De Benneville “Bert” Bell is most remembered as the NFL Commissioner and a founder of the Philadelphia Eagles. He was a charter member of the Po Football Hall of Fame and the NFL Player of the Year is called the Bert Bell Award in his honor presented by the Maxwell Football Club. What many Pittsburgh Steelers fans may not know; this blueblood from Philadelphia became a principal owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In fact, Bell was both a co-owner and the 6th Head coach of the Black & Gold:
List of Steelers coaches prior to Bert Bell:
- Forrest ‘Jap’ Douds 1933; 3-6-2
- Albert ‘Luby’ DiMeolo 1934; 2-10
- Joe Bach 1935-36 & 1952-53; 21-27
- Johnny ‘Blood’ McNally 1937-39; 6-19
- Walt Kiesling 1939-40; 1941-44 & 1954-56; 30-55-5
- Bert Bell 1941; 0-2
Who would name their kid De Benneville? Imagine going through grade school with that first name. Like naming your boy Sue to make sure he grows up tough. His given name is also a family name from his Mother’s side. The De Benneville name was a prominent early American family. In any case, Bell became quite the character and though he might not have been the greatest athlete he kept bouncing back. He attended the Haverford School, a prestigious private school on Philadelphia’s “main line.” Current Oakland Raider General Manager and former Steelers draft choice Mike Mayock also is a graduate of Haverford.
He went to Ivy League University of Pennsylvania to play quarterback. In those early days of football most teams used the single wing formation where the quarterback primarily blocked. The quarterback also called the plays and called the snap cadence since they were lined up closer to the line of scrimmage.
An October 1916 press clipping said that the Penn Quakers needed a quarterback that was “a cool-headed field general; one who can think and do sane things when under a strain that would send most men to an asylum. Bert Bell, (said the writer), ‘did not measure up to those requirements.’” Penn would finish 7-3-1 that year with a trip to the Rose Bowl but also included a 20-0 loss to the Pop Warner led Pitt Panthers. Pitt didn’t get a trip to the Rose Bowl but were 8-0 and considered the National Champions. In 1917, the Penn Quakers improved to 9-2 but were again outshone by Pitt 14-6 which still had Jock Sutherland as one of their stars. Penn would win its next six games with Bert Bell named 2nd team all Eastern quarterback.
World War I
Although a senior, Bell still had a year of eligibility and was chosen to captain the team in 1918. The Great War had been being fought in Europe since 1914 and our country was being drawn closer into the fray. In September of 1917, Bert Bell joined the Overseas Hospital Unit no. 20. Many other college students were in this reserve unit.
In early December 1917; Bell received news that his unit was being mobilized. News reports said the unit commander planned to organize a football team to play while in France. The unit would be in the rear area and maybe they would have extra time to play around. A July 3rd, 1918 Pittsburgh Press article noted that Bell was moved up near the front lines with the surgical wards. Later in October, about a month before the armistice Bell was cited for bravery when shelling damaged the surgical ward and killed several soldiers. Apparently, he could measure up as “a cool-headed field general; one who can think and do sane things when under a strain that would send most men to an asylum.” Bell was still in Europe when he was named Penn’s football captain for 1919. He arrived back in the States in March 1919 on-board the George Washington, a converted German ocean liner.
Not only was Bert Bell a team captain in his final season at Penn in 1919, but head coach Robert Folwell had Bell assist him in running Penn’s spring practice. As a player, Bell was considered a good runner on the edges but too light for up the middle. Bell also worked on his punting and drop kicking over the summer. The extra worked paid off as Bell’s field goal led to a 3-3 tie with the Pitt Panthers in front of 30,000 fans, the largest crowd attending a football game in Philadelphia up to that time. At the end of the 1919 season, Lud Wray and Heinie Miller, who would figure in Bell’s future, also finished their college football careers. Bell had gotten his first taste of coaching and had the football bug.
Bell became an assistant coach at his alma mater in 1920. The first three years he was under head coach John Heisman – yes, the man the award is named after. After Heisman left, Bell stayed as an assistant at Penn until January 1929 when he resigned due to “business pressure.” By the end of the year he joined his former teammate Heinie Miller who was head coach of Temple University where they worked together putting together a 20-5-3 record from 1930-32. Temple hired Pop Warner to take the team to another level. Warner kept Miller as an assistant for 1933 but let Bell go following the 1932 season.
