Why the Seniors Committee Has Shunned Pre-War Players

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of the Talk of Fame show, a radio show that discusses pro football history as well as the current NFL, with a focus on potential and future Hall of Fame players. One of my favorite segments on the show is the “State Your Case” segment, where one member of the show makes the Hall of Fame case for a deserving player. That segment of the show inspired me to write up a succinct Pro Football Hall of Fame case for Duke Slater, a man who should have been inducted decades ago.

Fans can also call in to the show and make a pitch for their favorite player. Well, a recent phone call to the Talk of Fame show illustrated just how difficult it is to get Hall of Fame consideration for pre-war NFL players. You can listen to the call at the 1:26:20 mark of the linked episode and you’ll see what I’m taking out.

Ken Crippen

Ken Crippen, who has served as executive director of the Pro Football Researchers Association (PFRA), has been writing about pro football history for over two decades. Long story short, he knows his stuff. In an effort to promote LaVern Dilweg and Al Wistert, two long, long overlooked Hall of Fame caliber players, Crippen called in to the Talk of Fame show a while back.

Again, I have a lot of respect for Crippen and his football knowledge. But he starts by pitching Dilweg, and he makes the mistake of spending a solid minute just listing his credentials. All of what he says is true and pretty impressive, but it gets monotonous after a bit and you can sense that the three voters are tuning him out.

Former Hall of Fame voter Bernie Miklasz once talked about pitching a guy for the Hall of Fame. “It’s almost like a lawyer’s closing argument,” he said. “You can’t just write a speech and drone on, because people fall asleep. You also can’t come on too strong and brow-beat people, because that backfires. And you can’t rely only on stats. You have to make it interesting, throw some humor in.”

It’s a minute into the call before the three voters get a chance to give their feedback. And their first question is, “How does a guy from Philly get interested in an old guy like Dilweg?” Almost like a “why do you care about Dilweg” question. It’s a fair question, but by the time Crippen finishes answering that one, we’re about two minutes into the call and the voters still haven’t discussed Dilweg’s case.

The Seniors Committee and Pre-War NFL

Rick Gosselin’s main response to Dilweg’s candidacy is summed up in the quote, “Everyone in the Seniors pool is a long shot, and the older you are, the longer shot you become.” Now, I don’t doubt that’s true…but why should that be true?

The Seniors Committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame was created in 1972 to select “seniors” as finalists for the Hall of Fame (seniors, of course, being guys who retired over 25 years ago). During the Seniors Committee’s first decade, they nominated several guys who played before World War II. But since 1982, the Seniors Committee has reached back to nominate a player who played a portion of his career before World War II only twice – 2005, when they nominated (and later elected) Benny Friedman and Fritz Pollard, and 2008, when they nominated Marshall Goldberg.

Goldberg’s case is particularly interesting. He had been nominated as a Seniors candidate before in 1979 and was voted down by the full committee. When the Seniors Committee nominated him for a second time in 2008 (shortly after Goldberg’s death), the nomination was not only turned down by the full committee again but was widely and loudly panned.

While Friedman and Pollard’s nominations were generally met with a positive response, Goldberg’s 2008 nomination was one of those head-scratching choices that occasionally makes people question what the Seniors Committee is thinking. Bob Gill, a pro football historian, had one of my favorite lines about Goldberg’s nomination: “It’s like they just picked his name out of a hat…but he really shouldn’t have even been in the hat.”

Anyway, ever since then, the Seniors Committee has been gun-shy to revisit that era of pro football, as if they weren’t already. The Seniors Committee has focused almost exclusively on players from the 1950s-1970s at the expense of players who played in the 1920s-1940s. Why is that?

How Pre-War Players Got the Shaft

Actually, I think there are two reasons. The first reason the Seniors Committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame has turned their back on pre-war players is because there is this false notion that no deserving player from that era could have possibly been shunned for this long. After all, 1920s-1940s players have had far more chances to make the Hall of Fame than players from 1950 forward, just by virtue of their age…right? That seems like a reasonable, logical argument, more fact than opinion.

But actually, it’s a common mistake! Let me explain why it’s not true at all.

Just for example’s sake, take a modern, 1960s-era player like Gary Collins (since Rick Gosselin mentioned him in a recent blog post). Collins played from 1962-1971, while my favorite deserving Hall of Famer, Duke Slater, played from 1922-1931. I like this example, because they both played a full decade with exactly 40 years between them.

Now, Gosselin (and others like him, including many on the Hall of Fame’s Seniors Committee) might think that Collins has had way less of an opportunity to be considered for the Hall of Fame than Slater. After all, Slater has been eligible for four decades longer than Collins. Surely, Collins has had a rougher road for Hall of Fame consideration than Slater…right?

Actually, no.

Gary Collins retired in 1971. Current players are eligible for the Hall five years after retirement and then have 20 years as a modern-era candidate before they are thrown into what’s known as the “Seniors Abyss”. In Collins’ case, he was eligible as a modern-era candidate from 1976-1995 until being thrown in with the Seniors in 1996. In other words, Collins had a full two decades before his Hall of Fame chances were limited to one or two slots a year.

