One of my favorite new radio shows to listen to lately is the Talk of Fame show, hosted by Clark Judge, Ron Borges, and Rick Gosselin. These three voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame discuss pro football history as well as the current NFL, with a focus on potential and future Hall of Fame players. It’s certainly an interesting concept for a show, and the discussions are often very enlightening.
One of the best segments of the show, to me, is the “State Your Case” segment, where one member of the show makes the Hall of Fame case for a deserving player. I love hearing how each guy pitches a particular player’s case. When reading and listening to the analysts make players’ Hall of Fame cases, it strikes me that I haven’t done something similar – online, anyway – for Duke Slater.
Now, I obviously need to point out that Slater’s case can’t be condensed down to just a few paragraphs. But this is my way of playing along, I suppose. Here goes!
State Your Case: Duke Slater
Who is the biggest snub from the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Guess what: it’s not well-known and oft-discussed names like Jerry Kramer, Ken Stabler, or Johnny Robinson. It’s Duke Slater.
Now you’re probably thinking, “How can a guy I’ve never even heard of be the biggest Pro Football Hall of Fame snub? That doesn’t seem possible.” But that just illustrates how egregious Slater’s Hall of Fame exclusion has been.
While there may be some argument over whether Duke Slater is the biggest Hall of Fame snub, there’s little debate that he’s the longest. Slater played ten seasons in the NFL from 1922-1931, splitting time with the Rock Island Independents and the Chicago Cardinals. As a 1920s, two-way tackle, Duke Slater is probably the oldest former NFL player with a legitimate case for the Hall of Fame.
But there’s one more thing that distinguishes Duke Slater from his peers…and it’s the color of his skin. Because when Duke Slater made his debut in 1922, he became the first black lineman in NFL history.
Slater was one of 12 African-Americans to play in the NFL prior to World War II and clearly the most decorated of those dozen. Among pre-World War II black NFL players, Duke Slater ranks first in seasons played with ten (the next highest total is six), games played with 99 (next highest is 49), games started with 96 (next highest is 36), and all-pro selections with seven (next highest is two). So Duke Slater played almost twice as many seasons, more than twice as many games, made nearly three times as many starts, and had five more all-pro selections than any other African-American player of his era.
By the way, the same African-American player ranks second behind Duke Slater in every single one of those categories. His name? Fritz Pollard, who was already inducted into the Hall of Fame a decade ago.
Obviously, Slater’s role as a racial pioneer is historic. In 1927 and 1929, Slater was the only African-American in the entire NFL…and he was named an all-pro both seasons!
Yet those career marks were outstanding for any player of his era, regardless of race. Upon retirement, Slater’s ten NFL seasons ranked third in league history, and his 99 career games played ranked fourth. Duke Slater became the first lineman in NFL history – of any race – to earn seven all-pro nods in 1930. It was a feat duplicated by only six other linemen before World War II, all of whom have since been enshrined in Canton.
Slater’s most notable asset was his durability. His .970 average of career games started to career games played is the highest average of any NFL player before 1950 (with a minimum of 80 games played). Slater never missed a single game due to illness or injury in his entire ten-year career – an amazing statistic, given how his race would have made him a target for late hits and cheap shots. Even more incredibly, in over ninety of Slater’s games, he played the complete sixty-minute game…from opening kickoff to the final gun. Few, if any, players in NFL history notched as many complete games during the two-way era as Duke Slater.
As a tackle, Duke Slater possessed every quality a great lineman should have. He was strong, quick, and wreaked havoc on opponents. George Halas once said, “In the old Cardinals-Bears games, I learned it was absolutely useless to run against Slater’s side of the Cardinal line.” Fritz Pollard, Hunk Anderson, Jim Conzelman, Ernie Nevers, and Elmer Layden all expressed similar opinions.
Red Grange also held Slater in high regard. On the 40th anniversary of the NFL in 1959, Grange was asked to select his personal, all-time all-pro team. He named 13 players he felt were the greatest pro football players of all time. Grange chose 12 current Pro Football Hall of Famers…and Duke Slater.
It’s hard for a lineman to set records, but Duke Slater helped his teammates do just that. In 1922, the Rock Island Independents set an NFL record in a win over Evansville by rushing for nine touchdowns as a team. Duke Slater was on the field for all sixty minutes of that game. Rock Island’s record of nine rushing touchdowns by a single team in a single game still stands today, the oldest team record in the NFL’s record books.
Of course, the oldest individual marks in the NFL’s record books belong to Hall of Famer Ernie Nevers. In 1929, the Chicago Cardinals star set two NFL records that have never been surpassed, nearly 85 years later. In a game against the Chicago Bears, Nevers rushed for six touchdowns and scored all forty points in the Cardinals’ 40-6 victory. Nevers’ six rushing touchdowns and forty points in a single game remain NFL records. Duke Slater played all sixty minutes of that game, too – the only Cardinals lineman to do so – providing the blocking that cleared the way for Nevers’ historic feat.
Duke Slater was an intelligent man who attended law school in his NFL off-seasons and later became one of the first black judges in Chicago history. He played college football at the University of Iowa, where he was a two-time All-American and a three-time all-Big Ten selection, and he became the first African-American inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951. However, despite his legendary career in the NFL, Slater has been unable to gain similar recognition in Canton.
When the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened in 1963, a United Press International article listed Slater as one of nine nominees being considered for the Hall’s very first class. The other eight have since been inducted, but Slater still waits. The following year, an Associated Press article named Slater as one of six “strong candidates” for the Hall of Fame, and again, the other five were eventually enshrined.
All throughout the 1960s, he was considered strong Hall of Fame material. His candidacy was affirmed when Slater was named a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970 and 1971, the first two years finalists were publicly announced. It’s reasonable to assume that Slater would have likely been a finalist again in ’72, ’73, and so on until he finally earned his way to Canton through the regular process.
But in 1972, the Pro Football Hall of Fame changed their bylaws, introducing the new Seniors Committee (then known as the Old-Timers Committee). Duke Slater was not a finalist for the Hall of Fame in 1972, because now his only path to being a Hall of Fame finalist was through being chosen as the Seniors Committee nominee.
Long story short, the Seniors Committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame has let Duke Slater down. The Seniors Committee has never – in over forty years – put Duke Slater forward as their candidate for the Hall of Fame, even though he was one of the top contenders for Canton in the Hall’s first decade. Now, Slater’s era has been completely forgotten. Ironically, the only time in over three decades the Seniors Committee has reached back to the 1920s for their nominees was in 2005, when the Hall of Fame inducted Benny Friedman and Fritz Pollard, the second-greatest black player of his era.
Pollard’s selection, while deserved, has led many, many fans and historians to incorrectly believe that he was the best African-American NFL player of the 1920s. Meanwhile, Duke Slater – truly the greatest black player of the league’s early era, and one of the greatest linemen of any race from the 1920s – continues what has become the Hall’s longest wait for justice.
With all due respect to Kramer, Stabler, Johnny Robinson, and many others, one thing you can’t say is that they haven’t had a chance to have their cases heard. Duke Slater, on the other hand, has been unable the past several years to even get on the list of 15 seniors nominees worthy of discussion. It’s long overdue for the Seniors Committee, for the first time in over forty years, to consider the remarkable career of Duke Slater and restore him to his proper place in pro football history.
Filed under: General