During his 12 years as an assistant coach Bell was known as an innovative offensive coach and proposed several rules to encourage more offense such as limiting the number of defensive players allowed on the line of scrimmage. During this era, pundits considered college football more refined than the professional brand of the game.
Bell was not idle for very long. Bell was reported to be buying an NFL franchise in Philadelphia less than five months from losing his position at Temple. Not only was he President (not a full owner), Bell was assistant coach of the new Philadelphia NFL franchise with his former college teammate at Penn Lud Wray as head coach. By 1934, Bell sat on the NFL executive committee with Chicago Bears legend George Halas and New York’s Henry March. Joe Carr was NFL President (Commissioner) and Carl Storch Treasurer. Bell worked with George Halas to codify the NFL rules. Among rule changes was a waiver rule that required teams to secure waivers from all other teams before selling or trading a player after the 6th game of the season.
Philadelphia Eagles Owner and Head coach
Lud Wray was out as the Eagles coach after their third season. Eagles’ stockholders voted Bell to take over as head coach in addition to his duties as President. He remained as Eagles head coach for the next five seasons accumulating a 10-44 record. Bell did everything for the Eagles: Owner, coach, even selling tickets from the ticket window. He also liked to tinker with the rules and felt that the game should be played in good conditions to enhance offensive play and attendance.
He said, “Football is the only sport where somehow they think it must be played rain or shine. That’s out for me. If they can postpone big league baseball games, fights (boxing), and virtually everything else because the weather threatens to hold down the crowd, I can’t see why professional football can’t do the same.” In September 1939, Art Rooney and the Pittsburgh Pirates (Steelers) had travelled to Philadelphia and Bell postponed the game because it threatened rain and he was concerned about losing ticket sales. Bell cancelled the game, but it did not rain. The Steelers and Eagles rescheduled the game for later in the season.
Later in November 1939, Bell defended canceling of games. “Philadelphia, Nov 6 – (AP) – Bert Bell Philadelphia manager today denounced the professional football policy of going ahead with scheduled games regardless of bad weather. Bell, who saw his Eagles beaten 7-6 by Washington yesterday in a drenching rain, said games played under such conditions led to unnecessary injuries.”
The Pennsylvania Polka
A little-known part of Pittsburgh Steelers history is that Art Rooney eventually sold the club in a complicated maneuver. I will attempt to explain what happened including Bert Bell’s role. Both Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia Eagles not only were losing teams since entering the league, they both were losing money every season since there was no revenue sharing in those days.
Pittsburgh newspapers reported on the possible sale of the Pittsburgh football team in 1939. One proposal saw them moving to Boston to replace the Boston Redskins who had transferred to Washington D.C. Vincent Scully, a local Pittsburgh accountant approached Rooney representing a group wanting to keep team in Pittsburgh. Scully’s group offered to match the $50K offer to buy half team; to prevent a move to Boston. The group would accept 49% ownership to leave Rooney in charge.
Apparently, Art Rooney did not sell but discussions of the Pittsburgh football team’s fate continued into 1940. A June 27, 1940 Post-Gazette article reported on Bell hosting a dinner for Art Rooney during the Republican Convention held in Philadelphia. The article mentions the Eagles climbing out of the red but Steelers still losing money. Rooney reportedly turned done a $150,000 that would have taken team out of Pittsburgh. A November 26, Post-Gazette column; Mirror on Sports by Havey Boyle suggested merging the Eagles and Steelers to form the “Pennsylvanians” splitting home games between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia since both teams were doormats. There is no way to know if Bell, Rooney, or someone else planted this idea or if Boyle conceived it himself.
A couple days later, Boyle’s column said Bert Bell was sending an SOS. Losing money again. Boyle reported that Bell threatened to sell his club if the NFL didn’t make rules to help the weaker franchises. Bell proposed letting the bottom three teams have first rights to top 12 people in the college draft. He said one star at a time doesn’t give weaker teams the necessary strength to turn things around. “One player like Davey O’Brien can help with ticket sales but can’t turn a loser into a winner.” Boyle said the NFL should listen since a “well balanced league (parity) would be more money for everyone.” Tim Mara of the New York Giants was the only owner of a profitable club that was supportive. George Marshal (Redskins owner); George Halas and the Packers Board were not.
