This is it, folks…the end of a long conversation about which pre-war NFL players should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. From our last post, we have isolated 16 players who played from 1920-1945 who meet four minimum criteria for Hall of Fame consideration. Here they are, alphabetically:
Please note, however, that while these 16 players met the minimum qualifications for consideration, they aren’t necessarily the 16 best pre-war Hall of Fame candidates. We’ll get to each one’s case in a second, but take Ernie Caddel and Gus Sonnenberg, for example. Caddel played for six years and was a three-time all-pro, while Sonnenberg played five full seasons and made all-pro each time. Caddel met the minimum requirements of criteria 1, 2, and 3, and as a result, he snuck on the list. Sonnenberg, having only played five seasons, was cut in our last post by criterion 1.
Now, if I were put in a situation in which I had to advocate either Caddel or Sonnenberg for the Hall of Fame, I’d easily choose Sonnenberg (although, as I’ve said with Sonnenberg and will soon say with Caddel, I think they both come up short of Hall-of-Fame-caliber). To me, the fact that Sonnenberg consistently performed at an all-pro level while Caddel did so only roughly half of the time trumps the fact that Sonnenberg played one fewer full season than Caddel. Again, while Sonnenberg didn’t advance to this stage, Caddel only did so by the skin of his teeth, and it’s not like six seasons for Caddel gives him a huge longevity advantage over the five full seasons Sonnenberg put in.
Just Above The Cuts
Along those lines, most of the 16 players on the above list met the minimum qualifications outlined in the last post by barely skating by on one or more of the criteria. Let’s take a look at those players who made our list by staying just above the cut line.
Ernie Caddel (1933-38)
Three time all-pro (1935-37); one time first team (1935)
Narrowly passed criteria 1, 2, and 3
Summary: Caddel was the leading rusher and receiver, as well as the second-leading passer, for the 1935 Detroit Lions team that won the NFL championship. He twice finished in the top ten in the NFL in both rushing and receiving, a feat that wouldn’t be duplicated again until Frank Gifford did it in the mid-1950s. But Ernie Caddel had a short career and received by far his biggest accolades on the star-studded ’35 Lions squad that won it all.
Glenn Presnell (1931-36)
Four time all-pro (1931-34); one time first team (1933)
Narrowly passed criteria 1 and 3
Summary: Yet another decorated member of the 1930s Detroit Lions, Presnell earned his first team all-pro nod in 1933 for leading the league in total offense. Presnell was also a key member of the Lions’ 1935 championship team and kicked a record 54-yard field goal in 1934, a mark that stood for almost two decades. While some sources lament his absence from the Hall of Fame, in the end, his six-season career was pretty short and his era of dominance too short to gain him serious consideration.
Bill Osmanski (1939-43, 1946-47)
Three time all-pro (1939, 1941, 1946); two time first team (1939, 1941)
Narrowly passed criteria 2 and 4
Summary: “Bullet Bill” was a back for the Chicago Bears in the 1940s whose chief claim to fame was being an inspiration for revenge. In a 1940 game against the Washington Redskins, Osmanski was unable to haul in a game-winning pass on a play in which the Bears team felt he was clearly interfered with. The Redskins won the game, 7-3, and labeled the Bears as sore losers. When the two teams met later that season in the NFL championship game, a group of angry Bears put on the biggest beatdown in NFL history by routing Washington, 73-0. Osmanski would play five seasons with the Bears before serving in World War II; he returned after the war to earn a third all-pro nod during the war-affected 1946 season, which kept him above the cut line.
Len Younce (1941, 1943-44, 1946-48)
Six time all-pro (1941, 1943-44, 1946-48); five time first team (1943-44, 1946-48)
Narrowly passed criteria 1 and 4
Summary: Younce was a versatile player for the New York Giants in the 1940s, kicking and punting as well as attending to his line duties. Younce is a very, very tough guy to grade…after all, he was all-pro in every season of his career. However, he played just one more season than Isbell and Sonnenberg (who were also all-pros in each of their full seasons), and unlike those two, Younce was able to achieve that feat playing largely during World War II. Three of Younce’s five first team all-pro selections, for example, take place during the 1943-46 window. A short career coupled with playing half of it in the WWII window is just not enough to give Younce, an otherwise decorated player, much of a Hall of Fame case.
Vic Sears (1941-43, 1945-53)
Five time all-pro (1943, 1945, 1949-50, 1952); two time first team (1943, 1949)
Narrowly passed criterion 4
Summary: Like Younce, Vic Sears is victimized by having too many of his honors come in the NFL’s war-weakened 1943-46 years. Sears first gained notoriety as a first team all-pro in 1943 with the “Steagles”, a one-year, wartime merger of Sears’ Philadelphia Eagles and the nearby Pittsburgh Steelers. Sears also earned first team all-league honors as a member of the Eagles’ 1949 NFL championship team. However, Sears’ Hall of Fame candidacy is severely hurt by the fact that outside of the WWII window, he only had three all-pro selections, including one first team selection, in nine seasons, which is hardly a great ratio for a player who played well into the 1950s.
