I feel these next few posts are the culmination of a conversation we’ve had for the past few weeks about the Pro Football Hall of Fame and players from the pre-war era. The Pro Football Hall of Fame Seniors Committee has turned its back on nominating players from the pre-war era, having nominated pre-war players only twice since 1982.
I’ve identified two possible causes for this. One may be the mistaken belief of these selectors that there are no deserving pre-war players left who aren’t already in the Hall of Fame. The other may be that even if there are pre-war players who are deserving, the selectors may not know which ones they are, how many there are, and who to nominate (at least if the Marshall Goldberg nomination in 2008 is any indication).
Well, never fear…I’m here to help! I have put together a list of the greatest players from the NFL’s first three decades who aren’t in the Hall of Fame, and I will evaluate their Hall of Fame cases below (so you don’t have to, as they say). Hopefully by listing the Hall of Fame’s pre-war snubs in this way, it will make the task before the Seniors Committee seem somewhat less daunting by pointing out how few players are being left out in the cold.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Pre-War Snubs: The Sources
To compile this list of the greatest pre-war (1920-1945) players not in the Hall of Fame, I relied on three sources:
1) The All-Decade Teams of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s (AD). I went through the All-Decade Team of the 1940s and omitted a few of the players on that team who played and earned their honors primarily after 1945.
2) Pro Football Illustrated’s 1947 all-time team (PFI). In 1947, a publication called Pro Football Illustrated released a list of the 49 greatest (retired) players in pro football history. It’s a terrific list that provides tremendous insight about who the most highly regarded players were of the pre-war era at the conclusion of the era. No historical revisionism involved…for instance, only one African-American athlete made the list, and it wasn’t Fritz Pollard.
3) The Pro Football Researchers Association (PFRA). I posed the question of the greatest pre-war NFL players not in the Hall of Fame to the crack historians of the Pro Football Researchers Association, and they provided me with several names. But of the many names they mentioned, only three of them were not included from the two sources above, an overlap which I think only adds validity to the two lists above. I added the PFRA’s three suggestions to the master list below.
The 45 Greatest Non-Hall of Fame Pre-War Players
Using the sources above, I came up with 45 names of the greatest pre-war (1920-1945) players not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Here they are, alphabetically:
• Hunk Anderson (AD)
• Jim Benton (AD)
• Al Blozis (AD)
• Charley Brock (AD)
• Cub Buck (PFI)
• Carl Brumbaugh (PFI)
• Ernie Caddel (PFI)
• George Christensen (AD)
• Frank Cope (AD)
• Ed Danowski (PFI)
• LaVern Dilweg (AD)
• Red Dunn (PFI)
• Jug Earp (PFI)
• Bill Edwards (AD)
• Ox Emerson (AD)
• Beattie Feathers (AD)
• Butch Gibson (PFI)
• Buckets Goldenberg (AD)
• Ace Gutowsky (PFI)
• Duke Hanny (PFI)
• Cecil Isbell (AD)
• Joe Kopcha (PFI)
• Tony Latone (PFRA)
• Bill Lee (AD)
• Russ Letlow (AD)
• Verne Lewellen (PFI)
• Jack Manders (PFI)
• Jim McMillen (PFRA)
• Harry Newman (PFI)
• Curly Oden (PFI)
• Duke Osborn (PFI)
• Bill Osmanski (AD)
• Glenn Presnell (PFRA)
• Baby Ray (AD)
• Vic Sears (AD)
• Duke Slater (PFI)
• Clyde Smith (PFI)
• Gus Sonnenberg (PFI)
• George Svendsen (AD)
• Gaynell Tinsley (AD)
• Whizzer White (AD)
• Mule Wilson (PFI)
• Wildcat Wilson (PFI)
• Len Younce (AD)
• Swede Youngstrom (PFI)
Quite a list. I wish several of these players were better known by football fans today, but then, I could say that about several pre-war Hall of Famers as well. Learn to love your history, kids.
Anyway, you might be thinking that all this list does is reinforce Rick Gosselin’s suggestion that the Pro Football Hall of Fame Seniors Committee is overwhelmed with qualified candidates. But don’t fret…once we really start taking a closer look at this list, you’re going to see that most of these players, while great players all, don’t really have a legitimate Hall of Fame case. So let’s break it down.
