Tag Archives: black players

The New Yorker’s careless fumble

Most fans – I would hope – are aware of James Harris’ contribution to pro football history. In 1969, as a rookie with the Bills, he became the first black quarterback to begin the season as the starter. He went on to have a decent career, too, winning 18 of 22 regular-season starts with the 1974-75 Rams and going to the Pro Bowl the first of those years. On arguably his best day, he threw for 436 yards.

James Harris during his Rams days.

James Harris during his Rams days.

When Harris retired recently as a senior personnel advisor for the Lions, The New Yorker decided to call attention to it — and to remind everybody of Shack’s (as he was called) sociological significance. Great. Wonderful. Bravo. What isn’t so great is that the author — unaware, apparently, of what was going on at Michigan State in those days — unfairly impugned an honorable, color-blind coach, Duffy Daugherty.

Here’s what Samuel G. Freedman wrote in the magazine’s Sporting Life column:

Amid the oppression of the segregated South, Harris thrived on the football field. He was an all-state quarterback on a state-championship football team in high school. In order to continue to play quarterback in college, Harris turned down a scholarship offer from Michigan State, which wanted to turn him into a tight end. At the time, there was a persistent color barrier throughout college and professional football: no matter how successful they were, black quarterbacks were forced to change position — to receiver, to running back, to defensive back — and cede their responsibilities to the white players who were believed to be smarter and better leaders. So Harris went to Grambling State University, a historically black school, to play quarterback under the legendary head coach Eddie Robinson.

My problem with this is the way Freedman lumps in Michigan State with the many programs at that time that either excluded blacks or wouldn’t in a million years have let one of them play quarterback. Daugherty was guilty of neither offense.

On the contrary, he already had a black quarterback on the roster, Jimmy Raye, who was the backup in 1965 and the starter next two years. It was in 1966, you may recall, that Michigan State played its famous 10-10 tie with Notre Dame — the “Game of the Century,” it was dubbed — and ranked second in the final polls.

That Spartans team wasn’t unusual just because it had a black QB, by the way. It also might have had the most diverse roster in major-college football. Defensive end Bubba Smith, linebacker George Webster, running back Clinton Jones, wide receiver Gene Washington, Raye — all the biggest stars were black. According to a story last fall in the Detroit Free Press, the squad “had 20 [blacks] — including 11 starters.” This was unheard of in the mid-’60s.

Daugherty on Time coverMichigan State also had a Samoan running back (Bob Apisa) and a barefooted Hawaiian kicker (Dick Kenney). Daugherty was an equal-opportunity coach in every way. (He was even one of the first, in 1960, to have a soccer-style kicker. One week he was so dissatisfied with the length of his team’s kickoffs that he recruited a Dutch kid off the soccer team and gave him the job.)

At any rate, to suggest there was some kind of “color barrier” at Michigan State is beyond ludicrous. What Texas Western, with its all-black starting five, was to the integration of college basketball in 1966, the Spartans, in my mind, were to the integration of college football: a great leap forward.

It just so happens that Raye, a longtime NFL assistant coach, has collaborated with Tom Shanahan on a book about those remarkable Spartans teams: Raye of Light. His motivation, he told the Free Press, was to “to pay homage to Duffy Daugherty, who had enough courage to be willing to coach and accept, to extend a branch to recruit black athletes in the South, to give them an opportunity to get an education and play Big Ten football. He was color-blind.”

The book’s forward is written by Tony Dungy, who followed Raye’s path as a Big Ten quarterback, pro defensive back and NFL coach. Because of Jimmy’s exploits, Dungy dreamed of playing for Michigan State. But Daugherty retired, and Tony wound up at Minnesota under Duffy’s former assistant, Cal Stoll.

“How did we arrive at the point where African-Americans would have an opportunity to coach teams in the Super Bowl?” Dungy writes. “I believe it all stems back to the Big Ten and the influence those players had on the rest of the country. This book documents the efforts of Duffy Daugherty and his staff in recruiting black players from South.”

If Daugherty wanted Harris, a sturdy 6-foot-4, to switch to tight end, there was nothing racist about it. It was just a miscalculation on the order of, oh, Joe Paterno wanting Jim Kelly and Jeff Hostetler to be linebackers. Duffy was way ahead of his time in the equal-opportunity department – and should be remembered as such. To group him with the segregationists is a crime.