Russ Letlow (1936-42, 1946)
Four time all-pro (1937-40); one time first team (1938)
Narrowly passed criterion 3
Summary: Letlow was a guard for the Green Bay Packers for eight seasons and is primarily known as being the first player ever drafted by the Packers organization in 1936. Letlow won two NFL championships with the Packers in the 1930s. He was one of several Packers linemen on our initial list of 45, including Charley Brock, George Svendsen, Bill Lee, Baby Ray, and Buckets Goldenberg. With just one first team all-pro selection, it doesn’t appear that Letlow was dominant enough of a lineman to stand out above these other five Packers linemen.
Joe Kopcha (1929, 1932-36)
Four time all-pro (1932-35); three time first team (1933-35)
Narrowly passed criterion 1
Summary: Kopcha’s greatest contributions to football were likely off the field, as he helped work on designs for shoulder pads, designs that are still largely in use by football players today. Kopcha was an excellent lineman for the Chicago Bears in the mid-1930s, but his Hall of Fame candidacy is largely victimized by the fact that he prioritized being a football star below becoming a doctor. Kopcha lasted just six seasons in the NFL, thanks to a two-year hiatus (1930-31) in which he attended medical school. The Bears traded Kopcha in 1936, at his request, to the Detroit Lions so that he could intern at a Detroit hospital. After one year with the Lions, Kopcha retired to devote the rest of his life to medicine.
Jack Manders (1933-40)
Three time all-pro (1934-35, 1937); three time first team (1934-35, 1937)
Narrowly passed criterion 2
Summary: “Automatic Jack” played in four NFL championship games with the Chicago Bears, winning two. Manders was an excellent player, scoring a rushing and receiving touchdown in the Bears’ 1937 NFL championship game loss. However, he has a tough case for the Hall of Fame, because so much of his acclaim – and even his nickname – was due to his marvelous kicking. Manders set an NFL record with 78 straight successful extra point kicks, led the NFL in PATs three times, and led the league in field goals four times. Great as that is, we all know how the Hall feels about kickers, so it’s hard to imagine Manders getting much love.
Ed Danowski (1934-39, 1941)
Three time all-pro (1935, 1937-38); two time first team (1935, 1938)
Narrowly passed criterion 2
Summary: Danowski played seven seasons for the New York Giants and led the NFL in passing in 1935 and 1938. He was a first team all-pro selection these two seasons and threw the game-winning touchdown pass for the Giants in the 1938 NFL championship game. Danowski also won an NFL title with the Giants as a rookie in 1934. Ultimately, it’s the fact that his best years are confined to a four-year stretch from 1935-38 which largely keeps him out of the Hall of Fame conversation.
Duke Osborn (1921-28)
Three time all-pro (1922-23, 1925); two time first team (1922-23)
Narrowly passed criterion 2
Summary: Robert “Duke” Osborn had a short four-year peak from 1922-25, but what a peak it was. Osborn, a guard, won three straight NFL championships with the Canton Bulldogs in 1922 and 1923 and the Cleveland Bulldogs in 1924. In 1925, he moved to play for the Pottsville Maroons and nearly won an NFL championship that season before it was controversially taken away from Pottsville and given to the Chicago Cardinals after a reported rules violation. Osborn finished his career in Pottsville. His peak was probably too brief to warrant Hall of Fame consideration, but to nearly claim four NFL titles in four years is certainly a remarkable feat.
Swede Youngstrom (1920-27)
Three time all-pro (1923-25); three time first team (1923-25)
Narrowly passed criterion 2
Summary: Adolph “Swede” Youngstrom played his first six NFL seasons in Buffalo, first for the All-Americans and then for the Bisons. In his first two seasons, Buffalo nearly claimed the NFL championship, with an underrated Youngstrom reportedly blocking nine punts in 1920 and returning three of them for touchdowns. Ironically, Youngstrom’s all-pro recognition came in a three-year window from 1923-25, with his individual accolades peaking just as his team’s fortunes faded. Youngstrom would play his final two seasons with the Frankford Yellow Jackets, winning an NFL championship with them in 1926.
