-9 record in 1942. Pittsburgh hadn’t done much better, achieving the first season over .500 in franchise history in ’42 with a 7-4 tally (both franchises had joined the NFL in 1933). As star tackle Al Wistert put it, “It sounds like we had a big advantage, putting two teams together as one. But all it meant was we had twice as many lousy players.”

The situation wasn’t helped by the friction that existed between the co-coaches, Neale and Kiesling. The two had distinctly different personalities as well as coaching philosophies. As Wistert said later, “Greasy Neale was very self-confident, very sure of himself. Wherever he went, he was the boss. Greasy was so domineering that Kiesling had to take a back seat.”

Surprisingly, the team did well on the field. They won their first two games, including a 28-14 upset of the Giants that was accomplished despite fumbling a record 10 times during the course of the contest. Going into the last game of the season, the “Steagles” had a chance to end up in a three-way tie atop the Eastern Division with the Giants and Redskins. However, they lost to Green Bay and ended up at 5-4-1 (the Redskins and Giants tied for first at 6-3-1, necessitating a playoff that was won by Washington).

34-year-old end Bill Hewitt, destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and retired since 1939, joined the club. He had been the last NFL player to play without a helmet during the ‘30s, but the league forced him to wear one during his comeback season, much to his annoyance.

Hewitt was far from the biggest contributer to the club’s performance, however. HB Jack Hinkle (pictured at left) rushed for 571 yards on 116 carries (4.9 average) to finish second among NFL rushers, just a yard behind Bill Paschal of the Giants. The “Steagles” overall led the league in rushing (1730 yards and 18 TDs) and also had the best run defense.

QB Roy Zimmerman led the offense, backed up by Allie Sherman, a future head coach of the Giants. End Tony Bova led the team with 17 pass receptions for 419 yards, averaging a league-leading 24.6 yards-per-catch. Rookies Wistert, who had been declared unfit for military service due to a bone disease, and guard Frank “Bucko” Kilroy both showed promise on the line.

The merger arrangement ended at the conclusion of the season. The Steelers combined with the Chicago Cardinals in 1944 and suffered through a miserable 0-10 campaign (they were derisively referred to as the “Carpets”). Philadelphia continued its steady progress under Neale, going 7-1-2 in 1944 and ultimately achieving back-to-back NFL titles in 1948 and ’49. A number of the players who played for the “Steagles” in 1943 contributed to those championship clubs, including Wistert, Kilroy, tackle Vic Sears, HB Ernie Steele, and FB Ben Kish.