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George Calhoun's Press-Gazette All-Pro teams unmatched

Is he still a worthy contributor candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

George Whitney Calhoun
George Whitney Calhoun

Starting in 1923 and over all but one of 13 years, George Whitney Calhoun of the Green Bay Press-Gazette polled coaches, other club officials and sportswriters in picking an all-National Football League team. In 1932, the one year that Calhoun wasn't involved, Art Bystrom, then the Press-Gazette's sports editor, handled the task.

First, a few things about Calhoun.

He was co-founder of the Packers in 1919, their publicist – albeit, volunteer perhaps – over their first 27 years in the NFL and also official club secretary for most of that time, as well as a member of the team's board of directors from when it became a community-owned property in 1923 until his death in December 1963.

By trade, Calhoun was a newspaperman.

From 1921, when the Packers joined what was then the American Professional Football Association, through 1927, his duties at the Press-Gazette included at various times: telegraph editor, sports editor, sports columnist and covering Packers games both at home and on the road. Thereafter, he would cover the Packers for the paper only on their annual late-season eastern swings, including writing a game story as late as 1937, while doing double duty carrying out his ex officio job as publicist for the team.

Arguably, nobody in the league at the time had as many influential friends, from owners to coaches to sportswriters. Even after Calhoun's bitter falling out with Curly Lambeau in 1947 and his retirement from the Press-Gazette in 1957, the likes of NFL commissioner Bert Bell and Bears owner and coach George Halas, not to mention many others, would make a point of visiting Calhoun at his home on W. Walnut St., or at nearby Brehme's Bar on Saturdays when they were in Green Bay for a game. "I've lost one of my oldest and dearest friends," Halas said upon learning of Calhoun's death.

Calhoun also was one of 16 contributor candidates on the original Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot in 1963 for his many contributions to the league and its history.

In January 1952, Bell and league owners invited Roger Treat to attend their annual meeting and endorsed his work as editor of the first official NFL encyclopedia, which was published later that year. In turn, Calhoun was the first person that Treat thanked in his preface and suggested the project might not have been possible if he had not forwarded his "precious and massive, files…," that led to Treat "digging up facts which once seemed … inaccessible."

Calhoun also has been credited with authoring what was recognized as the first weekly newssheet in the NFL, starting in 1938. And when he wrote a letter to Bell in August 1954, informing him that the Packers had decided to discontinue their Football News Bulletin, the commissioner wrote back on league stationery, "I want you to know that for myself and the members of the National Football League we deeply appreciate everything you have done for us; and this is from the hearts of all of us." In the following paragraph, Bell added that he appreciated Calhoun's willingness to continue keeping up with his records, knowing "they will be of great assistance to the league office."

When the Pro Football Hall of Fame was being constructed and in search of memorabilia and records for its exhibits in the spring of 1963, Dick McCann, the original director, wrote to Calhoun, thanking him for his help and asking for his continued support. "I don't think there is anybody else who has a greater store of knowledge on pro football than you, and I hope that you don't forget me," wrote McCann.

But Calhoun might have provided the NFL no greater gift than his annual all-pro teams.

"Total Football II: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League," published in 1999, listed four teams that were selected over the league's first three seasons, 1920-22, in its chapter on "All-Pro Selections."

They included a team selected by the sports editor of the Rock Island Argus in 1920, one chosen by a sports columnist for the Buffalo Evening News in 1921, and teams selected in 1922 by player-coach Guy Chamberlin of the Canton Bulldogs for that city's Daily News and by Halas, then player-coach of the Bears, who was also writing sports for the Chicago Daily Journal at the time.

There were other teams selected those years that appeared to be just as credible if not more so – for example, a sportswriter for the Akron Evening News picked one in 1920 when its local team, the Akron Pros, won the APFA's first championship; and a columnist for the Buffalo Courier made a bigger splash with his 1921 selections than the one briefly noted in the city's Evening News – but Total Football chose to ignore those selections for whatever reason.

Once Calhoun started polling others for his team, the one other all-pro team that was included in "Total Football" and survived even longer than the Press-Gazette's appeared in Collier's Eye, a Chicago-based sporting magazine.

