card-pitt, car-pits, car-pitts, cardinals steelers merge
Charles Knoblock/AP
Chicago Cardinals end Mal Kutner leaps into the air to snatch a pass at Comiskey Park in
Chicago, Nov. 27, 1949.

Super Bowl XLIII a Reunion of the “Car-Pits”

January 21, 2009 10:29 AM
by Denis Cummings
The Chicago Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers merged in 1944 to form Card-Pitt, a team Steelers founder Art Rooney called “the worst team in NFL history.”

Cardinals and Steelers Merge to Form Card-Pitt

During World War II, the NFL faced a shortage of players as almost all fit young men were drafted into the military. Teams struggled to fill team rosters and one team, the Cleveland Rams, had to fold for a year while its owners were fighting overseas. Determined to continue playing in order to help the country’s morale, the NFL came up with a creative solution to maintain a workable league: combine teams.

In 1943, with the Rams folded and the Pittsburgh Steelers down to just six players, NFL commissioner Elmer Layden and Steelers owner Art Rooney thought to combine the Steelers with the Philadelphia Eagles, who were also short on players. The result was Phil-Pitt, nicknamed the “Steagles,” a team that had a moderately successful 1943 season.

The following year, the Rams returned to the field, the Boston Yanks joined the league and the Eagles and Steelers returned to their separate ways. Now the NFL had 11 teams and again needed to combine teams in order to even out the league. Rooney did not want to merge again, but he felt obligated to Layden for his help in 1943. Rooney agreed to merge with the Chicago Cardinals, an original member of the NFL that had finished the previous season winless.

The merged team, known officially as Card-Pitt, became one of the worst teams in NFL history. “Injuries, bad breaks, questionable coaching, discontented players, and sheer lack of talent,” writes James Forr in The Coffin Corner, a publication of the Professional Football Researchers Association. “All these things combined to make the 1944 Card-Pitt team a symbol of NFL futility and wartime sacrifice.”
In its first regular season game, Card-Pitt held a late lead against the Rams with the ball on its own one-yard-line. Not wanting to risk a turnover, the coaches—who, according to Rooney, “carried the Racing Form more than the playbook”—decided to punt on first down. The shanked punt gained just nine yards, setting up the Rams’ game-winning touchdown.

It was the closest Card-Pitt would come to a win all season. They lost their starting quarterback, Coley McDonough, before their next regular season game when he was inducted into the Army. Following their third game, a 34-7 loss to the Chicago Bears, the coaches fined three players for poor play. The fines angered the entire team, inciting a dispute between the coaches and players.

That week, Card-Pitt was also given a nickname that encapsulated their awful play. “Why don’t they call themselves the Car-Pits?” wrote a fan to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I think it’s very appropriate as every team in the league walks over them.”

Card-Pitt lost every game they played that season, finishing 0-10. Star running back Johnny Grigas quit the team before their final game, disappearing in the middle of the night and leaving a note for the team. “When your mind is changed because of the physical beating, week in and week out, your soul isn’t in the game,” he wrote, adding, “I tried to win and worked hard, but the work-horse, as I was termed by the newspapers, is almost ready for the farm.”

After the season, the teams separated. “The whole bunch from Chicago were fine fellows,” said Rooney, “but we all know now that these combines just won’t work out.”

By the start of the following season, World War II had ended. Many of the NFL’s players were replaced by the superior athletes who returned from war, and many of the Card-Pitt players never played in the NFL again.

Both the Cardinals and Steelers improved over the next several years and nearly met in the 1947 NFL championship game. The Steelers, in their only postseason game until 1971, lost to the Eagles, who went on to lose to the Cardinals in the championship game. The Cardinals have yet to win another NFL championship.

Qwidget is loading...

Background: The NFL, World War II and merged teams

The NFL had little uniformity for much of its first two decades, with unbalanced schedules and no divisional or playoff structure. The number of teams changed nearly every season, ranging from 22 in 1926 to eight in 1932. It was not until the late 1930s that the NFL established a workable 10-team league with two divisions and a balanced schedule.

The start of World War II threatened the NFL’s stability as players were called off to war. The league’s strongest players were drafted into the military, leaving the league full of aging players and 4-Fs—men physically unfit for military service. Other sports faced similar obstacles.

“Joe Nuxhall, a 15-year old high school student, pitched in relief for the Reds,” writes John McGrath in The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash. “In 1943, the Indianapolis 500 was called off because of a gas shortage, and the U.S. Open was called off because the rubber on the golf balls was determined too precious to waste in a tournament. In 1945, Pete Gray played outfield for the St. Louis Browns. He had one arm.”

The NFL had three merged teams during the war, one in each of the 1943, 1944 and 1945 seasons. The first, the “Steagles,” played four games in Philadelphia and two in Pittsburgh, finishing with a respectable 5-4-1 record. The final merger, between the Boston Yanks and Brooklyn Tigers, ended after the season when the Tigers’ owner announced that his team would join the rival All-American Football Conference in 1946.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines