Did the Steagles save the NFL?

Last Team Standing

SCOTT JAGOW: The Green Bay Packers play the Cincinnati Bengals tonight on Monday Night Football. Yeah, it's that time of year again. This is preseason, but the regular season starts next week. The NFL is widely considered the most successful pro sports league in the country. But things might've been different had it not been for the strange events of 1943. For that one season during the war, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles became one team. They were called, obviously enough, the Steagles.

In a new book, author Matthew Algeo tells the story of that season. If Matthew's name sounds familiar, it's because he used to be a reporter for Marketplace. I asked him why these two rivals would join forces.

MATTHEW ALGEO: Six hundred NFL players went off to war. By 1943 that's enough to field two full leagues worth of players. So, it became obvious that the league was going to have to contract in some way. And the easiest way to do that was to combine two teams. Now, the reason they picked the Steelers and the Eagles, quite frankly, is because they were two really bad teams and the other owners didn't mind combing them. And the Eagles and the Steelers also had sort of a common history. They came into the league at the same time. The owners knew each other pretty well. So it made sense to combine the Steelers and the Eagles.

JAGOW: Once the Eagles and Steelers joined, they had a full team. But what kind of players were left?

ALGEO: Uh, not very . . . Well, I'm not gonna say not very good. Because, it turns out there were some really good players. But of course the team had lost so many players — all the teams had lost so many players. The lions share were players who had some sort of physical defect that prevented them from serving in the military. I'd like to go through the Eagles starting line-up a little bit:

The starting center was deaf in one ear. The starting end was blind in one eye. The starting halfback had bleeding ulcers. The starting quarterback actually had a farm in California, so he had an agricultural exemption to the war. But that gives you an example of the kind of players that were left.

JAGOW: Well, with the war going on and a bunch of rag-tags playing, did people give a hoot about pro football during this time?

ALGEO: Funny enough, they did. In 1942, the first season during the war, attendance dropped off a lot. But actually, in 1943, the year of the Steagles, attendance rebounded. In fact it was the best year attendance-wise that the NFL had had to that point. And really what happened was, people were so starved for entertainment at the time. People were working so hard -- unemployment was less than 2 percent -- and there was a 48-hour work-week often in place for people. So on a Sunday in the autumn, sudenly going out to the ballpark and watching a football game seemed like a pretty good thing to do.

JAGOW: Well, the Steagles didn't end up winning anything. They were barely above .500. They played for this one season. What made you think this was the stuff of a whole book?

ALGEO: Well, after a couple of years at Marketplace, Scott . . . Uh, no, actually . . . Three years ago they had a reunion of the Steagles in Pittsburgh. And I did a story about that. And I got to meet some of the guys. And just talking to them really, for the first time, appreciated sort of how unique this team was. And how really interesting that period of time was, not only in the National Football League, but in the United States.

JAGOW: Matt, the subtitle of your book says the Steagles saved pro football. How did it do that?

ALGEO: Well, you want to sell books, Scott, first of all. But the Steagles did save pro football in one very important way. There was a point in the summer of 1943 where the National Football League did consider ceasing operations. And when you look at the period right after the war in professional football history a new league came in. The AAFC, the All-America Football Conference, started in 1946. And if the NFL had suspended operations during the war, it really makes you wonder whether they would have been able to compete with the AAFC after the war. So, by combining the Steelers and the Eagles, the NFL ensured its survival.

JAGOW: Well, the Steagles no longer exist, of course. But when I watch a preseason game or a regular NFL game, what kind of impact can I think about in terms of what the Steagles did for today's NFL?

ALGEO: I think what the NFL was going through at that time was kind of . . . It was going through a metamorphosis. It was changing in so many ways — 1943 was the first year that helmets were required. So, they were actually the first generation to play what we really consider, kind of, modern football. The Steagles ran the T formation. They were one of two teams in the league that did it — where you pass the ball a lot. Sort of what the game looks like really started — you know, the game we recognize — really started in the 40s.

JAGOW: Well, Matthew, it's been a pleasure having you back on Marketplace.

ALGEO: Scott, it's been my pleasure being there.

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