What I've been reading
I've mentioned before how keen I've become recently on the early (pre-1960) days of the NFL (and football in general), and this is the second book I've read recently about that time (here's the other one). This is also the second one I've read in which the author claims that his topic "saved" pro football. Fleming has a stronger case. In fact, I'm not sure if Algeo even has a case.
That doesn't mean this isn't a fascinating book. This is a rather nice social history of America during World War II, with some football thrown in to make it a "sports" book. The social aspects of the book, especially when compared to the state of our society today, is what makes the book compelling. The football parts of exciting, but somewhat anticlimactic. It's interesting how Algeo tries to make them more exciting than they are. But that's okay.
The book is about the "Steagles," as the title indicates. In 1943, the National Football League was in trouble. In those early days, franchises folded with stunning regularity, and scheduling games was extremely messy. A decade earlier, the NFL had finally gotten around to having a championship game, but there was still a perception that pro football was bush league. This was emphasized when World War II broke out. President Roosevelt sent a "Green Light Letter" to Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the baseball commissioner (Algeo calls him "rigid and humorless," which is probably the nicest description anyone can use for Landis), imploring him to keep baseball open through the duration of the war. Roosevelt, who was a football fan, didn't mention pro football or send a letter to Elmer Layden, the NFL commissioner. Pro football just didn't matter. But Layden and the owners assumed that Roosevelt's stamp of approval for baseball meant that football should continue, as well. What they didn't count on was that by 1943, the second war season, they would run out of players. Yes, something that we can barely imagine was threatening to shut down the National Football League. The Eagles were in a better position than the Steelers, who had six players under contract, but neither team was in a good position. Add that to the fact that both teams were pretty awful, and there was a good chance one or neither would play football in 1943. But the owners (Bert Bell, who had owned the Eagles, was at that point the co-owner of the Steelers, a complicated situation Algeo goes over quite well) came up with a solution: merge the team. The team would play two games in Pittsburgh and four games in Philadelphia, and they would be coached by two men: Earle "Greasy" Neale and Walt Kiesling, who had coached the Eagles and Steelers, respectively, the year before.
If this situation sounds untenable, well, it almost was. Neale and Kiesling hated each other, while Lex Thompson, the Eagles' owner, would only allow the team to be called the "Eagles." The team wore Philadelphia colors, and all of this naturally led the Pittsburgh contingent to feel like they were second-class citizens. However, somehow the team came together and finished with a winning record of 5-4-1 - the first winning record in Philadelphia history and only the second in Pittsburgh. Until the very end of the season, they were in contention to play in the Championship Game. On 7 November 1943 they tied the Washington Redskins, led by Sammy Baugh, ending Washington's 13-game winning streak. They went one further on 28 November, thumping the Redskins 27-14, the team's first loss in over a year. But the Steagles couldn't beat the pathetic Brooklyn Dodgers (football teams were often named after the city's baseball team, an indication of the NFL's second-class status) a week after their tie of the Redskins, and they lost to the Packers a week after their glorious victory over Washington, which put the final nail in the coffin. Still, they had a successful season, which was pretty shocking.
The football side of the book is interesting, although because the Steagles turned out to be a mediocre team, it's not as fascinating as it could have been. Sure, the book would have been better if Phil-Pitt ended up winning their division or even the NFL Championship, but the cards were too stacked against them. Algeo doesn't really make a very good case that the merger saved pro football - the stronger teams, such as the Redskins, Giants, and Bears, weren't hurt too much by the war and the fact that the Cleveland Rams folded for the year didn't destroy the NFL - but that doesn't really matter. Where the book really shines is as social history. Algeo focuses on a few core players on the Steagles - Ted Doyle, Al Wistert, Bill Hewitt, Jack Hinkle, Roy Zimmerman - to tell the story of football players and America during the war. These men were 4-F, so they were looked down upon by able-bodied men who went off to war. Many of them were scorned as well for the injuries that made them 4-F - Hewitt had a perforated eardrum, for instance. Many who went to war wondered why people could play football but not fight in a war, but Algeo makes the point that the Army itself said that someone with a perforated eardrum could not serve, and it wasn't Hewitt's fault. The players were often deeply ashamed about not being able to serve their country, and they played harder because of it. Algeo also reminds us that these men were making very little money playing football, so they worked jobs during the week. The owners and coaches of the team got the men into "essential" jobs - one of them worked on the Manhattan Project - so that they contributed to the war effort even if they didn't fight.
Algeo also makes an interesting point about the current war, although I'm sure he didn't mean it. Reading about the "war at home" during World War II reminded me, again, why I'm so opposed to our current shenanigans. I'd probably be opposed to the Iraq war no matter what, but the fact that our president didn't try to get us all behind the war is ridiculous. In this book, we read about all the things that were going on in the country and how the government tried to make sure everyone felt like they were contributing. It didn't work completely, but it was still a lot better than what we have now. As you read this book, you can't help but wonder what the state of the country would be like if Bush had asked Americans to make more sacrifices to help the soldiers. From interviews with the players, we get the sense that life was hard, but they were constantly reminded how much harder it was for the people fighting the war. It's a fascinating portrait of a country that was united far more than it was now, not because everyone was naturally more patriotic, but because the government actively encouraged (not ordered) the citizens to become involved. We're not involved in this war unless we know someone fighting, and that's Bush's fault. And, I believe, it's a reason everyone is sick of it.
But this shouldn't be a screed about our current situation. Algeo's book is a very interesting look at sports and its relationship to the American public, as well as telling the story of one of the odder episodes in professional football history. If it doesn't quite live up to the title, it's still a very interesting read. Unless you don't like American culture. Is that you? Huh? I bet you like rugby, don't you, you Commie!