Yo, Pitman, wanna play the Eagles?

A portion of a team picture of the Eagles squad, with coach Lud Wray on the right

As the first head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Lud Wray set the standard that his successors would follow: Put together an offense and defense that could compete for an NFL title.

Wray, who coached the team from 1933 to 1935, had fewer resources than current head coach Doug Pederson. While Pederson has a staff of 21 assistants, Wray was basically a one-man coaching staff with two-way lineman George Kenneally helping out as an assistant coach.

Coach Wray also served as general manager and faced a challenge that Pederson never will. He occasionally had to find opponents for his team to play in the exhibition season. A letter written by Wray and dated Aug. 6, 1935, provides a look at the NFL before lucrative television contracts and franchises worth billions of dollars were the norm.

Wray addressed his letter, which featured a team letterhead, to Charles Prosser of Pitman, a small town of about 5,500 people in Gloucester County.

“I am writing you at the suggestion of Jim Leonard concerning a game at your stadium in Pitman, [most likely Davis Field]. We would like to play there during the first week of September,” Wray wrote in the letter, which is now part of the archives of the Pitman Memorabilia Committee. “I do not know whether you have a local football team in Pitman, or whether some near by [sic] town has a team which would be an attraction there.”

It was natural for Wray to look to South Jersey as a site for a game since the Eagles held training camp at Bader Field in Atlantic City in 1933 and 1934. Team president Bert Bell had long enjoyed the Shore. He and his wife, Frances, honeymooned in Ventnor and owned a summer home in Margate

Andrew McKillop, a sports researcher from Wisconsin who operates the website footballgeography.com, says NFL teams operated differently during the league’s first decade.

“It certainly wasn’t uncommon for a coach to line up the preseason games,” McKillop said in an email interview. “This is because sometimes the coach was the business manager of the team (i.e. George Halas and the Bears and Curly Lambeau and the Packers).

“It would be my guess that preseason games were used to promote the team and to help the players prepare for the regular season,” McKillop added. Any extra money raised by those games would be especially welcome as the league and its teams attempted to stay afloat during the Great Depression.

In another twist, exhibition games were not solely played before the start of the regular season in the league’s early years.

“During that era, it wasn’t uncommon for teams to schedule exhibition games during the regular season with nonleague opponents,” McKillop pointed out.  “If there was a gap in the schedule, I imagine this was a good way to keep the team prepared and together. Also, [it was] another way for the players and/or the team to earn an extra bit of money during the regular season.”

In 1935, the Eagles played a pair of exhibition games in the last week of September after dropping their first two regular-season games against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Detroit Lions on Sept. 13 and Sept. 20, respectively, according to profootballarchives.com. While the Eagles played exhibition games in North Jersey against the colorfully named Passaic Red Devils and Orange Tornadoes, winning each by a shutout, the team apparently never made it to Pitman. A search of the archives of the weekly Pitman Review newspaper for August and September 1935 found no story about a game with the Eagles.

Wray ended his letter to Prosser on a note of optimism: “We have a much improved club this year, which we believe will make a strong bid for the championship.”

That wasn’t to be the case. After a 4-7 season in 1934, the Eagles fell to 2-9 in 1935, ending the season with five consecutive losses. Wray left the Eagles with a cumulative record of 9-21-1, the first head coach with a career losing record — but not the last.

For Eagles officials and their fans, though, hope springs eternal as players report to training camp this week. That remains a constant, no matter what the decade.

Tom Wilk is a member of the Pitman Memorabilia Committee and coauthor, with Jim Waltzer, of Tales of South Jersey: Profiles and Personalities.  tomwilk@rocketmail.com