Eagles By the Numbers: Jersey Numbers and the Players Who Wore Them
When my older daughter was learning to love football in the early 1990s, she liked Emmitt Smith and rooted for the Cowboys. Oh, the shame and humiliation for a South Jersey guy! Philadelphia fans have a national reputation for their passion toward their team - where had I gone wrong? It was heartbreaking to bear the scar of bad parenting that comes with raising a Dallas fan. How can you turn your back on family and friends? What is so likeable about arrogant frontrunners? And what of the honor Timmy Brown? Fortunately, good sense eventually prevailed, and she joined the forever-suffering flock of Eagle fans. She needed to know that Philadelphia has a 70-year tradition of quirky characters like Tommy McDonald and Charley Gauer, of punishing hitters like Chuck Bednarik and Bill Bergey, of exciting performers like Steve Van Buren and Wilbert Montgomery, and even the very occasional championship. But where is the whole Eagles story told?
The idea of this book came from my desire to share the knowledge I've accumulated from four decades of reading everything on the sometimes-tarnished local heroes. There have been surprisingly few books and articles written about a team with such a long heritage and such a devoted following, and there has been no full-fledged history of the Eagles published. My starting point in this history is uniform numbers. Uniform numbers conjure vivid memories in sports. If you say "5" most sports fans would remember Joe DiMaggio; Philadelphia Eagle fans would think Donovan McNabb. If you say "12" most football fans would recall Joe Namath or Roger Staubach or Terry Bradshaw, but Eagle fans would remember Randall Cunningham. However, not all players are that memorable, so where to find the number data? The Eagles include an all time roster with uniform numbers in their Media Guide, but some numbers are missing and a few are wrong. From press accounts and actual game programs, I was able to clear up almost all of these problems. Of the over 1,400 players who have played for Philadelphia in its 70+ years in the NFL, I was able to track down the numbers of all but two Eagles, Herald Frahm and William Holcomb, each of whom appeared in only one game in the 1930s.
The numbers provide the foundation for the book, but I have tried to build an interesting structure on that base. For each number from 1 to 99 I have written a short chapter. Each chapter features one player especially identifiable with that number and usually uses him and his career as a launching point into an essay on a broader Eagle or football topic. Eight of the chapters are decade reviews that present a snapshot of a particular Eagle decade through a range of categories: some are statistical like won-lost records, some are factual like what Hall of Famers played for the team in that period, and many are opinion-based like best and worst trade or best and worst draft of the decade. Each chapter lists all players who have worn the number and provides cross references to other numbers worn by these players. Other items that are noted in each chapter are the first player to wear the number, the player who wore it for the longest period and players who are "just visiting" in other words they played the bulk of their careers elsewhere. In addition, the top section of each chapter profiles notable heroes, goats, head cases and sad stories.
The criteria used to select who represents each number varied from chapter to chapter. I did not always choose the most famous or best player to wear the number. I also have tried to maintain a mix of players from different eras. The history of each number represents a different slice of Eagle history, and this book attempts to serve as a thematic rather than a chronological approach to Philadelphia football's rich cultural legacy. Among those themes are accounts of each year the team has played in the post-season, key rivalries, and a host of idiosyncratic topics like end zone celebrations, religion on the field and shady characters. Ultimately, the selection criteria was to choose the players who best fit into the stories that I felt most needed to be examined and told.
Two examples will provide some illumination on my thought process. Quarterback Tommy Thompson wore 11 from 1945-50 when he took the Eagles to three consecutive NFL championship games. However, 11 was also the number worn by 1960 championship quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. Both players needed to be covered in any Eagles history so I made Thompson the subject of chapter 10, the number he wore in 1941 and 1942 for the Birds. I don't know which number he actually preferred. When he arrived in Philly from Pittsburgh, he wore 10 and rookie Lou Ghecas wore 11; when Ghecas went into the service in 1942, Thompson stayed with 10 and rookie Dick Erdlitz wore 11; when Tommy returned from World War II in 1945, 10 was being worn by Allie Sherman so Thompson switched to 11 for the prime years of his career.
The Antone Davis choice is a bit more complicated. Davis is the subject for 77 although he only wore that number for the first game of his career. After Matt Darwin was cut that week in 1991, Antone switched back to his college number 78 for the rest of his career. Originally, I had penciled in Ray Mansfield and the Steeler rivalry for 77 and had Kevin Allen and the All Time Draft Bust Team at 72. However, Allen is best summed up in a depressing sentence or two rather than a whole chapter while local hero Jess Richardson is a more interesting subject for 72. Likewise, Mansfield's connection to Philadelphia was short and not terribly fascinating while Antone Davis was perfect to drag the Draft Bust mantle from his wide backside. Choosing which players to profile to tell the Eagles story was a constantly shifting balancing act and some worthy individuals were left with brief mentions under the "Highs" category at the top of the chapter. The one missing Eagle who most deserved his own chapter was the always colorful Bucko Kilroy, but he is featured prominently in the text of both 52 and 76.
I think my extensive study of the team has permitted me to make a number of interesting connections and observations. My emphasis in this book has been on thoroughness and accuracy, while I have tried to flavor the narrative with irreverent, intelligent opinions and a sense of humor. I hope that readers find this book fun to read or dip into and a unique resource for research.
The text is designed to be approached by uniform numbers; however, if you want to see all the numbers an Eagle wore, the All Time Roster in the back of the book provides an access point by players' names. In the text see references to chapters are provided when appropriate. For those Eagles who are described only in the brief data section at the top of chapters, see top references are given. Regarding the player listings both in the chapters and in the All Time Roster, listings in boldface are Hall of Famers; listings in italics for post-1950 players are men who were selected for the Pro Bowl; listings in italics for pre-1950 players are men who received All Pro notice; listings with an "r" after the year are for replacement players who took part in the three non-union league games during the 1987 mid-season players' strike.
I would like to thank several people who have helped me with my research. Chad Reese of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, George Rugg, the Curator of Special Collections at the University of Notre Dame's Hesburgh Library and the staff at Temple University's Urban Archives all helped me gain access to rare, old and essential resources. My colleagues at the Robeson Library of Rutgers University where I work are always supportive and, in particular, InterLibrary Loan ace Mary Anne Nesbit helped me borrow a wealth of material.