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Podcast: Bert Bell — The Great Commissioner

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Who came up with the idea for the NFL Draft?

The answer is the same man who founded the Philadelphia Eagles, and came up with the idea of overtime, implemented the two-minute warning, came up with the idea of injury reports and the waiver wire. His name is Bert Bell.

In this episode, Bell’s son Upton Bell, who worked for the Colts in the 1960s before becoming the New England Patriots GM, is our guest. He walks us through his father’s life and legacy through stories of how Bert Bell came up with the idea for the NFL Draft, how Bell chose the name Eagles for his franchise, and Bell’s role in the early stages of the American Football League.

You can listen and subscribe to The Game before the Money Podcast on your favorite listening platform, including on Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Spotify, Stitcher, and Google Play.

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Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Welcome to The Game Before the Money Podcast brought to you by NB Autographs dot com. N as in Namath, B as in Biletnikoff — NB Autographs dot com.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Celebrating pro and college football history. One legend at a time.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Hi, everybody. Welcome to The Game Before the Money Podcast. I’m Jackson, Michael, author of “The Game Before the Money Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL”, published by the University of Nebraska Press and also writer director of “We Were the Oilers: The Luv Ya Blue Era”. Both are available at The Game Before the Money dot com and on Amazon.com.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Today, we have a very special guest in Upton Bell who worked in the Colts organization throughout the 1960s all the way through when they won Super Bowl five and later became general manager of the New England Patriots. In this episode, however, he’ll be talking about his father, Bert Bell, who founded the Philadelphia Eagles and was NFL commissioner for many years while Upton was growing up. Upton’s book, “Present at the Creation” is easily found online and provides readers with a firsthand glimpse of what it was like to grow up as the son of the NFL commissioner during some of the league’s most glorious and storied days. The book also chronicles Upton’s experiences working in the NFL and owning the Charlotte Hornets of the World Football League.

Bert Bell’s huge impact on the NFL

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Henry Ford is often recognized as a father of the automotive industry. President John F. Kennedy is often noted as the visionary leader that helped land a man on the moon. Today, we’ll examine the life of a man who could be called both the father and the visionary leader of pro football. And ultimately, the National Football League. His name is Bert Bell. There is a reason why Bell was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s first class, along with Jim Thorpe, Sammy Baugh and George Halas. Actually, there are dozens of reasons why.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Indeed, it was George Halas himself who said, quote, “Bell was a great leader, a genius, in fact. All his contributions will never be forgotten. He brought pro football to its present heights and he will never be forgotten.” That quote appeared in Associated Press reports of Bert Bell’s death in 1959. Bell, then the NFL commissioner suffered a heart attack at an Eagles Steelers game. So you might be wondering how many of Bell’s contributions are remembered today. Well, here’s a list of just a few that impact today’s NFL and pro sports in general. After founding, the Philadelphia Eagles, Bell came up with the idea of a collegiate player draft, one that had the worst team pick first. He instituted the Two-minute warning. He created overtime. He leveraged this new thing called television to launch pro football from a sideshow to college football to an unforgettable television drama in the 1958 NFL championship. That game would cement The National Football League into the American culture for decades to come. Bell even helped your fantasy league team by coming up with the waiver wire and injury reports. Oh, and you can also easily make the case that he single-handedly saved the league from possible collapse more than once. Bell, however, wasn’t a man to brag about his accomplishments. That wasn’t his style. Bert Bell did not come from humble beginnings. He came from an accomplished and storied family. For starters, his father was the Pennsylvania attorney general.

Bert Bell’s Family Heritage

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
His father was the attorney general. And also his father. My grandfather on that side was on the Walter Camp committee when Teddy Roosevelt said that I’m going to abolish college football.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
Walter Camp and my grandfather, were the people that put together what is today the NCAA. His hotel, the Ritz Carlton, which was on Broad Street right there is the city hall now is a huge building with a pizza parlor. Many of you of your top people of the time, Bob Hope would come there, Cesar Romero all these people. It was it was the place in Philadelphia.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
As a teenager, Bert stood as an accomplished high school athlete and even earned media coverage in the years before World War One.

