NFL draft and Philadelphia were once synonymous, thanks to Bert Bell

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What 1518 Walnut St. in Philadelphia, former site of the NFL headquarters, now looks like.

As an embellished and excited city experiences this week's 2017 NFL draft, it will be business as usual at two Philadelphia-area offices where the world's most powerful sports league took flight more than half-a-century ago.

Six floors up in the classic urban tower at 1518 Walnut Street, Suite 601 is home now to a psychologist, one not even remotely interested in the fact that for a decade the work area served as NFL headquarters.

"I didn't know that. But my patients really can't be exposed to any kind of attention like this," the psychologist said in denying the Inquirer's request to photograph the office. "Privacy is an essential concern in a psychology practice."

Six miles to the west in Bala Cynwyd, at the end of a dark hallway Commissioner Bert Bell used to stride for cardio-exercise, various medical specialists now inhabit the spot where league headquarters were relocated in 1957.

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"Those exact offices, they aren't there any more," said Gene McHale, the commercial real-estate agent for the five-story building at 1 Bala Avenue. "[Developer] Dan Keating bought the place in the 1990s when it was in bankruptcy and totally gutted it."

Today the NFL occupies several floors of a Manhattan skyscraper, close by the TV networks that are its lifeblood. Its staff, longtime Eagles public-relations director Jim Gallagher once noted, "is the size of the First Marine Division."

But from 1947 to early 1960, as the struggling enterprise evolved into a cultural and corporate phenomenon, Bell and a skeleton crew ran pro football from cramped offices here.

A Penn grad who had founded the Eagles 13 years earlier, Bell became NFL commissioner in 1946 after owners, spooked by the success of the rival All-American Football Conference, fired Elmer Layden.

He signed a three-year contract for $20,000 annually and stipulated that he wanted to move the league's office out of Chicago. It initially landed in New York.

"But he found there were so many distractions he couldn't get his work done," his son, Upton Bell, said last week.

So in 1947, while maintaining a small Manhattan office on 42nd Street, Bell shifted the 10-team league's headquarters to his home town.

While hunting for the right space here, the commissioner briefly conducted business from his old Eagles office, above a men's store at 3657 Woodland Avenue.

He finally settled on a former dance studio in the 18-floor building at 15th and Walnut, one with a golden eagle over its main entrance. Opened in 1929 as the Merlin Building, it was in the heart of the booming post-war downtown, a few blocks from the Rittenhouse Square home where Bell had grown up in privilege.

"He knew he wanted to be in Philadelphia," Upton Bell said, "and at that time [1518 Walnut] was a really important space. I was there recently and it hadn't changed. It was like going back 60, 70 years."

The locale also had the advantage of being close to several of his favorite restaurants and to the Racquet Club, where Bell had a small apartment and where he retreated most afternoons for a massage and nap.

The commissioner and his staff moved in on Feb. 14, 1947, dividing the roomy suite. Secretary-treasurer Denny Shea had a desk, as did statistician Harry Standish and public-relations director Joe Labrum.

"You got off the elevator on the sixth floor, took a slight right and the office was right there," Upton Bell recalled. "There wasn't much to see. I see things out in the street that look better than the furniture there."

Bell's corner workspace - a single table, a few chairs and a cigarette-scarred desk - was located alongside a window that overlooked Walnut Street and the law offices of his brother, John, briefly Pennsylvania's governor.

On the wall behind his desk were the room's sole adornments, several framed photos, including one of his actress wife (Frances Upton) and another of the snow-covered Shibe Park field during the 1948 NFL title game won by the Eagles.

When owners or TV executives visited, Bell, who didn't drink, liked to take them around the corner to Lew Tendler's restaurant on Broad Street, or to a Rittenhouse Square steakhouse run by a character named Footsie Stein.

"They called him Footsie because he always carried a knife or a gun in his boot," Upton Bell said. "My father loved the steaks there and Footsie would let him know what the odds were on the week's games."

The postwar years brought growth and prosperity. In 1949, Bell negotiated a merger with the AAFC that imported the Rams, Browns and Colts to the NFL. Two years later, he signed a $75,000 deal with the Dumont Network to televise the 1951 title game.

By 1957, there were 12 teams. With players' salaries doubled and attendance up 100 percent, Bell, 59, signed a 12-year contract extension in 1954.

But by then the commissioner, a heavy smoker, coffee drinker and chocoholic, was having periodic issues with his heart. He began conducting more and more business from his Narberth home.

"He was never off the phone," Jane Upton Bell, the commissioner's daughter, told the Inquirer in 1997. "He'd get a rash of calls every night around dinner time. We had four or five telephones in our home, and he would often pick one up right there at the dinner table."

Looking for more room and a shorter commute, he considered constructing an office on his spacious estate.

"My mother shot that one down pretty quickly," said Upton Bell.

Instead, he rented a five-room suite on the second floor of a new office building at 1 Bala Avenue, just west of City Line Avenue, a six-minute drive from home.

"City Line was a kind of golden highway then," his daughter said. "WCAU had already moved out there. Blum's and Lord & Taylor had put up new department stores."

On March 29, 1961, the league moved into Suite 201.

"When you walked in, there was this long corridor," said Upton Bell. "After my father had his first heart attack, the doctors wanted him to walk. So he would walk up and down that corridor.

"In the first room you came to was Joe Labrum's desk. Off to the right was Mike Wilson, the head of officials. In the next room was Austin Gunsel, a former FBI agent who headed league security. "

Before they reached Bell's back office, visitors would pass by his secretary and Standish, his brother-in-law and chief aide.

The commissioner had the same old desk — now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — but he was far from his beloved Racquet Club. To allow for his naps, he installed a sofa. His photos made the move too, and he added a framed copy of an insurance policy he once purchased on Eagles quarterback Davey O'Brien. It was for $1,500 a game.

Bell's go-to restaurants in Bala Cynwyd were the Tavern on Montgomery Avenue and the Chuckwagon. And since Central Penn Bank had a first-floor branch in the building, the commissioner transferred the NFL's accounts there.

Then, late in an Oct. 11, 1959, Franklin Field game between the Eagles and Steelers — two teams Bell had owned — the 64-year-old commissioner suffered a heart attack. Rushed to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, he was pronounced dead at 4:10 p.m.

Gunsel replaced him on an interim basis until in January, Pete Rozelle, the Rams' 33-year-old general manager, was elected commissioner.

"Pete knew the owners really preferred New York," Jane Bell said.

Philadelphia's tenure as the NFL's capital officially ended on Jan. 26, 1960, when moving vans pulled up outside 1 Bala Avenue.

His children believe Bell would have kept the headquarters here for as long as he led the league. But as they discovered when reviewing his papers, that might not have been for long.

Their father apparently had planned to resign as commissioner on Oct. 14, 1959, and, for $980,000, re-purchase the Eagles.

"I think Jim Clark [the Eagles managing partner] was the only owner who knew," said Upton Bell.

And so this week, patients will file in and out of a couple of local doctors' offices, never knowing the connection they share with the football league that's throwing the elaborate party on the Parkway.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz