January 22, 2009
By Patrick Cartwright
In the next two weeks, you will hear the same stories repeated, ad nauseum, until you’ll swear that the members of the National Brotherhood of Sportswriters put 5 stories in a hat, and then had each writer step up and pull one out. That’s the “angle” they get to write about. They are:
- Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm were beat out by Mike Tomlin for the head coaching job.
- The Steelers Defense faces off against the high-flying Cardinals Offense.
- Anquan Boldin is unhappy in his job (join the club, Anquan).
- Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, as former assistant coaches for the Steelers, have super secret inside information on them that will undoubtedly help the Cards win the Super Bowl.
- Larry Fitzgerald is the best receiver in the league. And did you know he played college ball in Pittsburgh?
All fine stories. Really, I have no problem reading about them because they’re based in fact and it’s fun to speculate. My only problem is that by the end of the two-week purgatory that is the wait for the Super Bowl, these stories will not only be stale, they will be growing some sort of green fuzzy mold. Which is nice, because after two weeks of the same articles, you might need the penicillin.
My favorite storyline hasn’t been reported very much….yet. I’m sure a few local scribes will grab a hold of it and run like Polamalu after a Flacco interception. And I’m certain that once ESPN gets wind of the story, there will be a half-hour special about it. I have seen one or two sources make reference to it, but not many. It’s a story that is a great one for this Super Bowl and a fantastic nugget of information in NFL and Pittsburgh Steelers history. The story is that sixty-five years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals once played a season as the same team.
First a little background: The Arizona Cardinals were not always from the land of dust and retirement communities. They started off as the Chicago Cardinals before moving to St. Louis and then eventually Arizona (where they were originally called the Phoenix Cardinals even though they played games in Tempe). One might also be interested to know that despite a historic lack of success, the Cardinals are the oldest NFL franchise still in existence, first forming in 1898, a full 35 years before the Steelers were purchased for $2500.00 from Art Rooney’s horse track winnings.
How the Steelers and Cardinals formed one team is rooted in necessity, and actually started one year before they merged. In 1943, the United States was in the midst of World War II, and the majority of young men drafted were going to war, not the football field. For that reason, the Pittsburgh Steelers, with only six players, and the Philadelphia Eagles, with sixteen, merged for one year to form the “Steagles”, which sounded like a discount furniture store. Despite the unfortunate moniker, the collaboration went relatively well, resulting in a 5-4-1 record, which was only Pittsburgh’s second winning season since the franchise was founded, and Philadelphia’s first.
One year later, Philadelphia had enough players to form their own team without collaboration. The Steelers also had enough to field a team, though just barely. But that wasn’t the main problem. In 1944, a new franchise, the Boston Yanks, joined the NFL*. Also rejoining the league was the Cleveland Rams**, which had suspended operations in 1943 due to lack of players and resources. This left 11 teams in the league, which caused problems in scheduling. NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden requested that the Steelers and Eagles merge again for another season. However, Art Rooney would only do so if it was agreed that half of the team’s games would be played in Pittsburgh, which was not acceptable to the Philadelphia Ownership. The deal fell through.
The Steelers toyed with the idea of merging with the Cleveland Rams, Boston Yanks, and Brooklyn Tigers, but none of them panned out for various reasons. Finally, Pittsburgh agree to merge with the Chicago Cardinals, a team which went winless the previous season. They would split home games between Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and Comiskey Park in Chicago. This solved the NFL’s scheduling problem, and it was hoped that combining the best talent of the two teams would help them win games against the giants of the league like the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. It didn’t work out quite that way.
Steelers’ founder Art Rooney called them “the worst team in NFL history”, and he might have been right. The Card-Pitt team, as they were imaginatively called, set several infamous NFL records. The team did not make a single field goal all season, although they only attempted two of them. They were outscored 328-108. (To put that in perspective, the 2008 Detroit Lions, which is probably considered the worst team in modern football history, averaged 16.75 points per game while giving up 30.37. The ’44 Card-Pitt team scored 10.78 points per game while giving up 32.8, which means they averaged a touchdown less per game on offense, and gave up 2.5 more points per game on defense). The team threw 8 touchdowns to 41 interceptions in 10 games played. And in a stat that will make Mitch Berger somewhat relieved, they averaged 32.7 yards per punt, an NFL record for kicking futility that still stands. It got so bad that the team known as Card-Pitt was routinely referred to as the “Car-Pitts” (carpets), because every other team walked all over them. Not surprisingly, their record at the end of the season was 0-10.
The experiment failed, and each team went their separate way. By the start of the next season, the war was all but over, and each city fielded their own independent team. From there, the Steelers and Cardinals took opposite roads. The Cardinals turned things around almost immediately, winning the NFL Championship in 1947 (over the Eagles), and making it back to the game but losing to the Eagles in 1948. Since then, however, the Cardinals have been a somewhat disappointing franchise, qualifying for the playoffs only four times in 64 years and losing all four games until their run this season. The Steelers continued their mediocrity for the next 28 years, making the playoffs just once until the 1972 season, when a young coach name Chuck Noll turned things around, laying the foundation that eventually led to them being one of the winningest NFL franchises in the last 40 years.
Now, 65 years after the teams merged in order to help keep the NFL alive during the lean years of World War II, they will play on the same field again, as foes, for the NFL Championship. One thing is certain; the days of the “Car-Pitts” are long over. Nobody is walking over these two teams.
*The history of the Boston Yanks and how they eventually, through a long and winding road, became the Dallas Cowboys, is another fantastic NFL story. I’d advise anyone with an interest in NFL history to look up the story of the Yanks and the Brooklyn Tigers/Dodgers, who merged in 1945.
**The first team to abandon Cleveland. They moved to Los Angeles in the 1940′s, then later to St. Louis. Three current NFL Franchises, the Rams, Ravens, and Browns all started in Cleveland.
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