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Bell Made NFL Draft a Reality

With the Super Bowl a memory and the Pro Bowl all done, another National Football League season is now in the history books. The jockeying, speculation, and research has been underway for quite a while for the NFL's next major event - the draft.

The first draft of the new century will be the 64th in National Football League history. And it will be a far cry from the first one that took place February 8, 1936.

Bert Bell, former NFL Commissioner and owner, came up with the idea of the draft, reasoning that it would give some help to weaker teams by providing them with first crack at top college players. Before that 1936 draft there was what was known as open signing - players being allowed to sign with any team.

That first draft was held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, a hotel owned interestingly enough by Bell's family. The format had clubs selecting in reverse order of their finish, with the last pick going to the league champion no matter its record.

The National Football League of 1936 had only nine franchises: Boston Redskins, Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Bears, Chicago Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, Bell's Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That first NFL draft had nine rounds, and 81 players were selected in total. Since the Eagles had the worst record in 1935, they got the first pick in the draft - Heisman Trophy (then referred to as the Downtown Athletic Trophy ) winner Jay Berwanger, a halfback from the University of Chicago.

But Berwanger claimed he had no interest in playing pro football with the Eagles, so he was traded to the Chicago Bears. But George Halas could not convince Berwanger to play for the Bears.

The number two pick did sign and did play. He was Riley Smith of Alabama who was picked by the Boston Redskins.

For the record, the other players picked in the first round of that first National Football League draft were: Brooklyn - Dick Crayne, B, Iowa; Chicago Bears - Joe Stydahar, T, West Virginia; Chicago Cardinals - Jim Lawrence, B, TCU; Detroit - Sid Wagner, G, Michigan State; Green Bay - Russ Letlow, G, San Francisco; New York - Art Lewis, T, Ohio U.; Pittsburgh, Bill Shakespeare, B, Notre Dame.

The draft was a tribute to the visionary nature of those football owners who deeply believed in the concept of the greatest good for the greatest number, and what was good for the league. Those owners were men like Tim Mara, Curly Lambeau, George Halas and Bert Bell, a man who even sold tickets on the street to push his Philadelphia franchise along.

By the late 1940s the draft was increased to 30 rounds, and by the mid-1990s it was radically reduced to just seven rounds.

From a struggling and limited organization, the National Football League has grown and prospered through the decades. The draft is not the least of the influences that made the league thrive. It has been one of the most crucial ideas implemented by the NFL, keeping the league competitive and varied throughout its history.  

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You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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