So, both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were ripe for picking by entrepreneurs interested in owning a franchise. On November 12, 1940 Art Rooney announced that Walt Kiesling would return as coach in 1941. But then on December 10, 1940 the bombshell hit. “Rooney Sells Steelers” the sports headline began with Greasy Neale announced to be the Steelers coach.
Enter a new character tied to Pittsburgh Steelers lore: Alexis Thompson and the Pittsburgh Ironmen. Follow the link for more details on how this heir in his 20’s came to own the Steelers and even rename them. As for Bell …
Art Rooney, the son of a saloon keeper and a blue-collar background, and Bert Bell, the son of bluebloods, had by this time became competitors as owners of rival football franchises but also good friends. Both loved the game; Rooney saw it as more of a hobby with other business and political interests. Bell may have seen it as his livelihood. In any case, it appears that both were willing partners.
One of the early rumored configurations of the deal described by Boyle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports editor, was for Thompson to buy the Steelers and move the franchise to Boston. Bell and Rooney would then become partners transforming the Eagles into a joint Pennsylvania club called the Keystoners that would split home games between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Thankfully, that proposal did not come to fruition.
Bell had the lead in negotiations after conferring with Rooney. The deal Bell worked out was for Art Rooney taking half of the money from the sale of the Steelers to buy 50% of the Eagles making the Chief and Bert Bell co-owners of the Philadelphia Eagles franchise. I did not figure out whether one or the other had controlling interest. Rooney’s business manager of the Steelers Joe Carr and Walt Kiesling were to move to Philadelphia to help run the team. Kiesling was to be a co-coach with Heinie Miller while Bert Bell searched for a “name” head coach.
The Polka Continues
The Steelers and Eagles players were then divided up between the two teams with 17 players from the Steelers 1940 roster to stay in Pittsburgh while 11 would move to Philadelphia.
But the story does not end there. On April 3rd, 1941 just, a few days after April Fool’s Day, newspapers announced that a swap would take place. The Philadelphia Eagles would be coming to Pittsburgh with co-owners Art Rooney & Bert Bell. While Alexis Thompson would take the Pittsburgh Iron Men to the city of brotherly love.
It is not clear why Rooney and Bell did not name Kiesling as head coach. Heine Miller declined to move to Pittsburgh since he could not afford to leave his insurance business in Philadelphia and Kiesling as co-coach and Rooney’s selection to be Steelers head coach just a few months before made him a logical candidate. Instead, the Steelers relegated Kiesling to assistant and Bert Bell became the Pittsburgh Steelers sixth head coach in its 9th season in the league.
Bell as Steelers Head Coach
Bert Bell has the shortest tenure as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers – just two games. With the original Philadelphia Eagles rebranded as the Steelers and now in Pittsburgh, Bell and Rooney readied for the 1941 season. April newspaper articles described Bell & Rooney as optimistic if the war draft did not take too many players. Bell saw the club’s biggest problem as the player’s “defeatist complex … I know they have the ability. The big job will to get them in the right mental attitude.” He committed to coach and nothing else. Bell claimed he and Walt Kiesling got every player they wanted when splitting the roster with Greasy Neale and the Thompson group. Later saying, they got all but two of 22 players they targeted during the player swap.
In May, Bell was looking for a training camp site. Wanting something close to Pittsburgh, he entertained the idea of practicing at Geneva College or St Francis. Ultimately, Bell chose Hershey as the training camp site saying, “When it rains, they can practice in Hershey Arena.” Bell scheduled camp to start on August 1 with intra-squad games every Wednesday & Friday until exhibition games started at the end of August. Training camp opened with 55 players. The opening game was scheduled with the Cleveland Rams on September 7th.
With Bell coaching and handling player contracts, Rooney kept his distance from the day to day coaching operation. On August 10th, a Pittsburgh Press article described Rooney’s first visit to camp and the contrasting opinions of the team. Bell saying, “This is the finest squad that I’ve ever worried with in the National Football league – as good as I’ve ever seen in the loop.” Rooney seeing squad for first time at an intra-squad scrimmage countered, “They still look like the Steelers to me … in green jerseys.” The article’s writer opined that the team was somewhere in-between.
