Frank's Place: First NFL draft, held at Philly's Ritz-Carlton, went unnoticed

Bert Bell           Football League
Bert Bell, here as NFL commissioner in 1949, came up with the idea for the draft as owner of the Eagles. The Birds picked nine players at the initial draft and signed none of them.

On a summer week, on the ground floor of Philadelphia's original Ritz-Carlton, where patricians once frequented that hotel's lavish Empire Dining Room and Ritz Bar, customers lined up at Wawa's deli counter.

The transformation of the posh Broad and Walnut hotel, from high-society hangout to Hoagiefest's home, suggests just how much Center City and its dining options have changed.

Wawa's occupancy of what was a grand hotel lobby also has helped to further obscure the significant sports history that took place in that building, 20 or so floors above the provolone and pickles.

Philadelphia will host the 2017 NFL draft this month. That 80-year-old event, now as much an American institution as the World Series or Kentucky Derby, was born in a Ritz-Carlton suite.

A sports staple in 2017, the draft was merely a desperate idea when it was proposed in 1935. Its advocate was a failed Main Line businessman, deBenneville "Bert" Bell, whose Philadelphia Eagles were losing games and money at a scary pace.

A few years earlier, Bell, whom the late Daily News columnist Stan Hochman said "talked out of the side of his mouth, like a guy spitting out a silver spoon," was managing the family's hotels, the Ritz-Carlton and St. James.

In 1933, he and Lud Wray purchased the remnants of the NFL's Frankford Yellow Jackets. Few here cared or noticed as his rechristened Eagles went 9-21-1 in their first three seasons.

Financially strapped, Bell couldn't compete for talent with healthy franchises such as the New York Giants and Chicago Bears. So at a May 1935 owners meeting, he was ready with his salvation.

"Gentlemen," Bell began, according to the New York Times, "the league is no stronger than its weakest link. I've been a weak link for so long I should know. Four teams control the championships, the Giants and Redskins in the East, the Bears and Packers in the West. Because they are successful, they keep attracting the best college players, which makes them more successful."

What Bell then proposed to eight fellow owners was a system in which NFL teams would select college seniors in the inverse order of the standings.

Surprisingly, even the successful franchises bought the new concept.

"This is something we should do," Giants owner Tim Mara said. "We're not going to be any stronger than our . . . weaker clubs."

Since it was his idea, Bell was charged with implementing the draft. The Eagles owner scheduled it for Feb. 8-9, 1936, at his Ritz-Carlton.

When George Halas, Tim Mara, Art Rooney, and the other owners arrived, Bell welcomed them. The upper-floor suite's appointments included a conference table and a blackboard on which he had written the names of several dozen college players.

Budgets, especially the Eagles', didn't permit scouts, so Bell had relied on newspapers for his chalkboard talent pool. That's also where his colleagues got their information.

"We used to go down to the train station on Saturday night and buy the out-of-town newspapers to read about the college games," Rooney, Pittsburgh's owner, said later. "We also looked in the press books of various schools, read magazines and all-American lists."

That season, Jay Berwanger, a University of Chicago halfback, had won the initial Heisman Trophy, then awarded to the best player east of the Mississippi. Naturally, Bell took him with the NFL draft's first-ever selection.

In all, the Eagles drafted nine players that weekend - and signed none.

Berwanger wanted $1,000 a game to come East. Bell quickly traded him to the Bears for tackle Art Buss. Chicago also failed to sign Berwanger, who never played in the NFL.

Thwarted by his own conception, Bell signed 12 free agents, five from area colleges. His restocked Eagles, 2-9 in 1935, finished 1-11 in 1936.

The Redskins took Alabama running back Riley Smith with the No. 2 overall pick, signing him for $250 a game. That wasn't bad when you consider that Bell's players were averaging $65 to $75 a game.

The first draft was a comedy of errors, which would have been an appropriate title considering that Rooney's team - then called the Pirates - made Notre Dame's Bill Shakespeare its No. 1 pick.

Shakespeare, dubbed "The Merchant of Menace" by sportswriters, signed. For most players, the pennies offered were no temptation.

"When they got ready to talk contract," wrote Bob Barnett in a Pro Football Researchers Association article, "[the offers were] in the low four figures."

Only 32 of the 81 players drafted in the nine rounds signed. One of the unsigned 49 was Alabama end Paul "Bear" Bryant. Only 24 of the draftees made opening-day rosters.

Four future Hall of Famers were chosen, only one, Chicago's Joe Stydaher, in the first round. The others were Tuffy Leemans, drafted in the second round by the Giants; Wayne Millner, the then-Boston Redskins' eighth pick; and Dan Fortmann, taken in the ninth round by the Bears.

Asked later what made him take the obscure Fortmann with his final pick, Halas said he'd liked the sound of his name. Fortmann signed only after the Bears agreed that he could also attend medical school.

If nothing else, the owners enjoyed themselves that weekend.

There were plenty of cigars, and the liquor flowed. At one point, Cardinals coach Jimmy Conzelman began playing the suite's grand piano, and Redskins owner George Preston Marshall serenaded his colleagues.

Bell's organizational skills didn't go unnoticed. In 1946, when Elmer Layden quit, he became NFL commissioner.

But beyond the Ritz-Carlton's walls, the historic event passed virtually unnoticed. The following day's Philadelphia newspapers contained nothing on the draft.

"Neither the fans nor the players knew the draft was taking place," wrote Barnett, "and frankly [they] did not care."

That won't be the case later this month, of course, when the draft will be a national obsession. And when the line at the Center City Wawa figures to stretch out the door.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

Editor's note: This article was originally published in July 2016. Minor timing elements were updated in advance of the NFL draft in April 2017.