But the Collier's Eye teams also were selected by individuals.

Sportswriter E.G. Brands chose the teams from 1923-26; Frank Korch, who later became a talent scout for the Bears, picked it in 1929 with contributions from coaches; and then Bears halfback Red Grange started making the selections in 1930 and proceeded to name himself to the first team both that year and the next.

Sportswriter Wilfrid Smith of the Chicago Tribune also picked his own team from 1926-29 and certainly had the qualifications to do so. A 6-foot-4, 204-pound lineman, Smith had played for four different teams over the first five years of the NFL, including the Chicago Cardinals in 1924 and '25.

But, by and large, all of those teams were picked on the observations and whims of one person, including some who in all likelihood didn't even get a chance to watch all of their choices play.

Nobody put in the work like Calhoun.

In 1923, the first year of his selections, he received votes from 15 sportswriters from 12 different NFL cities: Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Duluth, Green Bay (probably his own), Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Racine, Rock Island and St. Louis. The next year, Calhoun received votes from 12 writers in NFL cities, plus six officials who worked NFL games. By 1926, a total of 17 sports editors and team managers from 17 different NFL cities voted. In 1929, an unspecified number of league owners were among the 16 voters in addition to coaches, writers and officials. By 1934, the coaches of the 10 NFL teams, plus six game officials chose the team. In 1935, the last year of Calhoun's polling, coaches were involved again.

The Press-Gazette selections included 11-man first and second teams, plus a third team in five of the 12 years. When Bystrom handled the picks in 1932, he chose a 22-man team and wrote that it was based on discussions with players on four of the eight NFL teams and his own observations while covering nine of the Packers' 14 games. For the record, the 1932 team was not listed in Total Football, nor was the Press-Gazette's 1931 team, again, for whatever reasons.

The Packers also didn't benefit from Calhoun's or anyone else's impartiality, despite the team being published by their hometown paper.

Over the 12 years when Calhoun oversaw the selections, seven different Packers made a first team. Fourteen different players from the Bears made one and eight from the Cardinals, even though they won just one NFL title during that period compared to the Packers' three championships. The New York Giants, who didn't field a team until 1925, had 12 different players make a first team.

By 1931, there were other all-pro teams besides Calhoun's being selected based on polling rather than one person's opinion. However, the voting was anything but clearcut and Total Football's lists raise several questions.

In 1931, Total Football had the United Press wire service picking a team for the first time, but the selectors were hardly a neutral body. Chicago-based, UP staff correspondent George Kirksey said he chose the team based on input from Halas, Bears publicity man Rocky Wolfe, and players from the Bears and Cardinals.

Total Football also has the NFL picking an official team for the first time that same year, but the choices were exactly the same as the Press-Gazette's for all three 11-man teams. In other words, if the NFL actually sanctioned a team it was Calhoun's.

In 1932, newspapers across the country credited the Associated Press with picking a team based on a vote of coaches, but Total Football lists it as the NFL's team, not AP's. Again, for the record, Total Football doesn't list an AP team until 1940.

In 1935, the last year of the Press-Gazette's selections, Total Football lists the paper's team again, along with others by UP and what it labels as the NFL's official team. The UP national wire story about its choices was again written by Kirksey, but no explanation could be found for how the team was picked. The story that ran with the NFL's selections said they were made by the league's coaches and it was the league's official team, but it carried an AP credit.

What to make of all this?

The Press-Gazette selections were the only ones in the 1920s to represent the opinions of many league insiders and might still have been just as credible as any other after the wire services became involved over the first half of the 1930s.

Also, websites and editors of team media guides that have relied on Total Football for their all-pro lists might want to do more research to see if they're accurate and complete.

Finally, even though Calhoun has fallen off the radar screen as a contributor candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, those who compiled the list for that category in 1963 likely had a much better handle on his credentials than anyone does today. At the very least, it's hard to imagine that Calhoun isn't deserving of one of Canton's new "Awards of Excellence," for his PR work among so many other things.