Sources: pro-football-reference.com, college-football-reference.com

Michigan State's Jimmy Raye takes off and runs against Notre Dame in 1966 -- the famed 10-10 tie.

Michigan State’s Jimmy Raye takes off and runs against Notre Dame in 1966 — the famed 10-10 tie.

The lily-white years (1934-45)

After the 1933 season, black players disappeared from the NFL for 12 years — until the Second World War was over. The league’s founding fathers were never very anxious to talk about this shameful episode. When the subject was broached with the Bears’ George Halas in the early ’60s, he replied: “Probably it was due to the fact that no great [black] players were in the colleges then. That could be the reason. But I’ve never given this a thought until you mentioned it. At no time has it ever been brought up. Isn’t that strange?”

In Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, the first book ever written about the pro game, another pioneer, Dr. Harry March, gave two rationales for the ban: (1) “There are so many Southern boys in the league that much feeling is sure to result”; and (2) “Management is frequently embarrassed by the refusal of dining cars and restaurants to serve the colored players and of hotels to give them the desired accommodations which the white players receive.”

(For good measure: March threw this in: “The Indians object more to playing against Negroes than do the Southern men for some reason.”)

At any rate, the issue was seldom raised in the early decades. Major-league baseball didn’t have any blacks then, either, so the NFL hardly felt like it owed anyone an explanation — never mind an apology. That’s why a couple of stories that ran in the Brooklyn Eagle in November 1935 are so remarkable. They discussed, in depth, what was never discussed: Why blacks had been excluded from the league.

“The way of the black man,” Harold Parrott wrote, “is beset with flying tackles and blocks of a more than flesh-and-blood sort in football, be it the college brand or among the paid platoons.

It may be news, for instance, that colored men, no matter if they be as brilliant as some of the dozen Negroes who have starred since the pro league’s beginning in [1920], have now been barred by unwritten law — for their own good.

Bears Hall of Famer Red Grange (77) tries to catch the Cardinals' Joe Lillard (19).

The Bears’ Red Grange (77) tries to catch the Cardinals’ Joe Lillard (19).

Parrott then turned to Brooklyn Dodgers coach Paul Schissler, who had coached black star Joe Lillard when the two were with the Chicago Cardinals. “I feel sorry for Lillard,” Schissler said. “He was a fine fellow, not as rugged as most in the pro game, but very clever. But he was a marked man, and I don’t mean that just the Southern boys took it out on him, either; after a while whole teams, Northern and Southern alike, would give Joe the works, and I’d have to take him out. Somebody started it, it seemed, and everybody would join in.

“But that wasn’t the worst. It got so my Cardinals were a marked team because we had Lillard with us, and how the rest of the league took it out on us! We had to let him go, for our own sake and for his, too! Playing in the line wouldn’t have been so bad, but how Lillard took punishment at halfback!”

Schissler was no bigot. In fact, he was one of the era’s more enlightened coaches. Several years later, when he was running the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast League, he had another black legend, tailback Kenny Washington, on his team. (It was Washington — along with end Woody Strode — who re-integrated the NFL in 1946 with the Los Angeles Rams.)

Parratt’s follow-up to this story is every bit as fascinating. Lillard and Fritz Pollard, yet another black great, were playing at the time for the Harlem Brown Bombers, a barnstorming black team, and “confronted the writer,” Parratt wrote, when they found out about Schissler’s comments. The idea that blacks were being kept out of the NFL for self-preservation’s sake was ludicrous, they told him.

Pollard: “I played for 20 years, with white teams and against ’em, and I was never hurt so bad I had to quit a game. I took Jim Thorpe’s $1,000 dare that I’d never go near Canton, Ohio, in 1920. Not only did the Akron team and myself go there, but we beat ’em 10 to 0. I coached the Gilberton, Pa., team in 1923, on which were [white stars] Walter French, Lou Little, Heinie Miller and Lud Wray, and I played with ’em. I weighed 160 or so, and they never made me or the other colored boys — Paul Robeson, Inky Williams, Duke Slater and the rest — who followed in the pro league quit, either. So they needn’t say that’s the reason they’re keeping us out of the league. Joe, here, is as good as any back in that league right now, and he always took it when he played there.”

Lillard: “The pro league and the way they are supposed to hand out the bumps is a joke. Why, I never got hurt among the pros like I did when I was in college. It’s a business in the [National Football] league, and they let you be. But I can remember when I was playin’ for Doc Spears at the University of Oregon in 1931 – the year we beat Washington . . . with a sophomore team — why, fellows on the other team used to be told to gang [up on] me even when I wasn’t in a play, to try to get me off the field.”