Criterion 1: Longevity
The first thing the Pro Football Hall of Fame is looking for is longevity. A player who dominates for a few years and then retires isn’t Hall-of-Fame-worthy. A player has to excel for several years on end to have a legit Hall of Fame case (no excuses, Kenny Washington supporters).
Ernie Nevers is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite having only played five seasons. His tenure is the shortest of any Hall of Famer. But Nevers is the exception that proves the rule…he was one of the elite players ever to play the game and was immediately inducted in the Hall’s inaugural class in 1963, longevity be damned.
For all the players on this list – who, unlike Nevers, weren’t clear first-ballot Hall of Famers in 1963 – five seasons just doesn’t cut it. A very small number of players – like Fritz Pollard and Arnie Weinmeister – made it in having played just six NFL seasons, but that’s the absolute minimum cut line. And even six seasons puts you on dicey ground…you really need seven NFL seasons to be safe, especially if your career goes into the mid-to-late 1940s. Right there, you’re going to be astonished at how many players from the list above are immediately eliminated from Hall of Fame consideration.
In a lot of ways, these are some of the toughest eliminations to make – most of the guys in this section had careers that were too short to warrant Hall of Fame induction, but when they did play, they were obviously superlative enough to make our initial list in the first place. Also, pro football was hardly glamorous in those days. If you got offered a good coaching job or a position in private business, people often took it and didn’t look back. They didn’t continue playing pro football with their Hall of Fame candidacy in mind…the Hall of Fame was decades from even being created yet.
But again, if you want to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, you need to have had a long enough career in pro football to prove you’re worthy…no excuses. Here, then, are all the players above who just didn’t play long enough to merit a Canton conversation.
Bill Edwards (1940-42, 1946) – One time all-pro (1942). Edwards was a special agent with the FBI in the early ’40s and served in the U.S. Infantry during World War II. Like many 1940s players, Edwards’ light football resume is padded by the fact that he was, you know, an American hero.
Hunk Anderson (1922-25) – One time all-pro (1922). I mentioned Anderson in a previous post. A fine assistant coach in the NFL, Anderson was also the head coach at Notre Dame (succeeding Rockne after his untimely death in 1931) and the head coach of the Chicago Bears during World War II.
Al Blozis (1942-44) – One time all-pro (1943). Blozis was a true American hero who perished in 1945 fighting during World War II. But just as Pat Tillman’s not in the Hall of Fame, Blozis’ candidacy (and even his spot on the ’40s All-Decade team) is more about sentimentality than performance.
George Svendsen (1935-37, 1940-41) – One time all-pro (1941). Svendsen was a solid member of the Green Bay Packers before World War II. He played with his brother, Earl Svendsen, for the Packers.
Wildcat Wilson (1926-29) – One time all-pro (1928). George “Wildcat” Wilson was a star at the University of Washington and then, according to some, outplayed Red Grange in a game when Grange’s Bears visited the West Coast in 1926. When Grange formed the American Football League in 1926, one AFL squad was a traveling team called the Los Angeles Wildcats, named after Wilson. Wilson then had a short three-year NFL career before turning to pro wrestling.
Harry Newman (1933-35) – Two time all-pro (1933, 1934). Newman was an excellent back for the New York Giants for three seasons, winning an NFL championship with them in 1934. But Newman also made roughly 25 times more in salary than the average NFL player at the height of the Great Depression, because he negotiated a contract with the Giants that included a cut of ticket sales. When the Giants refused in 1936 to continue giving Newman a percentage of the gate – offering him a straight salary instead – Newman simply retired from football.
Gaynell Tinsley (1937-38, 1940) – Two time all-pro (1937, 1938). Tinsley led the NFL in several receiving statistics in his two all-pro NFL seasons. He retired after three seasons and entered the U.S. Navy. Tinsley would later serve as the head coach at his alma mater, LSU, for seven seasons.
Whizzer White (1938, 1940-41) – Three time all-pro (1938, 1940-41). I also mentioned White in a prior post. White was an all-pro in all three of his NFL seasons and twice led the league in rushing. He later ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court and is the namesake of the NFL’s “Man of the Year” Award for charitable work in the community.
Clyde Smith (1925-28) – Three time all-pro (1926-28). For all practical purposes, Smith was a three-year NFL player, playing one game as a rookie in 1925. Smith was named all-pro in each of his three full seasons, but he left the sport after claiming an NFL title with the Providence Steam Roller in 1928.
