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The Pittsburgh Steelers during World War II

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1943 and 1944 proved difficult for most NFL teams. The majority of able-bodied men were called into military service. That left teams short-handed and with fewer fans. The Steelers merged with the Eagles in 1943. Writers called the team the Steagles.

1942 NFL SEASON

Pittsburgh Steelers finished 7-4 in 1942, good enough for second place in the NFL’s East Division. The 1942 season was only the second season in which the team took the field under their new nickname, Steelers.

The 1942 NFL season saw 10 teams compete for the league title. The Chicago Bears rambled undefeated through the regular season and met the 10-1 Washington Redskins in the 1942 NFL Championship Game. The Bears thrashed Washington 73-0 in 1940 but Sammy Baugh and company avenged that in the 1942 game by ruining the Chicago’s undefeated season with a 14-6 title-winning triumph.

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NFL LEAGUE MEETING IN APRIL OF 1943

  • RAMS WITHDRAW FROM 1943 NFL SEASON

NFL owners met in April of 1943 to discuss the upcoming season. The military draft struck some teams especially hard. Some owners worried about attendance. The Rams withdrew from the 1943 NFL season. That left the NFL with nine teams.

NFL LEAGUE MEETING IN JUNE OF 1943

  • PITTSBURGH STEELERS AND PHILADELPHIA EAGLES MERGE

The Steelers combined their franchise with the Philadelphia Eagles for the 1943 NFL season. NFL owners originally voted the plan down because the Bears and Cardinals also wanted to merge. The Steelers/Eagles merger passed on a second vote, after the Bears and Cardinals withdrew their plan and the Giants’ Jack Mara changed his “no” vote to “yes.”

Other owners placed a voting restriction on the merged franchise. The combined ownership had only one vote.

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1943 STEAGLES

Writers called the merged franchise the “Steagles.” Not all players knew about the arrangement. Rookie Al Wistert said that he didn’t know about the two teams merging until he showed up for training camp.

The team was competitive but not great. Steelers head coach Walt Kiesling and Eagles head coach Greasy Neale co-managed the squad. Players later noted that the two often disagreed. Both were used to acting as head coach and likely found the situation difficult.

The Steagles finished 5-4-1 in league play. They beat and tied league runner-up Washington in their two contests but were trounced by the eventual NFL Champion Chicago Bears. The Steagles played six home games — four at Shibe Park in Philadelphia and two at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The team won both games at Forbes Field.

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PHOTO: THE STEAGLES GAVE UP A BIG PASS PLAY BUT STILL BEAT WASHINGTON IN NOV. 1943

Very few color photos of the Steagles exist. Those I found online include one that depicts a practice with players wearing Eagles jerseys and helmets with yellow socks and gold pants. One game photo shows players wearing entire Eagles uniforms. General consensus lands on the notion that the team wore Eagles uniforms on game day.

NFL LEAGUE MEETING IN APRIL OF 1944

  • Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Cardinals Merge

The upcoming 1944 season brought the same manpower and attendance challenges but also added a scheduling problem. The Rams returned to league action, the Eagles and Steelers went separate ways, and the NFL added a new team – the Boston Yanks. The league totaled 11 teams.

The NFL asked Steelers owner Art Rooney if he’d consider merging his team one more time to even out the scheduling. The league wanted him to pair with the Chicago Cardinals who went winless in 1943. Bert Bell, who co-owned the Steelers with Rooney, stated that the Steelers really wanted to stay independent and play in the NFL’s East Division per usual but pointed to the league’s permittance of the Steagles merger the previous season as reason for agreement.

1944 Card/Pitt

The Pittsburgh Press quoted Cardinals owner Charley Bidwill as saying that the merger between the Steelers and Cardinals would strengthen both teams and provide a power balance in the NFL’s West Division. NFL Commission Elmer Layden added that the league chose the Steelers and Cardinals because of the relative strength of both squads. The league also considered pairing the Steelers with the Rams but decided that the Rams didn’t offer as much talent the Cardinals after sitting out the 1943 season.

The Cleveland Rams went 4-6 in 1944. Two of those wins came against the Card/Pitt squad. The Lions also beat the Card/Pitt team twice. So did the Packers. Same with the Bears who racked up a combined 83-14 point differential over the two games. Overall, the Card/Pitt combine finished the season outscored by 220 points over a 10-game season.

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PHOTO: CARD/PITT AT WASHINGTON IN OCT, 1944.

In short, the Card/Pitt merger was a complete disaster. The team went 0-10 and took the stage as the NFL’s laughingstock. Sportswriters and fans wrote the punchline and nicknamed the team the “Carpets” other teams walked all over them.

The team played five home games – three at Forbes Field and two at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Of course, they lost all five games.  Cardinals head coach Phil Handler shared duties with the Steelers Walt Kiesling, their coaching records forever stained with a winless season.

Both teams returned to independence the next season. Jim Leonard replaced Kiesling on the Steelers sidelines. Kiesling returned to coach the Steelers from 1954-1956.

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