Bert Bell’s Athletic Career

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
He was a three-sport athlete or pop score or something, or thought he was a better baseball player or football player or thought that he was really a total baseball prospect.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Today’s high school stars have a media circus following them to National Signing Day. Bert’s father, however, left no mystery as to what Bert’s college plans would be. Bert’s son Upton relays to us with the Philadelphia headlines, said.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
The headline was Bell’s father says he’ll go to Penn or he’ll

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
Go to hell. That was a headline.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Penn, not Penn State to play football. Penn, as in Pennsylvania.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
Then, the Ivy League was the power of America. Like the Big 10 is today or the southeastern conference. It was a completely different world.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Indeed, the teams that make up today’s Ivy League had some of the strongest teams in college football. In fact, Yale to this day holds the record for most national football championships. In case you’re wondering, Alabama is tied for second place with Princeton (AS OF OCTOBER 2018). So how did Bell’s Penn team fare? In 1916, the beat powerful Michigan on the last game of the season, then headed west to play Oregon in the 1917 Rose Bowl.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
He was the quarterback at Penn and he also took the first forward pass in Rose Bowl history. He was captain. He was also one of the best punters in the Ivy League. They went to the Rose Bowl, lost yo Oregon, but he threw the first forward pass.

Bert Bell in World War One

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
In 1917, World War One raged across Europe. Bert Bell soon found himself in the thick of the action.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
His junior year at Penn they played on Thanksgiving Day and next day he was down and volunteered to go with a group into the first world war. And he ended up going with John B, Kelly, Grace Kelly’s father, and he and Kelly remained friends for life. My father actually was a war hero who was cited by General Pershing and also the President of France. He was cited for bravery in the field when their position was being bombed and they were told to evacuate and they couldn’t wait around for the people injured in the tents and who volunteered to stay behind and help dodge the bombs. He never talked about it never talked about being cited and never talked about his exploits. Tie him to Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation.” He was a great conversationalist and he was great with us as kids, but he just didn’t talk about himself.

Bell’s NCAA Coaching Career

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Bell graduated from Penn after the war. After college, Bell worked as an assistant football coach at Penn. The head coach at that time was John Heisman. Yes, that Heisman. The man for whom the Heisman Trophy is named. Bell Also served as an assistant coach at Temple until Pop Warner. Yes, that Pop Warner was hired as head coach and replaced the entire coaching staff. Outside of football, Bell became enamored with Francis Upton, who had achieved a high level of success before meeting her future husband.

Bell’s wife, Frances Upton

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Well, first and foremost, her story is unbelievable. She was taking ballet lessons and after school was working at Macy’s at the perfume counter. And one day one of the Shuberts of the Shubert theaters. Of which one is still here and in New York.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
One of their talent scouts came by and said, “You’re a very beautiful young woman, do you have any dancing your background backgrounds” She said, “I’m taking ballet lessons. And he said, “Well, here’s my card.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
If some day you’re interested get in touch with me.” Evidently she did, I think is five years later, I think she was on Broadway and she ended up in the Ziegfeld Follies. She introduced the song Making Whoopee with Eddie Cantor.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
She also came from a storied family.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
So I just discovered a couple of years ago a story for The New York Times on my grandfather, on my mother’s side. He spoke six languages. Never finished high school came to this country from Ireland and ended up working as an undercover detective for the New York Police Department. They could send him into different areas to go after, which is today. The Mafia which was the black hand or into the German section or into the Irish section in disguise, as he was cited by the New York City Department as one of their greatest detectives. His father, William Cleary Upton, wrote a best seller on how the British were treating the Irish as landowner’s back in the 1880s. It was a best seller then it’s 120 some years (later) today you can still get that book “Uncle Pat’s Cabin” on Amazon.

