Tracing the history of the National Football League during World War II, this book delves into the severe player shortage during the war which led to the merging of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles, creating the “Steagles.” The team’s center was deaf in one ear, its wide receiver was blind in one eye (and partially blind in the other), and its halfback had bleeding ulcers. One player was so old he’d never before played football with a helmet. Yet somehow, this group of players—deemed unfit for military service due to age or physical ailment—posted a winning record in the league, to the surprise of players and fans alike. Digging into the history of the war paralleled by the unlikely story of the Steagles franchise, both sports fans and history buffs will learn about the cultural significance of this motley crew of ball players during a trying time in United States history.
|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
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Last Team Standing
How the Steelers and the Eagles â" "The Steagles" â" Saved Pro Football During World War II
By Matthew Algeo
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2006 Matthew Algeo
All rights reserved.
A Bad Break
Al Wistert never even wanted to carry the ball. He was a tackle, for crying out loud. Halfbacks carry the ball. Fullbacks. Even quarterbacks sometimes. But not tackles. Tackles hunker down on the line of scrimmage. On offense, they make blocks. They give the quarterback time to pass. They clear a path for the real ball carriers. If a tackle touches the ball, something's gone horribly wrong: there's been a fumble. But Wistert's coach at the University of Michigan, the innovative and mercurial Herbert "Fritz" Crisler, thought, since nobody ever expects a tackle to run with the ball, why not have him run with the ball? It was the kind of contrarian brainstorm that Crisler loved. Wistert had his doubts, though. He'd never carried the ball in a real game. Ever. But who was he to question the legendary Coach Crisler?
So here he was now, lining up in his usual spot at left tackle, down in a three-point stance. It was October 18, 1941, a golden Saturday afternoon, and Michigan was in hostile territory, playing Northwestern at Dyche Stadium in Evanston, Illinois. It was a big game. Both teams were undefeated. The loser would be all but eliminated from the Big Ten Conference race. It was also the Wildcats' homecoming game and the stands were filled with 47,000 screaming fans. Wistert could barely hear halfback Tom Kuzma shout, "Hut!" Center Don Ingalls snapped the ball back to Kuzma.
Next thing he knew, Wistert was in the backfield, running toward Kuzma's outstretched hand. Kuzma stuck the ball in his gut. Wistert wrapped his arms completely around it, almost hiding it — just as Crisler had told him to do. He put his head down and started running for his life. Northwestern tackle Alf Bauman saw him coming, but Bauman thought Wistert was going to block him. He stepped aside, not realizing Wistert was carrying the ball. Holy cow, Wistert thought, Coach Crisler was right! Another 40 yards or so and he'd score a touchdown. For an instant he imagined the sensation, crossing the goal line, casually placing the ball on the ground, being swarmed by gleeful teammates. He charged downfield toward the goalposts, a giant H rising tantalizingly from the back of the end zone.
Born to Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago on December 28, 1920, Wistert was the youngest of six children. His father, Kazimer Vistartius, was a mounted policeman in Chicago, and when Al was just five, Kazimer was shot while chasing a man suspected of holding up a taxicab. The bullet entered Kazimer's neck and lodged in his hip, and he died 11 months later. The killer was never caught.
"He was a great role model," Al said of his father. "He exercised every day. He never drank. He never smoked. And he was just a tremendous human being." One of Al's earliest memories is of hanging onto his father's belt while he did chin -ups.
When he was 13, Al saw his first professional football game. His oldest brother, Whitey, took him to see the Bears play the Giants at Wrigley Field. (Back then, pro football teams typically played in baseball parks.) It made quite an impression.
"As I'm sitting there watching that game, I'm dreaming that, hey, maybe someday I could play pro football. That's when I started dreaming about it." But his mother wouldn't let him play football in high school.
"Mother was a widow and she said, 'What if you get hurt? I can't pay any doctor bills!' So she said that she preferred that we didn't play."
Wistert finally got his chance to play at Michigan.