Bell planned to keep team staying together during season. The whole team would stay at the Mountain View Hotel east of Greensburg and practice at Saint Vincent College and coming to Pittsburgh just for games. One of the first references to the Steelers practicing at Saint Vincent’s and Bert Bell was behind the idea 25 years before the school became a regular training camp fixture for the team in in 1966. He was a stickler for dress codes, expecting players to “be neatly dressed at all times.” When they are traveling Bell “always asks them to wear a necktie and a coat, not to say anything about having a never-come-off shine on their shoes… Nothing gripes me more than to see one of my players come into a hotel dining room in slacks and a sports shirt.”
The Steelers played a series of intra-squad scrimmages and had just one preseason game against the Detroit Lions with just nine of 35 on the roster who played for the Steelers before. The rest of the roster consisted of 16 rookies and 10 former Eagles due to the franchise swap. The Post-Gazette’s Boyle in his Mirror on Sports column opined that the preseason game with the Lions would show whether the offense has “more gadgets than heretofore.” The complaint of observers from previous years was that the offense was “routine.” Boyle added, “some who have watched the Steelers prepare believe they will have a more diversified attack.” The teams scheduled the game for Labor Day on September 1, less than a week from their regular season opener against the Cleveland Rams.
The Steelers won their only preseason game 7-0. The problem was that the offense had seemed listless in the 1st half but during halftime Kiesling pointed out where the flanker in motion could exploit the Lions and it worked leading to the winning touchdown. The Steelers moved into the Mountain View Hotel in Greensburg to prepare for the first game of the 1941 season.
The season opener did not start well, Cleveland scored a touchdown on the opening kickoff and quickly built a 10-0 lead. Pittsburgh showed some spark scoring twice in the second quarter to take the lead but eventually succumbed 14-17. The Steelers had 3 opportunities to tie but went for it instead of trying field goals. The Rams would win their next game before losing the rest of the way to finish 2-9.
With two weeks to prepare for the next game, Art Rooney was more optimistic after a preseason win and narrow loss to the Rams. “Yeah, I made the remark, ‘they still look like the same Steelers to me’, the first time I saw ‘em in a training camp game, but I’m convinced now they’ll win four or five games and prove an interesting team for Pittsburgh fans to watch this fall.” Meanwhile, Bert went to Philadelphia to tend to his ill wife and left Walt Kiesling to run practices. Claire Burcky of the Pittsburgh Press reported that his optimism for the team was based on a big line that’s good on defense; the ball carrying of Elmer Hackney; Art Jones open field running. But Burcky also warned of a lack of passing attack; he felt Halfback John Noppenberg and Fullback Boyd Brumbaugh were in the wrong positions. He also did not like the play calling. No wide reverse plays – the team tended to ram the ball up the middle.
The next game was at home on September 21 versus the Philadelphia Eagles. The same franchise that Art Rooney had sold just nine months before. Coming back to Pittsburgh was the team that had been rechristened the Iron Men before they abandoned Pittsburgh in the swap of franchises that brought Art Rooney back to his hometown. The Eagles had installed the T-formation featuring Tommy Thompson and Lou Tomasetti who had played for the Steelers the previous season. The same T-formation that the Steelers would not fully adopt until 1952, the last NFL team to do so. A few days before the game Bell made some changes in the backfield. Rocco Pirro at QB for John Patrick. Art Jones for Noppenberg at halfback and Elmer Hackney for Brumbaugh at fullback. A big grudge match; the Steelers were favored as the home team.
While in Philadelphia, Bell had scouted the Eagles and reported that “they pass a lot and are a dangerous team at any spot on the field.” The Steelers stymied the Eagles passing attack for most of the game. They even took a 7-3 lead in the 3rd quarter but Dan DeSantis was lateraled the ball and threw a 40-yard touchdown pass (his only career TD) to former Steeler Tomasetti to seal a 10-7 Eagles’ victory. It was a small crowd, just 12,893, which would be the lowest attendance at Forbes Field that season. This had to be crushing, embarrassing loss.
Bell and Kiesling put the team through blocking and tackling fundamentals at St Vincent College; “We’re going to start over again, and we’re hoping that sometime before the Giants come here, we get some fire in this team.” But by the 25th Bert Bell’s coaching days were over. Pittsburgh papers reported that Bell resigned. Bell made the decision after meeting with Art Rooney and was bitterly disappointed at the Eagle loss. “Next to my wife and children coaching football has always been my greatest love. However, realizing that I have had better material than either Cleveland or Philadelphia, and having lost both games, I believe it to be in the best interest of Pittsburgh fans, and the city of Pittsburgh that I resign as head football coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers and confine my duties to the business end of the corporation.”
