Eagles-Steelers share a long history

Posted Oct 7, 2012

It is happenstance that the Steelers will celebrate their 80th season in the NFL by playing games against three of their oldest rivals – the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, and New York Giants. This is a look at some of the 80-season history between the Steelers and the Eagles.

They barely know each other these days. The Steelers and the Eagles may reside in the same Commonwealth, but their familiarity on the football field has been dulled by having played only 11 times – including yesterday at Heinz Field – since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

But before 1970, that was another story entirely.

Professional football came to the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in 1933, when Art Rooney Sr. and Bert Bell founded teams in their respective cities by joining the National Football League. Their teams played in the penultimate game of their inaugural seasons in the NFL – the Eagles won, 25-6, in Philadelphia on Nov. 19 – and from then through 1969 they faced each other 65 times, which doesn’t even account for the 1943 season when they merged and competed as the team known as the Steagles.

And then there was the time in 1940 when Rooney and Bell actually orchestrated a trade that ended with the Steelers in Philadelphia and the Eagles in Pittsburgh. But more on that later.

Upon entering the NFL together in 1933, the Steelers and the Eagles served as punching bags for the rest of the league for many years, with one or the other of the teams finishing last in the Eastern Conference for 10 straight seasons.

In Pittsburgh, Art Rooney Sr. decided the way to build a team that could see tickets was to give it a strong local flavor by recruiting players from the University of Pittsburgh and other area colleges. In his first eight years of operating the Pittsburgh franchise, Rooney estimated he lost $100,000.

The Eagles were owned by a syndicate headed by Bell, but the team lost $80,000 and 21 games in its first three seasons. The investors began to drop out, and by the end of the 1935 season Bell had the Eagles to himself. The following year, the Eagles were shut out six times. Because the rent was cheap, the team played in the 102,000 seat Municipal Stadium before at least 100,000 empty seats. When 50 fans showed up on one rainy Sunday for a game against the equally inept Brooklyn Dodgers, Bell invited them to sit in the press box and provided them free coffee and hot dogs.

Come 1943, and with World War II raging throughout Europe and the South Pacific, NFL teams were having issues finding enough able-bodied men to field rosters to enable the NFL to continue.

On Jan. 18, 1943, the Office of Price Administration had banned all pleasure driving, and almost immediately private automobiles disappeared from the nation’s roads. Railroads were still the heart of the national transportation system, but the transportation of troops and military supplies took precedence. In July 1943, the Office of Defense Transportation announced that professional football teams would reduce their travel by 37 percent in 1943 by cutting the size of rosters from 33 to 28 and by revising their schedules.

The Cleveland franchise was allowed to suspend operations, and in order to maintain an eight-team league, the NFL authorized the merger of the Steelers and Eagles into a team that wore Philadelphia’s green-and-white uniforms, practiced at the University of Pennsylvania, and came to be known as the Steagles. All of the Steagles were required to work at least 40 hours per week in defense plants, with football having to fit into their free time.

“You worked all day, and you practiced all night, and by the end of the day you were tired as hell,” remembered Jack Hinkle, the team’s offensive star who had been discharged from the Army Air Force because of stomach ulcers and worked at the Bendix Aviation plant in North Philadelphia along with several teammates. “Most of us played, though, because we loved the game.”

The Steagles started out 2-0 but then won just one of their next five games on the way to a 5-4-1 record that landed them in third place in the Eastern Division. They were dissolved after that one season.

The franchises returned to their respective cities following the war, and for the first time in their histories, both teams were competitive at the same time. The Eagles would win back-to-back NFL Championships in 1948-49, and in 1947 they had to deal with a very good Steelers team being coached by Dr. Jock Sutherland.

Led by single-wing tailback Johnny Clement, who rushed for four touchdowns and passed for seven more, and end Val Jansante, who caught 35 passes for five touchdowns, the 1947 Steelers got off to a 7-2 start that included a 35-24 win over the Eagles in Pittsburgh. But late-season losses to the Eagles in Philadelphia and the Bears in Chicago forced a one-game playoff with Philadelphia for the right to represent the Eastern Division in the NFL Championship Game.

The Steelers players believed they deserved extra pay for the practices leading up to this “playoff,” but Sutherland was adamant that they did not and Rooney always allowed his coach to call the shots. These differences were not resolved in time, and a distracted Pittsburgh team lost to the Eagles, 21-0, who then went on to lose to the Chicago Cardinals, 28-21, in the 1947 NFL Championship Game. The Steelers would not play in the postseason again until 1972.
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It was the 1960s before Steelers vs. Eagles would have a real impact, but before getting into that, let’s go back to the trading of the franchises.

After the 1940 NFL season, a New York millionaire named Lex Thompson wanted to buy a professional football team, and he had been pressuring Rooney to sell him the Steelers. Rooney knew a good offer when he saw one, believed to be $160,000 for a team that finished as high as .500 only once in its first eight seasons, but he also didn’t want to leave Pittsburgh without a pro football team.