Founding the Philadelphia Eagles

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Frankford is a section of Philadelphia. The Frankford Yellowjackets began playing in the National Football League in 1924. They won the 1926 NFL championship. Hard economic times were on the horizon. However, a combination of the Great Depression and two fires which damaged the stadium forced the team to suspend operations in 1931. Bert Bell purchased the Yellow Jackets out of bankruptcy and was awarded the franchise. Bell’s father, however, didn’t see it as a smart move. The money came from Francis Upton, who saw the potential of pro football.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
My father found the Eagles in 1933 with the money from my mother. She lent him the money to buy the Frankford yellowjackets out of bankruptcy. Now, his father could have easily given them money, but his father said, Bert I’d lend you hundreds of thousands of dollars, not a nickel for pro-football — it’s a joke. College football is the game.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
And he was right about that part of it. 25 teams or more went out of business between the founding and the league in Canton, Ohio, with Jim Thorpe in that automobile room.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
And by the time my father got in 8 or 10 years later,.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Bell decided to name the team for the entire city Philadelphia rather than just Frankfort. He literally looked towards the sky and saw the nickname Eagles.

How the Philadelphia Eagles got their name

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
He was walking down the street and looked up on the billboard that had the National Recovery Act eagle up there, Franklin Roosevelt’s thing and decided on the spot “That’s what to name my team.”

Creating the NFL Draft

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
The new team, struggled to win and languished in the lower half of the standings. Bert Bell tried to acquire a college star, Stan Kostka, to help the team, but was outbid. Bell noted that teams on the lower end of the spectrum had less of a chance of signing star players to improve their team, improve their attendance and ability to stay afloat financially. He came up with an idea, and it’s an idea that’s still used today by every major sport.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
Well, my father and Art Rooney both got their franchises at the same time. He looked at it and he said the Bears, the Packers and the Giants, and to a degree the Redskins, They always win because they own the best players but if you don’t have any money, you’re not to be able to do it.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
He presented the thing to the owners, I think in 1934 or 35. His whole thing to them was we’re only as strong as our weakest link. And if we don’t do something about this and get these better teams to agree that we would have a draft and the worst teams in inverse order would draft first, this league isn’t going to be around for business.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Today’s NFL draft as a mass media spectacle that gets covered months in advance. There’s the NFL Combine. Talk radio discusses who will be the first overall pick and the event is beamed into televisions across the country. In 2018, an estimated five point five million people watched the NFL draft on television. Additionally, an estimated 100000 people watched Day 1 of the 2018 NFL draft in person at the enormous AT&T Stadium in Dallas. But the first NFL draft in 1936 attracted much less attention.

1936 NFL Draft (first NFL Draft)

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
The first draft ever held was in Bert Bell’s father’s hotel and they announced to the press “The first draft” And guess what? Nobody showed. One of the most famous coaches in history was drafted and he never played in the NFL — Bear Bryant. My father had the worst team, so he had the first pick and he drafted Jay Berwanger who was the Heisman Trophy winner and Berwanger refused to sign with Philadelphia and so my father sold his rights to the Bears and the Bears couldn’t sign him so he never played.

Davey O’Brien

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
In 1939, Bell’s Eagles landed TCU quarterback Davey O’BRIEN with the fourth overall pick. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Davey O’BRIEN Award. Yes, it’s that Davey O’BRIEN. There’s all sorts of history tied around Bert Bell.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
Davey O’BRIEN, who was his quarterback, was the first quarterback to the ever insured with Lloyd’s of London against injury. Five foot seven from Texas Christian. He threw to a receiver by the name of Don Looney. His son, 30 years later, I recommended after the Giants cut him in bringing him to the Patriots camp.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
O’brien signed a two year contract with the Eagles. He was the NFL passing leader as a rookie and would have led the NFL in passing his second year. The difference was an eighty one yard completion that Sammy Baugh made to Dick Todd that put Baugh over the top. Otherwise. Davey O’BRIEN would have led the NFL in passing yards both seasons that he played.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
You may wonder why Davey O’BRIEN only played two years in the NFL despite his success. Well, in those days. The money was nowhere near what it is today. O’BRIEN decided to chase another career.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
Davey O’BRIEN, retired early terrific career with the Eagles and joined the FBI, became the best pistol shot in America.