He took full blame and said a new coach would be named within 24 hours. Newspapers suggested several names including Aldo ‘Buff’ Donelli. both Rooney and Bell said Kiesling would remain as assistant.
Steelers Co-owner 1941-1946
Bell may have been out as the Steelers head coach after just two games, but he was still co-owner and President of the club with Rooney holding the Vice President and treasurer positions. New head coach Buff Donelli ended Bell’s experiment with housing the team in Latrobe. Steelers now practiced in Brookline instead of Saint Vincent’s at a place called Moore Field off Pioneer Avenue. the new coach and went about making immediate changes.
End of 1941 Season
After five straight losses under Donelli; papers quoted Bert Bell, “As long as I am part owner of the Steelers, Buff Donelli will never sit on our bench or have anything to do with our club again. He made a joke out of the National Football league by running off to San Francisco last Thursday.” The issue was that Donelli was still with the Duquesne University football program which was a national power at the time. He was splitting time between the two teams and after an ultimatum from NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden he was out. It was apparent that there was friction between Bell and Donelli and reliable Walt Kiesling finished the 1941 season as head coach.
One of the hottest college players for the draft between the 1941 & 42 season was Bill Dudley but it was unclear whether he would play professional football. As the personnel man and President, Bell had a key role. A December 1941 Post-Gazette article quoted Kiesling saying, “Bert Bell interviewed him personally about 10 days ago and received the impression Dudley will continue his playing career. If he doesn’t and we decide not to waste our first draft choice on him, we would have to shift to other top-notch college stars.”
The 1941 regular season ended on the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor putting the country at war. Bell was supportive of Rooney’s proposal to delay the college draft until April to sort out which players will be available due to the war. “Nobody can tell how much the war is going to hamper or curtail pro football, and all the other sports.” But the NFL went ahead with the draft anyway. Bell had the Steelers prioritize married athletes – 9 of 20 draft picks were married to help mitigate the war conscription. The Steelers also got their top prospect Bill Dudley.
Bert Bell was an ideas man. He made many proposals for the NFL to cope as the nation entered a second world war.:
He proposed the NFL play five exhibition games with proceeds going to the “Hail America Program.” Bell believed many workers may work Sundays, so he suggested Friday & Saturday night games to replace some Sunday afternoons so that defense workers could attend.
Bell also advocated a shorter season; proposing nine game schedules and reducing rosters from 33 to 25 players. Rooney believed the government could suspend football for the war’s duration due to players joining the military or working in defense factories. Meanwhile, Bell kept correspondence with players during the 1942 offseason. In March 1942, owners elected Bert Bell to represent the Eastern Division of the NFL’s executive committee. He conceived the idea, supported by Rooney, of having most players working in the defense industry while practicing & playing football until they joined the military.
The two owners had two different views of the upcoming season. The ever-optimistic Bell predicted the Steelers would finish first or second in the East Division. The more realist Rooney thought they’d be “in the basement again but hoped he was wrong.” After all, the Steelers had not had a single winning season in their nine years playing in the NFL. With Walt Kiesling having the full season as head coach and behind the first team all pro performance by rookie Bill Dudley, the Steelers had their first ever winning season and proved Bell right by placing 2nd in the East Division behind the NFL champion Washington Redskins. Bell deserves credit too as he managed to keep players on the roster as the demands of the war increased.
Art Rooney was no wallflower and loved interacting with players. His deference to Bert Bell on personnel matters during their co-ownership may have been a pragmatic decision. Bert Bell had founded the Maxwell Football Club in 1935 while still owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. Beginning in 1937, The Maxwell Award went to the college player of the year (and still is to this day). In his role as founder and President of the Maxwell Club, Bell was able to learn about many of the best college football players. Naturally, the Steelers top recruit, Bill Dudley was the Maxwell Awardee in 1941. In 1942, Bell still President of Maxwell Club; presented the Maxwell award to Paul Goveranli.
As America’s participation in the war expanded, Rooney remained pessimistic of having a season. One report was that in March 1943, 125 of 350 players who played in the NFL in 1942 were now in the serving in the military. Bell continued to be a multi-tasker. He was working to sign players; Bell named as Steelers President again and was reelected as President of the Robert W. Maxwell Club for his 6th term. He was also working on the NFL’s executive committee suggesting that owners require players to moonlight with defense work while playing football.
