Q: You titled your book On Any Given Sunday, a phrase Bert Bell was said to have coined. Can you prove he said this? Everyone seems to think this is apocryphal.
A: Besides being told repeatedly in separate interviews by his sons, Bert Jr. and Upton, that they often heard their father say this, I had the origin of the phrase confirmed by my research as to the exact game he was quoted. It was on November 30, 1958, when Pittsburgh upset the Chicago Bears 24-10. This was the Steelers' first win over the Bears in 14 games spanning more than 24 years. Tom Callahan confirms this in his book, Johnny: The Life and Times of John Unitas.
Q: What prompted you to/why did you want to write a biography of Bert Bell?
A: I became intrigued by Bert Bell’s accomplishments while researching his life for the “Front Office” chapter of The Eagles Encyclopedia. I found so much substance to his life that I told my co-author Ray Didinger that Bert Bell deserved a separate chapter. After that book was published, I was offered the opportunity to write this book.
Q: How/where did you do your research?
A: I had complete access and cooperation from Bert Bell’s sons, Bert Jr., and Upton, whom I interviewed separately a number of times. In addition to personal interviews, official minutes of NFL owners’ meetings, documents in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Bell’s personal scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, I used NFL Films archives and numerous other newspaper and library resources in Philadelphia, New York, and Pittsburgh.
Q: What did you discover working on this book that surprised you about Bert Bell?
A: I was surprised by a number of things: the fact that he was a privileged descendant of one of Pennsylvania’s most influential families; that he actually played football for five years at the University of Pennsylvania; that he led the Quakers to the Rose Bowl (Penn in the Rose Bowl???); that he was a certified war hero; that he actually played in a professional football game against Jim Thorpe; the interesting details about his relationship with Frances Upton (an amazing story, herself); the previously-unknown account about his negotiations with (and possible defection to) the All-America Football Conference; how he carefully developed the use of television when the medium was in its infancy; how he masterfully cultivated members of Congress when the Federal Government was trying desperately to nail the NFL for antitrust violations, and, most of all, how he talked Pete Rozelle out of quitting as general manager of the Los Angeles Rams. The list goes on and on.
Q: Bell’s family history is pretty interesting—he rejected his wealthy upbringing, married Frances Upton in secret. Do you have any observations about how his personal life influenced his professional work/public image?
A: Bert Bell was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a soon-to-be hatred for his given Baptismal name, de Benneville. “Although he came from a proper conservative Republican family, Bert walked with a swagger as a kid and found a way to talk out of the side of his mouth,” his son, Upton remembers. “He didn’t want to talk like all those proper, jut-jawed, society people. He decided that everything he was going to do was in some ways completely different from the way they acted.”
Q: Bell began his football career at Penn, playing quarterback, and then he went into coaching. Do you think he could have gone pro, or was coaching his best option?
A: No. He was a good-to-average quarterback at Penn and realized that he would never make it as a professional football player.
Q: How did Bert Bell become Commissioner? Was this a position he desired?
A: There is no external evidence that he aspired to/or publically expressed interest in becoming Commissioner. What actually went on behind the scenes when the owners chose him as Commissioner will never be known because the minutes of NFL meetings in those days did not reveal much information. Apparently there were a number of issues that contributed to their final decision.
Q: What do you think Bell’s greatest accomplishment as Commissioner was?
A: Mark Yost said it best in his 2006 book, Tailgating, Sacks and Salary Caps: How the NFL Became the Most Successful Sports League in History, that Bell’s idea for the (player) draft “in fact, has turned out to be the single greatest contributor to the NFL’s prosperity over the past 84 years.”
Q: What do you think Bell’s greatest obstacle (scandal) was?
A: The greatest obstacle that he had to overcome was the bribery scandal involving Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes, of the New York Giants, shortly after he was named Commissioner. But he handled the situation masterfully and spent the rest of his career campaigning against organized, big-time gamblers and by taking measures that professional football would never be tainted by a gambling or point-shaving scandal again.
Q: What do you think Bell’s greatest controversy was?
A: Probably allowing the 1949 NFL championship game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams to be played in a drenching rainstorm. He made the decision because of a financial radio commitment and only 22,000 fans attended when crowds between 60,000 and 70,000 were expected. He was lambasted by west coast writers and the players were disappointed when their championship shares were considerably less than anticipated.
Q: Bell’s death was one of the most poetic in all of sports history. What were the reactions to his passing at the time?
A: Shock and dismay. “His death is a great loss,” said Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. “I don’t know how we’ll replace him in the league. I lost a great personal friend.” “As commissioner, he made the pro grid game a truly big-time sport,” said Newsweek. “To say that filling the shoes of the late Bert Bell as commissioner would be great understatement,” Pete Rozelle said after being elected to replace him. “No one will ever fill his shoes.”