For over a year, I’ve been working a new book on the great players in pro football history. My research has helped me to uncover some great stories of overlooked players, many of whom played before World War II. One of the stories I’m most interested in telling is that of Fred “Duke” Slater, who played from 1922 to 1931. He was a star lineman for several teams, most notably the Chicago Cardinals, and universally regarded by his contemporaries as one of the great players of his era. He was also one of a handful of African-Americans playing pro football, more than 25 years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.
Slater isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and Dan Daly of the Washington Times offered a good explanation for why he has been overlooked in a column earlier this year.
There are a number of reasons for this, none of them particularly acceptable. One is that Slater spent his career with second-tier teams such as the Chicago Cardinals, Rock Island (Ill.) Independents and Milwaukee Badgers, two of which no longer exist. (The Cardinals, of course, are in Arizona now.) To the winners go the Hall of Fame busts. Another is that Duke died in 1966 at 67 and didn’t have any children, so there’s no one to stump for him. Then there’s the problem of playing a position — tackle in the single-platoon days — for which there are no statistics, only the occasional newspaper mention.
But the most obvious reason probably makes the most sense: Slater was a black man in a white man’s world, plenty good enough to play but lacking the “necessities” for canonization (to borrow Al Campanis’ infamous term). Indeed, the scant number of Hall of Famers from the ’20s, coupled with Pollard’s long-delayed election, make you wonder if the NFL is trying to forget that benighted era — which was followed by an even more reprehensible period (1934-45) in which blacks were excluded entirely.