One final note on our discussion of Pro Football Hall of Fame snubs from the pre-war era. What if you expand the window just slightly to cover the entire “single-platoon era” from 1920-49? 1949-1950 is a major turning point in pro football history, as the advent of unlimited substitution led to the rise of offensive and defensive platoons and the end of the regular appearance of the two-way player.
If we expand our analysis of Pro Football Hall of Fame snubs out four more years, looking at players who played primarily from 1920-1949 rather than 1920-1945, you can add the following seven players to our initial list:
Jack Ferrante (AD)
Pat Harder (AD)
Ken Kavanaugh (AD)
Riley Matheson (PRFA)
Buster Ramsey (AD)
Mac Speedie (AD)
Al Wistert (AD)
Six of these players were 1940s All-Decade players I excluded from the initial list of 45, because they earned their honors primarily after 1945. The other 1940s All-Decade players I excluded were Bruno Banducci, Bucko Kilroy, and Ed Sprinkle…those three continue to be excluded, however, as they earned their primary honors in the 1950s, and they would be more appropriately compared to other players from that decade. The last player on the list above is Riley Matheson, a PRFA suggestion.
Adding these seven players to our initial list of 45 gives us 52 of the top players from the single-platoon era (1920-1949) not in the Hall of Fame…and hey, no Marshall Goldberg!
Here’s a quick rundown of these seven.
Jack Ferrante (1941, 1944-50)
Two time second team all-pro (1945, 1949)
Summary: Ferrante is a story in perseverance. He was given a tryout for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1939 and failed to make the team. He tried out again in 1941, and after playing in the Eagles’ first three games, he was cut loose and out of the NFL a second time. But Ferrante tried out a third time in 1944, and with the Eagles short of bodies during World War II, this time he stuck and won a couple of NFL championships with the Eagles in 1948 and 1949. He was a solid starter for those teams, but there’s nothing here that seems remotely All-Decade worthy, much less Hall of Fame worthy.
Ken Kavanaugh (1940-41, 1945-50)
Three time all-pro (1946-48); three time first team (1946-48)
Summary: Kavanaugh was, simply put, a touchdown machine. An end who only hauled in 162 catches in an eight-year career, Kavanaugh toted fifty of them into the end zone. He started as a role player on two NFL championship teams for the Chicago Bears in 1940 and ’41. Then Kavanaugh went all American hero on us, signing up for the Air Force, flying thirty missions in Europe, and being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Kavanaugh returned to pro football in 1946 and rattled off three all-pro selections as the “home run hitting”, long touchdown target of Bears quarterback Sid Luckman. Kavanaugh won a third NFL championship with the Bears in 1946. Kavanaugh’s short three-year peak and extremely low number of catches overall keep him out of any serious Hall of Fame discussion, but he was an electrifying talent and a patriot to boot.
Buster Ramsey (1946-51)
Five time all-pro (1946-50); three time first team (1947-49)
Summary: Garrard “Buster” Ramsey served in World War II before joining the Chicago Cardinals in 1946. He played six seasons with the Cards, capturing an NFL championship with them in 1947. In his final season with the Cardinals, Ramsey was the team’s player-coach. He then began a long and distinguished coaching career, most notably as the defensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions, where he is credited with being the innovator of the 4-3 defense and, remarkably, being the first coach to ever think of blitzing his linebackers. Ramsey was also the first head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
As for the Hall of Fame, while Buster Ramsey was a fine player, I said in my previous post (under Criterion 1) that five seasons means you’re out, and six seasons means you’re dicey. Well, that applies to players from the 1920s and ’30s, but by the late-1940s and early-1950s, even six seasons just isn’t enough, longevity-wise, to warrant any real Hall of Fame discussion. Heck, Dick Stanfel has been rejected as a Seniors nominee twice, largely because his 1950s career only spanned seven seasons! But more on that later.
For now, let’s consider four late-1940s players who should, at the very least, get Hall of Fame consideration.
Pat Harder (1946-53)
Six time all-pro (1946-50, 1952); three time first team (1947-49)
Summary: “Hit ‘em again, Harder!” From the University of Wisconsin to the NFL, that was the fans’ rallying cry when rugged fullback Pat Harder was in the game. After serving in World War II, Harder was a part of the Chicago Cardinals’ “Million Dollar Backfield” that won an NFL championship in 1947. Harder led the NFL in scoring for three straight seasons from 1947-49 and was named first team all-pro each time. He was traded to the Detroit Lions in 1951 and proceeded to win consecutive NFL titles with them in 1952 and 1953 before retiring. Harder later became an NFL official and officiated the 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers playoff victory over the Oakland Raiders highlighted by Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception”.
Harder’s a tough one to consider for the Hall of Fame. His eight-year career is a bit short (again, considering how Stanfel’s seven-year career has been twice rejected on longevity grounds), and although he won two titles with the Lions, his real peak was a three-year period from 1947-49. Great peak, though. I hesitated on making him a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, but I’ll sneak him on there…barely.