An April 4, 1943 Post-Gazette article reported the NFL split on playing in 1943: The Bears, Packers, Giants, Redskins & Brooklyn Dodgers all favored playing. The other half: Cleveland Rams, Chicago Cardinals, Eagles, Steelers & Lions all were “doubting Thomas’s.” The April NFL owners meeting agenda included forming a wartime policy and conducting the college draft (postponed from December). One plan proposed is combining teams such as the Bears/Cardinals; Steelers/Eagles; Giants/Dodgers; Lions/Packers; Redskins/Rams. The Post-Gazette named Bell as its source for the insight on the NFL meeting agenda.
Rooney preferred to prepare as if season would happen as normal but postpone any decision to late July or even August. He would rather “suspend the season than present sandlot football.” The Steeler situation was bleak – no signed draftees and more than half of last season’s players already in the service with more scheduled to go. In addition to players, five of the owners went into military service and needed leave to attend the owner’s meeting: George Halas Bears; Dan Reeves and Fred Levy Cleveland Rams; Alexis Thompson Eagles; Dan Topping Brooklyn.
NFL Deals with War
NFL commissioner Elmer Layden’s theme for the owners meeting was, “We can and will play football.” The caveat was unless proven conclusively that the selective service demands on player personnel proved too much. Bell placed on NFL executive committee to review the 1942 season including financial report; and prepare ideas for future league policy to be considered by all owners. The NFL cut rosters from 33 to 25 as proposed by Bell. The Cleveland Rams suspended operations for 1943. Four other clubs were doubtful but did not pull the plug causing a scheduling problem now that league had an odd number of clubs.
The Steelers had not been able to sign a single drafted player and with the Steelers down to five signed players they proposed merging with the Eagles at a special NFL meeting in June 1943. Steelers player Ted Doyle sent Bell a letter based on the players perspective. He had played in 1942 while working in a war plant.
“Dear Bert: I would probably play football if the proper arrangements could be made. At the present time I am working from 7:30 AM to 4:15PM and will continue to do so. I also would have to work six days per week most of the time. You see, we are building equipment which is wanted as fast as we can put it out.
Last week we worked from 7:30 AM to 7:30PM six days, and then worked eight hours on Sunday. I asked for my vacation early in September, but don’t know whether I will get it then or not. In fact, it looks like that may be one of our busiest periods. My job is building switch panels for Navy fighting boats.
I think it will be possible to carry on with football if we practice evenings and if we allow the boys to work as I do now. Much as I like football, we must do our part for the war effort first and furnish football recreation afterward. I feel that is all the boys work they would be just as well off for the simple reason that they won’t have to worry about what to do with their spare time.
In the past year I saw several boys who would have been better ball players if they hadn’t had so much time to go out and tear around. I know that I did a fairly good job and I felt better than I ever had before simply because I didn’t have time to fret and worry about anything. Yours Sincerely, Ted Doyle”
Initially, the NFL voted against the mergers of the Steelers/Eagles & Bears/Cardinals as other owners felt they would be at competitive disadvantage to merged teams. After the proposed Chicago combo withdrew, the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia group resubmitted and as Eagles representative Harry Thayer said, “It was felt we have legitimate reasons for wanting to combine our interests while there was no need of the Chicago teams doing the same.” Thayer got the voting rights for the combined clubs during 1943 season while Bell remained on the league executive committee. Jack Mara swung his vote so final vote was 5-4 for the merger.
Pittsburgh Press sports reporter Chester L. Smith said the merger was not fair to Pittsburgh, he also suggested calling the merged team the ‘Steagles’ (his June 23, 1943 column is the earliest reference to the nickname I came across in newspaper archives). Further, only two games at Forbes planned and Greasy Neale became the head coach over Walt Kiesling. The merger appeared to favor the Eagles.
The Steagles played 2 of 6 home games at Forbes Field. The other four were in Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. If you count this as a Steelers season, it ended up their second winning season in a row as the team went 5-4-1. Regardless, it was not a satisfactory arrangement. In January 1944 Bell announced that the Steelers would not renew the merger with the Eagles. If enough players available, the Steelers would play on their own. But if they must combine again, they will ensure more home games in Pittsburgh.
