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On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell

Robert Lyons

Publication Year: 2009

Bert Bell, a native of Philadelphia, has been called the most powerful executive figure in the history of professional football. He was responsible for helping to transform the game from a circus sideshow into what has become the most popular spectator sport in America. In On Any Given Sunday, the first biography of this important sports figure, historian Robert Lyons recounts the remarkable story of how de Benneville “Bert” Bell rejected the gentility of a high society lifestyle in favor of the tougher gridiron, and rose to become the founder of the Philadelphia Eagles and Commissioner of the National Football League.

Bell, who arguably saved the league from bankruptcy by conceiving the idea for the annual player draft, later made the historic decision to introduce “sudden death” overtime—a move that propelled professional football into the national consciousness. He coined the phrase “on any given sunday” and negotiated the league’s first national TV contract. Lyons also describes in fascinating detail Bell’s relationships with leading figures ranging from such Philadelphia icons as Walter Annenberg and John B. Kelly to national celebrities and U.S. Presidents. He also provides insight into Bell’s colorful personal life—including his hell-raising early years and his secret marriage to Frances Upton, a golden name in show business.

On Any Given Sunday is being published on the 50th anniversary of Bell’s death.

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

It’s hard to believe that it’s been fifty years since Bert Bell’s death and that no one has ever chronicled the life of this remarkable man. Fortunately, Bob Lyons has finally filled the void with a fascinating, thoroughly researched biography that not...

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pp. xiii-xiv

Writing On Any Given Sunday was truly a gratifying experience. The idea was triggered by a chapter on Bert Bell’s life that I wrote for...

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pp. xv

Bert Bell was christened de Benneville, a name he detested but one befitting the scion of one of the wealthiest, most influential families in the Philadelphia area— a family...

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1. The Early Years

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pp. 1-5

Bert Bell was born in his family’s center city Philadelphia home on February 25, 1893, with a silver spoon in his mouth and a soon-to- be hatred for his given baptismal name, de Benneville. The younger of two sons of John C. Bell...

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2. The Quarterback of the Quakers

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pp. 6-11

A few weeks after enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania, Bert Bell surprisingly won the starting quarterback job on the first day of freshman team practice even though he was a scrawny 5-foot- 8-inch, 155- pound lightweight. He also won over his new teammates. As Jack McKinney recounted years...

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3. A War Hero Tastes the French Nightlife

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pp. 12-15

After training for five months at the armory at 32nd Street and Lancaster Avenue, as well as in Philadelphia- area hospitals, Bert Bell and fellow members of Base Hospital Unit No. 20 arrived in France on May 2, 1918. Their unit was located....

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4. Back to Penn as Captain of the Quakers

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pp. 16-21

Relaxing on the ship steaming its way back from France, Top Sergeant Bert Bell was asked if he would still accept the captaincy of the 1919 Quakers. This was the position that he had been elected to serve before the war intervened. “Will I?” Bert exclaimed. “Well, you....

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5. Bert Bell’s Coaching Career Begins

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pp. 22-28

In 1920, Bert Bell finally realized that he was not good enough to play professional football. He decided to return to Penn as the backfield coach under John Heisman, who had succeeded Bob Folwell as head coach after the 1919 season. Heisman later became one of the greatest coaches in college football history. The....

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6. The Roaring Twenties—Off the Field

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pp. 29-32

Although he was nearing his thirties when he coached at Penn and Temple, Bert Bell spent most of his nights and weekends partying and gambling. “Before he was married, Bert touched all the bases,” said longtime Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney,...

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7. Frances Upton: One of America’s Brightest Stars

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pp. 33-42

They first met at a party in New York— a gathering similar to so many get-togethers in the Big Apple where celebrities from the worlds of sports, entertainment, and politics mingled with underworld figures in lavish surroundings befitting the...

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8. The Yellow Jackets Become the Eagles

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pp. 43-47

During their long- distance courtship, Bert Bell was pleasantly surprised to learn that Frances Upton not only loved the game of football but, in some ways, knew more about the sport than he did. They frequently attended University of Pennsylvania football games together. As a celebrity showgirl, her....

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9. The Eagles Struggle under Bell and Wray

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pp. 48-55

Bert Bell’s first move as co-owner of the Eagles was to convince his old friend Lud Wray to become the team’s head coach. The two men had just recently patched up their personal and philosophical differences dating back to their coaching days at Penn. Wray had been fired after lasting only one season...

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10. The Player Draft Comes in 1936

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pp. 56-62

The idea for a player draft was actually triggered by an incident that occurred in 1933. That’s when Bert Bell telephoned Stanley Kostka, an outstanding Minnesota fullback and linebacker, at his home in Minneapolis. “I asked him point blank if he would sign with the Eagles if I came out there and offered him a contract for more money than anyone else in the league would give him,” Bell told...

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11. Additional Shock Waves from 1936

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pp. 63-69

Early in the spring of 1936, after the Eagles had absorbed losses of more than $90,000, the club was offered for sale at a public auction held at the Samuel T. Freeman and Company on Chestnut Street in Center City Philadelphia. Bert Bell made the only bid—$4,500. Suddenly he was the sole owner. A few days later, on April 28,....