Part owner of Pittsburgh Steelers

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Bert Bell left the Eagles around the same time Davey O’BRIEN left. In a complex arrangement, steel heir Alexis Thompson took control of the Philadelphia Eagles and Bert Bell took part ownership in the Pittsburgh Steelers with Art Rooney. As World War 2 encroached on the United States, the National Football League considered shutting down. Bert Bell convinced the other owners to keep going.

Vote to close NFL during World War 2

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
During the Second World War, there was a vote to close the league and he said to them, if you close the league, it will never open again. And he had to fight for two or three days. He said, remember, the All America conference is coming and they get a foothold and we’re closed. And players coming back from the Second World War, they’re going to go where the money is. He saw that, too.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Although it was difficult, the NFL survived the lean years of World War Two and Bert Bell was elected commissioner of the league in 1946. The NFL faced two obstacles that year. First, a new rival league, the all-American Football Conference, began play. Teams included the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco, Forty-Niners, Los Angeles Don and Miami Seahawks. The Miami Seahawks would be sold the next season, moved to Baltimore and become the Baltimore Colts. Furthermore, circumstances around the 1946 NFL championship game threatened the integrity of the league as the new A AFC completed their first successful season. NFL Commissioner Bert Bell knew that he needed to take swift action to preserve the reputation of the National Football League.

1946 NFL Championship

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
That’s how Bert Bell saved the league. The day of or the night before the championship game they were playing in New York. Bert Bell got a call from Frank Hogan the district attorney said, you’ve got to get to New York because two of the giant players, the quarterback, Frank Filchock and Running back Merle Hapes were basically accused of not accepting bets but listening to it and never turning it into the league and saying gamblers have tried to compromise us. So that night before the game was spent with the district attorney and finally, my father who didn’t take all week long to make a decision, made a decision to let Filchock to play in the game. And in the case of Hapes, he suspended Hapes. Eventually they were both banned and played in the Canadian League. But that night, if he had not taken that type of action, the NFL might never have made it to the next year, because gambling in those days was the kiss of death,.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Bell took great measures to ensure that the National Football League wouldn’t be overtaken by a gambling scandal,.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
He hired ex-FBI men in each city to follow the players and the gamblers.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
He also forced every team, which is still around today, to declare who’s injured and who isn’t.

Bert Bell and Television

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
In the late 1940s, people ahead of the curve could see the dawning of the age of television raise its glow above the horizon. Bert Bell, recognized the power that television could give. The National Football League, the 1948 NFL Championship, a rematch of the 1947 Eagles Cardinals match up that the Cardinals won, would be played in Philadelphia. A snow storm pelted Philadelphia on that day, however, raising the question of whether to play the game. Commissioner Bell, however, didn’t consider postponing the game. Commissioner Bell said the game must go on to honor the league’s television responsibilities.

1948 NFL Championship

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
Now, the day before, the Cardinals had voted not to play the game if it was really bad. Of course, they don’t know what it’s like when you deal with Bert Bell. He had signed the first national TV contract and basically his position was, I don’t care if anybody shows up. That game’s gonna be played. There’s a famous picture, by the way, of players and everybody else rolling the tarp off the field. Bert Bell, the commissioner, was helping them roll the tarp off the field. His whole position is this is the league, this is the television contract. This is the game. We play it in the snow, no matter what happens. And they did.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
The Eagles prevailed 7 to nothing. Powered by a touchdown from Star running back Steve Van Buren, who nearly missed the game, thinking it wouldn’t be played. Despite the low score. Upton tells us the game provided plenty of excitement.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
It was an exciting game because there was so much at stake and there were so many great players on the field that they eventually went to the Hall of Fame. So that was it. Ended in the snowstorm and that was one of the most memorable games of its time,.

