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De Benneville "Bert" Bell

Birthdate: (64)
Birthplace: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States
Death: October 11, 1959 (64)
Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States
Place of Burial: West Conshohocken, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of John Cromwell Bell and Fleurette deBenneville Bell
Brother of John C. Bell, Jr., Governor

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Bert Bell

De Benneville "Bert" Bell (February 25, 1895 – October 11, 1959) was the National Football League (NFL) commissioner from 1945 until his death in 1959. As commissioner, he introduced competitive parity into the NFL to ameliorate the league's commercial viability and enhance its popularity, and he assisted in making the NFL the most financially sound sport's enterprise, and the dominant sports attraction, in the United States (US). He was posthumously enshrined into the charter class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Bell played football at the University of Pennsylvania, and as quarterback for the Quakers, he led his team to an appearance in the 1917 Rose Bowl. He was drafted into the US Army during World War I before ending his collegiate days at Penn and becoming an assistant football coach with the Quakers in the 1920s. During the Great Depression, he was an assistant coach for the Temple Owls and a co-founder and co-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles.

With the Eagles, Bell convinced the other NFL owners to establish the National Football League Draft in order to afford the weakest teams the first opportunity to sign the best available players. He subsequently became the sole proprietor of the Eagles, but the franchise suffered financially. Eventually, he sold the Eagles and bought a stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers. During World War II, Bell auspiciously argued against the league suspending operations until the war's conclusion.

After the war, he was elected NFL commissioner and sold his ownership in the Steelers. As commissioner, he implemented a proactive anti-gambling agenda, negotiated a merger with the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), and unilaterally crafted the entire league schedule with an emphasis on augmenting the dramatic effect of late season matches. During the Golden Age of Television, he tailored the game's rules to strengthen its appeal to mass media, and enforced a blackout policy of locally televised home contests to safeguard ticket receipts. Amidst criticism from franchise owners and under pressure from Congress, he unilaterally recognized the NFLPA and facilitated in the composing of the first pension plan for the players. His life would abide to oversee the "Greatest Game Ever Played" and to envision what the league would become in the future.

Early life (1895–1932)

Bell was born de Benneville Bell, on February 25, 1895, in Philadelphia to John C. Bell and Fleurette de Benneville Myers. His father was an attorney who was elected the Pennsylvania Attorney General. His older brother, John C. Jr., was born in 1892. Bert's parents were very wealthy, and his mother's lineage predated the American Revolutionary War. His father, a Quaker of the University of Pennsylvania (class of 1884) during the early days of American football, accompanied him to his first football game when Bell was six years old. Thereafter, Bell regularly engaged in football games with childhood friends.

In 1904, Bell matriculated at the Episcopal Academy, the Delancey School from 1909 to 1911 and then the Haverford School until 1914. About this time, his father was installed as athletics director at Penn and helped form the NCAA. At Haverford, Bell captained the school's football, basketball, and baseball teams, and "was awarded The Yale Cup [for being] 'The pupil who has done the most to promote athletics in the school.'" Although he excelled at baseball, his devotion was to football. His father, who was named a trustee at Penn in 1911, said of Bell's plans for college, "Bert will go to Penn or he will go to hell."

University of Pennsylvania (1914–1919)


Bell entered Penn in the fall of 1914 as an English major and joined Phi Kappa Sigma. In a rare occurrence for a sophomore, he became the starting quarterback for Penn's coach George H. Brooke. On the team, he also was as a defender, punter, and punt returner. After the team's 3–0 start, Bell temporarily shared possession of his quarterbacking duties until he subsequently reclaimed them later in the season, as Penn finished with a record of 3–5–2.

Prior to Penn's 1916 season, his mother died while he was en route to her bedside. Nevertheless, he started the first game for the Quakers under new coach Bob Folwell, but mixed results left him platooned for the rest of the season. Penn finished with a record of 7–2–1. However, the Quakers secured an invitation to the 1917 Rose Bowl against the Oregon Ducks. Although the best offensive gain for Penn during their 20-14 loss to Oregon was a 20 yard run by Bell, he was replaced late in the game at quarterback after throwing an interception.

In the 1917 season, Bell led Penn to a 9–2–0 finish, and afterwards, he registered with a Mobile Hospital Unit of the US Army for World War I and was deployed to France in May 1918. As a result of his unit participating in hazardous duty, it received a congratulatory letter for bravery from General John J. Pershing, and Bell was promoted to top sergeant. After the war ended, Bell arrived back in the United States in March 1919. He returned to Penn as captain of the team in the fall and again performed erratically. The Quakers finished 1919 with a 6–2–1 record. Academically, his aversion to attending classes forced him to withdraw from Penn without a degree in early 1920. His collegiate days ended with him having been a borderline All-American, but this period of his life had proven that he "possessed the qualities of a leader."