Whitey had been an all-American tackle for the Wolverines in the early 1930s, so Al figured he'd play tackle at Michigan too. He even wore his brother's old number 11. (At the time, the NCAA wasn't picky about uniform numbers. Today, linemen usually must wear a number between 50 and 79.) But Al didn't have his brother's all-American aptitude — at least not at first.
"I must confess I never thought he'd make a football player," Fritz Crisler recalled. "When I first saw him Al was clumsy and didn't seem to have enough speed."
But he was big (six-two, 210 pounds), he was a quick study, he was tough, and he worked hard. He learned how to block and tackle. He learned how to cover punts and kickoffs. He became a starter his sophomore year, and he usually played all 60 minutes every game. He loved football, the contact, the "survival-of-the -fittest aspect," as he put it. For his bruising style his teammates nicknamed him "The Ox."
Michigan went 7-1 in Wistert's first year as a starter, losing only to eventual Big Ten champion Minnesota, 7-6. In his junior year, Wistert hoped to avenge that loss. But first the Wolverines had to beat Northwestern.
At the instant Wistert entertained visions of touchdown glory, Northwestern figured out what the hell was going on: The tackle had the ball! Before he knew it, a pack of purple-and-white-shirted defenders were breathing down Wistert's neck. He gained about seven yards before a half-dozen Wildcats jumped on his back.
"Down I went," Wistert remembered. "And I wanted to make sure I didn't fumble the ball, so I had both hands on the ball. And pretty soon I was diggin' a trough with my nose. And my left wrist somehow got caught underneath all that. And I broke the wrist. Broke the wrist and my nose." It was the last time Al Wistert ever carried the ball in a football game.
Michigan ended up beating Northwestern 14-7 but lost to Minnesota a week later, 7-0. Despite the injuries he'd sustained in his ill-fated rushing attempt, Wistert didn't miss a game in 1941. After the season ended, he was selected to play in the East-West Shrine Game, one of college football's all-star games, on January 3, 1942, in San Francisco. It was a memorable trip for Wistert: The day after the game, he married Marguerite Eleanor "Ellie" Koenig, his childhood sweetheart.
A few weeks later, Wistert had an operation on his injured wrist. His doctors had told him that the bones weren't fusing properly: they were misaligned, so surgery was necessary. But Wistert still played football the following fall, wearing a specially designed brace to protect his wrist. In 1942, his senior year, the Wolverines went 7-3 and Wistert's teammates voted him Michigan's most valuable player. He was also named an all -American — just like his brother Whitey.
But the spring of 1943 was a tumultuous time in Wistert's life. His injured wrist still hadn't healed and he had to have another operation. He graduated from Michigan and took a job at Ford's massive Willow Run plant near Ann Arbor, where 40,000 workers were turning out eight B-24 bombers each day. He and Ellie were expecting their first child. And he was drafted twice: once by the Philadelphia Eagles, and once by Uncle Sam.
Getting drafted by the Eagles was probably worse, Wistert remembered with a laugh.
"When I got the letter, I wondered who the Eagles were. That's how famous they were! They hadn't had a winning season yet — and they started in 1933! So they'd gone through ten years of football and never had a winning team."
In any event, the war took precedence. Wistert knew he'd be in a uniform come fall — and it wouldn't come with shoulder pads.
In June, Wistert learned he'd been selected by the nation's sportswriters to play in the Chicago Tribune's college all -star game later that summer. The game annually pitted the country's best recent graduates against the reigning NFL champions. It was the brainchild of Chicago sports entrepreneur and Tribune sports editor Arch Ward, who also launched major league baseball's all-star game. In the first Tribune all-star game, in 1934, the college players had held the Chicago Bears to a scoreless draw. The collegians won two of the next four games in the series, but by 1943 the professionals had clearly established their supremacy, winning four in a row. (In time the defending NFL champs would come to dominate the series so thoroughly that fan interest evaporated, and the series was canceled after the 1976 game. The pros ended up winning 31 games in the series and losing just nine.)
The 1943 game would pit the collegians against passer extraordinaire Sammy Baugh and his Washington Redskins, who'd beaten the Bears 14-6 to win the NFL title the previous December. The game, usually played in Chicago's mammoth Soldier Field, was moved 16 miles north in 1943, to relatively cozy Dyche Stadium — the site of Wistert's disastrous rushing attempt. The Office of Defense Transportation had ordered the game be relocated to the smaller stadium to reduce attendance, thereby reducing fuel consumption and, more importantly, wear and tear on tires, a major concern now that Japan controlled most of the world's rubber plantations.
When practices for the all-star game began in early August, Wistert and Ellie moved into a tiny apartment above a garage in Chicago. A few days before the game, Ralph Brizzolara, the general manager of the Chicago Bears, stopped by out of the blue and asked Wistert if he'd like to play for the Bears in the fall. Wistert was interested but reminded Brizzolara that the Eagles had drafted him and still held his signing rights. Brizzolara said he'd work on that. In the meantime, he offered Wistert $3,000 to play for the Bears.
"And then you'd have the championship money," Brizzolara added, "since we're almost always in the championship game. So you'd go home with a nice tidy sum of money in your pocket."
Wistert said he'd think about it.
The next night, Harry Thayer, the Eagles' general manager, dropped in on the Wisterts. Thayer also offered a $3,000 contract — without any mention of championship bonuses.
"Three thousand dollars?" Wistert said in mock indignation. "That's peanuts! I wouldn't consider playing for that."
"How much money do you want?"
"Forty-five hundred dollars."
Thayer laughed. "Wistert, let me tell you something. You're a tackle, not a halfback. We pay our best backfield men in this league that kind of money — not tackles."
But Wistert wouldn't budge. Thayer told him he'd run the offer by Greasy Neale, the Eagles' head coach, and get back to him.
Thayer telephoned Coach Neale later that night. Neale took the call in his suite at the Hotel Philadelphian, where he was playing cards with several of his players. Training camp was almost under way and Neale was eager to get Wistert signed. He asked Thayer how much money Wistert wanted.
"Forty-five hundred dollars," Thayer said.
"Forty-five hundred!" repeated Neale, incredulous. He let out a long whistle.
"Well just get him in here," he instructed Thayer. "Get him signed and get him in here."
The players around the card table exchanged knowing glances. Forty-five hundred dollars would make Wistert the highest-paid player on the team. He was a rookie. Not only that: He was a tackle. Who did he think he was?
Wistert ended up signing with the Eagles for $3,800, though his teammates were under the impression he was getting $4,500.
In reality, the negotiations were probably pointless. As the Bears and the Eagles knew, Wistert was scheduled to report to his draft board in Chicago for his physical examination shortly after the all-star game.
The Tribune all-star game took place on the night of Wednesday, August 25. The attendance was 48,000, about half of what it would have been at Soldier Field, but there was no reduction in fanfare. War or no war, Tribune sports editor Arch Ward always pulled out all the stops. The pregame ceremonies featured a military drill team, marching bands, and a "pageant" of WACS, WAVES, and SPARS (the last being the Coast Guard's female reserve). At 8:30 p.m., the stadium lights were extinguished and each player was introduced under the dramatic glare of a single spotlight. Wistert, the all-star team's co-captain, got a special introduction.
The collegians not only upset the NFL champions, they buried them, 27-7. Sammy Baugh threw for 273 yards, but the all-stars completely shut down the Redskins' running game. The Tribune heaped praise on Wistert, "whose mighty line play had a lot to do with bottling up the Redskins' attack."
Wistert's play particularly impressed Tony Hinkle, one of the all-star team's assistant coaches. In peacetime Hinkle was the head football (and basketball and baseball) coach at Butler University in Indianapolis. For the time being, though, he was in the Navy, coaching the football team at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago. Great Lakes was one of the country's most powerful service teams, with a schedule that included college titans like Michigan and Notre Dame. It was an all-star team in its own right, its roster dotted with all-Americans and NFL veterans, ostensibly sent to the base for naval training. Hinkle knew Wistert was due to be inducted and asked him if he wanted to play for Great Lakes. Wistert thought it sounded like a good idea, especially since his contract with the Eagles would be nullified if Uncle Sam did indeed come calling.