All right, folks…these last four are the toughest ones. Each had a five-year career and were consistent all-pros, but again, five years just weren’t enough to get into the Hall of Fame discussion.
Jim McMillen (1924-28) – Four time all-pro (1925-28). McMillen was an outstanding lineman for the Chicago Bears in the 1920s, but he was also a dual sport athlete. In addition to football, McMillen was a professional wrestler, and when his wrestling career became more lucrative then his gridiron exploits, he left football to focus on a long wrestling career.
Butch Gibson (1930-34) – Four time all-pro (1931-34). Gibson was a powerful lineman with the New York Giants. Allegedly, Gibson could rip a deck of cards into sixteenths with his bare hands. I don’t even care if that’s true or not…the fact that Gibson might make someone think it’s true tells you all you need to know about how tough that guy was.
Cecil Isbell (1938-42) – Five time all-pro (1938-42). A great, forgotten passer in Green Bay Packers history, Isbell was an all-pro in each of his five NFL seasons. With another two or three seasons under his belt, he might have skated into Canton. But with Curly Lambeau threatening to fire everyone in the Packers organization, Isbell abruptly decided to call it quits and take a coaching job at Purdue, his alma mater. Isbell was Purdue’s head coach for three seasons before coaching the Baltimore Colts from 1947-49.
Gus Sonnenberg (1923, 1925-28, 1930) – Five time all-pro (1923, 1925-28). Sonnenberg technically played six seasons, but his 1930 season lasted all of one game. In five full NFL seasons, Sonnenberg – like Isbell – was an all-pro all five years and may have walked into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with another couple years in football. But like McMillen, Sonnenberg found wrestling to be a more lucrative sideline, and Sonnenberg gave up football to spend time in the ring. If it’s any consolation, Sonnenberg was enshrined in the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2007.
Criterion 2: Long Peak
Playing for at least six or seven seasons is a must to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but it’s only the first step. A true Hall of Famer should have an extended peak of a few seasons in which you are judged to be one of the best players in pro football. After all, many players can put together long careers…but to make the Hall of Fame, you need to be considered one of the better players in the game!
The best way to determine the top pre-war players of each season, in my view, is by looking at each year’s all-pro teams. All-pro teams are real-time accounts of who were considered the best players in the NFL at the conclusion of each season. For the pre-war era, when you can’t rely on things like film study to evaluate players (since game film wasn’t widely available), all-pro teams are a great starting point to evaluate the top players in the league each season.
Let’s set a baseline, then, of three all-pro selections. In order to be considered a pre-war Hall of Fame candidate, you need to have been listed as a first team, second team, or third team all-pro in at least three seasons. Several different organizations choose all-pro teams – if any organization named you an all-pro, you are considered an all-pro for that season. If every single organization stiffs you, then you’re not.
It stands to reason that if you only had two seasons (or fewer) in your entire career that anyone considered you to be all-pro material, you’re probably not Hall of Fame material. That makes sense to me, anyway.
Long Peak Cuts
Mule Wilson (1926-33) – zero time all-pro. Fay “Mule” Wilson was a fullback who won three NFL championships with the New York Giants in 1927 and the Green Bay Packers in 1930 and ’31. Unfortunately, failing health caused him to retire from football in 1933, and after a few years in the Texas oil business, Wilson died of a heart attack in 1937.
Carl Brumbaugh (1930-34, 1936-38) – one time all-pro (1931). Brumbaugh was an intelligent player who succeeded Joe Sternaman as the quarterback of the Chicago Bears. He helped lead the Bears to a victory in the first playoff game in NFL history in 1932 and a victory in the first NFL championship game in 1933.
Cub Buck (1920-25) – one time all-pro (1920). Howard “Cub” Buck was an all-pro with the Canton Bulldogs in 1920, but he is best known as being the first pro football player signed by the Green Bay Packers, a distinction he made by signing a contract with Curly Lambeau in 1921 for $75 a game. Buck was a lineman and punter for the Packers and led the team in scoring in 1923.
Jug Earp (1921-32) – one time all-pro (1929). Francis “Jug” Earp was so nicknamed because, at 235 pounds, he resembled a juggernaut in the NFL’s early era. He played most of his long 12-year career with the Green Bay Packers, anchoring an interior line that won three straight NFL championships from 1929-31.
