Looking for seniors for the Hall's Centennial Class? Then start with this decade

Al Wistert photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles
Clark Judge

When the Pro Football Hall of Fame chooses its 10 seniors for the proposed Centennial Class of 2020, I have a suggestion: Start by going to war.

I’m talking about World War II, and let me explain.

If there’s one decade top heavy with Hall-of-Fame worthy individuals it’s the 1940s, an era that was interrupted by World War II and that seems to have been forgotten by Hall-of-Fame voters.

Granted, the circumstances were extraordinary, with careers suspended or ended by the war and a rival league – the All-America Football Conference -- begun. But that doesn’t explain oversights that penalized some of the game’s best and brightest individuals.

Take Al Wistert, for instance. A tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles, he played offense and defense for 60 minutes, and he played nine seasons.

In eight of them he was an All-Pro.

He was also captain of Philadelphia's 1948-49 league championship teams, with the Eagles later retiring his number, and so accomplished that Hall-of-Fame coach George Allen named him as one of the 10 best tackles of all time in Allen’s book, Pro Football’s 100 Greatest Players.

So what? So the other nine are in Canton.

“Al was the greatest offensive tackle I’ve seen or played with,” said former teammate Bosh Pritchard.

Wistert is in the College Football Hall of Fame. He’s in the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. And he’s in the Eagles’ Honor Roll. What he’s not is in Canton.

Neither is guard Bruno Banducci. Like Wistert, he was first-team all-decade but never chosen to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, neither he nor Wistert has been a finalist, and that’s not just puzzling; it’s downright wrong.

OK, so they’re the only ones among the 11 first-team choices on the 1940s’ all-decade club that are missing from Canton, and that’s good. But this isn’t: Of the 33 players listed as all-decade for the 1940s, more than half – or 18 – have been excluded from Canton.

Cleveland wide receiver Mac Speedie is one, and don't get me started. All the guy did in seven years was go to seven league championship games -- winning five, including four in the AAFC; lead the league in receptions four times and get named All-Pro six times. What's more, his average of 800 yards receiving per season wasn't surpassed until two decades after his retirement.

"I've written letters for years, saying Mac Speedie should be in the Hall of Fame," former Browns' teammate and Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Dante Lavelli said in a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "Quite honestly, I can't understand it."

Speedie is hardly alone. Bucko Kilroy is another member of the 1940s' all-decade team who's deserving. So are Ed Sprinkle, Ken Kavanaugh, Pat Harder and Jim Benton.

So what happened? I’m not sure, other than voters may have believed the league was diluted and play compromised during the war years (with historian Ken Crippen of Pro Football Researchers Association saying he thinks it created “some bias” by voters) and that decorated players from that era might not be up to Hall-of-Fame standards.

“I think it may have been that,” said historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal. “The second-teamers have been overlooked. Wistert is a mystery. Banducci less so. But, yes, players had careers interrupted and lack longevity, and that was beginning to be part of what voters looked at. They wanted ‘sustained greatness.’ “

He may be right. As I said, Wistert played nine years and Speedie seven before leaving for the CFL. Harder played eight. So did Kavanaugh, who served in World War II.

But that doesn’t explain someone like Kilroy, who played 12 seasons … or Banducci, who played 11 … or Sprinkle, who played 12.

“Overall, yes, the players from the 1940s have been short-changed by the Hall of Fame,” said Pro Football Journal’s Chris Willis, head of the Research Library at NFL Films, “but I don’t think the pool of players who should be considered is that large.

“Playing during World War II in a diluted league has been a knock on them, certainly, (and) I do think it’s a fair criticism to take that into consideration. But outside of a few teams (the 1942 Lions, 1943 Chicago Cardinals, 1943 Brooklyn Tigers, 1944 Card-Pitt and 1944 Brooklyn) the league held its own. Obviously, a group of players left to serve, but the effort on the field was solid for what was happening overseas.

“Most of the players who have better resumes also played after the war when players returned and the play on the field was much more complete. So if those players, like Wistert and Kavanaugh, played well after the war than they should … maybe … get more attention. But playing against the likes of Don Hutson, Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Bulldog Turner, Al Wojchiehowicz, etc., during the war years should count for something.”

I agree. And, with the Hall expanding its senior class for 2020, it should count for something now more than ever.

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