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The Philadelphia Eagles, a privately owned football team in the National Football League, is an enduring symbol of sports in the Delaware Valley region. The Eagles are not among the powerhouse teams in the NFL; they made one appearance in the Super Bowl and during the 1990s ranked last or near-last. Their playing field at the much-maligned Veterans Stadium, built in the 1970s, was considered dated only 25 years later. Yet Philadelphians have always treated the team with genuine affection, and Eagles fans are arguably among the most stalwart.
Early Days: The Yellow Jackets
The team that eventually evolved into the Eagles first appeared in a Philadelphia suburb in 1919, when a group called the Frankford Athletic Association founded the Frankford Yellow Jackets. The team played semi-professional football with neighboring teams until it joined the recently formed National Football League in 1924. The Yellow Jackets built a 10,000-seat field to accommodate fans.
At that time, many states, including Pennsylvania, had what were known as “blue laws” on the books; these laws, which had their origins in colonial times, prohibited certain activities on Sundays that could be considered disrespectful of the Christian sabbath. Sporting events were among those prohibited activities. This created a double problem for many fledgling pro teams. Not only could they not play on Sundays, but if they played on Saturdays they often had to compete for an audience with college football games, which were often more popular. Teams like the Yellow Jackets found a partial solution to the problem by playing home games on Saturdays and scheduling away games with teams not subject to blue laws on Sundays.
The Eagles came into existence in 1933 when De Benneville “Bert” Bell and Lud Wray purchased the franchise then known as the Frankford Yellow Jackets for $2,500. The Bell name was a venerable one in Philadelphia; Bell’s grandfather had served in Congress and his father had been state attorney general. Bell himself played college football at the University of Pennsylvania, where he later coached; he also coached at nearby Temple University.
The Yellow Jackets franchise was up for sale in 1933 and Bell was eager to acquire the team. He and his family had suffered huge financial losses during the stock market crash in 1929, but he had recently married a former Ziegfeld Follies actress who had managed to save some of her earnings. Bell and his partner Wray (who was bought out in 1936) got the franchise for $2,500.
Almost immediately Bell moved the team to Philadelphia and he chose a new name, the Eagles, to honor the symbol of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s new National Recovery Act. The first Eagles game was played on November 12, against the Chicago Bears. (The game ended in a tie, 3-3).
Bell, who would later become NFL commissioner, took a long-term view of professional sports. It was Bell who in 1935 initiated the practice of an annual college draft, which he believed would spread talent evenly across all the teams in the league. In his book Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football, Robert Peterson described Bell as “a jack of all trades.” He was at various times a coach, scout, contract negotiator, press agent, ticket seller, janitor, and “gateman” for the team. He moved the team to Municipal Stadium, where it would remain for the next four years.
Even in the 1930s, the Eagles were not among the stellar teams of the NFL. In 1939, they signed Davey O’Brien, an All-American quarterback from Texas Christian University, for the then sizable sum of $12,000 per year salary (plus a percentage of the gate). The Eagles achieved a now largely forgotten but nonetheless groundbreaking achievement that year; on October 22, they played in the first game ever televised. They played against the Brooklyn Dodgers at the famed Ebbets Field. (At that time team names and playing locales were commonly shared by more than one sport.) The score of the first TV game was 24-13, with the Dodgers winning.
In 1940, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney sold his franchise to Alexis Thompson, a 30-year-old businessman and heir to a steel fortune. Rooney then purchased a half-interest in the Eagles; he and Bell then arranged to swap franchises with Thompson. Thompson soon hired Earl “Greasy” Neale to serve as the Eagles’ head coach. Neale proved to be an auspicious choice; during his nine-year tenure the Eagles would win three Eastern Division crowns and two NFL championships. A year later saw the beginning of regular radio broadcasts of NFL games, a move that helped popularize the sport. The NFL also launched something of a publicity campaign that offered a number of guidelines for teams and players; among the recommendations were restrictions on endorsing cigarettes and liquor, and limits to commercial messages over stadium public address systems.
The 1940s: Progress During and After the War
The U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 altered the progress of professional sports. Able-bodied men—the natural choice for athletic teams—were entering the U.S. Armed Forces. Many football fans actually found out about the Pearl Harbor bombing while at one of the many NFL games taking place, since December 7 was a Sunday. This left a shortage of players, and the teams felt the loss. During the war years 638 active NFL players served in the war, and the NFL gave generously to war relief agencies.
During the World War II, many of the young men who would normally be playing professional football were either enlisting in the armed forces or getting inducted. This created a severe shortage of players. In some cases, retired players were asked to come back; some teams simply suspended activity. One innovative way several teams employed as a means of solving the manpower shortage was to combine teams. During the 1943 season, the Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers joined forces as the “Steagles.” (The following year, the Steelers joined forces with the Chicago Cardinals as the “Card-Pitts.”) Eagles head coach Greasy Neale was so discouraged during the 1944 season that he insisted on cutting his salary of $12,000 by 75 percent.
