BERT BELL talked out of the side of his mouth, like a guy spitting out a silver spoon. Had a raspy, buzz-saw voice that could peel the paper off the Vesper Club dining room walls. Back in the day, when the National Football League needed a hands-on commissioner, Bert Bell had his fingerprints on everything, including the broadcasters' throats.
"I found the minutes of one owners' meeting," Bob Lyons chuckled. "Bell proposed a motion. It said that all home teams had to provide a blackboard and chalk for every visiting team."
Fifty years after Bell died in the stands at Franklin Field during an Eagles-Steelers game, Lyons has written a fascinating book about Bell. It is called "On Any Given Sunday" to honor the phrase Bell used to describe his vision of parity.
What took so long? Bell might have been the best, toughest, most imaginative commissioner ever, any era, any sport.
"I think he's the greatest," Lyons said. "Right up there with baseball's Kenesaw Mountain Landis. They faced the same problems, dealing with the haves and the have-nots among the owners.
"Landis had the Black Sox scandal. Bell, in his first year, had the Giants' gambling scandal (Merle Hapes and Frank Filchock were approached to fix a game)."
Some background. Born into a wealthy Philadelphia family, saddled with a first name that reeked of aristocracy, De Benneville, Bell called himself Bert, played 5 years of football at Penn (don't ask), quarterbacked the team that went to the 1917 Rose Bowl (honest), bought a pro football franchise for $2,500 and named the team Eagles after the symbol of FDR's National Recovery plan, merged it briefly with the Steelers to form the Steagles, sold the team to 100 businessmen, had a green light to buy the team back, a plan that ended with his death in the north stands at Franklin Field.
Whew. Lyons puts instituting the annual college player draft at the top of a crowded list of Bell's achievements. Back in the day, the Bears, Giants, Packers and Redskins dominated the league. The other franchises were gurgling in red ink.
Bell owned the Eagles in 1935 when they finished 2-9. Named himself head coach to slash payroll. Told the other owners the league was only as strong as its weakest link. Said he knew first hand the agonies of a weak link.
Proposed creating a list of college seniors and drafting in inverse order, worst team first, best team last. Had to convince Chicago's George Halas, a fierce spokesman for the "haves."
The first NFL draft was held on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 8 and 9, 1936 in Bell's room at the Ritz-Carlton. Total weekend coverage in the three Philly newspapers: zero, zilch, nada, not a word. Holy Mel Kiper!
The Eagles had the first pick and squandered it on halfback Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago. When Berwanger snubbed Bell's offer of $150 a game, Bell swapped him to the Bears for tackle Art Buss. The deal may have been made in advance, but the Bears didn't benefit, because Berwanger didn't sign with them either.
Bell was chosen as the commish in 1946. The next year he proposed sudden death in championship games, mainly to avoid the risk of declaring co-champions and the expense of sending two NFL teams to Chicago for the annual game against the College All-Stars.
Sudden death was rejected three times before the rules committee caved in. Then came Colts-Giants for the championship in 1958. Baltimore's Steve Myhra kicked a field goal to tie the game at 17-17 with 7 seconds left.
When the gun sounded, referee Ron Gibbs walked over to the weary Giants and told them that sudden death would commence in 3 minutes. Legendary linebacker Sam Huff screeched, "Wait a minute, the game's over."
It wasn't. Johnny Unitas took the Colts 80 yards and Alan Ameche scored the game-winning touchdown and tears zigzagged down Bell's cheeks.
Bell was commish when the owners finally recognized the players' union, he constructed a television policy that included local blackouts and later negotiated the first seven-figure TV contract, he was vigilant against even the aroma of fixed games.
It is even possible that his obsession with gamblers and gambling came from his own cloudy experiences. He bet on his Penn team to beat Dartmouth in 1919 and lost a fistful of money and his $1,000 touring car.
It's all there, in "On Any Given Sunday," which is a lot more fun than watching the Detroit Lions or the St. Louis Rams any day of the week. *
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