AAFC – NFL Merger

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
In 1950, the AAFC partially merged with the NFL.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
This brought the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco Forty-Niners and Baltimore Colts into the National Football League.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
That merger, I believe, was even more important. They all might have been out of business, but my father saw that they were all losing money. So that’s when he decided Let’s take the Browns and the Forty Niners who were very good in and we’ll see if we can do something with the Colts.

Doak Walker draft rights to Lions

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Bell needed to solve one big discrepancy, however. Both the AAFC’s Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions own the draft rights to college superstar Doak Walker. Bell made a simple, yet authoritative decision to solve the matter. He told the two teams to work out a deal or he would flip a coin to decide who had Walker’s draft rights.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Cleveland and Detroit worked out a deal, and the future Hall of Famer went to the Lions for a draft pick. The National Football League entered the 1950s, a decade that would permanently establish the league in the American culture, and it would be done under Commissioner Bert Bell’s guidance.

NFL and Labor in 1950s

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
The NFL wasn’t all glory and roses in the 1950s, however. The league lost a lawsuit against former player Bill Radovich and the Supreme Court decided that the National Football League didn’t have the same exemptions to anti-trust laws that Major League Baseball had. Congress became interested in the matter, taking a closer look at the NFL. Bert Bell took swift action to uphold the interests of the league.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
He was a registered lobbyist. He decided that it was time to go to Washington to lobby on behalf of the NFL because baseball got all the breaks from anti trusts. But not only that, his brother who was the lieutenant governor and then governor briefly of Pennsylvania and then became chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania wrote many of the legal rules that are still in the NFL rulebook and in their constitution and by laws,.

Bert Bell and NFL Pensions

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Player pensions were also a hot topic in the 1950s. The relationship between players and team owners became increasingly difficult to navigate. Bert Bell did his best to take all sides into consideration.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
No other commissioner had what Bert Bell had, although I think Rozelle was a great commissioner. Bert Bell was a player, he was a coach. He was an owner before he was commissioner. He knew all the heartbreak of the game. He knew it as a player. He knew how as an owner he lost so much money. He knew it from every aspect. He knew what the fan meant to the game. He also knew that television was a future show where he was able to balance it all because he had experienced it.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
This wasn’t always a popular stance with NFL owners,.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
Even though he was very powerful and the owners loved him —

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
They kept tearing up his contract. When he died, I think he had a new 13 year contract. The reason was that he even stood up to them on behalf of the players when he decided he was going to recognize the players association, they threatened to fire him. He said, “Well if you’re going to fire me, Fire me. But this is the right thing to do for the players.”

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Bell placed a substantial amount of effort into the player pension issue.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
He was the one that came up with the pension plan and what he did was he went and studied pensions for a while and then went to Carroll Rosenbloom. Rosenbloom set him up with a pension planner in Baltimore by the name of Sid (inaudible).

1957 NFL Championship Television Controversy

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
In the early years of television, NFL owners worried that if games were shown on free television, fans wouldn’t buy tickets to the game. The league adopted a rule stating that home games, even if they were sold out, wouldn’t be televised in a team’s home market. This held true for NFL championship games. The rule created a bit of controversy before the 1957 NFL championship game. Upton Bell explains.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
They tried to put the pressure on my father to take the blackout out because the game finally was sold out. And he said, “Well, what about those fans that stood out line all week long in a driving snowstorm to buy their tickets? And they are now going to tell him, you’re a bunch of suckers. You bought the tickets, so I’m going to put it on free TV.” He refused to do it.

Nixon tries to pressure Bell

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
The controversy even entered the political arena with both Michigan’s governor and the vice president getting involved. That vice president would later become president of the United States. Bert Bell wasn’t intimidated by the politicians.

So the governor at that time, Soapy Williams of Michigan, decided he was going to put pressure on Bert Bell. It’s the worst thing you could have done. So he called Nixon, asked Nixon to come in and see if he could pressure Bert Bell into changing the whole thing. Nixon did come in. They had dinner. You know, he tried to put a lot of pressure on my father. And my father finally told Nixon the same thing he told Governor Soapy Williams. I’m not doing it. It might cost the league money. But those people were there when nobody was going to games.

