Historical Markers
Bert Bell Historical Marker
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Bert Bell

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
224-226 Haverford Ave., Narberth

Dedication Date:
November 22, 1997

Behind the Marker

A man in uniform standing on a Ballfield.
Bert Bell in football uniform, circa 1925.
Fortunately for football, Bert Bell never entered the family business. After his grandfather served in Congress, his father was Philadelphia's district attorney under former White Sox pitcher-turned-governor markerJohn K. Tener, Pennsylvania's attorney general. His older brother filled out his predecessor's term as Pennsylvania's governor, then served as Chief Justice on the state's Supreme Court. Bert Bell, on the other hand, so transformed the nation's sporting landscape that he became the Bell in the family that would historically ring the loudest.

Bell was born in 1895 into a world of power and privilege on Philadelphia's Main Line. A fine athlete despite his short stature and slight build, he captained the football, baseball, and basketball teams at the Haverford School, then opted for the University of Pennsylvania, or rather his father, a Penn graduate and trustee, opted for him, making it clear that "Bert will go to Penn, or he'll go to hell." Bert blazed his own trail from then on. When he made football his career, his father disinherited him.

At Penn, Bell lettered in football all four years, and as the starting quarterback, led the Quakers to a 9-2 record in 1916 and an invitation to the Rose Bowl. He captained the team in 1919, then coached at both Penn and Temple before becoming the athletic director at his alma mater. In 1933, he finally decided to go pro, borrowing money from his wife to help buy the team he would turn into the Philadelphia Eagles.

Team photo of the 1926 NFL champion Frankford Yellow Jackets.
Team photo of the 1926 NFL champion Frankford Yellow Jackets.
Before the great running back markerRed Grange signed with the Chicago Bears in 1925, sports fans had dismissed pro football as a barnstorming sideshow, a sorry stepchild of its far nobler collegiate relation. Although there were teams in New York and Chicago, the majority of the National Football League's early franchises were relegated to smaller, industrial locales–towns like Canton, Green Bay, Kenosha, Duluth, Decatur, Staten Island and, in the Philadelphia area, Frankford and Pottsville–where a blue-collar, and often immigrant fan base embraced the rough-and-tumble game.

As much as Bell had loved playing college football, the idea of doing so professionally was about as savory as entering prison voluntarily. Owning a team was different, though, and by 1933, pro football had raised its profile and its image enough to heat up even Bell's blue blood. With a six-person syndicate, he purchased the Frankford Yellow Jackets, relocated the team to Philadelphia's markerBaker Bowl, and renamed it the Philadelphia Eagles to honor the avian symbol of the New Deal's National Recovery Act. The Eagles lost their first game 56-0, and for the rest of the decade, with Bell as its general manager, its won-lost record was as depressing as its shaky finances.

Bell was certain that the Eagles' on-field failure could be directly traced to its off-the-field inability to attract top college players away from signing with better, more solvent teams like the Bears and the Giants. In 1935, he proposed a radical plan to address that perceived inequity: a college draft that would allow teams to select in inverse order of their season's finish. Adopted the following year, the plan, Bell's first important contribution to the game, led to a more balanced and competitive league. It proved so successful that baseball and basketball would ultimately adopt it, too.

In 1936, Bell bought out his partners for $4,500, and named himself head coach. Despite the new draft, his dismal Eagles, with a record of 19 wins, 44 losses, and 2 ties over the next five seasons, remained dismal. The team went nowhere, really, except across the state, in 1941, in one of the strangest trades in the sporting annals. In 1940, Pittsburgh founder and owner markerArt Rooney decided to sell his team and join Bell as a partner in the Eagles. A year later, the two cities exchanged franchises, with Bell and Rooney taking over the Pirates–and renaming them the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A football team portrait.
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Steagles starting line up, Fall 1943.
Despite Bell's poor record as a coach and a team owner, his fellow owners unanimously chose him the league's second commissioner on January 11, 1946. They figured he would take his marching orders from them. They didn't know Bert Bell.

In short order, Bell moved the league offices from Chicago to Philadelphia and tackled head on a rumored attempt to fix the upcoming league championship game. From then on, Bell kept tabs on unexpected swings in NFL betting lines, and brought in retired FBI agents as security officers throughout the league to insure there would be no scandals or even hints of impropriety. Then he took on the threat of the upstart All-America Football Conference (AAFC).

Rather than crush the new league as the NFL owners had requested, Bell sat down with the renegades of the AAFC, and carefully, methodically, and peacefully brokered a truce. The resultant merger in 1949 solidified the NFL, ended an expensive war for fans and players, and allowed the three strongest AAFC franchises–the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Colts, and Cleveland Browns–to join the league.

Commissioner Burt Bell working on the NFL schedule for the upcoming season. March 27, 1951.
Commissioner Burt Bell working on the NFL schedule for the upcoming season....
The first sports commissioner to welcome the coming juggernaut of television and understand how it was likely to impact his sport, Bell insisted that all games be blacked out within a 75-mile radius of home stadiums. "You can't give fans a free game on TV," he argued, "and expect them to pay for the same game in the ballpark." Despite a series of lawsuits against the ban, the courts consistently backed the league, and it held until Bell's successor, Pete Rozelle, modified it in the 1970s. Bell also instituted the two-minute warning at the end of each half to guarantee broadcast advertisers two additional commercial opportunities per game.

Under Bell's leadership, more African Americans entered the game, the league recognized the NFL Players Association, to the owners' chagrin, as a legitimate bargaining agent, and professional football prospered beyond anyone's imagination, even threatening baseball's place in the country's heart as America's National Pastime. "He fenced expertly with anti-trust suiters, shouted down owners, mothered players in trouble, stamped on gamblers and charmed Congressmen and judges," observed one Philadelphia sports writer. "He ran a big industry with the cracker-barrel approach of a country grocer."

Bell died as he lived, close to the game he loved. Watching his two teams, the Eagles and the Steelers, play on a Sunday afternoon at Franklin Field in October 1959, he suffered a heart attack. He was sixty-four. "Born to wealth and social position," eulogized the great columnist Red Smith, "he scoffed at the latter and blew most of the former on football, to which he dedicated his life."

At the end of the 1959 season, the Maxwell Club of Philadelphia awarded the first annual Bert Bell Trophy for the NFL's Most Valuable Player to Colts quarterback markerJohnny Unitas. Four years later, Bell became the first inductee in the charter class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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