Neale’s pessimism turned around after the Eagles signed Steve Van Buren, a halfback who had been a star player at Louisiana State University. Van Buren had both strength and speed (he could run 100 yards in 9.8 seconds) and in his rookie year he managed to help lead the Eagles to second place in the Eastern Division. Van Buren would prove to be one of the key players for the Eagles for the next half dozen years.
In 1946, when Bell became NFL commissioner, he moved NFL headquarters from Chicago to Bala Cynwyd, a small town just outside Philadelphia. (Bell remained NFL commissioner until his death in 1959.) The Eagles continued to improve their performance; by now they had come in second in the Eastern Division three years in a row, and in 1947 they won their first Eastern Division title, losing the championship to the Chicago Cardinals. The following year marked the beginning of a two-year period during which the team dominated NFL football.
By 1948, the war was over and many of the young men who had served had gotten their bearings. This was good for professional football in general and the Eagles in particular. Although there had been challenges to the NFL’s role as the dominant professional organization for the past couple of years, there was no doubt that the Eagles were a strong, talented, and determined team. They played well during the season, finishing with a 9-2-1 record and winning the Eastern Division for the second straight year. The championship game, against the Cardinals, was held in Philadelphia during a terrific snowstorm. Despite blinding conditions, the teams played on, and Steve Van Buren scored the game’s only touchdown. The Eagles had won their first championship. On a different note, 1948 also marked the debut of the Eaglettes, a cheerleading squad. They were briefly known in the 1970s as the Liberty Belles before settling on the far simpler moniker The Eagles Cheerleaders.
In 1949, the Eagles won the Eastern Division for the third straight year with an 11-1 record, and played against the Los Angeles Rams for the championship. This time it was torrential rain instead of snow that fell, but once again the Eagles prevailed. Van Buren slogged through rain and mud at the Los Angeles Coliseum and rushed 196 yards. The Eagles won the game 14-0. Other players who were important in the late 1940s included center/linebacker Chuck Bednarik and end Pete Pihos, both of whom, like Van Buren, were later named to the Eagles Honor Roll.
There was activity in the back offices as well in 1949. Thompson had decided to sell the Eagles to a group of 100 investors, each of whom paid $3,000 for a one percent share. They came to be know as the “Happy Hundred” and the “One Hundred Brothers” and would retain ownership of the franchise for the next 13 years.
The Philadelphia Eagles is one of the most spirited and enduring teams in professional football Its commitment to its fans and to the community has been amply repaid; home games at Veterans Stadium regularly attract near-capacity crowds.
Meanwhile, the Eagles continued to do well, although not as well as they had in 1948 and 1949. In 1950, Greasy Neale’s last season as coach, the Eagles finished third in the American conference. Over the next decade, the Eagles would sometimes finish second in their division, and several players distinguished themselves. Bobby Watson was named Rookie of the Year in 1951 and led the NFL in scoring in 1954 with 114 points. Other key players included Bobby Thomason, Adrian Burk, and Sonny Jurgensen. Still, the Eagles continued to fall short of championship status. In 1958 the team moved to the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field, which doubled attendance from around 18,000 to nearly 36,000.
Ups and Downs in the 1960s–80s
In 1960, the Eagles won back some of their magic with the aid of such players as Chuck Bednarik and Norm Van Brocklin. The team won the Eastern Division championship—the first in 11 years. The following year the Eagles did well but won no championships. In 1962, however, several players were out with injuries and the Eagles won a mere three games; they fell to last place in the league.
In 1963 the remaining members of the “Happy Hundred” (several had sold their shares to other members) put the franchise up for sale. The asking price was $4.5 million, but in a bidding war Washington, D.C. business executive Jerry Wolman paid just over $5.5 million. The following year the Eagles named Joe Kuharich, former coach of the Cardinals and the Washington Redskins, as the new head coach. Kuharich worked to rebuild the problematic team. His efforts paid off; the Eagles had a winning season in 1966, with a 9-5 record. Injuries marred the Eagles’ performance in 1967.
In 1969, trouble of a different sort hit the Eagles. Jerry Wolman, the owner, suffered a financial setback that forced the sale of the franchise. The buyer was Leonard Tose, a trucking executive, and the price was a reported $16.1 million (at that time a record for professional athletic teams).
An even more momentous development was the Eagles’ 1971 move to their new home, Veterans Stadium in South Philadelphia. Owned by the city of Philadelphia, the new stadium (capacity 65,352) was shared by Philadelphia’s baseball team, the Phillies. One amenity at the “Vet” that did not please players was its playing surface, which was not real grass but the synthetic known as AstroTurf. AstroTurf was durable, but also hard on knees and elbows, and it made it easier for injuries to occur.
The Eagles continued their lackluster performance until 1973 when newly named coach Mike McCormick began to turn the team around. The team was still unable to boast a winning season, and in 1976 Leonard Tose named UCLA coach Dick Vermeil as head coach. Vermeil made visible progress with the team, which had its first winning season since the 1960s in 1978. The following year, they tied the Dallas Cowboys for first place in the NFC East division and earned a wild card spot in the playoffs. They lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but their strong showing made them a force to contend with once again. Vermeil was voted NFL Coach of the Year at the end of the season.
