January 11, 2008

NFL Thumbnail Histories: the Philadelphia Eagles, the Pittsburgh Pirates/ Steelers.

Click below for for full screen, with Map.

Note: click on the image of the Eagles’ helmets (at the top of the page) to see my map of the NFL circa 1920-1960, plus Steelers’ helmets.

In the late 1920′s, the Frankford Yellow Jackets, of Philadelphia, were a solid franchise.  They had won the 1926 NFL Title, and could draw around 15,000 fans to their games, even though they had to play on Saturdays.  This was because of the draconian “Blue Laws” in the state of Pennsylvania, which curtailed many activities on Sundays, including the playing of professional sporting matches.  But in a few years, the Yellow Jackets became just another casualty of the Great Depression.  They folded part-way through the 1931 season.

In 1933, Pennsylvania relaxed the Blue Laws.  That cleared the way for the NFL to establish a stronger presence there.  That year, three new franchises joined the NFL, two of them from the Keystone State:  the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Pittsburgh (Football) Pirates.  The third new team was the Cincinnati (Football) Reds, who only lasted one and a half seasons.

The Philadelphia Eagles inherited the defunct Yellow Jackets’ franchise, though only a few players came over (I could only find one:  center Art Koeninger).    The Pittsburgh Pirates mimicked the town’s basball club with their name, but changed their name to the Steelers, in 1940, in honor of the region’s steel-making industry.  Both clubs were pretty poor in their first decade: the Eagles failed to post a winning season;  the Steelers finally managed one in their tenth year, in 1942.   At the height of World War II, in 1943, the two clubs were forced to merge, due to the lack of able-bodied men on the domestic front.  They were officially called the Philadelphia Eagles, but fans began calling them the “Steagles.”  [Also, the NFL record book refers to them as "Phil-Pit."] 
The Eagles had a rather interesting helmet design in the late 1940′s, and early 1950′s.  Some call it the feather design, but it was the result of simply having a contrasting color (silver) follow the seam on their green leather helmet.  When the NFL switched from leather to hard shell plastic helmets, around 1949-’50, the Eagles had the helmet manufacturer maintain this wavy shape on the helmets.  (You can see the leather version of the helmet, on my map.)   **{See this page from the Helmet Hut site.}

After the War, the Eagles, under Earle “Greasy” Neale,  turned into a great team, and won the Title in back-to-back seasons, led by Fullback Steve Van Buren, and End Pete Pihos.  The Eagles won their last Title in 1960, led by QB Norm Van Brocklin, and LB Chuck Bednarik. {See this NFL Films’ 4-minute clip on, ‘Chuck Bednarik video‘ [note: that famous hit by Bednarik on Frank Gifford can be seen at the 2:20 point of the video].} The Eagles were the only team to beat Vince Lombardi and his Packers, in the playoffs.  {See this article from the site, from Jan.2011, by Jeré Longman, ‘Eagles’ 1960 Victory Was an N.F.L. Turning Point‘.

The Steelers wore yellow-orange headgear up to 1963, when they switched to black, to better show off their American Iron & Steel Institute “Steelmark.”  The details on the Steelers distinctive crest are oulined here [note, I usually avoid this site, but this article is pretty comprehensive.  If you want even more on this, go to the Wikipedia entry, 'Pittsburgh Steelers/Logos and unifiorm'.   Below are two Steelers programmes, from 1945,and 1955.  I think it's interesting to note that the earlier one is four-color, and the later one is black and white.   pittsburgh_programmes.gif

Through the 1950's and '60's Steelers were pretty much the worst franchise in the NFL (not counting the expansion teams, like the Saints).  They had won no Titles, and were chronically cash-strapped.  But the "lovable losers" finally began to prevail, through solid scouting, and then the arrival of coach Chuck Noll, in 1969.  Franco Harris' "immaculate reception" in the 1972 playoffs was like an indication that their time had finally come.  Divine intervention.  Those Steelers went on to win 4 NFL Super Bowl Titles in 6 seasons, from 1974 to 1979.  

There is a book written during the period right before those Championship days, that I would like to recommend, called  "About Three Bricks Shy...And The Load Filled Up," by Roy Blount, Jr.  He wrote it while he was a reporter for Sports Illustrated magazine, when he was allowed access to the whole team during pre-season training camp.  It is one of the best books I've read in the whole sports genre: it's hilarious, and it really gives you a feel of the era.  Unfortunately, it is out of print, but that's what Amazon is for.  

Thanks to  UK Black and Gold website (pittsburghsteelers[dot]co[dot]uk), for the photos of the programmes;  (helmethut[dot]com);  (nearmintcards[dot]com).

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