Upton Bell shares his memories of attending the 1948 NFL Championship Game with his father, NFL commissioner Bert Bell. The 1948 NFL Championship Game was the first televised NFL Championship Game and laid the foundation for what has become Super Bowl Sunday. Hear more in Episode 40 of The Game Before the Money Podcast.
NFL On Television
The 1948 NFL Championship Game was the first televised NFL championship game. By 1948, Bert Bell was the NFL commissioner and was no longer a team owner. At that time, the NFL wasn’t even close to being the number one sports league in America. Sports fans followed baseball and college football much more than pro football. Furthermore, even the NFL’s position as being the top pro football league was challenged by the AAFC, the All-America Football Conference.
It’s also key to know that radio was king at the time. It was the main source of news and entertainment in America. Television wasn’t nearly as popular or as affordable as radio in the late 1940s, but those in the know recognized the possibilities.
In 1948, there were tens of thousands of televisions in the United States compared to tens of millions of radios. Still, President Harry Truman in 1948 delivered the first televised State of the Union address. Political party conventions were televised for the first time. NFL commissioner, Bert Bell, also jumped on board and signed a contract to have the 1948 NFL Championship Game televised.Embed from Getty Images
The Future of the NFL
Bert Bell understood that television was the future of American entertainment. The quicker he got his league entrenched into television, the better the chance that his NFL could substantially increase its fan base. In today’s world, it’s kind of like recognizing the Internet’s potential for sales and jumping on it. Bert Bell saw his league’s future tied to television. And you know what? Television helped turn pro football into the most popular sport in America.
Bell stood well ahead of the curve. By 1950, just two years after the 1948 NFL Championship Game, there would be millions of television sets in America.
However, the road to the NFL’s immense popularity through television was not always easy. In fact, it was nearly snowed out.Embed from Getty Images
1948 NFL Championship Game
What makes this game so important? Well, obviously, it was the first televised NFL championship game. That alone gives it a special place in NFL history, but the game also set a tone for how the league would be run. It taught television networks that the NFL was dependable. It also provided viewers with a memorable experience they couldn’t get through the radio: the viewing experience we now take for granted as football fans. But at the time, televised football was a novel idea, especially live broadcasts.
Not only could television provide a reliable source of revenue, but it could also generate fans heading into the week of the 1948 NFL Championship Game. Bell must have felt great about the matchup and the possibilities. Here was the team he founded, the Philadelphia Eagles, in a championship rematch against the defending champion Chicago Cardinals. Moreover, the game had an abundance of stars taking the field. And it was all going to be on television where tens of thousands of current and potential fans could actually see the players.
Although Charley Trippi might have been a huge star and future Hall of Famer, you would have actually had to have been at the stadium to watch him play a full game. Bert Bell recognized that the time was coming when people could tune in and watch their favorite players score touchdowns on television. He stood ready with the 1948 NFL Championship Game television contract in his hands.
The Blizzard Bowl
The game was scheduled to be played on December 19th, 1948, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, and a lot of you who love baseball probably know that Shibe Park was also known as Connie Mack Stadium.Embed from Getty Images
Nowadays, the Super Bowl is played at a predetermined warm-weather site or a domed stadium. But it wasn’t like that before the Super Bowl era. The site rotated between divisions. The Western Division team hosted one year the Eastern Division champion the next. That meant that the championship game was often played in northern cities and in cold winter weather
The forecast for the day of the 1948 NFL Championship game in Philadelphia called for cold and snow. Meteorologists predicted blizzard-like conditions at game time. NFL Commissioner Bert Bell could choose to postpone the game and wait for better weather, but that also meant postponing the television broadcast, the biggest NFL broadcast in history at the time.
Like I alluded to earlier, Bell’s decision would set the tone for the league for decades to come and declare that the NFL was as dependable as the U.S. mail in terms of delivering its product in a game that would be played in rain, sleet, and even a driving snowstorm.
The weather forecast proved correct and a blizzard hit Philadelphia on game day.
Players Help Get the Field Ready
The heavy tarp that covered the field had to be moved. Incredibly, it was the players that helped move it. Imagine today’s players doubling as groundskeepers before the Super Bowl. That’s what happened in the 1948 NFL Championship Game. The players didn’t act alone, however, Commissioner Bert Bell took responsibility for his decision to play the game as scheduled.
His son, Upton Bell remembered: “In the morning we got up, it’s a blizzard. And the day before the Cardinal players had come in and voted not to play in the game. My father told them, ‘You don’t play in the game, then that’s it. This is the first nationally televised and radio game. We’re going to play this.’ And so we go to the game in a driving snowstorm. But there’s a picture somewhere of Bert Bell in a suit and overcoat, helping the grounds crew push the tarp off the field to get the game going.”
So you had the NFL commissioner and the players clearing the field before the game to ensure the NFL met its first championship game television contract.
Something similar thing happened in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, as civic leaders helped prepare Candlestick Park for the big game.Embed from Getty Images
A Key Player is Missing
The start of the 1948 NFL Championship didn’t go exactly perfectly. A newspaper report the next day stated that the game started 30 minutes late.
That might have worked in the Eagles advantage in a huge way. Philadelphia coach Greasy Neale looked around the Eagle locker room before game time and noticed that one of his players was missing. And it wasn’t just any player, it was superstar Steve Van Buren.
“There’s the story of Steve Van Buren, the great running back, the precursor to Jim Brown actually thinking the game was called off and was in bed until he got a call that said, ‘Where the hell are you?’ And he (Van Buren) ended up taking a cab and the subway and getting dressed and getting to the game just in time for the game.”Embed from Getty Images
The Game Must Go On
And so the game went on. The nationwide audience sat comfortably in its chairs while the players and fans in the stadium braved the blizzard. Upton Bell watched the game with his father in the press box.
“I sat up in the press box and in Connie Mack Stadium there were no elevators, there was nothing. You had to climb up these scary stairs and you get to the top in this little press box that overlooked the field. And it was a blizzard. And to me, that’s what life was. You survive the blizzard.”
Bert Bell worked to make sure the NFL championship game survived the blizzard. In a day when the NFL used five officials per game and had three alternates, he ordered that all eight be used to officiate this game.
Enough snow fell on the field after the tarp was lifted, that flags were placed on the sidelines to mark the yard lines. A New York Times account of the game by writer Arthur Daly stated that officials frantically shoveled snow before the game in search of the 50-yard line.
Referee Ronald Gibbs declared that the officials wouldn’t be measuring for first downs. Eagles player Ernie Steele once recounted that the snow was so thick that he couldn’t even see the fans. Nearly 30,000 hardy fans braved the elements, however, and witnessed the first building block of NFL championship game broadcasts in person.Embed from Getty Images
Setting a Precedent
For the NFL, the game placed a stake in the ground and laid the foundation for the league’s future. The NFL’s first live nationally televised championship proved a great success. The NFL brought an exciting and memorable game to viewers and established a “we’re going to play this game no matter what” precedent.
Had Bert Bell decided to postpone the 1948 game due to weather, would iconic games like the Ice Bowl or the Mud Bowl have been postponed?
We can’t say for sure, but we certainly know that Bell indeed felt the need to meet the television contract. He was also quoted as saying that he wanted the game to go on for fans who had traveled from Chicago and other faraway places in days before faster interstate drives and regular flights.
The 1948 NFL Championship Game also established the annual event of Americans watching the NFL title game. As more and more Americans bought television sets soon to be in the homes of millions, more and more Americans watched pro football and became NFL fans.
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