A Life of Bert Bell

By Robert S. Lyons

Temple University Press.

344 pp. $35

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Reviewed by David Cohen

This is a genuine Philadelphia story.

Bert Bell was born here into a wealthy family, he played college football here for Penn, he launched the Eagles here and coached them, he located the NFL's offices here when he became the commissioner, and he died here, watching an Eagles game at Franklin Field in November 1959.

Robert S. Lyons' flavorful biography captures the blustery and paternalistic Bell, portraying him as a man who worked relentlessly to keep the NFL alive and push it to thrive.

When Bell was elected commissioner in 1946, the survival of the National Football League was not a sure thing. Challenged by the All-America Football Conference, and then by raids from the Canadian Football League, the NFL lacked stability. The public was largely indifferent, and teams didn't always meet their payrolls on time.

As portrayed by Lyons, Bell turned the tide by serving as a benevolent dictator. He didn't hesitate to meddle everywhere - even in a player's life - or lend a helping hand anywhere.

The father of the NFL draft, Bell sought competitive balance and a clean image for his league, making a point of calling play-by-play announcers such as Bill Campbell at home if they were too critical in their descriptions. He endlessly rearranged dominoes on a chart to come up with a sensible schedule.

Faced with a scandal in 1946, he battled the scourge of gambling relentlessly. Bell walked a tightrope to ensure that the league got exposure from TV without losing ticket sales, and he was far more progressive than those running baseball at the time - Bell accepted a players' union, integration, and West Coast teams before they did.

Deeply in love with the sport, he got involved in the affairs of his teams, and not in subtle ways. The 1958 trade that brought Norm Van Brocklin to the Eagles was at least partially his doing. So was the hiring of Vince Lombardi as Green Bay's coach.

"I often said that his heart was shaped like a football," Lyons quotes Baltimore sportswriter John Steadman as saying.

The odd thing, though it's not emphasized here, is that Bell was much better at running the entire NFL than he was as the Eagles' owner and sometimes coach.

From 1933 to 1940, the franchise was a bit of a joke, winning 19 of 87 games and failing to establish any stars except Davey O'Brien, who quickly retired to join the FBI. To make matters worse, Bell was brutally honest about the quality of his players and the team's plight.

"It will be a long, long while before we're out of the red," he said in 1939. "Philadelphia needs education as far as professional football is concerned."

Unfortunately, one might say the same of the author. Lyons' text has some factual fumbles.

One can't, for instance, use World War II as an explanation for the loss of a team's players for the 1941 season - very few players went into the military before the attack on Pearl Harbor, which happened on the season's final day. (The NFL was, however, competing with an early version of the American Football League that year.)

Lyons doesn't mention that Kenny Washington and Woody Strode broke the color line in the NFL during Bell's first season as commissioner, a year before their former UCLA teammate Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. He's wrong on the timing for unlimited substitution (off by a year, though he does have the date the watershed change was made permanent) and NFL trading cards (off by two decades). He locates the Garden State Race Track in Camden, rather than Delaware Township (now Cherry Hill).

Perhaps most telling is a story about Eagles great Pete Pihos. As stated here, Pihos complained to Bell that the Eagles were cutting his pay. Bell replied that he deserved it, having made only 12 catches in 1952. A chastened Pihos then went on to lead the league in receptions three times.

The story is presumably meant to show Bell's depth of knowledge or influence on his players, but it doesn't work that way. To fill the team's needs, Pihos had spent most of 1952 on defense, where he was an all-pro end. In 1953, he was shifted to offense. His improved stats were largely a matter of opportunity.

Despite those quibbles, the book is worth reading. One has to appreciate the long string of anecdotes and colorful details Lyons has dug up. Who knew, for instance, that Bell would calm tempers at owners' meetings by taking out his false teeth and putting them in his water glass?

More important, no book has detailed Bell's contributions to the NFL so thoroughly. When Bell died, John B. Old wrote, "The National Football League as it is today is a living monument to the ideals, generalship, and courage of commissioner Bert Bell."

Reading this book, one can perceive the truth behind that statement.