According to Parratt, Art Rooney’s Pittsburgh club “offered $15,000” for Lillard “and was turned down.” After the ’33 season, Joe “was mysteriously released. Every club he contacted told him politely its ‘roster was full.’

“How strange in a league where Pollard, the all-America[n] Robeson, . . . Inky Williams, Sol Butler, John Shelburne of Dartmouth and Duke Slater of Iowa had helped build early foundations! All colored greats!”

That said, the Racial Animosity Thing was overblown, Pollard insisted. He’d “played with and against Alabamans and Georgians,” Parratt wrote, “and some of them are his greatest friends. He played on the borderline of Texas itself once.” As for Thorpe’s $1,000 challenge, it was just a publicity stunt, Fritz said. Jim was “one of the best friends I ever had.

“It’s the odd ideas of a few men who bring about this condition,” Pollard went on. He singled out Halas as one of those men. In 1925, Fritz’s next-to-last NFL season, he played for the Providence Steam Roller against the Bears — or rather, he tried to. “I got $3,000 for that game,” he told Parratt, “but because Halas brought pressure to bear, I was not allowed into the game until the last two minutes. Fifty-eight minutes on the bench for $3,000.”

(Papa Bear was probably worried that Pollard might show up Red Grange, who joined Chicago late in the season after finishing his college career at Illinois.)

Again, you just didn’t see stories like this in the 1930s . . . or the 1940s . . . or even the 1950s. Harold Parratt, wherever you are, we salute you. Had more mainstream sportswriters followed your lead, the NFL’s racial history might read much differently.

Duke Slater: Canton’s biggest oversight

The day before the Super Bowl, the tribal elders will gather in Phoenix for the Hall of Fame voting. The senior candidate this year is Mick Tingelhoff, a center for the Vikings for 17 seasons and a fixture on all-pro teams from 1964 to ’70. Tingelhoff is a fine choice; he’s just not, in my mind, the best choice.

For decades, the committee has been overlooking Duke Slater, a star tackle in the early years and one of the NFL’s first black players. Slater wasn’t just dominant, he was durable — at a time when careers tended to be much shorter than they are today. When he retired in 1931 after 10 seasons with the Chicago Cardinals and other clubs, only two players had played longer in the league: the Bears’ George Trafton and Packers’ Jug Earp.

One of these years, I keep telling myself, the selectors will come to their senses. But that’s probably wishful thinking. As time passes, Slater’s chances become more and more remote. It’s just how these things work, unfortunately. Out of sight, out of the mind.

Almost a decade ago, I laid out the case for Duke in The Washington Times. It was the year after another black pioneer, Fritz Pollard, had finally been voted in. Here’s my column — touched up here and there because, well, what writer can resist trying to improve on imperfection?


“Slater . . . is one of the best tackles who ever donned a suit. His phenomenal strength and quickness of charge make it almost impossible for his opponents to put him out of any play directed at his side of the line.”

— Wilfrid Smith (a former NFL player), writing in the Chicago Tribune, 1926


DETROIT — Ushering Fritz Pollard into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer, albeit four decades late, was one of the highlights of the sporting year. But let’s not stop there. In fact, as the selection committee prepares to vote in Reggie White this morning, it would do well to consider why another of the NFL’s early black players, the Reggie White of his day, continues to get the cold shoulder. I’m talking about Fred “Duke” Slater, who wreaked havoc in pro football’s trenches for a decade before going on to a distinguished career as a lawyer and judge.

Slater was actually a finalist for Canton in ’70 and ’71 and was under consideration as early as December 1963, when the Hall’s second class was elected. An Associated Press story that month listed six “strong candidates” — Ken Strong, Steve Owen, Sid Luckman, Bulldog Turner, Art Rooney and Slater. The first five were inducted within four years; only Duke has been denied.

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 the age of 68 and didn’t have any children, so there’s no one to campaign for him, to keep his name alive. 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.

Duke Slater, helmetless, looks for somebody to block during his days at Iowa.

Helmetless Duke Slater looks for somebody to block during college days.

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 whether 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.

In Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, the first book ever written about the pro game, founding father Harry March summed up the prevailing sentiment thusly: “There are many sane arguments against playing colored men in games requiring physical contact. There are so many Southern boys in the league that much feeling is sure to result. Then, too, the management is frequently embarrassed by the refusal of dining cars and restaurants to serve the colored players and of hotels to give them the desired accommodations which the white players receive. . . . The Indians object more to playing against Negroes than do the Southern men for some reason.”

In two of his 10 seasons, 1927 and ’29, Slater was the only black player in the NFL. Another year, 1924, he sat out a game in Kansas City at the insistence of the home team. (His Rock Island club lost that day, killing its title chances.) So it’s no surprise that, in this climate, Duke didn’t make any all-NFL squads — though he was picked for the second eleven five times.

He also was selected to the Chicago Tribune’s unofficial all-pro team in 1926 by sportswriter Wilfrid Smith. Smith, a former NFL lineman, offered this testimonial:

“Slater . . . is one of the best tackles who ever donned a suit. His phenomenal strength and quickness of charge make it almost impossible for his opponents to put him out of any play directed at his side of the line.”

Duke could be just as daunting as a blocker. In his rookie year in 1922, he helped clear the way as Rock Island rushed for nine touchdowns against Evansville (which, despite what the league says, is the all-time record). And toward the end of his career in ’29, he did much of the heavy lifting when Cardinals great Ernie Nevers set a mark, still unbroken, with six TDs against the Bears. Slater’s efforts that day earned him the following praise from the Chicago Herald and Examiner: “Duke Slater, the veteran colored tackle, seemed the dominant figure in that forward wall which had the Bear front wobbly. It was Slater who opened the holes for Nevers when a touchdown was in the making.”

From first year to last, in other words, Duke Slater was a standout. Just as he’d been at Iowa, where he earned All-American honors in 1921. Slater spent his childhood in Chicago, playing football in a vacant lot on Racine Avenue that afterward became the site of the Cardinals’ field. But then his father, a minister, took a job in Clinton, Iowa, which is how Duke wound up playing for the Hawkeyes.

By the time he graduated he was 6-1, 215 pounds — a “colored colossus,” the papers liked to call him. He also was much desired by pro teams, even while still in college. An opponent once reminisced: “All them college guys picked up a few bucks on Sunday playing pro ball. I saw one guy five times under five different names before I got his real name — Duke Slater.”

As highly regarded as he was as a tackle, Slater might have been even more admired for his sense of fair play and get-along disposition. March praises him in his book for “refrain[ing] from ‘heeling’ a Giant player coming through the line, saving the ball carrier from injury. When commended for this sportsmanlike action, he smiled and said, ‘The little fellow was stopped — why should I hurt him?’”

Another time, a rookie — and fellow Iowa alum — had to go up against Slater in his first pro game. The kid feared it would be his last game if the famed tackle overran him, and Duke, naturally, knew this.

“Since his team was already winning,” Paul Minick later recalled, “he took pains to make me look good. When the game was over, people told me how I had played Slater even. But I knew it was just another example of Duke’s kindness of heart.”

Slater got his law degree and began practicing while still an active player. After retiring from the Cardinals he was named an assistant district attorney and grew so popular with the masses — being such a likable guy and so committed to civic causes — that when he ran for municipal court judge in 1948 he received nearly a million votes. At a dinner honoring Duke in 1960, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley called him “the best there is in citizenship, and the best there is in judgeship.”

Slater lost his wife Etta, herself the daughter of a preacher, in 1962. Four years later, stomach cancer claimed Duke. It’s been more than three decades now since Hall of Fame voters gave him so much as a second thought. Hard to believe, especially considering this passage from the Bears’ media guide in 1946, the season Kenny Washington and Woody Strode re-integrated the NFL with the Rams:

It was back in 1920 when George Halas organized the Staleys [now the Bears] at Decatur, Ill. That was in the early days of professional football. It was the day of mighty men of the gridiron, too. Men like Jim Thorpe, Paddy Driscoll, Guy Chamberlin . . . Link Lyman and Duke Slater.

Yes, once upon a time, Duke Slater was one of the “mighty men of the gridiron.” But strangely, sadly, it hasn’t been enough to get him into the Hall. The evidence is overwhelming, but for the judge there has been no justice.

From The Washington Times, Feb. 4, 2006

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Oct. 10, 1929 Waterloo Evening Courier

Oct. 10, 1929 Waterloo Evening Courier

Sept. 12, 1930 Southtown Economist

Sept. 12, 1930 Southtown Economist