Matthew Algeo, Author, Last Team Standing: How the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia
Eagles–The ‘Steagles’–Saved Pro Football During World War II (July 15, 2011):
First, what made you decide to write the “Last Team Standing: How the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles--The ‘Steagles’--Saved Pro Football During World War II?”
In 2003 the Steelers honored the Steagles on their 40th anniversary before a pre-season game in Pittsburgh against the Eagles. I covered the event for the NPR program Only A Game. (You can listen to my story here: http://onlyagame.wbur.org/2003/08/30/show-rundown-for-8302003.)
As an Eagles fan, I was vaguely aware of the Steagles, but I hadn’t really thought about them much until then.
How hard was it to track down and interview the surviving members of the Steagles?
I believe nine members of the Steagles were still surviving in 2003. Six were able to attend the ceremonies in Pittsburgh, and I interviewed each of them at that time. I also did follow-up interviews with them later.
I was also able to speak with the other three surviving Steagles on the phone. They weren’t that hard to track down. Between the Internet and an address list for autograph collectors that I bought, I found them all. And they were all very kind and generous with their time.
Who were some of the more memorable players and coaches you interviewed, and what made them so?
Al Wistert, an Eagles tackle, is a real character, and always fun to be around. He had a great career; he played on the Eagles championship teams in 1948 and 1949. He should be in the Hall of Fame. He was a rookie on the Steagles in 1943 and had plenty of memories to share.
Ted Doyle, a Steelers tackle, was also a lot of fun, a real no-nonsense guy with a great sense of humor. I spent a couple hours chatting with him at his home in Omaha.
During the 1943 season the players were required to work full-time in war jobs. Ted worked at a Westinghouse factory in Pittsburgh. Years later he realized he was helping build parts for the atomic bomb!
In researching the book, what surprised you most?
How different football was in 1943.
For the most part the players played both offense and defense. And they were tiny compared with modern players. But, since they played both ways, and even covered kickoffs and punts, they were in amazing shape.
I asked Al Wistert what would happen if the Steagles played a modern team, and he said something like, If we played by the old rules, they’d probably score ten touchdowns against us in the first quarter, but by halftime they’d all be dead.
Can you imagine today’s 300-pound linemen playing both ways as well as covering kickoffs and punts?
What types of characters made up the team - who were the standouts and “stars”?
Lots of characters on the team!
One was Bill Hewitt. He’d retired in 1939, but came out of retirement to play for the Steagles because he was offered something like $500 a game – more money than he’d ever earned playing football.
But he’d never played with a helmet before – they’d been made mandatory since his retirement – and he hated it. He’d throw his helmet off and say, “I can’t wear this!” But he was pretty washed up, and ended up quitting the team in the middle of the season.
The two biggest stars were probably an Eagles back named Jack Hinkle and a Steelers receiver named Tony Bova. Hinkle led the team in rushing, and would have led the entire league except for a scorekeeping error – one of his longest runs of the season was erroneously attributed to a teammate.
Bova led the Steagles in receiving – and he was blind in one eye!
How did the coaches and players mesh and get along as the teams merged? Any examples?
As the season went along, the players got along quite well. Not the coaches however.
The Eagles’ Greasy Neale and the Steelers’ Walt Kiesling couldn’t stand each other. Officially they were co-head coaches, but since they barely spoke to each other, Art Rooney suggested that Neale handle the offense and Kiesling the defense.
This is one of the earliest examples of separate offensive and defensive coordinators in pro football.
Who were the locker room leaders and how did they help unite these two teams?
The Steagles were an interesting mix of veterans and rookies.
In the book I describe an incident in one game that shows how the two teams managed to meld so successfully.
It was late in the game. Greasy Neale had ordered the Steagles quarterback, an Eagles rookie named Allie Sherman, to just run out the clock. (Sherman went on to become head coach of the Giants in the 1960s.) But in the huddle, Ted Doyle, the Steelers veteran, told Sherman, “Just follow me.” Doyle knew he could make a hole for Sherman to run through.
Sherman ended up running for a touchdown. Neale was furious because his order had been disobeyed. But that touchdown shows how the Steelers and Eagles were able to play as one team.
What role did the Rooneys play in the merger of the teams and in making it successful?
Art Rooney and Bert Bell were the co-owners of the Steelers at the time. (Bell, of course, would later sell his share to become NFL commissioner.)
The Steelers had just had their first winning season in 1942, but after that season their roster was decimated because so many players were inducted into the military. I think they had fewer than ten players under contract at one point in the summer of ’43.
Rooney and Bell were on very good terms with the Eagles owner, Alexis Thompson, so they Approached him about the possibility of a merger. Thompson agreed, but only if the majority of the games were played in Philadelphia.
Ultimately, what enabled the team to become successful?
A combination of good coaching and good players.
Greasy Neale was a brilliant coach. He was the second NFL coach to adopt the T formation after GeorgeHalas. And Walt Kiesling was an excellent defensive coach. And the Steagles had a core group of excellent players (like Jack Hinkle and Tony Bova).
Also, in all honesty, the level of play in 1943 was not very high. So many players had gone off to war that the teams the Steagles played weren’t nearly as good as they would have been otherwise.
How did two sets of rival fans come to accept this team? Did they - and if so, how and why did they?
Initially, the Pittsburgh fans were miffed because most of the Steagles’ home games were played in Philadelphia.
I think one pre-season and two regular season games were played at Forbes Field. But as the season progressed, and it became apparent that the Steagles were actually a pretty good team, interest in the team in Pittsburgh increased dramatically.
In Philadelphia, the Steagles produced the first winning season in the history of the Eagles franchise, and interest in the team was very high. The last game of the season, against the Packers at Shibe Park, was probably the best-attended game in the history of the Eagles franchise up to that point.
How was the game different then versus today’s game?
One word: Money.
Some of the players probably made as little as $100 of $150 a game. And the owners weren’t getting rich, either. Art Rooney constantly fretted about money.
Any other thoughts for readers?
Yes: Please buy my book! It’s on Amazon: