The “Battle of Pennsylvania” is a rivalry that dates to when both teams joined the NFL in 1933. During the early exchanges, the teams were evenly matched. After the first decade the Eagles gradually took a lead in wins and continued to extend it until the Steelers moved to the AFC in 1970. Overall, the Eagles have an advantage over the Steelers 48-28-3. In Philadelphia, the Eagles dictate the contests 27-8-2.
The Steelers 1936 Season
After the Steelers began life in the NFL as the Pirates, they posted four losing seasons. In 1936 they gave the appearance of putting together their first winning one.
For the first time, they won their opening three games before losing to the mighty Bears of George Halas.
Despite that first loss, they remained on top of the Eastern division and cemented their position the following week when they shut out the Eagles in Pittsburgh 17-0.
In those early professional football days, it wasn’t easy to earn a win against the powerhouse teams and another defeat by the Bears would be followed by a loss in Green Bay. The Steelers clung precariously to the top spot with four wins while the Giants were chasing with 3 wins and a tie.
As pro football began to enjoy more success, towns that were unable to support a franchise were interested in having at least one game played locally. After the home victory over the Eagles, the league agreed to move the next meeting between the teams from Philadelphia to Johnstown’s Point Stadium.
Supported by Steelers’ assistant coach Cad Reese, who was a director of the Johnstown Recreation Commission, the town had succeeded with its invitation and sponsorship to stage the Eagles game in Johnstown.
Reserve seats for the game were priced at $1.65 and $1.15 while general admission was 85 cents. The intention was to install additional bleachers to increase the capacity to 15,000 as a large crowd was expected.
When the Steelers won their final home game 10-7 over the Brooklyn Dodgers, they set a franchise record of five victories in a season. Although they stayed ahead of the Giants as Boston Redskins began to go on a roll, another win over the Eagles was important to keep the Steelers’ challenge alive.
Their triumph over the Dodgers was a physical battle and the team had little time to recover as their game with the Eagles was scheduled for three days later. The scene was set for an intriguing battle before a packed stadium until the rain came down. Continuous rain the night before the contest meant a twenty-four-hour postponement.
The delay to the contest, plus the inclement weather saw a disappointing crowd of just under 8,000 turn out for the floodlit game. In a battle dominated by defenses on a soggy field, the only difference between the teams was Armand Niccolai. He had missed most of the season with a dislocated shoulder but was now about to earn his captain spurs.
Each team missed two field goal attempts while the fans were wondering if they were watching a game with no scoring. It remained deadlocked until five minutes remaining. A blocked punt set Niccolai up to kick a 41-yard field goal as the crowd rejoiced in seeing points put on the board.
When the Eagles fumbled the ensuing kickoff, it gave the Steelers the opportunity to extend their lead. After three plays they had only moved the ball four yards. Once more it was left to Niccolai to step up and kick a 33-yard field goal sealing the win and sending the fans home happy after watching a pro football contest.
The 6-0 victory kept the Steelers on top of the division with three games to play. It was the first time they had defeated the Eagles twice in a season as they extended the franchise record to six wins.
The Steelers traveled next to Detroit to face the 1935 champions Lions who had been struggling at 3-3 having lost three straight. They overwhelmed Pittsburgh 28-3 while the Giants were suffering a lost to the Bears to keep the status quo. Boston was lying quietly in third place.
Another road trip, this one to the (1-7) Chicago Cardinals presented the Steelers with a golden chance to seal the division title. The Cardinals had gone all season without a win until the previous week when they shut out the Eagles 13-0. Although they were as confident as any team could be of leaving Chicago with a win, the Steelers were suffering with injuries.
The game was described by the Pittsburgh Press as the roughest battle Wrigley Field fans had ever witnessed. Was the newspaper paying a compliment to the Steelers’ hunger to make the playoffs or to the Cardinals’ attempt to keep their winning streak going? Whatever they were describing, it was a 14-6 loss for the Steelers. It was also a weekend that saw the Giants and the Redskins lose to keep the Steelers on top of the division.
For the Steelers, their season finale against the Redskins would be the most important game they were to play in the four years of being in the league. With a two-week gap before the game, Mr. Rooney organised a trip to the west coast to play the Los Angeles Bulldogs. If the trip was made to aid his cash flow, he would have been disappointed with the crowd of 7,000 who turned out to watch the Bulldogs win 27-7.
More disconcerting than the defeat for Mr. Rooney would have been the news of the Redskins 30-6 demolition of the Dodgers in the Steelers absence. The season finale in Boston now took on monumental significance. Although the Redskins were a game behind, they also had another game to play after the Steelers clash.
If any Steeler fans traveled to Boston to watch their team, they would have been very disappointed. Tired from their travels, a lethargic Pittsburgh team never displayed any of the fire from their previous games. Boston overpowered the Steelers 30-0 and would win the Eastern title the following Sunday when they beat the Giants.
The Steelers could only reflect on what could have been. Although once again they failed to play post-season football, Art Rooney and Coach Joe Bach could take credit for putting together the most improved team in the league.
Unfortunately, the coach and owner fell out over the Bulldogs exhibition game. Bach believed the travels were the reason the team failed to show any sparkle against the Redskins.
Further progress of the Steelers was hindered when Bach departed to take up the head coach position at Niagara University. Mr. Rooney and Pittsburgh would have to wait another decade before they experienced playoff football.