Bell, DeBenneville ("Bert")

views updated

BELL, DeBenneville ("Bert")

(b. 25 February 1894 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; d. 11 October 1959 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), football player, coach, and team owner best known as commissioner of the National Football League (NFL), which he provided with strong leadership throughout the 1940s and 1950s, establishing policies that prepared the league for its subsequent success.

Bell was born into a Philadelphia main line family. He was the son of John Cromwell Bell, a lawyer who served as district attorney of Philadelphia and attorney general of Pennsylvania, and Fleurette de Benneville Myers. Bell's brother John was lieutenant governor and governor of Pennsylvania before his election to the United States Senate.

The family's affluence allowed Bell to attend several prestigious preparatory schools, including Haverford, from which he graduated in 1915. Bell then entered the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in English and played quarterback on the football team. At five feet, eight inches, Bell was a good but not great player. He did guide Penn to its only Rose Bowl appearance at the end of the 1916 season. Bell quit school in 1918 to join the military, most notably serving in a field hospital in France during World War I. In 1919 Bell returned home for one more year at Penn before leaving the college without a degree.

Bell served as an assistant coach for the Penn football team from 1920 to 1928. He held a similar position at Temple University in 1930 and 1931. During these years, Bell spent much of his time gambling, drinking, and generally squandering the money allotted to him by his father. After losing a considerable amount of cash at the horse track, Bell's father stopped giving him money in 1932 and forced him to work as a manager at one of the family's hotels, the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia. It was there that Bell met Frances Upton, a popular entertainer with the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1934 the two wed, but only after Bell promised to give up alcohol. Their marriage produced three children.

In 1933 Bell and several other investors purchased the Frankford (Pennsylvania) Yellow Jackets, a franchise that had ceased operations during the 1931 season of the still relatively young National Football League (NFL). Bell renamed the squad the Philadelphia Eagles, inspired by the symbol of the New Deal's National Recovery Administration. With the nation still mired in the Great Depression, the Eagles reportedly lost $80,000 over the next four seasons. The players were paid so little that many of them roomed at Bell's Philadelphia mansion. The franchise was put up for public auction in 1936. Bell, as the only bidder, paid $4,500 for sole ownership of the Philadelphia team. He immediately named himself head coach and general manager, while also assuming public relations and ticket sales duties. Between 1936 and 1940 the Eagles won only ten of fifty-six games and suffered terribly at the gate.

As owner of the Eagles, Bell suggested the creation of a college draft, whereby NFL teams would select collegiate players and gain negotiating rights to them. Under Bell's scheme, the team with the poorest record from the previous season would select first. While clearly an attempt to boost Bell's struggling Eagles, the draft was also supported by George Halas of the Chicago Bears and other prosperous owners. They, along with Bell, saw the broad advantages to creating competitive balance within the league. Ironically, despite getting the first pick in the inaugural NFL draft, Bell was unable to sign any of his choices in 1936. Other major sports leagues eventually adopted Bell's model, creating similar systems of drafting collegiate and amateur players.

In a complicated deal after the 1940 NFL season, Bell sold the Eagles to businessman Alexis Thompson and purchased a half-interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers, becoming co-owner with friend Art Rooney. Bell served as president and general manager of the Steelers and coached the team briefly in 1941. In 1946 Bell sold his interests in the Pittsburgh franchise when he was selected to replace Elmer Layden as NFL commissioner.

Bell and the NFL immediately faced fierce competition from the newly created All-America Football Conference (AAFC). During the expensive four-year "war," Bell steadfastly refused to cooperate with the new league. In 1949 the NFL finally merged with the AAFC. Three financially stable AAFC franchises (Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Baltimore) were absorbed into the older circuit, while the rest of the AAFC teams folded. After league owners were unable to agree on a plan for the fair distribution of former AAFC players to NFL teams, Bell stepped in and reassigned the players himself.

Bell also dealt swiftly with the influence of gamblers who, he felt, threatened the integrity of the sport. Prior to the 1946 NFL championship game between the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants, rumors circulated about players being approached to fix the results of the contest. As such contact with gamblers violated New York state law, Bell immediately investigated and suspended two members of the Giants—Merle Hapes and Frank Filchock. Both suspensions lasted nearly a decade. Bell then pushed successfully for the passage of sports antibribery laws in other states.

Bell's experiences as an owner of losing teams made him sympathetic to underdog franchises and guided his efforts in several areas. Starting in 1948 Bell determined the league's schedule of games. Previously, the strong teams scheduled weak teams early in the season to ensure a winning record for themselves and to maintain fan interest throughout the entirety of the season. This left the poorer clubs to close out the year by playing each other in meaningless contests before small crowds. Bell altered the schedule to guarantee that divisional races would remain competitive late into the season.

As television became increasingly prominent, Bell negotiated league contracts with the Dumont and CBS networks in the 1950s. Again, his concern for competitive balance and sympathy for the weaker teams led to a policy of sharing television revenues equally among NFL teams. This policy was one of the foundations of NFL prosperity and stability throughout the remainder of the twentieth century. Bell also showed an acute understanding of the medium's potentially harmful effects on the still-developing NFL by insisting that games not be televised in home markets. The gravel-voiced commissioner reasoned, "You can't give a game to the public for free on television and expect them to pay to go the ball park for the same game." Expanded television exposure, anchored by Bell's blackout policy, brought a mass audience to professional football in the 1950s and beyond.

In 1959, while attending a game between the Eagles and Steelers at Philadelphia's Franklin Field, Bell, who had been in ill health, suffered a heart attack and died shortly thereafter.

While assuming almost dictatorial powers as commissioner of the NFL, Bell made strong but fair decisions. In the process, the NFL attracted a greater following and became the most successful sports enterprise in the United States. In recognition of his vital role, Bell was admitted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.

Materials concerning Bell are on file at the NFL office in New York City; a newspaper clippings collection is housed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. W. C. Heinz, "Boss of the Behemoths," Saturday Evening Post (3 Dec. 1955), presents a good overview of Bell's activities through the mid-1950s. Pro Football Hall of Fame, "Bert Bell: The Commissioner," Coffin Corner 18, no. 3 (1996), is a good summary of Bell's career. Upton Bell and David Chanoff, "Any Given Sunday," Philadelphia Magazine (Sept. 2000), cowritten by Bell's son, provides interesting anecdotes and insights into Bell's personality. An obituary is in the New York Times (12 Oct. 1959).

Marc S. Maltby

About this article

Bell, DeBenneville ("Bert")

Updated About content Print Article