Bill Lee (1935-42, 1946) – two time all-pro (1935, 1936). Lee was a star college player at the University of Alabama, and maybe it was his collegiate acclaim that led to being named an all-pro his first two seasons in the NFL. Lee was a member of the Green Bay Packers’ 1939 NFL championship team. Lee also had a sideline as a professional wrestler, wrestling under the moniker “Alabama Bill”, and he once challenged Bronko Nagurski to a wrestling match.
Curly Oden (1925-28, 1930-32) – two time all-pro (1926, 1928). Olaf “Curly” Oden was a punt returner and running back for the Providence Steam Roller. Oden won an NFL championship with Providence in 1928 and earned an all-pro mention that year. Oden’s claim to fame is being the first NFL player recognized as a legitimate punt return touchdown threat, running back a then-record five punts for touchdowns during his six seasons with the Steam Roller.
Tony Latone (1925-30) – two time all-pro (1926, 1928). A PFRA suggestion – and a good one – Latone came out of the Pennsylvania coal mines to play pro football, so you know that guy was a tough one. He started in the mines at 11 years old after his father died, and it gave him the kind of strength that made him the envy of any NFL fullback. Furthermore, Latone is one of the few NFL stars who never attended college. Latone was the force behind the Pottsville Maroons team controversially denied the 1925 NFL title. It’s alleged that Latone possibly had more rushing yards than any other NFL player in the 1920s, but sadly, that fact remains unconfirmed.
Buckets Goldenberg (1933-45) – two time all-pro (1939, 1942). Charles “Buckets” Goldenberg was a loyal member of the Green Bay Packers. Curly Lambeau actually traded Buckets in 1938, but the deal famously fell through when Goldenberg retired rather than play for another team. Goldenberg was returned to Green Bay, won a second NFL title with them in 1939, and earned his first all-pro selection that year. Rejected for military service due to his bad knees, Goldenberg stayed with the Packers through World War II and won a third title in Green Bay before retiring.
Beattie Feathers (1934-40) – two time all-pro (1934, 1936). In Feathers’ rookie season with the Chicago Bears in 1934, he officially eclipsed an NFL milestone that remains one of the most oft-debated statistical landmarks in NFL history. Feathers officially rushed for 1,004 yards in 1934, becoming the NFL’s first 1,000-yard rusher in a single season. However, because some individual game accounts have incomplete statistics and because his total is just so very barely over the 1,000-yard threshold, some believe that Feathers actually finished below that total but that it was revised upward later (via error, conspiracy, or some other reason). Either way, a shoulder injury late in that season led to Feathers never again recapturing the glory of his rookie year.
Criterion 3: Dominance
Finally, a true Hall of Famer should have at least one “dominant” season. To define dominance, again, let’s go back to the all-pro teams. Criterion 2 included every all-pro mention…first team, second team, and third team selections. It’s seems fair to require a pre-war Hall of Fame candidate to have at least one first team all-pro selection…again, by any organization. If no organization ever chose you as a first team all-pro in your entire career – if you were never, at any point, considered by anyone to be one of the best players at your position in the game – then you’re probably not Hall-of-Fame-worthy.
Think of a Hall of Fame career as a pyramid. At the bottom, you need to have a long career (min. six seasons played) to build upon [Criterion 1]. In the middle, you need a shorter peak run of being among the best in the league (min. three seasons all-pro) [Criterion 2]. Finally, at the top, you need a very short peak run of being one of the absolute best at your position (min. one season first team all-pro) [Criterion 3].
Now, most of the players who don’t meet criterion three have already been filtered out by the first two. However, there are three players who are eliminated by this guideline.
Red Dunn (1924-31) – three time second team all-pro (1924, 1930, 1931). Dunn’s greatest success came as a backfield star and signal caller for the Green Bay Packers dynasty that won three straight NFL titles from 1929-31. Dunn was a prolific passer and probably somewhat overshadowed on a Packers team filled with stars including his college teammate, LaVern Dilweg.
Duke Hanny (1923-30) – four time second team all-pro (1923-26). Frank “Duke” Hanny was a talented end for the Chicago Bears in the 1920s, but he’s probably best known for engaging in a fistfight with Packers end Tillie Voss in a 1924 contest. The punches thrown led to both men getting tossed from the game, making Hanny and Voss the first NFL players to be ejected from a game.