Early career (1920–1932)

Bell assembled the Stanley Professionals in Chicago in 1920, but he disbanded it prior to playing any games because of negative publicity received by Chicago due the Black Sox Scandal. He joined John Heisman's staff at Penn as an assistant coach in 1920, and Bell would remain thereat for several years. At Penn, he was well regarded as a football coach, and after its 1924 season, he drew offers for, but declined, head-coaching assignments at other universities. At least as early as 1926, his avocation was socializing and frequenting Saratoga Race Course, where he counted as friends Tim Mara, Art Rooney, and George Preston Marshall. In 1928, Bell tendered his resignation at Penn in protest over the emphasis of in-season scrimmages during practices by Lud Wray, a fellow assistant coach. Bell's resignation was accommodated prior to the start of the 1929 season.

Bell was then an employee of the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia. At one ponit, he tried his hand as a stock broker and lost $50,000 (presently, $668,508) during the Wall Street Crash of 1929. His father bailed him out of his deprivation, and he returned to working at the Ritz. From 1930 until 1932, he was a backfield coach for the Temple Owls football team. In 1932, Marshall tried to coax Bell into buying the rights to a NFL franchise, but Bell disparaged the league and ridiculed the idea. When Pop Warner was hired to coach Temple for the 1933 season, Warner chose to hire his own assistants and Bell was let go.

NFL career

Philadelphia Eagles (1933–1940)

By early 1933, Bell's opinion on the NFL had changed, and he wanted to become an owner of a team based in Philadelphia. However, college football games were provisioned for Saturdays, attracted a far greater attendance than NFL games, and the Pennsylvania Blue Laws prohibited the patronizing of professional football on Sundays. After being advised a prerequisite to a franchise being rendered in Philadelphia was that the blue laws would have to be mollified, he was the force majeure to getting the laws deprecated. He was then informed that any new franchise in Philadelphia would have to reimburse the arrears owed by the Frankford Yellow Jackets. Bell, thereabouts, partnered with Wray, and they conceded to guarantee Frankford's debt. However, they needed more capital to pay the league entrance fee, pay off the debt of the Yellow Jackets, and assemble a team. Bell attempted to persuade his father to lend him money, but his father deplored football as a livelihood and would not abet him. Consequently, Bell borrowed funds from Frances Upton, and he procured the rights to a franchise in Philadelphia, became its president, and christened the team the Philadelphia Eagles

After the inaugural 1933 Philadelphia Eagles season, Bell married Upton at St. Madeleine Sophie Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia. Days later, his suggestion to bestow the winner of the NFL championship game with the Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy was affirmed. In 1934, the Eagles finished with a 4–7 record, The Eagles' inability to seriously challenge other teams made it difficult to sell tickets, and his failure to sign a talented college prospect led him to adduce that the only way to bring stability to the league was to institute a draft to ensure the weakest teams had an advantage in signing the preeminent players. In 1935, his proposal for a draft was accepted, and in February 1936, the first draft kicked off, at which he acted as Master of Ceremonies. Later that month, his first child, Bert Jr., was born.

In the Eagles' first three years, the partners exhausted $85,000 (presently, $1,406,271), and at a public auction, Bell became sole owner of the Eagles with a bid of $4,500 (presently, $74,450). Austerity measures forced him to supplant Wray as head coach of the Eagles, wherein Bell led the Eagles to an 1–11 finish, their worst record ever (as of the 2013 season). In December, an application for a franchise in Los Angeles was obstructed by Bell and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Rooney as they deemed it too far of a distance to travel for games.

During the Eagles' 2-8-1 1937 season, his second child, John "Upton", was born. In the Eagles' first profitable season, 1938, they posted a 5–6 record. The Eagles finished 1–9–1 in 1939 and 1–10 in 1940.

Pittsburgh Steelers (1940–1945)

In December 1940, Bell conciliated the sale of Rooney's Steelers to Alexis Thompson, and then Rooney acquired half of Bell's interest in the Eagles. In a series of events known as the Pennsylvania Polka, Rooney and Bell exchanged their entire Eagles roster and their territorial rights in Philadelphia to Thompson for his entire Steelers roster and his rights in Pittsburgh. Ostensibly, Rooney had provided assistance to Bell by rewarding him with a 20% commission on the sale of the Steelers. Bell became the Steelers head coach and Rooney became the general manager.