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12. The Struggle to Survive: 1937 to 1939

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pp. 70-78

On February 15, 1937, George Halas agreed to trade his prized possession, the outstanding veteran end Bill Hewitt, to the Eagles in exchange for the draft rights to Sam Francis, the great University of Nebraska football and Olympic star. More important to Bert Bell, Halas threw...

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13. Bert Bell and Art Rooney Get Together

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pp. 79-84

Faced with a whopping $400- per- game increase in rent if his Eagles continued to play at Municipal Stadium, Bert Bell signed an agreement with Connie Mack, the own er of the Philadelphia Athletics, to play all six home games at Shibe Park in 1940. They agreed at a meeting on February 8 that the Eagles would play four of the games under the floodlights and the other two contests on Sunday...

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14. Bert Bell Ends Up in Pittsburgh

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pp. 85-92

On January 17, 1941, the NFL owners took the first step in establishing the new position of commissioner to govern their rapidly growing sport. Meeting in Chicago, they rewrote part of the league’s constitution by inserting a clause legalizing the establishment of this new post in the event that the league...

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15. Bracing for World War II

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pp. 93-96

Financially, Bert Bell and Art Rooney continued to struggle in 1942 despite experiencing their first winning season with a 7– 4 record. The owners were so heavily in debt, said Barney Nagler in the...

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16. The Steagles

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pp. 97-105

More than 600 players, coaches, and team administrators from the NFL would eventually go into military service during World War II. When Cleveland Rams own er Dan Reeves joined the Navy early in 1943, his club was permitted....

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17. The Card-Pitts

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pp. 106-111

After considering the possibility of merging with the Cleveland Rams, who were returning to the league after a one- year absence, Bert Bell and Art Rooney finally reached an agreement with Charles Bidwell, the own er of the Chicago Cardinals, to combine forces for the 1944 season. The owners got together...

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18. The New Commissioner [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 112-120

On January 11, 1946, the first day of a special NFL meeting at the Hotel Commodore in New York City was winding down. It was late in the afternoon, the club owners were tired, and the sportswriters waiting outside fully expected...

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19. Mysterious Negotiations with the AAFC

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pp. 121-129

As Bert Bell was working his way home from New York City, hopefully to get his first peaceful sleep in more than a week, storm clouds were quickly gathering over the new NFL czar. They came in the form of a...

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20. A Gambling Scandal Nipped in the Bud

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pp. 130-139

Bert Bell was relaxing at his home on Saturday, December 14, when the telephone rang. It was Jack Mara. “The mayor wants to see you immediately,” the anguished son of New York Giants owner Tim Mara blurted into the mouthpiece. Two hours later, according to Alexander Feinberg of the New York Times, the commissioner joined New York...

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21. Blizzards, Gamblers, and a Rebellious Club Owner

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pp. 140-146

Early in January 1948, Bert Bell sat down with one of his favorite sportswriters, Ralph Bernstein of the Philadelphia Bureau of the Associated Press. Starting his third year as commissioner, the “portly, graying former coach” told Bernstein that he was looking forward to bigger and better gridiron feats, even better than in the past year that he called the greatest season in the history of the...

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22. A Dispute with Walter Annenberg and a Truce with the AAFC

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pp. 147-157

On January 15, 1949, after weighing offers submitted by a number of groups anxious to buy out the beleaguered Alexis Thompson, Bert Bell announced his decision. The new owners of the Eagles would be a syndicate of 100 Philadelphia...

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23. Buffalo, Dominoes, and Television

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pp. 158-165

As the 1949 holiday season approached, Bert Bell began working feverishly on the league’s upcoming schedule. Using sets of dominoes borrowed from Upton and Bert Jr., he spent most of Christmas, all of New Year’s Day, and many full days afterward huddled over his dining room table— sipping coffee...

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24. Finally a Home of Their Own

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pp. 166-169

The summer of 1950 turned out to be quite hectic for the Bert Bell family. For the first time in more than a dozen years they were going to own their own home again. It wasn’t necessarily by choice. After his death in 1935, John C. Bell left his magnificent, 100- acre estate in Radnor to his two sons, John...

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25. The Dream Game Turns into a Shocker

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pp. 170-172

By Labor Day 1950, anticipation for the upcoming Dream Game between the Cleveland Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles had reached sizzling proportions. Coach Greasy Neale’s Eagles were coming off back- to- back NFL championships....

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26. Problems with the Federal Government

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pp. 173-180

On January 18, 1951, Baltimore’s flamboyant own er, Abraham (Shorty) Watner, turned the franchise back to the league at the annual owners’ meeting in Chicago. Watner had made millions operating a trucking firm, a railroad, and....

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27. “Listen, Sonny, Just Sign the Contract!”

