Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about football and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the football urban legends featured so far.
FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: In 1941, the owners of the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers actually traded franchises.
There quite possibly is not a single sports franchise in the United States more associated with a single family than the Pittsburgh Steelers are with the Rooney family. However, for a short bizarre period in the history of the franchise, Rooney actually sold off the team!
And the results of that sale led to a strange time in Pennsylvania pro football history!
When Art Rooney Sr. purchased the team in 1933 (then called the Pittsburgh Pirates, in honor of the city’s popular baseball team), he thought (along with most sports observers) that the people of Pittsburgh would be enamored by their new professional football franchise, but that was not the case at first. So after a number of poor seasons by the team both on the field (they never finished higher than .500 during the 1930s) and in the stands (attendance was poor), Rooney decided to cash out on his investment. You have to also realize that it was not like Rooney was independently wealthy – he was not. A great deal (heck, the vast majority) of the financing for the Pirates during the 1930s was supplied by Rooney’s gambling winnings! In 1936, Rooney won well over $100,000 betting on the races at the Saratoga Race Course, and those winnings were put right back into his team, including spending a then-absurdly high $15,000 in 1938 to sign Byron White to a professional football contract (yes, the same Byron White who would later become a Supreme Court Justice). In 1939, Rooney turned a profit, but just barely (a few thousand dollars) and with World War II looming ahead, he was understandably worried about his ability to keep the franchise afloat.
So when he was offered over $160,000 for the Pittsburgh franchise in 1940 by Alexis Thompson, a young man (either in his very late 20s or very early 30s) who had inherited a large fortune from his family, Rooney decided to take the money.
Rooney used the money to purchase at least half of the ownership of the Philadelphia Eagles, then owned by Bert Bell, a close friend of Rooney’s.
When Thompson purchased the Pirates, his intent was to move the team to Boston, which was the closet major city to his home of New York City that did not already have a National Football League franchise (New York had two football franchises at the time). Rooney was aware of this when he sold the team, figuring that once the Pirates were gone, the Eagles would then split their home games between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
However, Thompson was stymied by the rest of the National Football League in his attempts to move the team (the League had already seen two Boston franchises come and go during the 1930s, so they felt that Boston just could not support a franchise), and meanwhile, Rooney was regretting losing his hometown team (Rooney was born and raised in Pittsburgh) and the fact that his departure meant that Pittsburgh likely WOULD lose their franchise. So in a rare example of people actually getting a “do over” in real life, the two ownership groups approached each other about essentially “trading” their franchises – Thompson would bring his entire organization (players and all) over to Philadelphia, and therefore be closer to New York than he was in Pittsburgh (heck, had he known Bell was willing to sell, he likely would have bought the Eagles from Bell to begin with) and Rooney and Bell would take their entire organization over to Pittsburgh. The deal was agreed upon, and after just one season away, Rooney was back in Pittsburgh to stay.
Amusingly enough, when he purchased his stake in the Eagles, Rooney and Bell organized their corporation as the “Philadelphia Football Club, Inc.” so ever after the trade, their corporate name remained under that name while in Pittsburgh for a few years until they finally changed it in 1945.
In their first season back in Pittsburgh, Rooney and Bell renamed the team the Steelers, and in their second year back, the Steelers ended the 1942 season 7-4, the first winning season in franchise history!
The familiarity between the two franchises came into play the following season, when the Eagles and the Steelers actually MERGED their franchises together for a season (a bizarre story I detailed here).
In 1946, Bell sold off his shares in the Eagles when he became Commissioner of the NFL. Rooney convinced his brother-in-law to buy Bell’s shares, and ever since that day, the Rooney family has had a controlling interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers. Interestingly enough, over the years, Rooney had plenty of opportunities to sell the team (especially when the team languished during the 1950s), but he always remembered that first sale and made sure to keep the Steelers in Pittsburgh, where they eventually became the cultural institution that Rooney expected them to become all the way back in 1933, with the record for the most Super Bowl victories in NFL history – and the Rooney family has been around for all of that history.
The legend is…
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