- On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell
One could idealize Bert Bell as the embodiment of a simpler era when professional sports were more about having fun than about multi-million-dollar player contracts and multi-billion-dollar television deals. After all, Bell in 1936 paid a mere $4,500 to purchase the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League (NFL). He intervened to assist players in need and was genuinely concerned for their wellbeing. As NFL commissioner from 1946 until his death in 1959 he stored the league’s records in a few manila folders. Robert S. Lyons’ On Any Given Sunday rejects this easy nostalgia to position Bell instead as the man most responsible for transforming the NFL from a barnstorming league into today’s sporting colossus. Lyons, a longtime journalist and author of Palestra Pandemonium: A History of the Big Five and The Eagles Encyclopedia, combines print sources, minutes from league meetings, and interviews with Bert Bell’s sons to produce a solid study of this key figure in American sports history.
On Any Given Sunday does not aspire to be a complete biography. It dispatches Bell’s first twenty-five years in ten pages and rarely scrutinizes his life outside of football. As Lyons makes clear, however, Bell’s life was football. A product of a well-heeled Philadelphia family, he fell in love with the sport while an undersized quarterback at the University of Pennsylvania. After serving a few months in France during World War I he transitioned [End Page 185] from playing to coaching, first as an assistant at Penn and then at Temple. Lyons hints at other business interests without elaboration but makes it clear that Bell enjoyed gambling and did not object to allowing his wealthy father to subsidize his playboy lifestyle. Maturity finally came with his 1934 marriage to starlet Frances Upton and the responsibility of getting the fledgling Philadelphia Eagles off the ground. Bell rose from an informal, unpaid coach to co-owner and, eventually, sole owner. Poor teams and worse attendance plagued his tenure. The Eagles were one of the doormats of the league, unable to compete with George Halas’ Chicago Bears and George Preston Marshall’s Redskins.
Bell’s frustration at losing top college talent to wealthier and better teams inspired him to convince owners to implement a draft, the first of his innovations that turned the NFL into a league rather than a collection of teams. Weaker franchises gained access to top talent as powerful teams sacrificed some of their success for the greater good of league stability. Bell’s Eagles continued to suffer despite this leveling of the playing field. Lyons does a solid job of walking the reader through Bell’s leap to the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he became co-owner with Art Rooney, and the temporary mergers they arranged to survive World War II.
Lyons devotes most of his time to Bell’s years as commissioner. Commissioner Bell was a league man, a workaholic committed to maximizing parity and putting the NFL on a firm financial footing. Lyons credits Bell with an instinct for building consensus and an uncanny sense of the sport’s future direction. His sure-handed combination of patience and forcefulness beat back challenges from the rival All-American Football Conference and Canadian Football League. A public crusade to root out links, or appearance of links, between the league and big-time gamblers enhanced the NFL’s social acceptance. Bell also eased the NFL onto television. His refusal to permit broadcasts of home games within a team’s territory demonstrated his preference for the enlarged fan bases that came with sold-out stadiums over quick television dollars. With limited success he battled Congress and the courts to defend the NFL against antitrust suits. Finally, he negotiated with the nascent NFL Players’ Association rather than crush it, as anti-union owners urged. Bell pushed to recognize the union and granted it small concessions that increased player contentment without doing...