With Bert Bell, common touch, regal rewards

November 23, 1997|By John Steadman

NARBERTH, Pa. -- Some of his forebears were the early aristocrats of America. Yet he renounced with firm purpose any such blue-blood distinction. Bert Bell was born with the first name of de Benneville, after his mother, Fleurette de Benneville Myers. Yet he was strictly "one of the boys." And let it be said, without contradiction, the most competent and colorful commissioner any sport ever had. All others repose in second place, including Landis, Rozelle, Stern, et al.

The state of Pennsylvania, most appropriately, erected a historical marker in Bell's memory here yesterday, the first sports executive to be so honored, near where he lived and by reputation became one of the community's most famed citizens and a much beloved town character. He was just plain Bert, who owned and coached teams in the NFL and then for the last 13 years of his life took the sport to new heights as commissioner and headed it toward the popularity and affluence it enjoys today.

Bell conceived the college draft of players in 1936 as a way to bring competitive balance to a league that was dominated in its early years by the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and New York Giants. While a struggling club owner in Philadelphia with the Eagles, paying bills, but having difficulty selling tickets, he admitted children to the games for 1 cent.

When television arrived as a broadcast vehicle, he quickly recognized its importance. He stumped the halls of Congress to obtain the legal right to black out games so the home team wouldn't be competing against its own product. When there was a gambling scandal, he suspended two players, Merle Hapes and Frank Filchock, both of the New York Giants, but later, in an attempt to lessen the pain for Filchock, allowed him to return from his Canadian football exile and join the Baltimore Colts.

Bell listed his telephone number in the Philadelphia directory and told players, if they had a problem, to "call me anytime, day or night, collect." His most admirable quality was an ability to understand people, and he never considered himself any better than those he met in his walk through life. Born of regal parentage yet a commoner at heart -- like the rest of us.

After a rather spirited youth, filled with good times and parties galore, he met the love of his life, Frances Upton, a Broadway actress who was voted America's most beautiful woman. She was a devout Catholic, and when Bert wanted to get married, the only way she would consent was if he would accompany her to a church rectory and take a pledge to never again taste alcohol.

He kept the promise the rest of his life, but filled the void by eating mountains of chocolate ice cream, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. At NFL meetings, he'd visit the press room and, with a barker's voice that was described as sounding like gravel rolling inside a tin can, he'd shout: "Who wants chicken sandwiches, chocolate ice cream? Order what you want, boys. It's on the Eagles. They made all the money this year."

On most Mondays, he had lunch at the Philadelphia Racquet Club with his friend Joe "Jiggs" Donoghue. Bell's mere presence drew a crowd as the other guests crowded his table and quizzed him on the latest developments in the NFL, getting immediate answers. On one occasion, he was asked, hypothetically, what would happen if Bobby Walston or any other kicker tried a field goal and the ball exploded upon hitting the crossbar? Bell quickly replied: "The league would be out $16.50 [then the cost of a football]."

A Baltimore sportswriter, Frank Cashen of the News-Post, took exception to a sales slogan the Eagles were using -- "There's no football like pro football." Cashen described it as an unfair indictment of the college game by a pro team. That night, the phone rang at Cashen's house. It was Bell saying he agreed with him and that all such advertising would be terminated as of that moment.

Another time, Prescott Sullivan, no doubt the most whimsical sportswriter of them all, wrote in the San Francisco Examiner: "There are two Bells in Philadelphia, and both are cracked." A fun line, and Bell, enjoying the line, said he felt complimented in being compared to a historic relic.

Personal appearance didn't mean much to Bell. He wore double-breasted suits that frequently were stained with coffee and usually wore a wide, striped tie. A daughter, Janie, said: "We like giving Dad a sweatshirt for his birthday, but first we go out and dirty it up." When he traveled, it was usually in the company of one of his three children -- Bert Jr., Upton or Janie. It tells you something about a man, a personality of such importance, who was generally accompanied by one of the kids regardless of where he went.

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