By Robert S. Lyons
The Green Bay Packers will meet the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday. But the team might not even exist if not for the franchise-saving efforts of Bert Bell, the Philadelphia native who served as NFL commissioner from 1946 until his death, in 1959.
In 1956, a number of team owners in the larger NFL cities were pressuring Bell to either straighten out the Green Bay franchise or throw it out of the league. The Packers represented the smallest city in professional sports, and they were playing their home games in an old, dilapidated stadium that would have been an embarrassment to many high school teams, let alone professional athletes. Moreover, they hadn't had a winning season since 1947, when they went 6-5-1, and they had won no more than three games in five of the intervening years.
Bell, who had founded the Philadelphia Eagles in 1933 and later became co-owner of the Steelers with his buddy Art Rooney, was no stranger to financial struggle, and he was determined to keep one of the league's most storied franchises afloat. He personally endorsed a Green Bay group called the Citizens' Committee for the Stadium, and he sent a public telegram urging the Wisconsin city's fans to pass a $980,000 bond issue for the construction of a new stadium. It was overwhelmingly approved.
"This is the greatest thing I've heard in sports," Bell exclaimed to a newspaper reporter. "Can you imagine it? A little town of 65,000 getting together and building a stadium for a big-league football team. Green Bay is the greatest sports town in the world and will always have a place in the National Football League."
In September 1957, when the commissioner walked onto the field to dedicate the new stadium, along with a group of dignitaries that included then-Vice President Richard Nixon, he had tears in his eyes.
But in 1959, Bell was still feeling pressure to improve the situation in Green Bay. He realized that the Packers needed a strong figure to run the operation - someone like Vince Lombardi, then a popular young assistant coach of the New York Giants. Bell knew that getting Lombardi to go to Green Bay would take some arm-twisting.
First, he called Giants co-owner John V. "Jack" Mara, who, surprisingly, promised to release Lombardi from his contract if he and the Packers reached an agreement. Then Bell told Packers president Dominic Olejniczak, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted Lombardi to run the Packers.
Bell's son Bert Jr., who was working in his dad's office in Bala Cynwyd at the time, remembers what happened next. "He never shut his door and didn't care who listened when he was on the phone," the younger Bell recalled in an interview. "I happened to overhear his conversation with Vince Lombardi. The gist of it was, 'We need a strong man out there. As a favor to me, would you please go out there and be the coach and general manager?' "
After wrestling with the decision for a while, Lombardi finally agreed to go to Green Bay. Less than two years later, he would take the Packers to the 1960 NFL championship game. Ironically, it was a losing effort against the Philadelphia Eagles at Franklin Field - the only such setback the Hall of Fame coach suffered before winning five NFL titles and two Super Bowls.
One day early in the 1959 season, Tex Schramm, a CBS television executive, received a phone call from the commissioner. "Bert told me that he needed a favor from the network," Schramm explained in an interview. "CBS had been the first to recognize what the NFL could become. Bert asked if CBS could please donate $10,000 to the Green Bay Packers, because it was a small-market team with very little TV and radio income. 'They got nothing in Green Bay,' Bert told me.
"I cut the Packers a check for $15,000," Schramm continued. "I threw in more money, thinking it would be good for the network in the long run."
That was probably one of the commissioner's last official telephone calls. Bell collapsed and died at Franklin Field on Oct. 12, 1959. He was watching the game he loved, played by two teams he once owned - the Eagles and the Steelers - at the stadium where he had begun his football career as a Penn quarterback.
Robert S. Lyons is a journalist and the author of "On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell" (Temple University Press, 2010), from which this is adapted. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.