Upton Bell’s mother, who was a musical comedy actress on Broadway and a member of Ziegfield’s Follies, was once invited to a dinner with Al Capone.
As Bell recounts the dinner in his book about his long and colorful career, “Present at the Creation, My Life in the NFL and the Rise of America’s Game,” written with Ron Borges, she had a question for Capone.
“She naively asked Capone why all the women were sitting with their backs to the door,’’ he wrote.
His father was Bert Bell, the NFL commissioner from 1946 until he died of a heart attack in 1960 watching the Eagles play in his hometown of Philadelphia.
Upton said that his father was asked (Bell doesn’t say who asked) to check with Capone (who was in prison at the time) if the Lindbergh baby kidnapping was the work of the Mob. Within 48 hours, Capone got back to him and said it wasn’t.
Those are just two of the fascinating anecdotes that Bell included in his book.
After his father died, he was hired by then-Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom and eventually became the team’s personnel director in the Johnny Unitas era. During his time with the team, they went to three NFL title games and two Super Bowls.
He then made a decision that virtually ended his career in football when he accepted the job as the youngest general manager in the league at age 33 with the New England Patriots.
The Patriots in those days were a chaotic organization run by Billy Sullivan and a board of directors, and Bell was fired late in his second season.
Except for owning the Charlotte team in the World Football League, he never worked in pro football again.
Sullivan’s son, Chuck Sullivan, apparently gave bad reviews about Bell to Sullivan’s fellow owners, and Bell never was able to get another GM job.
Bell doesn’t mention it, but Chuck Sullivan wound up backing the Michael Jackson Victory Tour in 1984 and put up the stadium as collateral. The tour was a financial disaster for the Sullivan family, costing them $20 million and eventually leading to Bob Kraft buying the team.
Wellington Mara did want to hire Bell to run the Giants in 1979, but his nephew, Tim Mara, who co-owned the team, balked at hiring an executive close to Wellington. So the job went to George Young, who had worked with Bell in Baltimore.
Bell then made a seamless transition to radio and TV and interviewed, among others, Sir Edmund Hillary, Stephen Hawking, Annie Leibovitz, the first president George Bush, Bill Clinton and Muhammad Ali.
There were several “what ifs” during his career. His dad had decided to step down as commissioner and had negotiated a $900,000 bank loan to buy the Eagles when he died.
If the deal had gone through before he died, Upton today would be a billionaire owner of the Eagles.
He saw the potential in pro football and also tried to put together investor groups to buy the Eagles a few years later and to buy the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1970s, but both fell through.
He is not bitter about how things turned out.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” he wrote. “I’ve been blessed with two careers. I’ve been blessed to know two careers and love them both. One of them, pro football, allowed me to live out my boyhood dreams and spend many years at the highest level of the greatest game there is.”
He provides many insights into what it was like working in pro football in those days, especially as a scout in the segregated south.
“As I moved from town to town, I saw those colored-only and whites-only signs on bathrooms and lunch counters,” he wrote. “You knew it existed so it wasn’t shocking, but it leapt out at you … It didn’t take long to decide I needed to be careful.”
He recalls stopping at a gas station in Alabama and using the restroom and saying “that’s terrible” to the attendant in a references to the whites-only sign.
“Keep that up and you may get your brains blown out. If you don’t think so, I got my gun in the office, mister. Fill up and get gone,’’ the attendant replied.
Bell was scouting Memphis State in 1968. He planned to stay anther day, but an assistant told him Martin Luther King Jr. was coming to Memphis to support a sanitation workers and that there might be a problem. It was all over the news. So Bell flew home to Baltimore that night and turned on the TV and found out that King had been shot.
He also talks about his days with the Colts and what it was like being on the losing end of Super Bowl III.
He also rates Unitas and Tom Brady as his two top quarterbacks but said Brady wouldn’t be playing until he was 42 if he played in Unitas’ era because of the beatings that quarterbacks took that were legal in those days.
He also rates Paul Brown as the best coach. No surprise there. He has Don Shula second and may not be unbiased because he worked with him. But even though Shula won the most regular season games, he was 19-17 in the playoffs and lost five championship games, including four Super Bowls.
Bell is also concerned about the future of the NFL and whether it will be the victim of overexposure.
Still, he says every Sunday he has three TV sets tuned into all the pregame and postgame shows and the games.
“You see, I’m hooked … for the time being,” he wrote.