During the training camp of the Pittsburgh's inaugural season with the nickname Steelers, Bell was buoyant with optimism about the team's prospect, but he became crestfallen after Rooney denigrated the squad and flippantly remarked that they looked like the "[s]ame old Steelers" (SOS). After losing the first two games of the 1941 season, Rooney compelled Bell into resigning as head coach. Bell's coaching career ended with a 10–46–2 record, and for coaches with at least five years in the NFL, it is the worst record ever (as of the 2012 season). His first daughter and last child, Jane Upton, was born several months after the season's conclusion.

By 1943, 40% of the NFL rosters had been drafted into the United States Armed Forces for World War II. The resulting difficulty in fielding a full-strength squad led some owners to recommend the league should shut down until the war ended. Bell auspiciously argued against this as he feared they might not be able to resume operations easily after the war, and since Major League Baseball was continuing unabated, then they should also.

Throughout Bell's affiliation with the Steelers, he suffered monetarily and Rooney bought an increasing allotment of the franchise from him. Compounding Bell's problems, Arch Ward organized the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) in 1944 to displace the NFL's sovereignty in professional football. Ward's AAFC promptly began luring players to join the league, which resulted in salaries being driven up drastically. In Bill Dudley's contract proceedings with the Steelers, he attributed Bell's anxiety during the negotiations to the rivalry from the AAFC. Furthermore, by the end of 1945, the Steelers were in their most economically perilous situation in its history.

NFL commissioner (1946–1959)

Elmer Layden was appointed the first NFL commissioner in 1941, but Ward appeared as dictating his hiring. Layden tendered his resignation for personal reasons January 1946. Bell, who was not well respected in Pittsburgh, was elected to replace him. He received a three-year contract at $20,000 ($235,461) per year, and transacted a sale of his stake in the Steelers to Rooney, albeit for a price Bell did not construe was full-value. He was then immediately placed at the center of a controversy wherein the owners denied Dan Reeves permission to relocate the Cleveland Rams to Los Angeles. Bell moderated a settlement, and, as a result, the Los Angeles Rams were formed. As a precondition to the Rams leasing the Los Angeles Coliseum, they signed Kenny Washington, which marked the beginning of the end of racial segregation on the field, but also caused "'all hell to break loose'" amidst the owners.

The drawing up of a regular season schedule had been a perennial source of contention among the NFL owners since the league's inception. The crux of the problem was the scheduling of games meant weighing the interest of owners who, early in the season, wanted their franchises to confront teams that drew the largest crowds, versus owners who wanted to play the weaker franchises to pad their team's win-loss record. The resultant impasse coerced the owners, in 1946, to confer upon Bell the sole discretion in developing the league's schedule. He utilized this responsibility to, early in the season, pit the weaker teams against other weak teams, and the strong teams against other strong teams. His goal was to augment game attendances by keeping the difference in team standings to a minimum as deep into the season as possible.

On the eve of the 1946 championship game, Bell was notified that Merle Hapes and Frank Filchock of the New York Giants had been implicated in a bribing scandal. Filchock was sanctioned by Bell to play in the game but Hapes was suspended. At the next NFL owners' meeting, Bell was worried the repercussions from this event would lead to his firing. However he was pleasantly surprised to learn that his contract would be elevated to five years at $30,000 per year. Reinvigorated with renewed support, he persuaded the owners to allow him to put sudden-death overtime into the playoffs.

Subsequently, he wrote an anti-gambling resolution into the league constitution, which empowered him with the ability to permanently ban any NFL associated personnel for betting on a game or for withholding information on a game being possibly fixed. Furthermore, to obstruct gamblers from getting inside information, he secreted the names of officials he would assign to games, and he directed each team to promulgate a precursory injury report which listed anyone who might not participate in a game. Eventually, he lobbied to get every state in the US to criminalize the fixing of sporting events and put employees on the payroll of the NFL to investigate potential betting scams.

AAFC-NFL merger (1948–1950)

The NFL's struggle against the AAFC generated stress on wages, attendance, marketing, and by 1949, it had prevented the NFL for showing a profit for three consecutive years. Bell and representatives from both leagues met to attempt a merger, but their efforts were fruitless. In an unrelated matter, he apprised the owners that attendance records had shown televising games locally had a negative impact on the sale of home tickets. Nevertheless, he actualized the NFL's first television contract—the 1949 championship game. Simultaneously, he dealt with a lawsuit from Bill Radovich, who had been blacklisted for leaving the Lions and gaining employment with the AAFC. Bell and the owners were advised by John C. Jr. that this lawsuit was potentially not winnable, and the ramifications from the outcome of the case weighed heavily on Bell.