About a week after the all-star game, Wistert reported to a building in Chicago's Loop for his physical.
"I zoomed through it," Wistert remembered. "They hardly looked at me." But after the exam, Wistert was asked several questions about his medical history. One of them was: Have you ever had surgery?
"I told them about an appendectomy and the wrist being operated on. And they wanted to take some more x-rays of the wrist. And pretty soon they had half-a-dozen different doctors come in and look at those x-rays and everything and discuss whether they were gonna take me in the service or not."
The doctors told Wistert that his draft board would be in touch with him shortly.
While he waited, Wistert and Ellie packed up and moved again, this time to Philadelphia. On Sunday, September 5, 1943, Wistert reported to his first NFL training camp.
"I was there for a day or two before somebody told me that some of these guys are from Pittsburgh."
Wistert was floored. He had no idea that the Eagles and the Steelers had merged.
"I had heard nothing about it and I didn't know that we were combined with the Pittsburgh Steelers at all — this was something that was unknown to me."
Al Wistert had just found out that he was a Steagle.
* * *
Nearly three years earlier, on October 29, 1940, on a stage in a crowded auditorium in Washington, Secretary of War Henry Stimson was blindfolded with a piece of cloth taken from a chair in Independence Hall. On a simple wooden table in front of Stimson sat an enormous glass bowl filled with 9,000 inch-long, cobalt-blue capsules. Inside each capsule was a tiny piece of paper with a number from one to 9,000 written on it. Stimson sunk his hand into the bowl, slowly withdrew a single capsule, and handed it to President Franklin Roosevelt.
The president, standing behind a large podium, broke open the capsule and removed the piece of paper. He leaned into the forest of microphones carrying the ceremony into anxious living rooms across the country and solemnly intoned, "1-5-8."
America's first peacetime draft was under way.
The historian George Q. Flynn writes, "The idea that all able -bodied men owe an obligation of military defense can be traced to the dark caves of prehistory." But it wasn't until the French Revolution that conscription was formally codified, the French National Assembly declaring, "Every citizen must be a soldier and every soldier a citizen or we shall never have a constitution." After Napoléon I employed draftees to great effect, Britain and Germany adopted conscription as well.
The United States, though, had always viewed conscription with suspicion. Not until the Civil War did Congress authorize a nationwide draft, compelling males aged 20 to 45 to serve in the Union Army. The results were less than spectacular. The law permitted draftees to pay for substitutes, enabling the wealthy simply to buy their way out of service. The draft was so unpopular that in 1863 it triggered riots in New York City that claimed at least 20 lives. (The Confederacy implemented a national draft that was nearly as unpopular, if only because it utterly disregarded the principle of states' rights.) A draft put in place for World War I lasted less than two years and was abolished immediately after the armistice.
But with another global conflict looming, Franklin Roosevelt urged a return to compulsory military service. Not only was the army too small — it comprised fewer than 188,000 soldiers when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 — it was also woefully out of shape. After reviewing troops at Ogdensburg, New York, in August 1940, Roosevelt confided to a friend, "The men themselves were soft — fifteen miles a day was about all they could stand and many dropped out. Anybody who knows anything about the German methods of warfare would know that the army would have been licked by thoroughly trained and organized forces of a similar size within a day or two." As envisaged by Roosevelt, a draft would not only make the army bigger; by instituting stringent physical requirements for draftees, it would also make it healthier.
Excerpted from Last Team Standing by Matthew Algeo. Copyright © 2006 Matthew Algeo. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
ContentsRoster: 1943 Phil-Pitt Steagles,
One: A Bad Break,
Three: New Priorities,
Four: Making Changes,
Five: Hatching the Steagles,
Six: Greasy and Walt,
Seven: Unfit for Military Service,
Eight: Birds of Steel,
Thirteen: Win and In,
Epilogue: V-J Day,