Bert Bell Invents Overtime

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
One of Bell’s important innovations came about because of an annual game that is no longer played. It was called the College All-Star Game. The game matched the National Football League champion against a team of collegiate All-Stars. The game always attracted a lot of attention as people wondered how a group of all Americans would fare against the National Football League champions. Bell knew the importance of the game, and he also foresaw a possible mess if the NFL championship game would end up in a tie.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
He had one of those minds I very rarely run into in any business that saw things way before they were going to happen. He always took complex issues and reduced them to the simplest form, and here was the easiest way in persuading the owners to do it, he said. What happens when a championship game ends up in a tie? It’s (The College All-Star Game) our second biggest game of the year outside of the championship game. If that (championship game) ends up in a tie, What are we do? Look like a bunch of idiots and flip a coin on who’s going? He Said What a joke The league would look like. So he said. I’m going to propose an extra period we’ll called sudden death and we’ll be a fifteen minute period with the first team that scores (wins). Now they’ve really complicated. By the way, I understand why they did it. Here’s my answer to that. Life doesn’t always give you second chance. This is what kept the fan on the edge of his or her seat. Can you survive if you lose the coin flip?

1958 NFL Championship

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
That’s simple rule provided the backdrop for a drama played out between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts. The 1958 NFL championship game grabbed breathtaking attention from millions of television viewers throughout the country. The game established the legend of Johnny Unitas, featured Frank Gifford as the star of the New York Giants. The sudden death overtime finale gripped the nation and announced to everyone that the National Football League could provide an unrivalled theater of emotion, grit and resolve. From that day forward, pro football was on its way to overtaking Major League Baseball as the country’s most beloved sport.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
After the game Raymond Berry said he saw Bert Bell with tears in his eyes. Raymond said I think he realized that day that pro football had made it. John Steadman, the famous sports editor of the News American, and says somewhere on tape that he ran into Bert Bell coming down from the press box. And it was with my sister and Art Rooney. And so he was walking down and Stedman said, well, what do you think about today? And he said, John, oh, boy. So they never thought I’d live to see this day. And you know what? It was the last championship game we ever saw.

Bert Bell and Lamar Hunt and the founding of the American Football League

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
The Baltimore Colts thrilling overtime victory in the 1958 NFL championship indeed brought the National Football League to a new level in the public’s eye. An inspired young man in Texas named Lamar Hunt dreamed of owning his own NFL franchise. He hoped to gain favor with Bert Bell by sending a mutual friend to lobby on his behalf to either purchase the Chicago Cardinals or be awarded an expansion franchise.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
In the summer of 59.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
Lamar Hunt was 26 or 27 then, and Hunt knew that Davey O’BRIEN played for my father. Hunt was a very shy person. So Davey O’BRIEN came to see my father in the summer in Margate, New Jersey, where we had our summer home. And they met two or three times and finally set up a meeting with Lamar Hunt. My father told them, wait another year or two. The Cardinals are not for sale right now, but when we’re ready to take in an expansion franchise, I would certainly consider you. So Hunt, disappointed with that finally decided to put together a league of his own.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Bell also explained that not all NFL teams were profitable. The NFL would likely consider expanding once all teams became profitable. To put things into context, people like Bell, Art Rooney, George Halas and other owners rememberrf the days when over two dozen franchises folded before the founding of the Eagles and the Steelers. Moreover, the 1952 Dallas Texans went bankrupt in the middle of the season. Bert Bell solved the problem by having the league take over the team. Though Lamar Hunt was disappointed with Bell’s response to his request. Hunt demonstrated the ultimate statement of respect for Bell while forming the American Football League.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
He asked O’Brien if he would approach my father and see if he’d be interested in running both leagues. So my father said to him,, “It’s a real privilege but please tell Mr. Hunt I really couldn’t do it.” But he said, “I’ll tell you what, if he’s going to form a new league. He said it was his permission I’ll announce it in Congress,” which he did in the summer of 59, announced to Congress because they were on him about antitrust.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Hunt’s new Pro Football League wasn’t the only pro sports league that had approached Bert Bell.