1944, another year another merger
With the split up of the Steagles, the Steelers found themselves in a similar circumstance as the previous year. Pittsburgh had only six players available. The rest were either now with the Eagles or in the military. One issue with the merger was that when the Steagles signed a player, the Eagles retained their future rights. The Steelers considered asking the Chicago Cardinals or Cleveland Rams as partners. The Cardinals had gone 0-10 in 1943 and the Rams had suspended play in 1943 but planned to return in 1944.
Before the season started, Bell was as optimistic as Kiesling was pessimistic about the talent of roster. Pittsburgh did get three of five home games but after a devastating home opener that saw them lose a 28-23 lead in the 4th quarter that 2-point deficit was as close as they would come to winning a game. By the last game, with only just over 9000 fans at Forbes Field on a blustery freezing day. Field conditions were so bad that John Grigas, their leading offensive threat who was one of six players to receive a vote as NFL MVP that year, did not show up and left this note prior to the last game which said in part:
” Dear Management and Coaches:
My action, for what I just did, may not be the best in regard to good, ethical business. Think what you may of me, but I sincerely believe that in all justice it is for the best. I had that desire which you so often mentioned in your lectures, but how long a person can have any desire depends on the frame of mind under which he plays. The human mind is the faculty of the soul, which is influenced by the human body. When your mind is changed because of the physical beating, week in and week out, your soul isn’t in the game. My mind has been influenced this past week and I tried to stick it out, but it has reached the stage where the mind is stronger than the will … I tried to win and worked hard, but the workhorse, as I was termed by the newspapers is almost ready for the stud farm. In closing, all that I can say is that I am deeply sorry – but these are things that can’t be fully explained. Good luck, and may the team win just this one. “
Grigas was leading the league in rushing going into that game and ended up second though he still led the league in all-purpose yards. In fairness, he was also working in a Steel Mill in Ambridge while playing that season so the strain of playing football and working is more understandable. Nevertheless, they lost and the Card-Pitts finished 0-10 in 1944.
This would be the worst season associated with a Pittsburgh Steeler team until 1969. Bell commented on never again combining, “No matter how bad we find it next year in starting out alone, the season couldn’t have turned out any worse than this one. Pittsburgh is the greatest football town in the country, and we appreciate the way the fans have continued to turn out despite our poor showing.”
Art Rooney and Bert Bell were determined to play the 1945 season on their own and to upgrade the team through coaching. As early as December 1944, the Pittsburgh Press reported that Bert Bell had met with legendary coach Jock Sutherland (who had played against Bell in college 28 years before). An issue was that Sutherland wanted a stake in the team.
Meanwhile, Bell as a member of the NFL rules committee proposed dropping PAT and going to “sudden death” overtime to break ties. He suggested playing 15 minute overtime periods until breaking a tie. The league with Bell also looked at league statistics showing most injuries occur late in game and later in season placing a premium on reserves and increasing the rosters. This also led to overruling his overtime proposal for the time being.
Pittsburgh would have to wait another year for Jock Sutherland as discussions including delays because of his Navy commitment resulted in Art Rooney announcing that Bert Bell signed Jim Leonard in late April 1945 to prepare for the upcoming season. Rumors of another merger loomed but both Rooney and Bell said it would only happen if the league demanded it. Bell hired his college teammate and Eagles coach Lud Wray as Steelers assistant coach.
Rumors of a Move
In a May 29 Pittsburgh Press column called: Sports Stew – Served Hot, Carl Hughes reported NFL owners may fire Elmer Layden. Hughes noted that Bert Bell was a possible replacement, but he’d have to give up his part ownership of the Steelers. Despite the rumors Bell continued his front office work for the Steelers. Prior to the 1945 season Bell revealed that Steelers would begin travel by plane for away games. The Steelers would offset travel costs by saving on hotel expenses.
At the end of 1945, the war was over, and the Steelers were looking toward the future. Bell returned to Pittsburgh to plan the next season with Rooney. No secret that they were targeting Jock Sutherland to coach. Jim Leonard was not in their plans. A December 14, 1945 Pittsburgh Press report said that Bell had been talking to Sutherland, but Rooney would join the conversation in a Cleveland meeting. Before the month was out, Jock Sutherland signed a 5-year contract as coach and Vice President. The deal included an option to buy shares of Bell’s stock in team. Bell was to continue as team President. Rooney VP and treasurer. The Steelers had landed their high-profile coach for the future of the franchise.