One of the primary impediments in an AAFC-NFL merger was the supposed violation of "territorial rights" claimed by Marshall. Eventually, Bell gathered enough support to effectuate a compromise with the AAFC. In late 1949, the leagues merged, and Bell would stay on as commissioner with his contract extended from five to ten years as three AAFC teams (the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and Baltimore Colts) were subsumed. Seeking to capitalize on the publicity of the residual rivalry, he utilized "exquisite dramatic" and business sense and allocated the 1950 opening game to a contest between the 1949 champion Eagles versus the perennial AAFC champion Browns. Feeling financially secure after the merger, he purchased his first home for himself and his family in Narberth, Pennsylvania.

Marketing of the NFL (1950–1956)

In 1950, Bell originated a blackout rule into the NFL which forbid all teams to televise their home games within a 75 mile radius of their stadium - except for the Rams. Consequently, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) opened an investigation into a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Ensuingly, the Rams attendance for 1950 dropped off by 50%, and this signaled a potential financial disaster. In 1951, he licensed the DuMont Television Network to air the championship games for the next five years, and he stipulated that teams were free to develop their own television contracts independently.

However, preceding 1951 season, he reimposed the blackout rule on all teams in the league. The DOJ filed suit over this and Bell publicly retorted, "You can't give fans a game for free on TV and also expect them to go to the ballpark"; nevertheless, the suit was ordered to trial for January 1952. After the 1951 season ended, he gained unilateral control over the setting of a television strategy for the NFL. He negotiated a deal with DuMont, which granted it the rights to nationally broadcast one regular season game every week, and he directed that the income from this contract was to be shared equally between all the teams. In the DOJ's case, the judge ruled that the blackout policy was legal, but both Bell, and the franchises collectively, were enjoined from negotiating a TV contract; Bell was ecstatic. Later that year, Bell forced one of the owners of the Cleveland Browns to sell all of his shares in the team after Bell determined the owner had bet on Browns' football games. Although he hated to fly, at some indeterminate point, he visited the training camps of every team and lectured on the danger gamblers posed to the league.

Bell authorized a Pro Bowl to be held at the end of each season in order to showcase the talents of the best players. But in the early 1950s, on the field activities sometimes denigrated to borderline assault and battery with teams' star players being viciously targeted by opposing players. He answered charges the league was too savage by saying, "'I have never seen a maliciously dirty football player in my life and I don't believe there are any.'" Nevertheless, he ordered broadcasts to follow a strict rule of conduct whereby TV announcers would not be permitted to criticize the game, and neither fights, nor injuries, could be televised by virtue in his belief that announcers were "'salesman for professional football [and] we do not want kids believing that engaging in fights is the way to play football.'"

Bell was criticized for censoring TV broadcasts, a charge he dismissed as not pertinent because he believed he was not impeding the print media but only advertising a product. After CBS and NBC gained the rights to broadcast the games in 1956, he advised the franchises to avoid criticizing the games or the officials, and forewarned that TV would give "'us our greatest opportunity to sell the NFL and everyone must present to the public the greatest games ... combined with the finest sportsmanship.'" This relationship with television was the beginning of the NFL's rise to becoming America's most popular sport.

Compromise with the NFLPA (1956–1957)

In Radovich v. National Football League, the Supreme Court ruled in Radovich's favor and declared the NFL was subject to antitrust laws, and the implication was that the legality of the draft and reserve clause were dubious. Bell pressed a case in the media that the NFL should be exempted from antitrust regulations and proffered the league was a sport and not a business. He invited an investigation from Congress with respect to the court's ruling. The House Judiciary committee, chaired by Emanuel Celler—who believed the draft was illegal and should be abolished, convened in July 1957 to discuss the ramifications of the Radovich decision. Red Grange and Bell testified at the committee's solicitation and argued the draft was essential to the sport's success. Representatives of the NFLPA contradicted these statements and said the draft and the reserve clause were anti-labor, and it seemed as if Congress was going to accept their position. Faced with Congressional opposition, Bell formally recognized the NFLPA and declared he would negotiate with its representatives.

However, Bell was speaking only for himself and without the auspices of the owners. At the next owners' meeting, Rooney admonished they either had to recognize the NFLPA or remove Bell as commissioner. In order to do this, they had to agree in a vote that required a super-majority. Bell unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the owners to permit the NFLPA to act as a bargaining agent for the players. However, he did reach a compromise with the owners to get them to acquiesce to some of the NFLPA's requests for salary standards and health benefits.

