(This is the sixth and final installment in a special series on getting “Justice for the Judge.”)

In this Justice for the Judge series, we have explored several ways that Duke Slater can be given the proper respect he deserves for his unique role in American sports history. But quite possibly the greatest honor that Slater has been unfairly denied is induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Duke Slater for the Pro Football Hall of Fame

I spend a lot of time making Slater’s Hall of Fame case in the book Duke Slater, so I won’t recite the entire argument here. But as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year, it’s absolutely outrageous that Slater still awaits induction.

Fritz PollardHere’s one way to look at it: Thirteen African-American athletes played in the NFL before World War II. Of these 13, Duke Slater was by far the most honored and durable, or at least, that’s how he was considered at the time. But in 2005, another of these 13 early black NFL players, Fritz Pollard, became the first pre-World War II African-American inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This has led a great many people to the erroneous conclusion that Fritz Pollard was the greatest black player of his era.

That assumption is incorrect. Note that in his career, Fritz Pollard earned two all-pro selections. Duke Slater had seven, a total that equaled the number of all-pro selections earned by the other 12 pre-World War II African-American NFL players combined…including Hall of Famer Pollard.  Duke Slater played more NFL seasons than Pollard, played in almost twice as many games, and started nearly three times as many games!  I mean no disrespect to Fritz Pollard…he was a pioneer for African-Americans in sports, both as a player and a coach, and he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But Duke Slater’s argument for the Hall of Fame is much stronger than Pollard’s ever was.  Slater performed at a consistent all-pro level from 1923-1930, a span of eight seasons.  Fritz Pollard didn’t even come close to approaching that level of success for that length of time – in fact, no African-American player did until well after World War II.  Why the Hall of Fame voters, when looking at pre-war black players in the NFL, chose to elect Pollard over Slater is anyone’s guess.  Nevertheless, Pollard is in…while the greatest black player of his generation continues to wait.

Red GrangeHere’s another argument for Slater’s worthiness in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  In 1959, on the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the NFL, a reporter had a question for Red Grange.  Grange was arguably the most famous football player the game had ever seen at that time, and he was asked to give his all-time all-pro team…the eleven greatest players he had ever seen play pro football.  Grange was supposed to name eleven players, but he listed 13 men instead.  No one complained, because, hey, it’s Red Grange!  If he wanted to go over by a couple players, no one was about to argue with him.

Grange didn’t name himself, which was more modesty than accuracy.  In any event, Red Grange chose, in his estimation, the 13 best pro football players he had seen in the first forty years of the NFL.  He named 12 current Pro Football Hall of Famers…and Duke Slater.

Slater was the only African-American of the 13 players Grange selected, and he’s the only one still waiting for a call from Canton.  Do you think that’s a coincidence?  Grange chose these players before the Pro Football Hall of Fame even existed, but this was basically Red Grange’s way of saying that Duke Slater was a Hall of Fame-caliber player.  And if Red Grange put Duke Slater in Hall of Fame company, I’d like to hear an argument that warrants overriding the opinion of a man widely considered one of the greatest to ever play the game.

Those are just two very brief examples of Slater’s worthiness for Canton.  Again, there are several others, which I’m sure I’ll mention later.  But if you want the full story, the book Duke Slater gives what I believe is the first complete argument of Slater’s Hall of Fame merits.

Justice for the Judge

Pro Football Hall of FameIn one week, the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters will convene in New Orleans to elect the Hall of Fame class of 2013.  Duke Slater’s name will not be on the ballot.  In order for Slater to make the Hall of Fame ballot, he must be nominated by the Hall of Fame’s Seniors Committee.

Every year, the Seniors Committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame gets to nominate two outstanding early-era players for the Hall.  Slater wasn’t selected last year, which isn’t terribly surprising…but he wasn’t even one of the final 15 nominees considered by the Seniors Committee.  In other words, Duke Slater still has a long way to go.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame opened in 1963.  Here we are, fifty years later, and one of the greatest linemen of the 1920s – and an African-American sports trailblazer, to boot – still waits outside Canton’s hallowed halls.  I remain hopeful that Slater will eventually have his case heard before the Hall of Fame voters.  His story is too good and his case for induction is so compelling that I believe the judge will have his day in court at some point.  The forty-four voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame need to hear about Duke Slater, and then, maybe they will take the greatest step possible toward granting the judge the full justice to which he’s entitled.

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