The Philadelphia Steelers?: Pennsylvania's Great Football Switch-A-Roo

Derek ReedCorrespondent IApril 6, 2009

Pennsylvania, the Keystone State, birthplace of professional football.

The Eagles and Steelers help forged the winning tradition that drives the state's passion of the game. For over 75 years, countless numbers of fans have enjoyed this timeless fall classic. Even today, people fill Heinz Field and Lincoln Financial up to the max to watch their gridiron warriors represent their city.

In 1943, the teams briefly played as one team due to personnel shortages during WWII. This team was called the "Steagles," they went 5-4-1, then went separate ways back to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia at the conclusion of the season.

Or did they?

Let's start at the beginning.

It was a few years earlier that a billionaire from New York by the name of Alexis Thompson wanted an NFL team of his own. This preppy playboy, emphasis on the word "boy," was a 26-year-old rich kid born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Thompson's father became a multi-billionaire in the steel industry (ironically) and was part of a family with a boatload of money left over from the Great Depression. Alexis Thompson initially offered an unprecedented $160,000 for the Steelers in 1940.

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Lifelong owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers Art Rooney finally had the satisfaction of a winning season in 1942 right before the U.S. Army needed more men to fight. The rug was swept out from under him and his under-manned team was forced to either join with another or forfeit the 1943 season.

Rooney was a keen sports entrepreneur who always knew how to make a buck. He wasn't pleased that the team was losing money every year. With the Thompson dollars floating around in the marketplace, Rooney came up with a plan.

Across the state, Philadelphia Eagles owner Bert Bell had plenty in common with Mr. Rooney. Pennsylvania football just could not win. Now that a world war was raging, the two teams suddenly found that they couldn't field a complete roster.

At the December 1940 NFL annual meeting, the league approved the sale of the Steelers to Alexis Thompson. Art Rooney then took his money and bought half of the Philadelphia Eagles from owner and good friend Bert Bell. Alexis Thompson hired his own head coach, Greasy Neale, and changed the team name to the Pittsburgh Ironmen.

Unbeknown to the league, Lex Thompson had no intention of keeping the team in Pittsburgh after the 1941 season, and Art Rooney had no intention of staying out of Pittsburgh for very long.

The plan was that Thompson would move his team to Boston, while Rooney and Bell would change the Philadelphia Eagles into the Pennsylvania Keystones and play half their games in Philly and half in Pittsburgh.

When George Preston Marshall, owner of the Washington Redskins, caught wind of this, he was livid. He wasn't so concerned with Boston since he moved the Boston Redskins to Washington D.C. four years earlier. What Marshall could not accept was a team claiming the entire state of Pennsylvania.

Marshall was the Al Davis of his time and had a great deal of influence over his peers. It was often easier to give him what he wanted without having to endure his maverick tirades. Since the league only had 10 teams at the time, Marshall needed to get only a handful of owners to thwart the plan, which he did.

So now what? Rooney was out of the Pittsburgh football business and Thompson wanted no part of it. Rooney went back to the drawing board and came up with Plan B; he and Bell offered Thompson the city of Philadelphia for the city of Pittsburgh. They didn't trade franchises, since Thompson want to keep his players and coaches.

They actually traded cities.

Thompson, Greasy Neale, and the Ironmen relocated to Philadelphia, while Bert Bell and the Eagles passed them heading west. In April 1941, the Steelers were reborn. Thompson was pleased with the arrangements so close to his home in New York. Rooney was delighted to have his own team back in Pittsburgh with a big stack of Thompson's money. How's that for being resourceful?

For all his help, Rooney let Bell coach the team. After another horrible start, Bert Bell resigned as head coach after just two games, and he stayed with the team as a partner until he was appointed NFL Commissioner in 1946.

Having to sell his shares, Bell sold 8 percent back to Rooney and sold the remaining 42 percent to Barny McGinley to avoid a conflict of interest. McGinley was a dear friend to the Rooney family and his son, Jack, married the sister of Art Sr., Anne Marie. McGinley dived the 42 percent among his four children, and when two of them died these shares were sold back to the Rooney family, where they remain today.

So there you have it, the story of how the modern Steelers are descendants of a Philadelphia team and how the Eagles were, in a sense, born in Pittsburgh.

It's hard to believe that such a stable franchise was so unstable that, for a two-year stretch, the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't even exist.

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