Technically, Youngstrom scraped by with only three all-pro selections in his career, but to be honest, he may have been overlooked in 1920 and 1921. He’s by far the most legitimate Hall of Fame candidate I’ve mentioned yet, and as you can make a real argument that he was the greatest guard of the 1920s. In a perfect world, Youngstrom should be a borderline Hall of Fame candidate…so in my perfect little world here, that’s where I’ll put him.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Pre-War Snubs
You’ll notice that there were 11 players above who were on the borderline for one of my four criteria. This means that, amazingly, only five pre-war NFL players are clearly above the cut line in all four areas. These five players have strong Hall of Fame cases, and members of the Seniors Committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame should, at the very least, be well-acquainted with who they are. Because each of these five players – George Christensen, LaVern Dilweg, Ox Emerson, Verne Lewellen, and Duke Slater – have legitimate cases for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In my opinion, two of these five players are slam-dunk candidates, egregious oversights by the Hall of Fame; two of them are borderline cases that could be in or could be out, depending on your point of view; and one is squarely in between, a guy who you could make a case for either way but for whom the case to be in seems a lot stronger than the case to be out. Let’s take a look at these five.
Ox Emerson (1931-38)
Six time all-pro (1932-37); six time first team (1932-37)
Summary: There are a few historians who passionately argue that Gover “Ox” Emerson, an excellent right guard who played for the Portsmouth Spartans/Detroit Lions franchise, is a slam dunk Hall of Fame player. I don’t agree, but it’s worth noting.
My issue with Emerson is that a large part of his Hall of Fame candidacy is tied up in the fact that he was a six-time first team all-pro. On the surface, that’s pretty impressive…the only pre-war players who can claim that and who aren’t yet in the Hall of Fame are Dilweg and Emerson.
Still, I’m skeptical. Emerson was a first team all-pro for three seasons from 1932-1934, and those certainly appear to be deserved. But then things get a little dicey. Emerson missed the first five games of Detroit’s 12-game season in 1935, but despite only playing in a little over half of his team’s games, he was still named a first team all-pro that year. Was that selection legit, or was it more based on reputation than performance? There’s probably plenty of precedent for a guy who missed nearly half of his team’s season making first team all-pro, but it would give me pause.
On its own, maybe his 1935 all-pro selection could be ignored. But then you move on to 1936 and 1937. Those two seasons, the Lions played 23 games, but Emerson only started in nine of them. Yet he was again first team all-pro both years! In 1937, he only started three of his team’s 11 games, and he was still named a first team all-pro for the entire league. Again, maybe there’s an explanation for that, but I’d like to hear it.
This may seem like nit-picking, but because so much of Emerson’s candidacy is tied to being a six-time first team all-pro, you really have to examine whether those selections were legit. After all, if one or two of them were stretches and Emerson was really more accurately a four- or five-time all-pro (performance-wise), then his resume suddenly becomes more comparable to guys like Gus Sonnenberg who haven’t been seriously considered as Hall of Fame material.
Finally, Emerson is often credited with the fact that he played for some stellar Lions teams in the 1930s. But to me, that can also work against him, particularly in the case of…
George Christensen (1931-38)
Six time all-pro (1931-36); four time first team (1931, 1933-34, 1936)
Summary: Christensen was a six-time all-pro for the Portsmouth Spartans/Detroit Lions franchise at right tackle – right next to Emerson – over the exact same eight-year span that Emerson played. Christensen was a standout, a team captain of the first Lions team in 1934.
So now you’re in a position where Christensen and Emerson have almost canceled each other out. The right side of the Lions line was obviously dominant and helped create one of the greatest rushing attacks of the NFL’s pre-war era. But was it due to Emerson or Christensen? The answer is both, of course…but how much?
And that’s just on the line…we haven’t even mentioned Glenn Presnell, Ernie Caddel, or Ace Gutowsky, all of whom were on our initial list of 45 candidates and who had a hand in the Lions’ success in the mid-’30s. I need to see more game accounts from the 1930s or testimonies from witnesses of that era, attributing the Lions’ remarkable rushing success to either Emerson or Christensen, before I’m comfortable moving either of them out of “borderline Hall of Fame” status.
Honestly, I’m not sure either of them have a better case than Youngstrom. I mean, Youngstrom might have been the best guard in the entire NFL in the 1920s, while I can’t decide if Emerson or Christensen was even the best lineman on his own team when he played.
Verne Lewellen (1924-32)
Six time all-pro (1925-30); four time first team (1926-29)
Summary: Lewellen was an excellent player who helped usher in the Packers’ three-peat dynasty from 1929-31. Lewellen was a talented halfback and a lauded defensive player. He rushed for 2,410 career yards and 37 touchdowns and had 1,240 yards receiving with 12 more touchdowns. Lewellen even passed for over 2,000 career yards, despite being a halfback who wasn’t the Packers’ primary passer. He totaled 307 points over his nine-year career, a Packers record that stood for a decade after he retired. These stats may not be overwhelming today, but in his era, they were remarkable.