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pp. 181-190

As Bert Bell prepared for the NFL’s 1952 winter meetings, reports started circulating throughout the league about the state of his health. Milwaukee Journal sports editor R. G. Lynch wrote in a column on January 8 that veteran coach E. L. (Curly) Lambeau....

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28. Baltimore Rises from the Ashes

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pp. 191-201

As 1952 drew to a close, Bert Bell pondered one of the most complex dilemmas he faced since becoming commissioner. The problem had been tormenting him for more than a year— ever since Abraham Watner turned the Baltimore Colts back to the league in January 1951. It turns out, according to....

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29. More Warfare and the Sermon on the Mount

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pp. 202-210

Shortly after New Year’s Day 1954, the Canadian situation resurfaced. This time, however, Bert Bell reacted quite differently and surprised everyone by changing his tune. “The war is on,” the commissioner bellowed after learning that the New York Giants’ Arnie Weinmeister, one...

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30. Flare-Ups, Pile-Ups, and a Move to Oust the Commissioner

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pp. 211-222

When the bells tolled for New Year’s Day 1955, it was pretty much the same old story for Bert Bell. The familiar Canadian situation just wouldn’t go away— only this time it took more twists and turns than one of Crazy Legs Hirsch’s touchdown runs. On January 22, after hosting representatives...

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31. The Commissioner’s Working Style

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pp. 223-232

Although he was frequently compared favorably with major league baseball’s legendary commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis—“Bell was the second and last of the czars,” Lyall Smith wrote in the...

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32. At Home in Narberth

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pp. 233-235

Bert Bell’s daily ritual at home in Narberth rarely changed. An early riser, he dressed quickly, went downstairs, and fried himself some eggs. “I always dreaded what came next,” his son Upton explained. ‘GET UP, GET UP . . . THE SUN IS UP . . . THE BIRDS ARE IN THE ROOM . . .’ “Then he would follow....

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33. The NFL Welcomes Bubble Gum Cards and CBS-TV

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pp. 236-249

In January 1956, the NFL owners commemorated the first Pro Bowl game by holding the annual league meetings and player draft at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The commissioner, of course, insisted on traveling by train. He was joined on the three- night cross- country ride by the league’s new treasurer, Austin Gunsel, and Jim....

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34. “You Can’t Quit Now, Pete Rozelle!”

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pp. 250-260

Bert Bell spent much of his time in the early days of January 1957 working the phones, discussing the ramifications of the new Players Association with club owners and some of the players who had been selected to represent their teams. One of his conversations was...

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35. The Players Finally Get a Union

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pp. 261-268

With four bills already pending in the House of Representatives to eliminate football and other professional sports from antitrust laws, Bert Bell spent much of the spring of 1957 vigorously stepping up his campaign on behalf of the NFL. First he officially registered as a...

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36. The “Hands-On” Commissioner

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pp. 269-285

Bert Bell was sitting at his desk at his apartment at the Racquet Club in mid- January 1958 gathering his notes for the upcoming NFL owners’ meeting. Suddenly an unexpected guest arrived. It was Frank McNamee, the president of the financially strapped Philadelphia Eagles. “I’ve just worked out a deal to move....

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37. “On Any Given Sunday . . .”

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pp. 286-288

Bert Bell returned to the nation’s capital in July 1958 to again plead his league’s case for antitrust relief. The commissioner was accompanied by a new advisor— Clinton M. Hester, one of the most highly respected lobbyists in Washington, who knew most members of Congress personally. Hester had been introduced...

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38. “Sudden Death” Finally Arrives

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pp. 289-293

One day back in 1946, shortly after he was elected NFL commissioner, Bert Bell was relaxing with some of his friends from the Narberth Sunrise Society. “Hey Bert,” one of them shouted, getting right up into his face, “What happens if there is a tie in a championship game? I’m a big pro football fan, but the thought of co- champions....

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39. Anxiety over the AFC, the Pension Plan, and the Pro Bowl

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pp. 294-305

Bert Bell spent his first day at work in the New Year 1959 chatting on the phone with well- wishers anxious to talk about the fabulous sudden- death game between the Colts and Giants. But later that afternoon, Joe Labrum, his public relations man, came rushing in with some disconcerting news. “Bobby Layne and Ollie Matson...

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40. A Poetic Ending at Franklin Field

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pp. 306-312

The end for Bert Bell came suddenly and without warning on October 12, 1959, about four months shy of his 67th birthday. He was stricken with a heart attack in the final two minutes of an Eagles- Steelers contest at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, watching the game he loved, between two teams he once owned,....

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pp. 313-315

If Bert Bell had lived a few days longer, his children possibly could still own the Philadelphia Eagles today. Three days after his death— on Wednesday, October 14, 1959— Bert and James P. Clark, the club’s majority own er, were scheduled to meet with officials of the Philadelphia National Bank to sign the papers enabling Bell to buy the Eagles for $950,000. “My father was stepping down as commissioner and he was going to buy the Eagles back for his kids,” Bert Jr....


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pp. 317-320


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pp. 321-328

E-ISBN-13: 9781592137336

Publication Year: 2009