Final days (1958–1959)

For the 1958 season, the durations of timeouts was extended from 60 to 90 seconds and Bell mandated officials call a few TV timeouts during each game — a change which triggered criticism from sportswriters. The 1958 championship game became the first NFL championship game decided in overtime and it was considered to be the greatest football game ever played. The game further increased football's marketability to television advertising, and the drama associated with overtime was the catalyst. Years later, after witnessing Bell openly crying after the game, Raymond Berry attributed it to Bell's realization of the impact the game would have on the prevalence of the sport.

The death of Mara in February 1959 unsettled Bell and he experienced a heart attack later that month. He converted to Catholicism in the summer of 1959 because of the lifelong urging of his wife, Mara's death, and his enduring friendship with Rooney, a practicing Catholic. Bell was advised by his doctor to avoid going to football games, to which he quipped, "I'd rather die watching football than in my bed with my boots off." Bell and his children attended an Eagles game at Franklin Field in October 1959. The Eagles held complimentary box seats for him and guests to watch the game, but he preferred to buy his own tickets and sit with the other fans. Sitting behind the end zone during the fourth quarter of the game, he suffered a heart attack and passed away later that day. His funeral was held at Narberth's St. Margaret Roman Catholic Church and Monsignor Cornelius P. Brennan delivered the eulogy, as close friends and admirers attended the mass. Dominic Olejniczak and all the extant owners of the NFL franchises were pallbearers. Bell was interred at Cavalry Cemetery in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.

Legacy and honors

Bell was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame, the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame,[ the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, and Haverford's Athletic Hall of Fame. The Maxwell Football Club, which he founded in 1937, has presented the best NFL player of the year with the Bert Bell Award since 1959. The Bert Bell Benefit Bowl was exhibited in his honor from 1960 through 1969.

Bell was "a man of buoyant joviality, with a rough and ready wit, laughter and genuine humility and honesty, clearly innocent of pretense and [pretension]." Though his career spanned the desegregation and reintegration of the NFL, as an owner, he never had an African American on any of his teams, but Bert Jr. believed the mere discussion of whether his father was prejudiced was absurd. Bell's handling of the merger with the AAFC was acclaimed as a personal triumph. Although he did not have the wherewithal to prevent the wholesale betting on games, he was proactive in ensuring games were not tampered with by gamblers, and he created the foundation of the contemporary NFL anti-gambling policy.

Bell was criticized as being too strict with his refusal to let sold-out games to be televised locally. Nevertheless, his balancing of television broadcasts against protecting game attendance made the NFL the "healthiest professional sport in America", and he was the "leading protagonist in pro football's evolution into America's major sport." He had understood that the league needed a cooperative television contract with revenue-sharing, but he failed to overcome the obstacles to achieve it. He was portrayed by sportswriters as ensuring the owners treated the players fairly, and his decision to recognize the NFLPA in the face of adversity from owners was a "master stroke" in thwarting Congressional intervention. After he initiated terms for a pension plan with the players in 1959, little progress was made with the NFLPA, however, the first players' pension plan-the Bert Bell National Football League Retirement Plan, was approved in 1962.

Bell's implementation of the draft did not show immediate results, but it was "the single greatest contributor to the [league]'s prosperity" in its first eighty-four years. His original version of the draft was later ruled unconstitutional, but his anchoring of the success of the league to competitive balance has been "hailed by contemporaries and sports historians". Bell had often said, "[o]n any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team."

Published works

Bell, Bert, "The Money Game." Liberty Magazine, XIII (November 28, 1936), pp. 59–60.
Bell, Bert, "Offensive Football." Popular Football, (Winter 1941), p. 111.
Bell, Bert, "This is Commissioner Bell Speaking." Pro Football Illustrated, XII (1952), pp. 60–63.
Bell, Bert; with Martin, Paul, "Do the Gamblers Make a Sucker Out of You?." Saturday Evening Post, CCXXI (November 6, 1948), p. 28.
Bell, Bert; with Pollock, Ed, "Let's Throw Out the Extra Point." Sport, XV (October 1953), p. 24–25.[190]
Bell, Bert (1957). The Story of Professional Football in Summary. Bala Cynwyd, PA: National Football League.
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Bert Bell's Timeline

February 25, 1895
Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States
October 11, 1959
Age 64
Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States
West Conshohocken, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, United States