WILKES-BARRE – If you look to your left when you walk into Steagles, a bar tucked into a working-class neighborhood in this Northeastern Pennsylvania town, one of the first things you see on the wall is a Terrible Towel.
OK. Pittsburgh Steelers bar.
But wait. You walk a few more feet, past a few Steelers jerseys hanging there (Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, et al.), and you come upon an Eagles jersey: Reggie White.
Also Charlie Garner. (Charlie Garner?) And LeSean McCoy. And Nick Foles.
Peaceful coexistence. Go figure.
It has happened before with these two franchises. While they will be combatants on the football field this Sunday, the Steelers and Eagles merged during the height of World War II to form a team unofficially known as the Steagles.
And it happens in this cozy little pub of the same name, located 265 miles from Heinz Field, home of the Steelers, but just 116 miles from Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles will host Pittsburgh this week. Yeah, regulars bust each other’s chops about their teams, said the owner, Jim Casterline. But as he told a visitor Thursday afternoon — three days before the two teams that gave this bar its name fight it out for in-state bragging rights — it never boils over. Everybody knows everybody else. Everybody knows it’s all part of standard operating procedure on an NFL Sunday.
Casterline and his wife Theresa bought the place from Jim’s Aunt Connie in July 2010, after his Uncle Stan died. For a while it remained Stan’s Café, as it had been during the 40 years Stan and Connie owned it. But about a year ago Jim and Theresa decided to change it to Steagles, since it was frequented by so many fans of the two teams.
The 56-year-old Casterline has some knowledge of that long-ago club, which was formed in 1943 because the NFL faced a manpower shortage, with so many players serving in the military. The squad was officially called the Phil-Pitt Eagles-Steelers Combine, according to Matthew Algeo’s 2006 book Last Team Standing, but a Pittsburgh Press editor dubbed it the Steagles, and that’s how the team will forever be remembered in football history.
From a 2007 Post-Gazette story on the Steagles:
The Steelers, coming off the first winning season in their existence, had only six players under contract. Rooney and Bell sought out Thompson, who was serving in the Army as a corporal. They got the NFL to approve a merger known as the Phil-Pitt Eagles-Steelers Combine. Within two weeks, however, sports editor Chet Smith of The Pittsburgh Press called them the Steagles.
All of the 25 players on the roster were required to keep full-time jobs in defense plants. One of Pittsburgh’s players, Ted Doyle, worked at Westinghouse and figured out later he was a small part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, according to Matthew Algeo’s book Last Team Standing.
The Steagles somehow went 5-4-1 in the only season they existed, even though co-coaches Greasy Neale and Walt Kiesling, two eventual Hall of Famers, couldn’t stand one another. There were also logistical nightmares, according to Algeo and others. The Steagles practiced at night in Philadelphia to give everyone, especially the players from Pittsburgh, travel time after their day jobs. And the team played home games in both cities, going 2-1-1 in Shibe Park and 2-0 in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.