The Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers spent the 1930s and much of the ‘40s side by side on pro football’s skid row. They were two of the league’s most hapless franchises. They merged for one season (as the Steagles in 1943) and as Eagles Hall of Fame tackle Al Wistert said, “All that meant was we had twice as many lousy players.”
But in 1947, the Eagles and Steelers were finally putting things together. They were no longer the laughing stocks of the NFL. The Eagles, with rookie end Pete Pihos joining halfback Steve Van Buren on offense, were one of the league’s highest-scoring teams. The Steelers, the last pro team to employ the single wing formation, began to string together wins under coach Jock Sutherland.
The regular season ended with the Eagles and Steelers tied with identical 8-4 records which forced a playoff. It was the first postseason game for either team with the winner earning a chance to play the Chicago Cardinals for the league title.
In Philadelphia, people took notice and that was significant. In the 1940s, pro football wasn’t a big deal in most of the country and that was true in Philadelphia as well. College football was much bigger - Penn outdrew the Eagles every week - and baseball and boxing dominated the sports pages. Stories about the Eagles usually consisted of a few paragraphs under a one-column headline.
But in 1947 that changed. The Eagles opened the season with a 45-42 win over Washington, the highest-scoring opener in league history. The next week they crushed the New York Giants 23-0 and the Philadelphia fans realized this team was worth watching. It was reflected at the gate with 219,930 fans turning out at Connie Mack Stadium for the seven home games. It was a similar story in Pittsburgh where the surging Steelers became the first team in league history to sell out every home game.
It was ironic that the two franchises, founded by best friends Bert Bell (Eagles) and Art Rooney (Steelers), would find their footing at the same time and wind up standing in each other’s way when they finally reached the postseason. Their playoff game was set for December 21 at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Steelers fans camped outside the team’s offices at the William Penn hotel to buy tickets for the game. Five thousand tickets were put on sale in Philadelphia and they were gone in less than two days.
There was a buzz surrounding this game the likes of which no one had previously seen in either city. As Frank O’Gara wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Everywhere they are talking about this game. Seldom has a professional football game caught the public’s fancy in the same frenzy as this one.”
On Saturday, when the Eagles boarded the train at North Philadelphia station for the ride to Pittsburgh, they were joined by several hundred Eagles fans who were also making the trip. By all accounts it was a wild ride across the state. The Eagles packed sneakers as well as football shoes anticipating a frozen field for the game, but as it turned out the weather was mild and the playing surface - more dirt than grass - was in surprisingly good shape.
The game matched two of football’s best coaches, Greasy Neale of the Eagles and Sutherland of the Steelers. They were hard-driving disciplinarians who insisted on doing things their way. Prior to the 1947 season, Sutherland traded his best player, a future Hall of Fame halfback Bill Dudley, to Detroit because Dudley told the coach he should get with the times and move on from the single wing. Sutherland had always coached the single wing and he wasn’t able to change to suit one player, even one as great as Dudley. When the Steelers had success that season, it seemed to validate Sutherland’s position.
But in the playoff game, Neale proved Dudley’s point. Neale was one of the first coaches to rely heavily on film study to prepare for his opponents and he spent the entire week watching film of the Pittsburgh offense. Less than a month earlier, the Eagles shut out the Steelers, 21-0, but Pittsburgh played that game without tailback Johnny Clement. Earlier in the season, with a healthy Clement, the Steelers beat the Eagles 35-24. Sutherland believed with Clement back in the lineup for the playoff game the offense would be just fine.
Neale, however, had his defense fully prepared and even with Clement on the field, the Eagles stuffed the Pittsburgh single wing. They shut down the run and forced Clement to pass (4-of-16 for 54 yards). The Steelers never crossed midfield until late in the first half and by then they were behind 14-0. Pihos set up one touchdown with a blocked punt and Van Buren scored on a 15-yard pass from quarterback Tommy Thompson.
The Eagles iced the game in the second half when halfback Bosh Pritchard broke a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown. The final score was 21-0 but, in reality, it wasn’t that close. The Eagles dominated the Steelers in all phases of the game, but afterwards the Steelers coach wasn’t willing to admit it.
“I don’t think they’re better than us without Van Buren,” Sutherland said. “He’s just too much ball player for anyone to handle for a whole game.”
It was the first and only time the Eagles and Steelers ever met in the postseason. The Steelers moved to the AFC following the merger which means the next time the Eagles and Steelers meet in the postseason, it will be in the Super Bowl. Wouldn’t that be fun?