In 1980, the Eagles won the NFC East championship with a 12-4 record; they then beat the Minnesota Vikings and the Dallas Cowboys to win their first spot in the Super Bowl. They played the Oakland Raiders, and lost 27-10. Key players won accolades, however, including wide receiver Harold Carmichael and quarterback Ron Jaworski (voted NFL Player of the Year).
Although the Eagles got off to a good start in 1981, they trailed off in the second half of the season. A players’ strike in 1982 cost the league eight weeks, and the Eagles were unable to gain any real momentum. Over the next few years, the Eagles’ record was mediocre. Despite the strong performance of several players, such as Randall Cunningham, Reggie White, and Mike Quick, the team was unable to capture its former strength. The team was sold in 1985 to businessmen Norman Bramans and Ed Leibowitz for a reported $65 million. Bramans bought out Leibowitz in 1986 and held the team until 1994.
In the late 1980s the Eagles began to do better, with winning seasons from 1989 to 1992. In 1992, they had their first post-season victory, against the New Orleans Saints, but lost a divisional playoff to Dallas. The Eagles had been poised for a particularly strong season, but the pre-season accidental death of defensive tackle Jerome Brown cast a tragic shadow over the team.
New Challenges in the 1990s and Beyond
In 1994, Bramans sold the Eagles to movie executive Jeffrey Lurie for an estimated $185 million. Lurie understood the city’s attachment to the Eagles, but he also wanted the team to give back in other ways. In 1995, he and his wife initiated the Eagles Youth Partnership, a non-profit group that provides assistance to disadvantaged families in the greater Philadelphia area. The program includes free eye exams for children, asthma management training for children and their parents, and a program that distributed books to low-income children.
- Frankford Yellow Jackets team established outside Philadelphia.
- Bert Bell and Lud Wray purchase Yellow Jackets franchise and rename team Eagles.
- Bell proposes annual NFL college draft to help equalize talent within league.
- Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers temporarily merge to form “Steagles” to accommodate shortage of players during World War II.
- Eagles win first NFL championship against Chicago Cardinals.
- End/placekicker Bobby Watson named NFL Rookie of the Year.
- Eagles begin playing at University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field.
- Veterans Stadium opens as home of Eagles and Phillies baseball team.
- Eagles make Super Bowl but lose to Oakland Raiders 27-10.
- Eagles have first post-season victory since 1981 but lose in divisional playoff game to Dallas Cowboys.
- Movie producer Jeffrey Lurie purchases Eagles for $185 million.
- Eagles unveil plans for new stadium.
Performance-wise, the 1990s turned out to be less than stellar. The Eagles had winning seasons in 1995 and 1996, but 1997 was disappointing and 1998 left the 3-13 Eagles with the worst record in the league. With the arrival of new head coach Andy Reid in 1999, the team began to show promise. The team finished the season 5-11, but with a decidedly more positive attitude, and the 2000 season got off to a strong start.
Veterans Stadium, the city-owned complex that had been home to the Eagles and the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team since 1971, began to show definite signs of wear in the 1990s. The desire on the part of players for a modern facility—coupled with the fans’ desire to be able to watch games in comfort if not luxury—spurred a number of new sports complexes across the country.
In 1999 the Eagles unveiled plans for a new stadium, to be built near the Vet. With a capacity of 66,000, the state-of-the-art building would offer all the amenities that have become essential in today’s arenas—including more comfortably appointed luxury boxes. The City of Philadelphia became embroiled in a protracted debate over where a new stadium should go, whether there should be two separate stadiums for the Eagles and the Phillies, and how much should be spent. In November 2000 Philadelphia mayor John Street announced a tentative deal pending approval of the City Council. Under this deal, two stadiums, one for baseball and one for football, would be built near the Vet. The total cost was set at roughly $1.01 billion, with funding coming from the teams, the city, and the state of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the city also announced that in the interim it would make a much-desired improvement at the Vet: replacement of the dreaded AstroTurf.
Washington Redskins; The Dallas Cowboys Football Club Ltd.; New York Football Giants.
Anastasia, Phil, Broken Wing, Broken Promise: A Season Inside the Philadelphia Eagles, Philadelphia: Camino Books, 1993.
Benson, Clea, et al, “$1 Billion Deal Reached for Stadiums,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 17, 2000, p. 1.
Bowden, Mark, Bringing the Heat, New York: Knopf, 1994.
Cunningham, Randall, with Steve Wartenberg, I’m Still Scrambling, New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Kim, Albert, and Mark Mravic, “Philly Turf War,” Sports Illustrated, November 13, 2000, p. 26.
Peterson, Robert W., Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Rothaus, James R., The Philadelphia Eagles, Mankato, Minn.: Creative Education, 1981.
—George A. Milite