Just a few weeks into the new year, Bert Bell replaced Elmer Layden as NFL commissioner. Bell signed a 3-year contract, with plans to move NFL HQ from Chicago to New York City as soon as he sold his share of Steelers. This was a crucial time for NFL. With the end of the war expansion was on the horizon. But, the NFL needed to deal with the All-America Football Conference which had poached an entire franchise when the NFL Brooklyn Tigers switched leagues. The All-American Conference was also luring players away and playing in venues near NFL franchises threatening the NFL. Bell tried to work out arrangement with 3 other pro leagues – Dixie, Pacific Coast and American Association – where they would become minor leagues to the NFL. NFL surplus players would play in those three leagues shutting the All-Americans out. Disappointed with Elmer Layden’s handling of the upstart league and appreciating Bell’s aggressive leadership; NFL owners replaced Layden with Bell.
In February 1946, Rooney and Barney McGinley bought Bell’s 200 shares of Steelers. Sutherland had five years to buy shares so he now would be dealing directly with Art Rooney who regained his position as principal owner with McGinley a minority owner.
As he battled a rival league in the USA and the Canadian Football League, Bell also was getting the NFL ready for the 1946 season. One of the areas he addressed was improving officiating. According to Bell, “The league … realizes that if a fan attends a game and goes away without remembering the referee, umpire, field judge or linesman, that a game must have been expertly officiated.” He wanted a spotter at every game who would record each play, time consumed and actions of the officials. Bell designated Hugh L. Ray the first technical advisor on NFL rules and referee supervisor. He eventually worked out the merger between the two leagues. Finally, in 1949 they reached an agreement with the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers joining the NFL. Bell had gained leverage with tough negotiations and holding out on demands even as both leagues lost money.
He also had to deal with a gambling scandal when gangsters approached Merle Hapes and Frank Filchock to throw the NFL championship game between the New York Giants game and Chicago Bears. Bell suspended Hapes for the game but cleared Filchock who played but the Giants lost anyway. The trial was complete with gangland figures and showgirl actress Ida McGuire. Bell ended up meeting with the US Attorney General to discuss federal legislation against sports betting. Another initiative by Bell was ordering teams to announce injuries and inactive players in advance of games to protect the integrity of the game. What a difference to today’s relationship between the NFL and the gambling industry.
Up through 1946, NFL schedules were set up between the teams with the league only getting involved to resolve any conflicts. Under Bell’s tenure, he got he owners to cede scheduling control to the league office. He used this power to schedule games that would appeal to the public and attract more fans.
In his second year as commissioner, Bell met with a Latrobe memorial group to discuss setting up the Pro Football Hall of Fame there. A full 16 years before the Pro Football Hall of Fame finally announced the inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame members. Owners pledged an unspecified amount to set up hall of fame at Latrobe.
Bell was also involved in some of the first revenue sharing schemes to help the smaller market teams be more competitive, an issue long championed by Art Rooney. He and Rooney also worked to get the fledgling NFLPA recognition by the owners. He was not successful in getting the NFLPA recognition as a bargaining unit but did negotiate concessions on salary and health benefits. The beginning of the collective bargaining agreements of today’s NFL.
I’ve likely missed some of his accomplishments as Commissioner; but he laid a steady groundwork for the future after taking over in the turbulent times right after the war including television rights and recognizing the role of a strong players association being “in the best interests of Pro Football.”
Death of a Football Man
Such a man of such energy and charisma was not going to leave us quietly. The showman in him foretold his departure. In 1959, Bert Bell attended a Philadelphia Eagles home game. He had bought his own tickets and was sitting in the end zone stands amongst the fans when he suffered a fatal heart attack in the 4th quarter as his team was scoring to win a game against their opponent … the Pittsburgh Steelers. Full circle.
Bert Bell’s Hall of Fame Career Capsule quotes him, “All I ever wanted to be was a football man.” Indeed, he was that and more.
I always like to include some music. Always liked Will the Circle be Unbroken. This version by June Carter, Pops Staples & Johnnie Cash.
Bert Bell’s coaching record which belies his true impact to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, and the NFL as a whole:
From Pro Football Reference