Bell Jr., supporter of city's NFL bid, says dad 'would have kicked the Irsays out'

John Steadman

November 05, 1993|By John Steadman

Growing up with the National Football League was a birthright of Bert Bell Jr., who still has more than a casual interest in what his remarkable father helped create. That's why he's upset over the way Baltimore is being treated in regard to acquiring an expansion franchise.

"There was no reason for Baltimore to be robbed of the Colts and no reason why the league can't put a team back there," said Bell, son of the late commissioner who brought respectability to the professional game when it was struggling and in dire need of leadership.

On the day Baltimore representatives appeared before the NFL owners in Chicago 10 days ago, Bell, now employed as a floor manager at Bally Park Place in Atlantic City, placed an advertisement in the Baltimore Sun that read: "Baltimore -- Hope You Get Your Team Back. Good Luck. Bert Bell Jr., Atlantic City."

It showed his heart was in the right place, a considerate act on Bell's part.

"I can't put the knock on commissioner Paul Tagliabue because I don't know him," Bell said. "But if he wants to do the right thing he should do what every man, woman and child with any awareness of common decency realizes needs to be done -- give Baltimore what it truly deserves.

"I don't see how Tagliabue and the owners can avoid doing that. It's an obligation. It's what the American public wants to see happen, but I'm afraid the NFL is so enamored with itself that it believes it's beyond making a mistake. But the public is negative about the league and I hate to see Tagliabue, new to the job, taking so much criticism.

"I hate to go back to my father, Art Rooney, George Halas and so many other pioneers, but they would have kicked the Irsays out of football before letting them take that team to Indianapolis. Now the NFL ought to feel compelled to correct the hurt Baltimore has endured.

Before they took care of Charlotte, where my brother, Upton, was general manager of a World Football League team, or even paid any attention to St. Louis, the first preference should have been Baltimore. Justice has to be done. If my father had a legacy to the league, that's it. I knew in the mid-1970s Charlotte was going to be great and I told my brother he should have applied then to the NFL to put a team there."

Bell, who says the NFL is "the game I love," is surprised some ownership candidates for expansion clubs are still in the running. He talks like a man who knows something but, when pressed, becomes mute. The only time Bell has ever been in the public prints, other than the football column he once wrote for the Baltimore News American, was when he was arrested but later declared innocent of playing cards with Colts halfback Alex Hawkins and some other gamers in the rear room of a suburban barber shop.

"What happened is our lookout, who was supposed to be paying attention, went off to sleep. It must have been a slow news day in Baltimore because the newspapers played it up like something bad was going on. We were just a gathering of serious nickel-and-dime card players. I think we got more print than Spiro Agnew and Marvin Mandel.

"Gee, Baltimore, what a great town. The NFL doesn't know what it's missing. I hope Tagliabue and the owners come to their senses. After having Irsay and Carroll Rosenbloom for owners, the town deserves something better -- a whole lot better. No town in America ever had owners back-to-back like those two. As Art Rooney once said, 'I'm surprised it's still standing after what Irsay and Rosenbloom did to Baltimore.'

Bell has always been a blunt, straight-from-the-shoulder personality, willing to express himself in a matter-of-fact manner. On an earlier election day in New Jersey, a newspaper reporter approached Bert while he was playing outdoor basketball and asked if he was going to the polls. "Not me," he was quoted as saying. "I don't vote for corruption."

Bert Bell Sr., a Hall of Fame commissioner, whose father was attorney general of Pennsylvania and whose brother, Jack, was a state supreme court justice, cleaned up betting scandals in the NFL, recognized the players union when it was starting, instituted the TV blackout law and won its approval when it was attacked legally. He helped shape the NFL and, almost as if it was supposed to happen that way, died while attending a Philadelphia-Pittsburgh game at Franklin Field in 1959.

His son, Bert Jr., says the present commissioner, Tagliabue, should have only one premise: to do what's best for the league and the public interest. That to him means giving Baltimore what it deserves ahead of anyplace else.

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