No man in the history of professional sports and the awesome pressures commensurate with a commissionership ever acquitted himself more admirably or effectively than Pete Rozelle, who combined integrity, decency and fairness while being profoundly in love with a game that made him a household name.
He was a master of diplomacy, style and grace -- a true gentleman. From a tall, gangling kid whose first job was clipping newspaper stories for the Los Angeles Rams and keeping a team scrapbook, he went on to become the team’s publicity director, and later its general manager before finally becoming commissioner of the National Football League. The Rozelle star has ascended to the heights of prominence and remained there as a constant in the passing parade of personalities, amid controversy and a myriad of problems that accompanied the sport’s booming popularity and affluence.
Rozelle walked a straight line, even though the same could hardly be said about some of the owners, coaches and players he supervised. They didn’t have his character. Rozelle and this reporter had an extraordinary relationship. It was a friendship that dates back 36 years to when we were mere boys and working in the league.
The wake-up call he always remembers came after he was elected commissioner. It was at 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 27, 1960, the morning after he was voted to the position. He had earlier told friends his personal choice for the job was a sports writer he knew in Baltimore and then, after he became the NFL leader, attempted to hire this individual as his first assistant.
Two years ago at the Super Bowl, he leaned over and whispered to the wife of the same reporter, “See all the headaches he missed in not coming with me.”
Rozelle was so adept at making a deal, in bringing about accord where there was distrust and havoc, that we felt at the time, and still do, he could have settled the Vietnam war earlier had he been on the negotiating team. There were times when there were disagreements between the commissioner and his old friend in Baltimore regarding a threatened libel suit instituted by an official of the Washington Redskins, one Edward Bennett Williams, the ethics of enforced exhibition games on the public and the credibility of certain owners.
But, again from a personal basis, there was a respect that endured. The job responsibilities he filled when Bert Bell, his predecessor, died at a game in Philadelphia’s Franklin Field in late 1959, changed dramatically. In truth, it went from a “mom and pop” operation to a highly visible entity, brought about by his adroit abilities to merchandise the product.
Rozelle understood the advertising business because he had worked for the P.K. Macker, Corp., in San Francisco, during a two-year period when he was away from the Rams. And he knew public relations and football. It was Rozelle, no one else, who looked at a raw Marine at Camp Pendleton, Calif., one Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, and signed him to a Rams contract.
The emergence of television as a catalyst for encouraging and enhancing the popularity of pro football became the ideal vehicle for Rozelle. They grew up together, TV and Pete, and the lean lad from South Gate, Calif., whose late father helped design sets in the movie studios, extracted all the potential the medium offered.
He made decisions. Not in haste but after cool and calculating deliberation. When the late Carroll Rosenbloom, owner of the Colts, was accused of betting on games, he wanted Rozelle to clear him overnight of the charges. But Rozelle wouldn’t do it.
A Congressional committee was investigating the same allegations and it would have made the office of the commissioner appear incompetent if he came out absolving him and then the federal probe turned up incriminating evidence.
Another time, Rosenbloom, on a far different matter, after he had been accused of tampering with receiver Ron Jesse, was trying to bring about an impeachment that never gathered momentum. At a league meeting, much the same as the one Rozelle used Wednesday to announce his resignation as commissioner, Rosenbloom got to his feet and enunciated a long defamation of the NFL leader. It went on for the better part of an hour, as Rozelle heard himself being chastised before the other owners.
All eyes were on Rozelle. Would he reply in kind? Rosenbloom awaited a reaction. Rozelle merely looked about the room, checked his watch and announced: “We will now take a 90-minute recess for lunch.”
Rozelle first became attuned to sports when he went to Compton (Calif.) High School and the baseball team had a talented player named Duke Snider. It was Rozelle who took it upon himself to tell the waiting world all about the schoolboy phenom. He made trips to the newspapers in Los Angeles to extol Duke and asked they publicize his name and exploits.
And on the afternoon in 1980 when Snider entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., there was his boyhood chum, Rozelle, on the first row in the audience. On that occasion, we sat and talked with the commissioner about troubles in Baltimore, where owner Bob Irsay was running the franchise into the ground. We told him about a potential buyer, one Ralph DeChiaro, who had once been a minority owner of the Cleveland Browns and had the wealth, stability and desire to own a team.
“See what you can do about it,” he said. But the effort died in the press box at Shea Stadium later that football season when we talked to Irsay and told him DeChiaro was interested in purchasing the team. Irsay, preoccupied with getting a drink, and a hot dog, merely turned both thumbs down.
So, ultimately, the Colts went to Indianapolis, following the Raiders, who had jumped from Oakland to Los Angeles, without any sanction from Rozelle or the league. It was a sad and troubled moment for him, losing two franchises he wanted to see remain in position.
The NFL Rozelle assumed control of in 1960 was far different from what he’s leaving. It was more of a fraternity, with few lawyers present to monitor the machinations and the commissioner enjoyed an autonomy that the courts eroded when he wasn’t able to stand in the way of the Oakland defection. From mere numbers, 12 teams in 1960 to 28 today, the problems increased commensurately with the progress.
There were moments of deep regret, such as having to suspend Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers and Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions for betting on games. And being forced to fine George Halas, owner of the Chicago Bears, for insubordination, a point Halas was later to say was justified after he examined the record. The same with disciplining Paul Brown, owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, for comments he made about Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns.
But through it all, the highs and the lows, the frustration, the tough in-fighting and the politics, Rozelle carried himself in a manner that befitted the high office he held.
He had a longevity that exceeded every commissioner before him, be it football, baseball, hockey and basketball, plus a sense of fair play and an intrinsic, intimate understanding of the game he helped elevate.
He wasn’t a fake or a phony nor brash or boring. Instead, he was reserved, refined and resilient. His contributions during the last 30 years will be lasting.
The mere name Pete Rozelle is an enduring monument to the sport he commanded. He polished it, shaped it and sold it like no individual in the history of a game, football, that has its roots in the country more than a century ago.
There has been a comforting permanency to Pete Rozelle. Football indeed has become better because of his presence and the intellect and integrity he brought with him.