Mac Speedie (1946-52)
Six time all-pro (1946-50, 1952); six time first team (1946-50, 1952)
Summary: One of the best-named receivers of all time, Mac Speedie dominated with the Cleveland Browns for seven seasons from 1946-52. The Browns played in a rival league, the AAFC, from 1946-49, and Speedie owns every meaningful receiving record in the history of that four-year league. But he was no fluke, winning all-pro honors in the NFL in 1950 and 1952. The Browns won five championships during his tenure there from 1946-50, and Speedie’s numbers compare very favorably to several Hall of Famers from his era.
What hurts Speedie is his decision in 1952 to leave the Browns after receiving a better contract from the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. He played two seasons with them – and was named an all-star both years – but his short seven-year NFL career has hurt his Hall of Fame chances. Again, Dick Stanfel was rejected as a seniors candidate for only playing seven years…and Speedie played the same number of seasons.
Just as importantly, legendary Cleveland coach Paul Brown reportedly never forgave Speedie for leaving for Canada and allegedly led a movement to blackball him from the Hall. Although I’d consider Speedie a borderline candidate, I personally think there’s a good argument that he’s probably deserving. He was rejected as a Seniors Committee nominee in 1983, and if longevity issues (the same ones that plagued Stanfel’s more recent nomination) were the reason, I can understand and accept it. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing Speedie get another shot someday now that Paul Brown isn’t around to goose the vote.
Riley Matheson (1939-48)
Eight time all-pro (1941-48); six time first team (1941-42, 1944-47)
Summary: Kudos to the PRFA for suggesting this guy, who was clearly, inexplicably robbed of a spot on the 1940s All-Decade team. I can’t think of a bigger indictment of that team than the fact that Riley Matheson isn’t on it. Matheson took a couple years to gain steam with the Cleveland Rams, but when he did, he was fantastic. An all-pro for the Rams in 1941 and ’42, he joined the Detroit Lions in 1943 when the Rams suspended operations during WWII. The Rams restarted in 1944, and Matheson went back to dominating for them, winning an NFL championship with the Rams in 1945 and then following the team out to Los Angeles in 1946. Matheson finished his NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers in 1948, earning his eighth straight all-pro selection. He then ended his pro football career with two seasons in the CFL, earning two all-star selections in Canada.
The key question with Matheson, per Criterion 4, is did he dominate enough outside of the 1943-46 window to merit Hall of Fame consideration? I believe he did…I think he did enough both before and after World War II to prove that his accolades during that span were no fluke. Riley Matheson certainly deserves Hall of Fame consideration, and more than that, his omission from the 1940s All-Decade team is a complete farce.
Al Wistert (1943-51)
Eight time all-pro (1944-51); six time first team (1944-49)
Summary: Al Wistert, one of the three football-playing Wistert brothers, is kind of in the same boat as Matheson. The only knock on him is whether or not he did enough (per Criterion 4) outside of the 1943-46 window to merit Hall of Fame consideration. As with Matheson, I believe he did.
Wistert started out with the “Steagles” in 1943, the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh team merger necessitated by a player shortage during World War II. Once the Philadelphia Eagles got back on their own feet in 1944 as a single franchise, Wistert began a run of eight all-pro selections that would last throughout his career. Although his first three first team selections came within the ’43-’46 window, he had three more outside of it in the late-’40s, including being named a first team all-pro in 1948 and 1949 when the Eagles claimed back-to-back NFL championships. The toughest part with Wistert is distinguishing him with the equally-deserving Matheson…those two are basically running neck and neck in my mind.
Single-Platoon (1920-1949) Hall of Fame Contenders Summary
To summarize, here are the single-platoon (1920-1949) players who have a legitimate case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in order:
Should definitely be in: Duke Slater, LaVern Dilweg
Should probably be in: Al Wistert/Riley Matheson, Verne Lewellen, Mac Speedie
Borderline: Swede Youngstrom, George Christensen/Ox Emerson, Pat Harder
There…now was that so hard? (Says the writer 10,000 words later.)
As you can see, in the single-platoon era (the first three decades of NFL history), there are only ten guys that the Seniors Committee would be well-advised to revisit, two of whom are egregious oversights, four of whom have been overlooked and have a strong case for induction, and four more who probably fall a bit short to me but who could use a good vetting. Considering that we’re talking about a long, long period of time in which dozens of All-Decade performers are (rightfully) excluded from the Hall of Fame, ten guys needing a closer look really isn’t that many at all.
But then, the Seniors Committee has shown basically no desire over the past thirty years to consider any of them! Let’s hope they have an epiphany sometime soon, because – particularly in the cases of Slater and Dilweg – there are some omissions that call into question the entire credibility of the Hall of Fame’s voting process. It’s time to give these old guys another look.