The Pennsylvania Polka refers to a series of moves affecting the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers franchises in the National Football League (NFL) from 1940–1941. The name derives from a popular song composed by Zeke Manners and introduced in 1942 by The Andrews Sisters in their film Give Out, Sisters.
Art Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, sold his team to Alexis Thompson on December 10, 1940, and subsequently bought a 50% stake in the Philadelphia Eagles franchise from owner Bert Bell. At the time of the deals, a mini-draft took place between the two teams, using a pool of players from both rosters. This resulted in the Eagles acquiring seven players formerly of the Steelers, and the Steelers obtaining eleven players formerly of the Eagles. The 1941 NFL Draft was also held during this time.
Rooney later had second thoughts on the transactions, and made an agreement to swap cities with new Steelers owner Thompson on April 3, 1941. This resulted in the Philadelphia Eagles moving their team to Pittsburgh and becoming the new Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Pittsburgh Steelers moving their team to Philadelphia and becoming the new Philadelphia Eagles. Since NFL franchises at the time were territorial rights distinct from individual corporate entities, the Eagles and Steelers are each officially acknowledged by the NFL as single unbroken entities since 1933, especially since all of these events took place during the offseason. However, the players on the Eagles were basically traded to the Steelers in exchange for their players (with the exception of players who changed teams during the mini-draft, in which case those players "stayed" on the same teams). All players drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1941 NFL Draft therefore had their rights held by the Pittsburgh Steelers after the final swap, and vice versa.
Wray coached the Eagles in their first three years from 1933–1935, with no winning seasons, compiling a 9–21–1 record. In that time period, the partners exhausted $85,000 (presently, $1,499,017), and at a public auction in 1936, Bell became sole owner of the Eagles with a bid of $4,500 (presently, $79,360). Austerity measures forced him to supplant Wray as head coach of the Eagles, but Bell also did not produce a winning season, finishing the 1940 season with a 1–10 record and a 10–44–2 overall career coaching record.
By 1940, the Steelers were on their fifth head coach in eight years. Like the Eagles, the Steelers had not posted a winning record in their franchise's history. Walt Kiesling entered his second season as head coach of the Steelers in 1940. The team started the season at 1–0–2 before falling at home by a score of 10–3 to a Brooklyn Dodgers squad coached by local hero Jock Sutherland. He had assumed the head job for the Dodgers that year after spurning a similar offer from Pittsburgh the previous season. The loss to the Dodgers began a six-game losing streak, before the team traded wins with the Eagles to cap a 2–7–2 season in which they scored a total of just 60 points. Over eight years, the team had compiled a record of 24–62–5 and had lost around $100,000 ($1.7 million today). Rooney was also concerned about the availability of players in the coming seasons due to the ongoing war in Europe and the specter of a military draft.
After turning down several earlier offers to relocate or sell the team, in December 1940, Rooney sold the Steelers to Alexis Thompson. Thompson was a 26-year-old, Yale-educated heir to a steel fortune and an entrepreneur living in New York. He had aggressively pursued Rooney to sell the franchise for several months prior to the transaction. The purchase price was reported to be $160,000 ($2.8 million today). This price was less than the $225,000 ($3.9 million today) the Detroit Lions had previously sold for, but the Lions had won an NFL championship. The transaction was completed and announced on the same day that the Chicago Bears pummeled the Washington Redskins by a score of 73–0 in the most lopsided NFL championship game of all time.
Rooney immediately took half of the windfall and invested it in a 50% interest in the Philadelphia Eagles franchise, which was owned by his friend, Bell. It was Bell who had conducted all of the negotiations with Thompson leading up to the sale of the Steelers. Thompson had earlier offered to purchase Bell's franchise. Ostensibly, Rooney had provided assistance to Bell by rewarding him with a 20% commission on the sale of the Steelers. Bell stayed on as the Eagles head coach and Rooney became the general manager.
In an unusual twist Rooney, Bell, and Thompson pooled the rosters of the two squads and conducted essentially a mini-draft to distribute the talent. The 51 players which were signed to the Steelers and Eagles at the end of the 1940 season were shuffled between the two teams. In this transaction, the Rooney/Bell team added eleven players from the 1940 Steelers: ends George Platukis, Walt Kichefski and John Klumb; tackles Clark Goff and Ted Doyle; guards Carl Nery and Jack Sanders; and backs Boyd Brumbaugh, John Noppenberg, George Kiick and Rocco Pirro. In exchange, Thompson's team gained seven players: ends Joe Carter and Herschel Ramsey, tackles Phil Ragazzo and Clem Woltman, guard Ted Schmitt, and backs Joe Bukant and Foster Watkins, all of whom had played for Bell's 1940 Eagles the prior year.
