Robert Lyons’s On Any Given Sunday is the first definitive biography of Bert Bell, a man who some considered the greatest commissioner in the history of professional sports. In this Q&A, Lyons discusses the subject of his book.
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 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.
On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell by Robert Lyons is being published on the 50th Anniversary of Bert Bell’s death.
On October 12, 1949, Bert Bell was stricken with a heart attack in the final two minutes of an Eagles-Steelers contest at Franklin Field in Philadelphia.
It was a “poetic death” for Bell. Writes Lyons, “[Bell] was watching the game he loved, between two teams he once owned, at the stadium where he began his football career as a Penn quarterback in 1914.”
In his book, Lyons recounts the response of Phil Musick, who later wrote in PRO! magazine: “It was like Caruso dying in the third act of Pagliacci.” Lyons continues to report the reaction at the game:
“Philadelphia’s future Hall- of- Famer Tommy McDonald had just scored the go- ahead touchdown with a leaping catch of an 18- yard- pass from Norm Van Brocklin to cement a 28– 24 Eagles victory. McDonald was walking back along the sidelines and looked up toward the stands. “Half of the stadium was cheering but the whole mob of people on the other side of the stadium were yelling and running the other way,” he recalled. “Ten minutes later we learned that Mr. Bell had died. I’ll never forget it.”