The United States entered the Second World War in December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The number of US military personnel would more than double in 1942, to 3.9 million, and by 1943 it had more than doubled again, to 9.1 million.
The president, Franklin Roosevelt, called on Major League Baseball to continue playing in the interests of national morale. He didn’t mention the much smaller NFL, but the football league decided it too would try to keep going. That was no easy task with 600 players and coaches serving in the military.
The Cleveland Rams suspended play entirely and the two Pennsylvania teams, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers, would probably have followed suit. The Steelers, for example, had only six players left under contract. The NFL owners of the two teams devised an unusual plan. They would merge for a season as play as, officially, the Phil-Pitt Combine, though the unofficial name – the Steagles – would prove more popular with fans.
The two teams had a close relationship. In 1940, Eagles co-founder Lud Wray sold his interest in the Eagles to Art Rooney, who had just sold the Steelers to Alexis Thompson who, ironically, was heir to a steel fortune. Rooney came to regret the decision, so in 1941 Rooney and Bell swapped territories with Thompson. Thompson’s Steelers, who he had planned to rename as the Iron Men, moved to Philadelphia and became the Eagles. Rooney and Bell moved the Eagles to Pittsburgh to become the Steelers. This all happened after the teams had already swapped a bunch of players.
Title: Last Man Standing
Author: Matthew Algeo
First Published: Da Capo, 2006
Buy the book: Amazon US | Amazon UK
Awards: Pro Football Journal’s Top 100 Pro Football Books, #45
PFRA Nelson Ross Award 2006
Top Five: Eagles
Review: The League
Review: The Pros
The whole confusing thing took place in one off-season and the Steelers and Eagles both resumed play as normal when the 1941 season began so, for records purposes, the NFL considers both franchises to have unbroken records in their respective cities. All of which is to say that the two teams were closely entwined.
Matthew Algeo details all of this in setting the scene for Last Team Standing, which tells the story of the 1943 Steagles. With so many men serving in the military, the Steagles had to rely largely on players who were deferred from the draft for some reason, often a medical ailment. As Algeo relates, poor eyesight, bad hearing and ulcers were among the reasons why several of the Steagles players had received draft deferments. Others, such as guard Rocco Canale, were actually serving in the military but had permission to play football at the weekend.
The Steagles split home games between Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh (pictured above). They actually did ok, finishing 5-4-1 but missing the playoffs. Still, Algeo’s book is not really about the wins and losses, it’s a story of life in wartime America and how a struggling football league played its own role in the war effort.
Matthew Algeo is a journalist and author who has reported for newspapers and radio. He has written six books, including Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure, and The President is a Sick Man.
“Last Man Standing is an intimate view of the players’ and coaches’ lives, as well as a spirited retelling of the political and historical events that shaped this unusual season.”
Lisa Lazar, Western Pennsylvania History
“Algeo’s account, which includes an instructive overview of life on the homefront during the war, is a colorful and sympathetic one about the struggles and determination of a handful of men who had no idea that they were preserving a sickly plant that would grow into a financial redwood in the next 50 years.”
Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Mostly Last Team Standing is a homage to the Steagles players, like 5′ 10″ quarterback Allie Sherman, and nine-year vet Vic Sears, a man who clearly understood his times when he said, ‘We weren’t Eagles. We weren’t Steelers. We were Steagles.’”
Jody DiPerna, Pittsburgh City Paper
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