Thompson hired Greasy Neale, whom Rooney had pursued to coach the Pirates in 1933, to conduct this player swap as well as to assist him with the draft which took place the day after the deal with Rooney was finalized. Once he was released from his contract with Yale, Neale became head coach of Thompson's team to replace Kiesling. In January 1941, Thompson renamed his new squad the Iron Men.
Despite the fact he now was half-owner of a team in based Philadelphia, Rooney had no intention of leaving Pittsburgh. It was thought that Thompson preferred to move his new team to be nearer his New York home, perhaps to Boston, which had been without an NFL team since the Redskins relocated to Washington in 1937. If Thompson had moved the team away from Pittsburgh, Rooney and Bell hatched a plan that would have seen their team split its home games between the two Pennsylvania cities. However, the other league owners blocked both moves.
By early 1941, Rooney was beginning to regret his decision to sell the Pittsburgh team. When he saw that Thompson had not yet established a local office for his team, as he had announced he would do by March 1, Rooney made an offer. He and Bell would trade territories with Thompson. This would put Thompson in Philadelphia, which was much closer to his New York base. It would also ensure that Rooney's team would stay in his hometown. On April 3, 1941, Thompson accepted the deal and Rooney and Bell's Eagles went to Pittsburgh, where they became the Pittsburgh Steelers, while Thompson's Iron Men moved to Philadelphia, where they took on the Philadelphia Eagles moniker. This was described at the time as "one of the most unusual swaps in sports history". In fact, though the Pittsburgh team played as the Steelers, they operated under the name the "Philadelphia Eagles Football Club, Inc." until 1945.
Because the entire strange turn of events all took place during the offseason and the Eagles and Steelers never actually missed games in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, respectively, the NFL considers each franchise as single unbroken entities since 1933. The transaction, which amounted in the end to Bell selling the Eagles and purchasing half-interest in the Steelers, as well as trading more than half of each team's rosters to each other, has been termed the "Pennsylvania Polka".
Both teams continued to struggle in 1941, with the Eagles going 2-8-1 and the Steelers going 1-9-1. However, the Steelers posted their first winning record in 1942 (7-4), while the Eagles finished 2-9. In 1943, when manpower shortages stemming from World War II made it impossible to fill the roster, the two teams temporarily merged to form a team popularly known as the "Steagles." The merger, never intended as a permanent arrangement, was dissolved at the end of the 1943 season. The Steagles posted a 5-4-1 record, giving the Eagles their first winning record as a franchise and continuing the Steelers' streak. The Steelers had to combine with the Chicago Cardinals in 1944 to form "Card-Pitt"; the merged team lost all ten of their games that season. The Eagles went to three NFL Championship games under Neale, losing in 1947, and winning in 1948 and 1949. The Steelers did not win their first league title until Super Bowl IX in 1974.
After the 1949 season, Thompson sold the Eagles to a syndicate of 100 buyers, known as the "Happy Hundred", each of whom paid a fee of $3,000 for their share of the team. The Rooney family has remained the owners of the Steelers since its founding in 1933, with Art's son, Dan, taking over the team following his death in 1988.
|Name||Pos.||1940 Team||Post-Move Team||Acquired through|
|Bert Bell||HC||Eagles||Steelers[a]||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|Walt Kiesling||HC||Steelers||Steelers[a]||Re-hired by Rooney|
|Greasy Neale||HC||Yale[b]||Eagles||Hired by Thompson|
|Dick Bassi||G||Eagles||Steelers||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|Chuck Cherundolo||C||Eagles||Steelers||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|Frank Emmons||FB||Eagles||Steelers||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|Elmer Hackney||FB||Eagles||Steelers||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|Maurice Harper||C||Eagles||Steelers||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|Billy Hughes||G||Eagles||Bears||Free agent|
|Elmer Kolberg||HB||Eagles||Steelers||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|Don Looney||E||Eagles||Steelers||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|Fran Murray||HB / P||Eagles||Steelers||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|Chuck Newton||FB||Eagles||Steelers||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|Elbie Schultz||T||Eagles||Steelers||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|George Somers||T / K||Eagles||Steelers||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|Russ Thompson||T||Eagles||Steelers||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|Joe Wendlick||E||Eagles||Steelers||Team move to Pittsburgh|
|Sam Boyd||E / KR||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|Hank Bruder||BB||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|Frank Bykowski||G||Steelers||Chiefs||Free agent|
|Don Campbell||T||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|Merl Condit||HB||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|Ted Grabinski||C||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|Swede Johnston||B||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|Joe Maras||C||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|Coley McDonough||B||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia[c]|
|Armand Niccolai||T / K||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia[c]|
|Billy Patterson||B / P||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|Stan Pavkov||G||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|John Perko||G||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|Bill Sortet||E||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|Frank Sullivan||C||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|Tommy Thompson||QB||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|Lou Tomasetti||HB||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia|
|John Woudenberg||T||Steelers||Eagles||Team move to Philadelphia[c]|
- a Bell was the Steelers' head coach for the first two games of the 1941 season before Rooney told him to resign. Aldo Donelli, the football coach at Duquesne University coached the remainder of the season. Because he was still coaching at Duquesne, Kiesling filled in as Steelers coach when there were scheduling conflicts.
