The Pro Football Hall of Fame's lasting blemish

The process and players selected from the 1920s

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Pro Football Hall of Fame museum

The Green Bay Press-Gazette all-pro teams, chosen from 1923-35, certainly confirm why many of the 23 players who started their careers in the 1920s were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

As explained in last week's website post, those selections were the only all-pro teams of that period based on annual polling of coaches, club officials, game officials and sportswriters conducted by the paper's George Whitney Calhoun in 12 of the 13 years. Sports editor Art Bystrom picked the team in 1932 based on feedback from players on five NFL teams and his own observations.

That's why there's arguably no better gauge of the best players of the NFL's first 16 seasons.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame didn't induct its first class until 1963, 34 years after the league's first decade ended. In 1969, when 16 members of the Hall of Fame selection committee, representing each NFL city at the time, picked the 1920s all-decade team, all 18 selections had last played more than 30 years earlier.

One of the selectors for the all-decade team was Jimmy Conzelman, who played and coached in the NFL throughout the 1920s and represented St. Louis, then home of the Cardinals. Arthur Daley of The New York Times, another committee member, had started covering games in the 1920s. Dick Cullum of the Minneapolis Tribune might have done so, as well. He was on the staff of the Minneapolis Journal in 1921, when the Packers and Minneapolis Marines were in their first year in the then American Professional Football Association. But eight of the other 13 voters were younger than 15 in 1929 and another wasn't born yet.

Let's do some comparing.

PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME PLAYERS FROM THE 1920s

Here are the 23 players and the years they were inducted:

1963 – Johnny Blood, HB; Red Grange, HB; George Halas, E; Wilbur "Fats" Henry, T; Cal Hubbard, T; Bronko Nagurski, FB; Ernie Nevers, FB; Jim Thorpe, HB; 1964 – Conzelman, QB; Ed Healey, T; Link Lyman, T; Mike Michalske, G; George Trafton, C; 1965 – Guy Chamberlin, E; Paddy Driscoll, QB; 1966 – Joe Guyon, HB; Walt Kiesling, G; Steve Owen, T; 1967 – Ken Strong, HB; 1981 – Red Badgro, E; 2005 – Benny Friedman, QB; Fritz Pollard, HB; 2020 – Duke Slater, T.

The charter selections were made by a committee of 14, again, representing each NFL city at the time. Twelve were sportswriters, including Baltimore's Paul Menton, who officiated NFL games from 1923-38, and two were ex-players, Conzelman and Davey O'Brien, who didn't begin his brief pro career until 1939 and represented Dallas. Among the writers, at least four and probably more like eight or nine wouldn't have covered NFL games in the 1920s.

Six of the selections – Halas, Conzelman, Chamberlin, Kiesling, Owen and Pollard – were selected as both players and coaches.

Halas won a record-tying six NFL championships and his 318 regular-season wins still rank second all-time heading into this season. Owen won two league titles and his 153 wins still put him in the top 25 all-time. They would be slam dunks as coaches alone. Maybe Chamberlin would be a cinch, too. He won four NFL titles in just six years as a player-coach and finished with a .759 winning percentage.

Conzelman coached 15 years, including eight as a player-coach, won two NFL titles and had a .572 winning percentage, the same as newly elected Don Coryell, but not as good as Mike Holmgren, Marty Schottenheimer and George Seifert, among others. Pollard, the first African-American head coach, coached one year and one game in another season, won the 1921 league championship with Akron as a co-coach and compiled an 8-4-1 career record.

In nine years as a head coach, Kiesling had a losing record: 30-55-5.

As players, Conzelman was named second-team all-pro once by the Press-Gazette. Pollard made one first team in 1920, prior to the Press-Gazette selections. Kiesling made the Press-Gazette's first team once and second team once.

Curiously, Ray Flaherty, who had a .712 winning percentage and won two NFL titles in seven years as coach in Washington, was inducted only as a coach based on this year's NFL Record & Fact Book, despite being the second-leading vote-getter at end on the Press-Gazette all-pro teams. Lambeau also was enshrined as a coach only, despite being a second-team all-pro back three times, including twice on the Press-Gazette teams. Also, his best years as a player may have been 1919 and '20, or pre-APFA, seasons other inductees like Thorpe are credited with by the Pro Football – not NFL – Hall of Fame.

That said, this isn't an endorsement of Lambeau as a Hall of Fame player, although he probably has better credentials than Halas and Conzelman.

PRESS-GAZETTE ALL-PRO TEAMS

Here were the leading vote-getters by position based on two points for a first-team vote and one for a second in the 12 years when Calhoun listed 11-man teams and 1½ points for the 22 players on Bystrom's team. The teams listed below include only those where a player made all-pro while he was a member.

Ends – Lavvie Dilweg (Milwaukee & Green Bay), 12½; Ray Flaherty (New York Yankees & New York Giants), 6½.

Tackles – Ed Healey (Chicago Bears), 8; George Christensen (Portsmouth & Detroit Lions), 6½.

Guards – Mike Michalske (NY Yankees & Green Bay), 15½; Jim McMillen (Bears), 5.

Center – (Tie) Clyde Smith (Kansas City Cowboys, Cleveland Bulldogs & Providence), 6; & Mel Hein (Giants), 6.

Quarterback – Benny Friedman (Cleveland Bulldogs, Detroit Wolverines & Giants), 8.

Halfbacks – Ken Strong (Staten Island & Giants), 9½; Verne Lewellen, Green Bay, 9.