Bert Bell and Major League Baseball

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
Bert Bell was so successful that either before or after Happy Chandler was commissioner of baseball, a group of baseball owners approached my father and asked him if he’d be interested in running the baseball league as well as the NFL. That’s how prized she was by people who are in the business.

Bert Bell’s Legacy

As the 1950s came to a close and the 1959 NFL season began Professional football crossed the threshold into an era of prosperity that would rise above all other professional sports played in the United States. Bert Bell laid the groundwork for that prosperity. His innovations provided the backbone for the modern game and provided templates for other sports to follow. Although he caught a glimpse of the NFL’s future in the 1958 NFL championship game, he wouldn’t live to see the full measure of what professional football would become. He suffered a heart attack during the 1959 season while attending a Pittsburgh Steelers Philadelphia Eagles game. Upton Bell gives a firsthand account of the game and his father’s passing.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
In his book “Present at the Creation.” The league owners elected Pete Rozelle as commissioner of the National Football League.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
After Bert Bell’s death, Rozelle, however, never had the power that Bert Bell had.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
When Bert Bell died, this is quoted in the book from George Halas, who was very close to my father, and Caroll Rosenbloom said, “We think Bert is the greatest, but we don’t want anybody have that power again.” And then didn’t.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Pro football kept climbing the ladder of popularity throughout the 1960s. The American Football League merged with the National Football League in 1970. The merger was agreed upon in 1966. They agreed to create a championship game between the leagues, which eventually became known as the Super Bowl.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Most football fans are much quicker to recognize the name Pete Rozelle than they are Bert Bell. That fact is inconsequential when you consider how much Bell did to establish the league’s popularity, cement its foundation and implement ideas that are still used today. Perhaps former Philadelphia Eagles coach Dick Vermeil said it best on a quote from Steelers.com “Before Bert Bell. The NFL operated out of a closet almost most of what you associate with pro football today began with Bert Bell.” So on any given Sunday, you’ll witness Bert Belz influence on the game of professional football.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
And by the way, Bert Bell coined the phrase.

UPTON BELL: Author of “Present at the Creation”, former New England Patriots GM, former Baltimore Colts scout, son of NFL Commissioner Bert Bell:
When Bob Lyons his biographer started to write the book he read somewhere that Peter King said one of the great things about Pete Rozelle was that he had said, “On any given Sunday, any team can beat another.” And Lyons called Peter and said, “Peter, Pete Rozelle did not say that.” And Peter said “It was my understanding he did.” He (Lyons) said research it Peter did to his credit and emailed him and said, “You’re right. It was Bert Bell.”

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Maybe someone else could have guided the NFL through the late 1940s and 1950s, with the league still achieving the heights that it did. The number of people capable of doing that, however, would be quite small. As Upton pointed out, Bert Bell understood all sides of the game. He was a player. He was a fan. He was a coach. He was an owner. And he was commissioner. He didn’t enter the commissioner’s office and forget his days as quarterback of the Penn football team. He didn’t forget the fans who stand out in a snow storm to get tickets to the NFL championship game. He didn’t forget the owners who feared bankruptcy as commissioner. He recognized player rights when it wasn’t comfortable to do so. He testified before Congress on behalf of the league. And he quietly communicated with Lamar Hunt as Hunt founded a rival league that would eventually merge with the NFL, making pro football the most popular sport in America.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
A very special thanks to Upton for being so generous with his time and stories about his father. I strongly suggest that you get Upton’s book “Present at the Creation.” We’ll also have often take part in future episodes.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Thank you for listening to this episode of The Game Before the Money podcast brought to you by N b autographs dot com. That’s an as a Namath b as in Biletnikoff. N b autographs. dot com.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
Please subscribe to our podcast and visit our Web site. The game before the money dot com.

Narrator (JACKSON MICHAEL — Historian, Author of football history book The Game Before the Money):
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