Furthermore, when Collins was a modern-era candidate from 1976-1995, he only had to compete against other modern-era candidates within a rolling 20-year window. In 1976, Collins was up against players who retired from 1952-1971. The two-decade window rolled forward until, in 1995, he was going up against players who retired from 1971-1990.

Now let’s look at Duke Slater. The Hall of Fame was created in 1963, and the Seniors Committee was formed in 1972, at which point Slater was immediately banished to the “Seniors Abyss”. That means that Slater only had nine chances to make it through the full committee as a modern-era candidate (1963-1971). That’s far fewer shots on the full committee than Collins had…less than half as many!

Moreover, when Slater was a modern-era candidate from 1963-1971, he was going up against every player who retired from the NFL from 1920 through five years prior to that year. In 1963, Slater was up against players who retired from 1920-1958…and that window only got one year wider each and every year he was a modern-era candidate.

Even assuming that Hall of Fame players like Jim Thorpe and Fritz Pollard retired, at earliest, in the mid-1920s, you’re still looking at a three-decade window Slater was up against in 1963, filled with the biggest names in pro football history. By 1971, when Slater was a Hall of Fame finalist, he was competing against players who retired from 1926-1966 – a four-decade long window. Being a finalist that year was obviously a massive achievement, considering the breadth of the competition.

The only advantage Duke Slater has over Gary Collins is the fact that Slater has been eligible for the Seniors Committee since 1972, while Collins has only been eligible to be their selection since 1996. That’s Slater’s big advantage over Collins.

But remember…the Seniors Committee has only nominated three pre-war players since 1982! The reality is that the Seniors Committee hasn’t really considered Slater’s era in over three decades. Slater had about a decade (1972-1982) during which players from his era were viable Seniors Committee nominees. Since then, the Seniors Committee has focused exclusively on players who played in decades like the 1960s…and well, well, that just so happens to be Collins’ era.

So while Collins has had fewer opportunities to be selected by the Seniors Committee, the fact is that the Seniors Committee nowadays focuses almost exclusively on Collins’ era over Slater’s. Obviously, this “advantage” of Slater’s doesn’t even begin to offset the disadvantage he faced in being considered by the full committee as a modern era candidate.

It’s pretty easy to see how a worthy player from the 1920s-1940s could have been overlooked. In fact, I’d argue it was far easier for a player from that era to be overlooked than it is for players today, and in Duke Slater’s case, that’s even without considering the racial backdrop of the era in which his case was heard.

By the way, you can see how the claim that every deserving pre-war NFL player is already in the Hall can become self-perpetuating. Let’s say Duke Slater hasn’t made it into the Hall of Fame ten years from now. The 2025 Hall of Fame Seniors Committee voters will just say, “Hey, Gosselin and his crew didn’t put Slater in back in 2015…I’m sure there must have been a reason.” And so it goes.

Fear of Getting “Goldberged”

The other reason I think the Seniors Committee has turned their backs on pre-war players – besides erroneously believing that every deserving player from that era is already in – is that they, flat out, don’t know who the snubs are. In other words, they don’t want to get “Goldberged” and look silly for nominating a pre-war player who obviously isn’t up to snuff.

I have a lot of sympathy for the Seniors Committee selectors. The 1950s-1970s is right in these guys’ wheelhouse…many of them were fans and watched a lot of football from that era, and some voters even covered football during that time. On the other hand, they surely didn’t cover the NFL back in 1949. It’s easier for them to just suggest that every deserving pre-war player is in rather than go out on a limb and nominate someone undeserving.

But that can be frustrating, because there are pre-war players – like Duke Slater – who really, really have been unfairly ignored. I have studied what Pro Football Hall of Fame voters want in their candidates. I’ve put together a Hall of Fame case for Duke Slater that includes his stats, his memorable games, testimonials from his peers, testimonials from historians, comparisons to Hall of Fame players of his era, comparisons to other non-Hall of Fame players from his era…everything. I’ve even showed how with Slater, the answer is a resounding no to the key Hall of Fame question, “Could you accurately tell the history of pro football without him?”

So it’s a little aggravating when I hand Slater’s case to a Hall of Fame voter – a Seniors Committee voter no less, someone who’s supposed to be intrigued by all this ancient history – and their response is, “When did he play…the ’20s? Too old!” And they throw his whole case away without even looking at it or considering it. He’s immediately disqualified for no reason other than the fact that he played too long ago, which, for the record, isn’t really a reason to disqualify him at all.

I think there’s an innate fear, too, that it’s like opening Pandora’s Box. Once you nominate a pre-war player, where does it end? I mean, if you let one pre-war guy in, does a hundred more jump out of the woodwork demanding the attention of the Seniors Committee? This can be a legit fear, particularly if pre-war NFL isn’t your area of expertise.

Well, here’s the good news…there aren’t dozens of deserving, Hall-of-Fame caliber players from the 1920s-1940s who are being snubbed. There are a lot fewer of these guys than you think, and the Seniors Committee could fix the problem in very short order. Tell you what…to be continued. More to come, and thanks for reading.

Please share this page with others!