Ace Gutowsky (1932-39) – five time second team all-pro (1932, 1934, 1936-38). Leroy “Ace” Gutowsky’s best seasons were his five years with the Detroit Lions from 1934-38, finishing as the Lions’ all-time career and single-season rushing leader. Both of those rushing marks would stand in Lions history for over two decades. Gutowsky, who was also a hard-hitting linebacker on defense, won an NFL championship with the Lions in 1935.
Criterion 4: World War II
For players who played in the 1940s, there’s an additional wrinkle. From 1943-1945, the United States was in the midst of World War II. The most capable athletes and able-bodied men in the country were, in many cases, fighting overseas. The talent level in the NFL from 1943-1945 was clearly suppressed. Even 1946 was a topsy-turvy season, as players adjusted while returning from war.
Right or wrong, NFL players who had their greatest honors come from 1943-1946 are viewed with a fair amount of historical skepticism, at least where the Hall of Fame is concerned. Although they were the top players of the seasons in which they played, athletes that excelled from 1943-1946 are viewed as historical anomalies, and their success is attributed to the watered-down caliber of play during the World War II era. In short, if a player’s greatest successes came from 1943-1946, that player is considered more a product of their circumstances than a Hall of Fame talent.
Again, that evaluation may be unfair, particularly to those for whom the timing of their careers would have naturally led to a mid-’40s peak anyway. But those are the breaks, and you need to have a substantial run of success before or after the ’43-’46 window in order to “validate”, so to speak, any honors achieved during the watered-down war years.
World War II Cuts
Jim Benton (1938-40, 1942-47) – Four time all-pro (1939, 1944-46). Despite being a second team all-pro in 1939, Benton had a relatively uneventful early NFL career and even took a one-year hiatus in 1941 to coach high school football. But when Benton was rejected for Navy service due to a heart murmur, he rejoined the NFL and earned the only two first team all-pro selections of his career in 1945 and 1946. He set an NFL record with 303 yards receiving in a game in 1945, a mark that stood for over four decades.
Frank Cope (1938-47) – Five time all-pro (1940, 1943-46). There are few players from the pre-war era I know less about than Frank Cope, the 1940s lineman for the New York Giants. What I can tell you is that his only two first team all-pro selections were in 1944 and 1945…like Benton, at the height of World War II.
Charley Brock (1939-47) – Five time all-pro (1940, 1943-46). Brock was a tough lineman for the Green Bay Packers in the 1940s, with four of his five all-pro selections coming during the war years. After retirement, Curly Lambeau hired Brock as his line coach with the Packers.
Baby Ray (1938-1948) – Four time all-pro (1939, 1941, 1943, 1944). Buford “Baby” Ray sparked a bidding war out of college between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Green Bay won Ray’s services, and he played his entire career with the Packers. Baby Ray was an all-pro in just two of his first five seasons before earning back-to-back nods during World War II in 1943-44. He had an 11-year pro football career and then retired to become an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, his alma mater.
From 45 to 16
As you can tell, the four criteria we applied weren’t exactly the most rigorous, unreasonable guidelines around. Yet after four rounds of cuts, only 16 players remain. These 16 players aren’t all Hall of Fame caliber, but each of these guys does deserve his ten minutes of consideration. Here is the list of 16 of the greatest pre-war Hall of Fame snubs, alphabetically:
Sixteen players may seem like a lot. But again, we’re talking about the first two and a half decades of the NFL here…having roughly six players per decade who deserve Hall of Fame discussion (not necessarily induction) is actually pretty slim.
We’ll give these 16 players their deserved moment of discussion, but let’s string this out to another post. Come back for the thrilling conclusion, as they say…stay tuned.
Tagged with: Ace Gutowsky • Al Blozis • Baby Ray • Beattie Feathers • Bill Edwards • Bill Lee • Buckets Goldenberg • Butch Gibson • Carl Brumbaugh • Cecil Isbell • Charley Brock • Clyde Smith • Cub Buck • Curly Oden • Duke Hanny • Duke Slater • Frank Cope • Gaynell Tinsley • George Svendsen • Gus Sonnenberg • Harry Newman • Hunk Anderson • Jim Benton • Jim McMillen • Jug Earp • Mule Wilson • Red Dunn • Tony Latone • Whizzer White • Wildcat Wilson
Filed under: General
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