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On This Date in Sports January 26, 1960: The Comish

In Collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Pete Rozelle is named the new commissioner of the National Football League. It was a surprise choice, as most expected, Austin Gunsel, who served as interim commissioner since the death of Bert Bell to get the job. Rozelle had been serving as General Manager of the Los Angele Rams and had helped turnaround the team’s struggling finances. Pete Rozelle would serve as NFL Commissioner until 1989, taking the league through its most significant growth.

The 1950s had been a successful decade for the NFL as they finally were making some gains in popularity thanks to the growth of television. During the decade, the NFL was led by Bert Bell, who had previously founded the Philadelphia Eagles and owned part of the Pittsburgh Steelers. When Bell became commissioner in 1946, the NFL was still struggling to gain America’s attention. One of his first decisions was to reintegrate the NFL, as a condition of the Rams being able to play at the LA Memorial Coliseum. The league had banned black players in 1933, but Los Angeles would not allow the NFL to play in its stadium unless it reversed that rule. As a result, Kenny Washington signed with the Rams, breaking the league’s color barrier.

As television grew, so did the NFL, as the sport seemed ready-made for the new medium. Still, the league was not quite America’s past time, as just 12 teams existed, with many still having trouble selling out their stadiums. In 1958, the league got a big boost from the NFL Championship Game that went to overtime with the Baltimore Colts beating the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium. On October 11, 1959, Bell was attending a game between his two former teams at Franklin Field in Philadelphia when he suffered a fatal heart attack and died at the age of 64. Austin Gunsel, the league’s treasurer, served as the interim commissioner for the remainder of the 1959 season.

When the owners met to decide the new commissioner, the room was divided as Gunsel, who by right seemed to be a clear choice, did satisfy the owners’ requirements. The NFL was going into battle in 1960 as a new league, the American Football League was starting up, and those who ran the league were seeking a younger commissioner with experience in marketing to take the NFL to the next level. It would take 23 ballots before the owners reached consensus and picked Pete Rozelle.

Pete Rozelle was born on March 1, 1926, in Los Angeles. After serving in the Navy, Rozelle worked part-time for the Rams’ public relations department, while attending Compton Community College. He later worked for the athletic department and helped promote the basketball time, while attending the University of San Francisco. After serving as the school’s news director, Rozelle returned to the Rams PR department, before leaving and working for the Melbourne Olympics marketing division in 1956. In 1957, Pete Rozelle returned and became the team’s general manager. When he took the job, the Rams were struggling financially. In just three seasons, he helped make the Rams a financial success despite the worst record in the league at 2-12.

It was this experience at selling his team and marketing that made him attractive to NFL owners seeking a new commissioner. Pete Rozelle helped the NFL land a monster television deal and got the big market teams to agree to revenue sharing within in his first three years as commissioner. In 1966 he helped negotiate a truce with the AFL, which led to a common draft and the Super Bowl. When the 1960s ended, he successfully negotiated a merger with the rival league, setting the NFL up as America’s new past time.

Over the next 20 years, Pete Rozelle guided the NFL to enormous heights as the NFL surpassed baseball in popularity. It was not always easy for Rozelle, as he had to deal with two work stoppages in his final years as commissioner. However, when he retired in 1989, he was regarded as  perhaps the best commissioner in the history of the four major sports leagues in North America. His 29 years were the longest tenure for any commissioner until David Stern of the NBA surpassed him with 30 at the helm in 2014.