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History lesson: When the Eagles became the Steelers

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Yes, that actually did happen

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles-Training Camp Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers have had a vast history as members of the National Football League (NFL). Below is a list of their similarities:

  1. Sister cities in the state of Pennsylvania.
  2. Began as teams with different names – Philly was the Frankfort Yellow Jackets while Pittsburgh was called the Pirates.
  3. Initially played games under Pennsylvania Blue Laws which meant neither team could play a home game on Sundays. Both clubs entertained home games on Saturdays or played on the road for Sunday contests.
  4. Both became NFL franchises in their current city in 1933.
  5. These two teams combined during World War II and named the Steagles (1943).
  6. Neither played in a championship game from their inception until 1948 (Eagles won NFL title)
  7. Small baseball stadiums were their first home fields
  8. Each resided in the same division (Eastern) until 1949
  9. One team was traded for the other

Wait -- come again? Traded for the other? What does that mean?

It means the Steelers became the Eagles and the Eagles became the Steelers.

From the Steelers and Eagles inception, both squads were horrible annually and bottom-feeders in the division. As a result of loathsome teams the very financial lifeblood of every NFL club was in danger – ghastly paid attendance. Both franchises were in trouble monetarily.

In March of 1940, word was out that the Steelers had offers from various groups in Boston, the West Coast, and Cincinnati. At the time, it was estimated that owner Art Rooney had lost over $100,000 during his tenure with the team. On Dec. 9, Rooney sold the Steelers to Boston millionaire Alexis Thompson for $160,000 after a 2-7-2 season and another year of financial setbacks.

Bert Bell

At the same time, the Eagles were in dire straights financially. Owner Bert Bell was not very good with funds and often squandered money. He regularly gave tickets away or discounted them for home games just to get bodies in the stadium. Bell would also schedule away games with clubs that had bigger stadiums (and sizeable crowds) figuring the 40 percent visitor cut would be greater than his 60 percent home field portion. In order to bring in more cash he sold his best player, Dave Smukler, to the Detroit Lions for $5,000.

Rooney and Bell were good friends. After the Steelers sale, Rooney bought half-stock into the Eagles and subsequently became half-owner although he retained his residence in Pittsburgh.

Thompson vowed to make Pittsburgh into a winner and paid handsomely for new head coach Greasy Neale. In the Jan. 17, 1941 issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it was reported that the club would receive its third nickname. “The local eleven will henceforth be known as the Pittsburgh Iron Men,” the article states. Thompson renamed the team while in attendance at the owner’s meeting in Chicago.

Thompson made it known that the club would relocate to Boston, but part of the agreement of the sale was that the team would play in Pittsburgh for at least one more season. Rooney didn’t want his hometown to be without pro football so he and Bell decided that after the Iron Men would leave the steel city for Boston the Eagles would play contests in both cities and be renamed the “Keystoners.”

Thompson was brand new to professional football. He held his business office in New York City but made plans that a football operations office would open in Pittsburgh by March 1, 1941. In the meanwhile, Rooney was making rumblings of his five hour cross-state daily travel from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia –and then back to Pittsburgh.

March 1 came and went as Thompson did not open an office. He commented that he preferred to transfer operations closer to home as well as his work, and that Philadelphia would be more convenient to his lifestyle. His thinking was that it was just as easy for a novice to make a start in one city as it would be in another. The less than two hour drive from New York City to Philly was very attractive versus the 368 mile trek to Pittsburgh. Rooney contacted Thompson and made an offer.

On Thursday April 3, 1941, Rooney announced that the Eagles would move to Pittsburgh and that the Iron Men would relocate to Philadelphia. Everything was swapped except uniforms: players, equipment, front office, and coaches without any exchange of money.

From this moment until as late as 1945, Pittsburgh was officially owned by the “Philadelphia Football Club, Inc.”

With the swap, Rooney renamed the Iron Men back to the Steelers. Officially, the team never played a single game as the Iron Men and Rooney never spent a season in Philadelphia. Bell became head coach and Rooney served as general manager. With the swap, the Keystoners simply were an idea that never came to fruition. Thompson now owned the Eagles.

To explain the swap, this was an era when most pro football clubs were lucky to break even each season. Funds were arduous to come by with the chances of heavy losses a reality. It has since become known as one of the most unusual trades in the annals of sports in the United States. To say the least, both team’s history certainly became warped and intricate at best.

The Steelers would have only eight winning seasons from 1941-1971 until the franchise hired Chuck Nole as head coach and subsequently win four Super Bowls. During the same time period, however, the Eagles would have 13 winning seasons and capture three NFL titles. Bell’s 10-46-2 coaching record (.190 win percentage) is considered one of the worst in the history of the league. Later, Bell was hired as the NFL Commissioner.

The Pittsburgh Ironmen would finally make their debut as a charter team in the NBA (1946) and also as a fictitious team on an episode of the television drama series “Queer as Folk.”