There is a good chance you’re wondering from the title of this post what the heck I’m talking about, but it is possible that all of us Eagles fans are actually Steelers fans. Well, not the current Steelers but the Steelers of the past. I’m talking World War II era, around the time that the Eagles and Steelers became the Steagles. Both teams were very unsuccessful during their first decade of existence. In 1939, each team only won one game all season and it was against each other. The franchises were losing money and struggling to find a way to turn things around. If everything went as originally planned, our Eagles could have an entirely different history.
Philly and Pittsburgh Get Their Teams
In 1933, University of Pennsylvania football teammates Bert Bell and Lud Wray applied to have a professional football franchise in Philadelphia. Their timing couldn’t have been better. Although a successful and championship winning franchise, the Frankford Yellow Jackets went bankrupt and the NFL was searching for a new ownership group. The Bell-Wray group was granted the franchise and named it the Philadelphia Eagles. Concurrently, on the other side of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh native Art Rooney applied to the NFL to have a franchise in his home city. He was approved and the Pittsburgh Professional Football Club was born. Rooney named his team the Pirates after the cities professional baseball team. Both the Eagles and Pirates were purchased for only a $2,500 franchise fee which would only be about $50,000 today.
These Teams Sucked
The 1930s did not mark the start of great times for these two new franchises. From 1933-39 the Eagles posted a record of 18-55-3. Six of those wins came against the Pirates. In that same time period, the Pirates posted a record of 22-55-3. Of those 22 wins, seven of them came against the Eagles. They beat each other up, but nobody else. When they didn’t play each other, their combined record was 27-97-6. The Pirates went through five head coaches in seven years while the Eagles were coached by co-owners Lud Wray for three years and Bert Bell for four years. The bright spots for these franchises were essentially non-existent. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Robert Dvorchak wrote “Losses on the field were compounded by the combined loss of about $190,000 in Depression dollars.” That’s a lot of money, even in 2020. Luckily for them, the 1930s were over and things were going to take a turn for the better for one of these franchises not named the Pirates, Ironmen or Steelers.
The Big Plan That Never Happened
Art Rooney was in a little over his head. He had other business ventures he was focused on and only made a profit in one of his first seven years as the Pirates owner. This is where everything gets really interesting and complicated so if you need to read this next part a couple times to understand, I get it.
To start, this next series of events became known as The Pennsylvania Polka. OK, here we go. In 1940, entrepreneur and beneficiary of a six-million-dollar inheritance, Alexis Thompson approached Bert Bell about purchasing a professional football franchise. Bell and Rooney were good friends and Bell knew of Rooney’s struggles, so he brokered a deal to help his friend. Rooney would sell the Pirates to Thompson for $160,000 and then invest $80,000 of that money to become part owner of the Eagles, which Bell owned. The deal was finalized on December 8, 1940. As part of the deal, 11 of the Pittsburgh players moved to Philadelphia and eight of the Philadelphia players moved to Pittsburgh. Imagine a trade that big in today’s NFL.
So now, Alexis Thompson owns the Pittsburgh Pirates, which he changes to Ironmen (but never plays under than name), and Bert Bell and Art Rooney owned the Philadelphia Eagles. Now that we are caught up, here is an example of how things don’t always go as planned. Derek Reed of Bleacher Report explained this perfectly, ” The plan was that Thompson would move his team to Boston, while Rooney and Bell would change the Philadelphia Eagles into the Pennsylvania Keystones and play half their games in Philly and half in Pittsburgh.” That was a stupid idea and I’m glad it never happened. The NFL didn’t know of this plan and denied the move because Boston already had two franchises fail and they didn’t feel a franchise would be successful in that city. I wish that were still true. Alexis Thompson wanted this move to happen because he lived in New York City and New York already had two teams so he figured Boston would be the next closest big city to his home.
Hey Man, Wanna Trade?
Now that Thompsons plan fell through, he had to figure out a way to get closer to home. Rooney wasn’t happy either. Now that the Eagles or Keystones for that matter were not going to play games in his hometown of Pittsburgh, he started regretting the entire deal. The two ownership groups decided to get together and develop a plan that wouldn’t be denied. To preface, Thompson built his team with players and recently hired Greasy Neale as Head Coach. Eagles fans, you know why that is important.
What these savvy owners decided was to trade franchises. That’s right. Trade the entire franchise. All players and coaches would move with their owner to their new cities and assume the name of their new franchise. The Pittsburgh Pirates/Ironmen are now the Philadelphia Eagles and the Philadelphia Eagles are now the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, Steelers. When the move happened, Rooney decided to change the name of his old/new franchise to escape the stigma of poor Pirates football.
Let’s Get All Caught Up
To summarize so far, the Pirates sucked and so did the Eagles. Rooney sold Pittsburgh to Thompson. Rooney bought part of Philadelphia. Rooney and Bell wanted to play in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Thompson wanted to move to Boston. NFL said no. Thompson moved his players and coaches to Philadelphia and became the Eagles. Rooney and Bell moved their players and coaches to Pittsburgh and become the Steelers. So now, the Eagles are the Steelers and the Steelers are the Eagles.
Legendary Eagles Head Coach, Greasy Neale was actually hired to coach the Pittsburgh franchise. For those that don’t know, Neale was the Eagles Head Coach when they won the NFL Championships in 1948 and 1949. The Steelers record during those two years was 10-13-1. The Eagles were 20-3-1 with two championships. It makes you wonder how many championships the Eagles would have won if the move never happened. Besides the two championships mentioned, the Eagles also won in 1960. The Steelers didn’t win their franchises first championship until 1974.
Now you know the story of how the Eagles might actually be the Steelers. If the NFL approved Alexis Thompsons move to Boston how would the landscape of the NFL have turned out. The Eagles, I mean Keystones, would be splitting homefields in Philly and Pittsburgh. The 1943 Phil-Pitt Steagles would have never happened. When Bert Bell became NFL commissioner in 1946, he sold his shares back to Rooney. Would Rooney have then moved the Keystones to Pittsburgh leaving Philadelphia without a franchise? I’m sure Philadelphia would have been granted a new franchise, but the history would have been different. Would they have even been called the Eagles? Could we be walking around wearing Philadelphia Bells gear singing the fight song “Ring Bells Ring”?
I’m glad the move happened, and I don’t consider the Eagles the Steelers. The players and coaches moved, that’s it. It was essentially the biggest trade in NFL history. I wouldn’t change a thing. If the move never happened the Eagles could have ended up like the Steelers, winning six Super Bowls, or end up like the Cardinals and have only 10 playoff appearances in their 100-year history. It doesn’t matter because the Eagles are the Eagles and that’s how we like it.
What are your thoughts? How do you think Philadelphia football history would have turned out if the move was approved? Please comment below.