After we got to Philadelphia yesterday, I walked over to Reading Terminal Market — not to plumb the mind of the average Philly fan, not to see what the read the buzz on the streets of the city, nothing like that at all. I just went because I was hungry, and I had heard that the Market had a bunch of different food options, and was a pretty neat place to boot. Both of these things turned out to be true, and I got to hear a whole bunch of conversations about today’s game as a special bonus.
Most of the chatter revolved around the fact that the Redskins were apparently staying in a nearby hotel (true), and that their buses had blocked traffic when they arrived (true), and that this somehow reflected some level of contempt for the average Philadelphian and his need to commute (emphatically not true). I overheard a rumor that one of the Redskins coaches had said in the elevator that they had brought body bags for the Eagles. (I cannot verify this, of course, but I can’t imagine any of our coaches doing that in this situation, and I have a suspicion that this person was muddling an eighteen year old story.) A few people opined on the differences between FedExField and RFK Stadium, which seemed irrelevant to today’s game in Philly, but was still amusing to hear.
The most interesting thing I heard, though, was a story I had never heard before. A woman waiting in line for a cheesesteak at Rick’s held forth on the game between the Redskins and Eagles on December 7, 1941, the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and I found myself scribbling down notes as she talked.
According to her rendition, the game started before the attack. Fans in the stands and players on the field were unaware that the bombing had happened, the game went on as planned, and the Redskins went into the half with a large lead. At halftime, though, the teams were notified of the attack, and many players were called to active duty on the spot, including both the first and second string quarterbacks for Washington. As a result, the Eagles rallied to win behind an enormous second half.
This, I thought, was a terrific story, and it certainly put the lie to my idea that the Eagles/Redskins rivalry was only about the fans. In fact, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard this story before, so I headed back to my hotel room to look it up.
And … well, parts of it are true, anyhow. Of the three NFL games under way right around the time of the attack, the Redskins game was the only one where no general announcement was made. The game started after the bombing, but communications in 1941 didn’t travel as quickly as they do today, so everyone present was in the dark.
According to Michael Richman’s Redskins Encyclopedia, the P.A. announcer began making announcements calling various service personnel by name to report to their offices in Washington.
The dramatic scoring change, though, after the players were called to active duty … that appears to be completely false. A 1999 Sports Illustrated story looking back at the game describes the scene like this:
Only the boys in the press box had any idea [about Pearl Harbor]. Just before kickoff an Associated Press reporter named Pat O’Brien got a message ordering him to keep his story short. When O’Brien complained, another message flashed: The Japanese have kicked off. War now! But Redskins president George Marshall wouldn’t allow an announcement of Japan’s attack during the game, explaining that it would distract the fans. That made Griffith Stadium one of the last outposts of an era that had already slipped away.
The crowd oohed and cheered. When the game—and season—ended with Washington a 20-14 winner, a few hundred fans rushed the goalposts.
The only player from the game that I can find mentioned as specifically being called to active duty apparently didn’t have much effect on the score of the game: Eagles halfback Michael “Nick” Basca, who would lose his life in combat in France three years later. He’s in the Sports Illustrated piece, and also a member of the Chester County (PA) Hall of Heroes.
Even if the story isn’t quite accurate as told, it’s still a good one. And it was interesting to see Eagles fans in their natural habitat. If, as I’ve been told, these people are going to be throwing eggs at my vehicle a bit later this morning, at least my first encounter with them this weekend was informative.
(The image above is from a currently active auction for the Redskins Review program from that game. I am in no way affiliated with that auction, but include the link for those of you who are.)