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Steelers History

The Steelers Are Really the Eagles: A Forgotten Part of Pittsburgh Football History

A forgotten part of Pittsburgh football history is the sale of the Steelers by Art Rooney Sr., and later swap with the Philadelphia Eagles.

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Steelers Founder Art Rooney Eagles
Statue of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney outside of Heinz Field. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

NFL teams are worth billions of dollars in the open market place, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are no exception to that. The last two teams to hit the market, the Washington Commanders and Denver Broncos, sold for over $4 billion each. When former Steelers minority owner Josh Harris bought the Commanders, he paid over $6 billion.

A chart by Tyler Webb for Sleeper NFL showed the purchase price for the last time each NFL team was sold. The Commanders and Broncos are at the top, with their mid-10-figures purchase prices.

The Steelers are listed as last having been sold for $2,500 in 1933, which is the amount that Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. paid the NFL for the franchise at its start. The point of the chart is to highlight the insane increase in NFL team values over the years, but it is not correct in listing the Steelers last purchase price.

A little-known piece of Steelers history happened in 1940, when Rooney sold the Steelers to Alexis Thompson, a New Yorker who was the grandson of the founder of Republic Iron and Steel. The sale price was $160,000, and the sale was completed in December, after the 1940 season.

Thompson publicly said he wanted the team to remain in Pittsburgh, but privately intended to move the team to New York. That move, however, was blocked. Meanwhile, Rooney bought half of the Philadelphia Eagles from Bert Bell. By March, Thompson had yet to even open an office in Pittsburgh and Rooney was having second thoughts. So the owners swapped teams and brands.

The Philadelphia Eagles, owned by Rooney and Bell, moved to Pittsburgh to become the Steelers. The Steelers, owned by Thompson, moved to Philadelphia, which was closer to his home in New York.

The teams then made a series of trades, with 10 players that were on the 1940 Steelers being sent back to Pittsburgh and 17 players that were on the 1940 Eagles sent back to Philadelphia. Quarterback Tommy Thompson, who led the NFL in passing in 1948 and 1949 while the Eagles won a pair of NFL titles, was one of the players that was left behind in the exchange. He was originally signed by the Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 1940 before going onto stardom with the franchise that signed him in Philly.

But for the most part, the end result was that the ownership swap was barely noted. When the 1941 season started, the Steelers were still in Pittsburgh, owned by Rooney, and with many of their familiar players, and the Eagles were still in Philadelphia, now owned by Thompson, with many of their familiar players.

The business relationship of the owners was leveraged once again a few years later, when the parties combined to form the Phil-Pitt Steagles to deal with the World War II-caused player shortage in 1943.

Thompson sold the Eagles for $250,000 in 1949 — a decent profit for only having owned the team for nine years. Rooney eventually bought out Bell from his shares in the Steelers, when Bell became NFL commissioner in 1946. Rooney and his family, of course, have continued to be the majority owners of the Steelers ever since.

One interesting side effect of Rooney’s 1940 dalliance with Philadelphia is that for years afterward, the Steelers were technically registered with the state and as a business entity as the Philadelphia Eagles Football Club.

The NFL has always considered the franchise history lineage unbroken because the franchises never missed a season in their home cities, but technically speaking, the franchise that Art Rooney Sr. bought in 1933 is now owned by Jeffrey Lurie and the franchise that is the Steelers was founded by Bell and Lud Wray in Philadelphia in 1933.

They paid $3,500 for their charter from the league, and also had to assume the debt of the defunct Frankford Yellow Jackets, who had played in the league in Philadelphia from 1924-31. It’s safe to say that no matter the details, Rooney made a very good deal.