Fullback – Ernie Nevers (Duluth Eskimos & Chicago Cardinals), 10.

Three other players garnered enough votes to make the list but not enough at a particular position. Paddy Driscoll of the Cardinals and Bears received 3 points at QB and 7 at HB for a total of 10. Cal Hubbard of the Giants and Packers got 3½ points at tackle, 3 at end and 2 at guard for 8½. Gus Sonnenberg of the Detroit Panthers and Providence had 5 points at tackle and 2 at guard for 7.

Other notes:

Healey also played from 1920-22 and was named to a first team at guard in 1922. Driscoll played from 1920-22, as well, and was named on other newspaper first teams in 1920 and '22. Hein played 10 more years after the last year of the Press-Gazette selections and made first-team all-pro in five of them from 1936-40. Hubbard and Michalske each played one season after 1935 but didn't make any all-pro teams. Strong played five more years but didn't make another all-pro team, either.

Here were the only other players who received more than 5 points on the Press-Gazette teams: E – Bill Hewitt, Bears, 5½ (and made other first-teams from 1936-38); Badgro, Giants, 5; T – Lyman, Cleveland Bulldogs & Bears, 6; Slater, Rock Island & Cardinals, 5; Turk Edwards, Boston Redskins, 5 (and made other first teams from 1936-39); QB – Dutch Clark, Portsmouth & Detroit Lions, 7½ (and made other first-teams from 1936-37); HB – Grange, Bears, 5½; FB – Nagurski, Bears, 6½ (and made other first-teams from 1936-37).

Owen of the Giants also was awarded 5 points, 3 at tackle and 2 at guard.

1920s ALL-DECADE TEAM

The teams represent a complete list for each player.

E – Chamberlin (Decatur, Bears, Canton, Cleveland Bulldogs, Frankfort & Cardinals); Dilweg; Halas (Decatur & Bears).

T – Healey; Henry (Canton, Giants & Pottsville); Hubbard; Owen (Kansas City Cowboys and Cleveland Bulldogs in addition to the Giants).

G – Hunk Anderson (Bears & Cleveland Indians); Kiesling (Duluth Eskimos, Pottsville, Cardinals, Bears, Green Bay & Pittsburgh Pirates); Michalske.

C – Trafton (Decatur & Bears).

B – Conzelman (Decatur, Rock Island, Milwaukee, Detroit Panthers &, Providence); Driscoll; Grange (NY Yankees in addition to the Bears); Guyon (Canton, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators, Oorang Indians, Rock Island, Kansas City Cowboys & Giants); Lambeau (Green Bay); Nevers; Thorpe (Canton, Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island, Giants & Cardinals).

It should also be noted that two other players who started their careers in the 1920s – Strong and Blood – made the 1930s all-decade team.

Here were the Press-Gazette vote totals for players not listed under the previous subhead.

Chamberlin, 1, but also was a first-team all-pro selection by other newspapers in 1920 and '22. Halas, 0, and was named only to a second-team in 1920. Henry, 2, based on being first-team all-pro in 1923 but also was a consensus all-pro the three previous seasons. Anderson, 0, and made only a second-team in 1922. Trafton, 3, but also made a first-team in 1920.

Conzelman, 1, and didn't make any teams from 1920-22. Guyon, 0, and made only a second-team in 1920. Lambeau, 2, and also made a second-team in 1922. And Thorpe, 2, based on a first-team vote in 1923. Although Thorpe didn't make any all-pro teams from 1920-22, he is given credit as an enshrinee for four seasons with the Canton Bulldogs before the formation of the APFA, years when he was widely considered the greatest player in pro football.

Blood received 3 points on the Press-Gazette all-pro teams.

Based on seven years of Press-Gazette teams in the 1920s only, here were the eight players who received the most points:

No. 1 – Driscoll, 10.

No. 2 – Lewellen, 9.

No. 3 (tie) – Dilweg & Sonnenberg, 7.

No. 5 (tie) – Healey, Michalske, Clyde Smith & Friedman, 6.

Driscoll and Healey also deserve extra points for their pre-1923 selections. And Henry would be third if he was credited with his all-pro selections from 1920-22.

How does one fathom that two of the top four vote-getters – Lewellen and Dilweg – and four of the top nine players, counting Henry, considered to be the best at their positions by vote of coaches, officials and sportswriters in the 1920s are not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame because those selections were made mostly by people who never saw any of them play?

Conzelman, who made one Press-Gazette second-team in 10 years as a player, made it into the Hall of Fame and on the all-decade team. Would it have had anything to do with him being on the selection committee for both?

Nine Bears – Halas and eight of his players – are among the 23 from the '20s inducted in Canton, despite winning only one championship that decade. As for Kiesling, he coached and played for Art Rooney and was one of his best friends. Ditto for Blood, for that matter. Here again, was it because Halas and Rooney (who was granted his franchise in Pittsburgh in 1933 and probably never saw Lewellen play and maybe Dilweg once in his second-to-last season) were named to the hall's board of trustees before the first year of voting and appeared to have had at least some influence on the selections based on research done at the hall's library in Canton?

Is Lewellen not in the Hall of Fame because Conzelman played the same position and never gave him his due as a member of the selection committee? Is Dilweg not in the Hall of Fame because he played the same position as Halas?

Two years ago, when the hall selected a special Centennial Class, it was expected that they'd make up for some of the wrongs involving 1920-era players, but the committee chose to pick just one, albeit a deserving one, Slater.

Clearly, it's a black mark on the hall that won't be erased until the selectors correct it.

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