Tuesday, February 6, 2018

NOT The First Time; Not Even Second Or Third!

They say this is the first time.

And that's true. Except that it isn't.

They say this is the only time.

And that's also true. Except that it isn't.

Yes, it's been a long, long time since the Eagles (aka Iggles) have been on top of the world. Some say they've never been there before.

But it all depends on history, your memory and maybe even how old you are. Remember that the Eagles franchise is one of the original American pro football franchises.

So, let's get this straight, OK. The forerunner to the Philadelphia Eagles (the Frankford Yellow Jackets) actually won their very first pro football championship in 1927. But as the Depression arrived, that team went bankrupt.

After more than a year searching for a suitable replacement, the NFL granted an expansion franchise to a syndicate headed by former University of Pennsylvania teammates Lud Wray and Bert Bell. Bell and Wray had previously played football together on the "Union Club" squads, the Union Club of Phoenixville in 1920 and the Union Quakers of Philadelphia in 1921.

In exchange for an entry fee of $2,500, the Bell-Wray group was awarded the assets of the failed Yellow Jackets organization. Drawing inspiration from the insignia of the centerpiece of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, specifically the National Recovery Act's "blue eagle," Bell and Wray named the new franchise the Philadelphia Eagles. And that's how the "Iggles" got their name. It was all courtesy of FDR and the New Deal.
The new team played its first game on October 15, 1933, against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York City. They lost the game 56-0. If you think the Eagles recent fortunes (up until Sunday) have been disheartening, you should have been around in the early days. The Eagles struggled over the course of their first decade, never winning more than three games. For the most part, the Eagles' rosters were composed of former Penn, Temple and Villanova players who put in a few years before going on to other things.

In 1935, Bell, by that point the team's General Manager, proposed an annual college draft to equalize talent across the league. This was a watershed and what we now know today as the NFL Draft. The draft was a revolutionary concept in professional sports. Having teams select players in inverse order of their finish in the standings strove to increase fan interest by guaranteeing that even the worst teams would have the opportunity for annual infusions of the best college team players.

Then, World War II brought a bizarre turn of events -- one that today's Iggles fans could hardly imagine. In 1943, when manpower shortages stemming from the war made it impossible to fill the roster, the team temporarily merged with the Steelers 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. This season saw the team's first winning season in its 11-year history, with a finish of 5-4-1. In 1944, however, the Eagles finally experienced good fortune, as they made their finest draft pick to date: running back Steve Van Buren. At last, the team's fortunes were about to change.

Led by Van Buren and Neale, the Eagles became a serious competitor for the first time. They had their first winning season as a separate team in 1944. After two more second-place finishes (in 1945 and 1946), the Eagles reached the NFL title game for the first time in 1947. Van Buren, end Pete Pihos, and Bosh Pritchard fought valiantly, but the young team fell to the Chicago Cardinals 28-21 at Chicago's Comiskey Park. Undeterred, the young squad rebounded and returned to face the Cardinals once more in the 1948 championship. With home-field advantage (and a blinding snowstorm) on their side, the Eagles won their first official NFL Championship 7-0. So, you see, 2018 was not the first time. However, due to the severity of the weather, few fans were on hand to witness the joyous occasion. That would not be the case the following season, however, when the Eagles returned to the NFL championship game for the third consecutive year and won in dominating fashion in front of a large crowd in Los Angeles, beating the Los Angeles Rams 14-0. That marked the Iggles third championship and their second official NFL championship.

In Thompson's final draft, Chuck Bednarik was selected as the first overall pick in the 1949 NFL Draft. An All-American lineman/linebacker from the University of Pennsylvania, Bednarik would go on to become one of the greatest and most beloved players in Eagles history. The 1949 season also saw the sale of the team by Thompson to a syndicate of 100 buyers, known as the "Happy Hundred", each of whom paid a fee of $3,000 (Can you imagine!) for their share of the team. While the leader of the "Happy Hundred" was noted Philadelphia businessman James P. Clark, one unsung investor was Leonard Tose, a name that would eventually become very familiar -- for better or worse -- to Eagles

The Eagles actually considered trying to purchase Temple Stadium in 1952 when the team was unhappy with their lease at Shibe Park. Temple University claimed the property to have been appraised for $1 million and said they were uninterested in selling. In 1958, however, the franchise took key steps to improve, hiring Buck Shaw as Head Coach and acquiring Norm Van Brocklin in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams. That year also saw the team move from Connie Mack Stadium (formerly Shibe Park) to Franklin Field, and attendance doubled. The 1959 squad showed real flashes of talent, and finished in second place in the Eastern Division.

Now, we come upon a year and a time that many of us remember.

1960 remains the most celebrated year in Eagle history. Shaw, Van Brocklin and Chuck Bednarik (each in his last season before retirement) led a team more notable for its grit than its talent (one observer later quipped that the team had "nothing but a championship") to its first division title since 1949. The team was aided by their two Pro Bowl receivers, Tommy McDonald (who would later pen a short autobiography titled "They Pay Me to Catch Footballs") and Pete Retzlaff. On December 26, 1960, one of the coldest days in recorded Philadelphia history, the Eagles faced Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers in the NFL title game and dealt the mighty Lombardi the sole championship game loss of his storied career. Bednarik lined up at center on offense and at linebacker on defense. Fittingly, the game ended as Bednarik tackled a struggling Jim Taylor and refused to allow him to stand until the last seconds had ticked away. This was a magnificent year. For me, as a just-turned-teenager, it was a time I will never forget. It was magical.

But you must remember that in the 1960s football was not the game that it is today. Baseball was America's game and America's pastime. People were much more familiar with names like Mays and Mantle and Maris than they were with Retzlaff and McDonald. So the championship came with much less notoriety and celebration than it does today.

Still, flush with excitement from their victory and with the talented Jurgensen poised to take the reins of the offense, the future looked promising for the Iggles. As has often been the case with the team however, that promise proved illusory.

In 1962, the bottom dropped out as the team was decimated by injury, managed only three wins and were embarrassed at home 49-0 by the Packers. Rounds of off-field chaos plagued the Iggles and would continue through 1963, as the remaining 65 shareholders out of the original Happy Hundred sold the team to Jerry Wolman, a 36-year-old millionaire Washington developer who outbid local bidders for the team, paying an unprecedented $5,505,000 for control of the club. In 1964, Wolman hired former Cardinals and Washington Redskins coach Joe Kuharich to a 15-year contract. The Kuharich era was one of the most tumultuous in the history of the team and soon the fans were in full revolt. Chants of “Joe must go” echoed through the increasingly empty bleachers of Franklin Field. Adding insult to injury, the Eagles managed to eke out meaningless wins in two of the last three games of the season, costing the franchise the first pick in the draft. Yes, the Iggles actually had the opportunity to add O. J. Simpson to the roster, but they blew it. Imagine that! (With the second pick, the Eagles chose Leroy Keyes, who played only four years in an Eagles uniform.) The last game of 1968, played on December 15, helped cement the rowdy reputation of Philadelphia fans when some of them booed and threw snowballs at an actor playing Santa Claus. Another sad (some might say despicable) chapter in Eagles history.

On top of all that, by 1969, Wolman had lost most of his fortune and was bankrupt, leaving the franchise under the administration of a federal bankruptcy court. At the end of the bankruptcy proceedings, the Eagles were sold to Leonard Tose, the self-made trucking millionaire and original member of the Happy Hundred. Tose's first official act was to fire Kuharich.

With an earned reputation as a fast-living high-flier, Tose infused the organization with some much-needed panache. Initially, however, he ran the team with more enthusiasm than ability, as was exemplified by his choice to replace Kuharich, the hapless Jerry Williams. Tose also selected former Eagles great Pete Retzlaff as General Manager.

Well, there's more. Much, much more.

But many of you who are still reading this know pretty much everything about all the years that followed -- especially those of you who are ardent fans.

The Iggles went through many many coaches and players and management teams.

The fans became more and more vocal and more and more passionate and, at times even more and more rude and obnoxious.

The Iggles moved to the hapless, poorly-designed Veterans Stadium and then to their very own Lincoln Financial Field (The Linc). And ticket prices went up and up and up and tickets became harder and harder to come by.

But not very much changed. Despite some incredibly high moments, the Eagles continued to flounder. It was not to change until 2018.

But please don't say that the Iggles never did this before.

Please don't call this the first time or the only time.

When you do that, you do a great disservice to those early days -- especially 1960.

Yes, that was a Golden Year -- a special year. Retzlaff to McDonald.

That was a special time. A sweeter time. The time before the music died.

That was a time when football was still football.

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