Lewellen was also an outstanding punter, one of the best of his era, booming 60-yard and 70-yard punts when needed. He even launched an 82-yarder in a 1929 game against the New York Giants. Back in the 1920s, when punting and field position were even more critical than it is today, that made Lewellen extremely valuable.
Like Emerson and Christensen, Lewellen had a peak run of about six seasons. However, the fact that he did it for a Packers dynasty that won three titles only helps Lewellen’s case. I think there’s a pretty compelling argument that Lewellen was a Hall of Fame player. What hurts his case more than anything is that there’s an even more deserving player from those teams who has also been left out.
LaVern Dilweg (1926-34)
Eight time all-pro (1926-33); six time first team (1926-31)
Summary: Dilweg, one of the greatest ends in football history, clearly deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He dominated his position for eight seasons, won three championships with the Packers from 1929-’31, and compares favorably to several players already in the Hall of Fame. He’s the only pre-war eight time all-pro not in the Hall of Fame…in fact, he’s one of only two seven time all-pros from that era not in the Hall of Fame. The only reason he’s not in the Hall of Fame is because the Seniors Committee figures he’s too old to consider. And that’s downright tragic.
I mentioned in a previous post that Ken Crippen has gone into great detail to outline why Dilweg deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Crippen’s argument is compelling, and frankly, it’s astonishing that Dilweg has been ignored this long. Which only leaves…
Duke Slater (1922-31)
Seven time all-pro (1923-27, 1929-30); six time first team (1923, 1925-27, 1929-30)
Summary: My man, Duke Slater. I could go into his whole Hall of Fame candidacy again for the thousandth time, but I don’t think that’s necessary.
What I will say is that the fact that Slater didn’t make all-pro in 1928 was no fault of his. Slater’s team, the Chicago Cardinals, nearly went bankrupt in 1928 and played only half of a season’s worth of games. Slater was omitted from the all-pro team only because voters didn’t have a chance to see him play. Given that Slater was an all-pro the five seasons before 1928 and two more seasons after, it’s reasonable to assume that he would have been an all-pro in 1928 if he was given a chance.
What that means is this…Duke Slater had an eight-year period from 1923-1930 in which he played at a consistent, all-pro level. Only one other pre-war player who isn’t in the Hall of Fame can say that, and that’s Dilweg. No other pre-war player had more than a six-year period of similar dominance…Slater and Dilweg each had eight. LaVern Dilweg and Duke Slater are the two biggest Pro Football Hall of Fame snubs from before World War II, and it’s not really all that close.
Of course, although I think they’re both worthy of the Hall of Fame, I’d put Slater in before Dilweg. Although I seldom play the race card with Slater, to me, the fact that he was a racial trailblazer nudges him ahead of Dilweg, despite Dilweg’s role on three NFL championship teams. Dilweg was a great player, but he was also well-accepted by the Packers dynasty. Duke Slater couldn’t stay in the same hotels or couldn’t eat in the same restaurants as his teammates due to his race, but he was still a dominant player in the NFL. That puts Slater ahead for me.
But again, I’m comparing two players here who both should clearly be in the Hall of Fame. Slater and Dilweg are far and away the two biggest pre-war Hall of Fame snubs.
Pre-War (1920-1945) Hall of Fame Contenders Summary
To summarize, here are the pre-war (1920-1945) 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: Verne Lewellen
Borderline: Swede Youngstrom, George Christensen/Ox Emerson
Seniors Committee voters often ask, “If Duke Slater (and LaVern Dilweg) are so deserving, why have they been overlooked all these years?” That’s an impossible question to answer. First of all, it’s never any one single thing…Hall of Fame voting is a complicated, sometimes political process, so a player’s exclusion can’t always be simplified down to just one lone factor. The strangest thing is that Seniors Committee voters should know that as well as anyone. Moreover, I don’t have any idea why Slater and Dilweg have been unfairly excluded.
What I can say, from looking at the conclusions drawn above, is that the Hall of Fame voters of previous decades actually did a remarkably good job! Think about it…if you look back at the first two and a half decades of the NFL, there are only two – TWO – obvious Hall of Fame caliber players that the voters missed and left behind. That’s an extremely good track record.
I have no illusions that the Hall of Fame voters will actually do this, but if the Seniors Committee pulled a 2005 and nominated Slater and Dilweg as their two candidates – and then shepherded them through the full committee into the Hall of Fame – they could effectively slam the door on the pre-war NFL and be content that every single player from 1920-1945 who should absolutely, definitely be enshrined in the Hall of Fame is finally in. As for the others who are out, you can honestly make a case that as good as they were, they came up just short of what they needed to do to get in.
But as long as Duke Slater and LaVern Dilweg are unjustly shut out, the campaign to get the Seniors Committee voters to take another look at the pre-war NFL era will continue until Slater and Dilweg’s omissions are rectified.