Sunday, February 2, 2014

Football during the Second World War

The Second World War disrupted many parts of society, including the world of football, and in this case American football. The war impacted the NFL quite severely, and following the attack on Pearl Harbor it was even suggested that the NFL should shut down to support the war effort. The NFL did not shut down, but many players had their careers delayed due to the hostilities. Many NFL players served in World War Two, and 21 active or former players were killed during the war.

1944 flyer for exposition game in newly liberated Holland. 

Although NFL players were deferred from the draft there was a drought of players, and a result of this was the combining of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles into the “Phil-Pitt Combine” for the 1943 season. The official term obviously didn’t roll off the tongue very well, so the team was simply known as the Steagles. The players of the Steagles and other NFL teams were either unfit for military service or active servicemen who had obtained leave to play football, and being able to play football yet not serving in the Armed Forces was considered somewhat of an embarrassment. Future Hall of Fame inductee and Steagle Bill Hewitt could not take the ridicule of being on a sports field instead of a battlefield, and he quit in the middle of the 1943 season. It should be pointed out that the US military definition of “4-F” as in unfit for military service, included lack of hearing, flat feet and other conditions that didn’t affect performance on the gridiron. Steagles guard Ed Michaels was nearly deaf while Tony Bova, the Steagles’ leading receiver, was blind on one eye and partially blind in the other. How he managed to locate the football remains unknown.

The Steagles' 1943 lineup.

The 1943 season became the first winning season for Philadelphia the second for Pittsburgh and the 1944 season saw the full return of the NFL since the Armed Forces stated that there were enough available men over the age of 26. However, with all teams up to strength and the expansion of the Boston Yanks, it turned out that there were eleven teams in the NFL, which obviously created some scheduling problems. Pittsburg was merged with the Chicago Cardinals despite the unhappy arrangements of the Steagles, and  “Card-Pitt” was formed. The winless team was less than affectionately known as “Carpet” following commentary that "every team walked all over them". The war had ended when the 1945 season started and with the permanent merger of the Brooklyn Tigers and the Boston Yanks the NFL had an even number of teams.