- b Neale was the backs coach at Yale from 1934–1940.
- c McDonough, Niccolai, and Woudenberg were later traded back to the Steelers for the 1941 season.
- MacCambridge 2005: 43; cf. Lyons: 63
- MacCambridge 2005: 43; cf. Claassen: 335, Lyons: 63
- Lyons: 63; cf. Claassen: 342
- "Dodgers 10, Steelers 3". Meriden (CT) Record. September 30, 1940. p. 4. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
- Rooney, Jr. & McHugh (2008), p. 49.
- "Thompson to Keep Pros Here; Say Sale Price is $160,000". Pittsburgh Press. December 10, 1940. p. 30. Retrieved May 18, 2011.
- "Boston Seeks Transfer of Pro Steelers to Hub". Pittsburgh Press. March 10, 1940. p. 14 (second section). Retrieved May 18, 2011.
- "Rooney Sells Pro Football Club to Boston Promoter". Pittsburgh Press. December 9, 1940. p. 26. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
- "Yale '36, Age 6, Bucks "6", Describes Steelers' Owner". Pittsburgh Press. December 11, 1940. p. 16. Retrieved May 18, 2011.
- Lyons, Robert S. (2010). On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell. Temple University Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-1-59213-731-2.
- "Plenty of Reskins 'Bit the Dust' — and How!". Pittsburgh Press. December 9, 1940. p. 26. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
- "Rooney Tells How Big Deal Was Arranged". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. December 10, 1940. p. 18. Retrieved May 18, 2011.
- Ruck; Patterson and Weber: 303; cf. MacCambridge 2005: 45
- Ruck; with Patterson and Weber: 187; cf. Lyons: 88, MacCambridge 2005: 45
- "Rooney Sells Steelers; Club Stays Here". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. December 10, 1940. p. 18. Retrieved May 18, 2011.
- "How Players Are Divided in Grid Deal". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. December 10, 1940. p. 18. Retrieved May 18, 2011.
- "1940s put Steelers to tests that nearly break them". Post-Gazette. September 16, 2007. Retrieved May 23, 2011.
- "Thompson Pledges to Rebuild Steelers". Pittsburgh Press. December 19, 1940. p. 34. Retrieved May 18, 2011.
- "Iron Men New Name of Steelers". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. January 17, 1941. p. 19. Retrieved May 18, 2011.
- "Rooney, Thompson Swap Franchises, Transplant Players". Pittsburgh Press. April 3, 1941. p. 28. Retrieved May 18, 2011.
- "Rooney's Team Shifts Back Here; Thompson Will Take Pittsburgh Pros to Philly in Big Deal". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 3, 1941. p. 18. Retrieved May 18, 2011.
- Dvorchak, Robert (August 27, 2007). "Blood Brothers: The 1943 Steagles became an unlikely product of the war years". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved May 18, 2011.
- Shuck, Barry (November 5, 2016). "History lesson: When the Eagles became the Steelers". SB Nation: Big Blue View. Vox Media, Inc. Retrieved 2016-11-06.
- Braunwart, Bob; Carroll, Bob; Horrigan, Joe (1982). "Pennsylvania Polka" (PDF). The Coffin Corner. Professional Football Researchers Association. 4 (10): 1–4. Retrieved February 4, 2017.
- Didinger, Ray; Robert S. Lyons (2005). The Eagles Encyclopedia. Temple University Press. pp. 127–128. ISBN 1-59213-449-1.
- Claassen, Harold (Spike) (1963). The History of Professional Football. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
- Lyons, Robert S. (2010). On Any Given Sunday, A Life of Bert Bell. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 978-1-59213-731-2
- MacCambridge, Michael (2005). America's Game. New York: Anchor Books. ISBN 978-0-307-48143-6
- Rooney, Dan; with Halaas, David F. and Masich, Andrew E. (2007). My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-7867-2603-5
- Ruck, Rob; with Patterson, Maggie Jones and Weber, Michael P. (2010). Rooney: A Sporting Life. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-2283-0