Rooney, Bert Bell and Thompson held a series of secret meetings, and on the day after the 1940 NFL Championship Game – won by Chicago, 73-0, over Washington – they announced their plan. Rooney was selling the Steelers to Thompson and buying a 50 percent stake in Bell’s Eagles. At the same time, the teams also executed a massive trade in which Rooney took several of his favorite Steelers players to Philadelphia while Thompson got some of the Eagles rejects.

What wasn’t announced at the time of the sale/switch was Thompson’s plan to move the Steelers to Boston after the 1941 season. In order to prevent Pittsburgh from being without a team, Rooney and Bell planned to make the Philadelphia Eagles a team for the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a team that would play half its games in Philadelphia and the other half in Pittsburgh – with the new nickname to be the Keystoners, what with Pennsylvania being known as the Keystone State.

The sale was OK’d by the league, but a core of owners led by George Preston Marshall blocked the future move of the Pittsburgh franchise to Boston, because Marshall had claimed lack of fan support when he moved his team out of Boston and to Washington, D.C., three years earlier. Plus, Marshall wasn’t about to allow Rooney and Bell to control an entire state.

And so there was gridlock, with Marshall mucking up the grand plan. Thompson was miserable in Pittsburgh, and in the spring of 1941 he still had not even opened an office in Pittsburgh. For his part, Rooney wasn’t happy with a team that wasn’t headquartered in Pittsburgh.

And so before a down of the 1941 NFL season was played, on April 8, Rooney and Bell traded the Eagles to Thompson, who got to own a team a short distance from New York City, for the Steelers, which enabled Rooney again to operate in his hometown.
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Fast forward to the 1960s, 1968 to be precise, for another time when Steelers vs. Eagles had some interest outside the Commonwealth, even if it was for all of the wrong reasons.

In the fall of 1968, there was a running back at USC named O.J. Simpson, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy and was seen as a sure-shot No. 1 overall pick of the 1969 NFL Draft. But there was some competition for that coveted pick, and the Steelers and the Eagles approached the midway point of the 1968 NFL season as the two leading candidates.

On Oct. 27, 1968, the 0-6 Steelers hosted the 0-6 Eagles at Pitt Stadium in a game being billed at the time as the O.J. Simpson Bowl. And it lived down to expectations.

The Eagles took the lead on the last play of the first half when Sam Baker made a 38-yard field goal after the Philadelphia offense had gained 29 yards following a fair-catch of a Steelers punt. On an earlier field goal attempt, the Eagles had attempted a fake, but holder but Joe Scarpatti not only threw an incomplete pass but was over the line of scrimmage while doing so. It was that kind of a game.

Anyway, the action really “heated up” late in the fourth quarter. After the Eagles contributed 30 yards worth of penalties to a Steelers drive, Booth Lusteg kicked a 34-yard field goal to tie the game, 3-3.

Just when it seemed as though the O.J. Simpson Bowl was going to end in a tie, the Eagles got even more charitable. After a 17-yard pass from Norm Snead to Ben Hawkins and a 19-yard run by Tom Woodeshick, Baker came on to attempt his fourth field goal of the afternoon, not including the botched fake. Baker was short from 44 yards out, and as dictated by the rules at the time the Steelers took over at their 20-yard line.

On third-and-2, Kent Nix connected with WR Roy Jefferson for a 61-yard catch-and-run that put the Steelers even within Lusteg’s range, at the Eagles 11-yard line. But on third down, a Nix pass intended for FB Earl Gros was intercepted by Ron Medved at the 1-yard line, and with less than two minutes remaining the game certainly would end in a tie. Right?

But the Eagles didn’t get to 0-6 by efficiently running out the clock. On fourth-and-1 at the 10-yard line, Eagles coach Joe Kuharich elected to go for it rather than have Baker punt from his own end zone. The Steelers defense stuffed Woodeshick, and their offense gained 2 yards before sending Lusteg out for what turned into the 15-yard field goal that won the game for Pittsburgh, 6-3.

Afterward, fans in Philadelphia were ecstatic with the result, because it seemed their favorite team now had a clear shot at drafting Simpson, but the Eagles even messed that up.

After getting to 0-11, the Eagles put together an improbable two-game winning streak – 12-0 over the Lions in Detroit, and then 29-17 over New Orleans in Philadelphia – to take themselves out of the running for the first overall pick. Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, the Steelers followed that win over the Eagles with a 41-21 victory in Atlanta, and then they tied the St. Louis Cardinals, 28-28, the next weekend on the way to a 2-11-1 finish.

The 1-12-1 Buffalo Bills earned that No. 1 overall pick and ended up with Simpson; the Falcons, at 2-12, picked second and chose Notre Dame tackle George Kunz; and then picking third overall, the Eagles settled for Purdue running back Leroy Keyes.

The Steelers? They had the fourth pick in that 1969 draft, and their rookie coach, Chuck Noll, used it on some North Texas State defensive tackle named Joe Greene.