(Photo courtesy of Pro Football Hall of Fame)
by Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is deservedly a place for firsts and finest. If you agree, one has to wonder why Duke Slater wasn’t enshrined in Canton long ago.
Duke who, you ask? Therein lies the problem of being relegated to the dusty pages of long-forgotten history.
Duke Slater was arguably the finest African-American football player of the first half of the 20th Century and one of the NFL’s best two-way linemen in the league’s infant years. Just as significantly, he was also a pioneer in pro football.
Slater was the NFL’s first African-American lineman, joining the Rock Island Independents in 1922 after being a two-time All-American at Iowa. His rise was unlikely not only because of the racism of the time but also because his father, a Methodist minister, forbade him to play football when they moved to Clinton, Iowa from Chicago when Slater was 13.
He obeyed his freshman year but surreptitiously made the team the following season. His father learned of this only after seeing his wife sewing up rips in his son’s uniform. He again was ordered not to play and went on a hunger strike for several days before his father relented with one caveat: He could not afford to pay for both a helmet and shoes, which the players had to provide at the time, so his son had to pick. He chose shoes and thus played helmetless throughout high school and most of his college career at Iowa.
That didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the greatest linemen in Iowa history, an inaugural inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951, and later an attorney and Municipal Court Judge in Chicago. In 1960, he would become the first black member of the Chicago Superior Court, which was the highest court in the city at the time.
Slater played 10 years in what was the then-National Football League’s infancy for the Milwaukee Badgers, Rock Island Independents and Chicago Cardinals before retiring after the 1931 season. He was not only the first African-American lineman in NFL history but, not surprisingly considering the corrosive powers of racism and bigotry, one of the best because anything else would have blocked him from playing.
He played both ways, often every minute of every game, which he did for four consecutive years for Rock Island, and continued doing so late in his career in Chicago. On Nov. 28, 1929, Slater was the only lineman to play all 60 minutes in the famous Thanksgiving Day game against the Chicago Bears won by the Cardinals, 40-6, when Ernie Nevers scored a record 40 points on six rushing TDs behind Slater’s blocking.
Fritz Crisler, the legendary Michigan coach, once said of Slater: “I tried to block him throughout my college career but never once did I impede his progress to the ball carrier.” It wasn’t much different in the NFL. In fact, he was so formidable he not only overran and blocked out his opponents; he even blocked out racism for a number of years.
Slater never missed a game because of injury and started 96 of the 99 games he played, making All-Pro six times. When he retired, Slater’s 10 pro seasons ranked third in NFL history, and those 96 starts were fourth at the time. His percentage of starts to games played was the highest of any NFL player whose career ended before 1950 (minimum 80 games) and would have been higher had he not been held out of a game in 1924 by Rock Island management against the winless Kansas City Blues because of an agreement among teams prevented African-Americans from playing in Missouri.
It was the only game he missed in his career. Two weeks later, in a rematch in Illinois, he returned to the lineup and Rock Island won, 17-0.
By 1927, Slater’s sixth year in the NFL, the owners had begun to discuss banning black players from the league, as major league baseball had already done. That year, eight of the nine African-American players in the league disappeared. Only one remained: Duke Slater. For all but two games, Slater was the only African-American player in the NFL between 1927-1929, the exception coming when he convinced the Cardinals to sign Harold Bradley, Sr. to play alongside him.
Bradley was cut after two games. Slater was named All-Pro in 1927 and 1929. It is believed he was omitted in 1928 because the financially-strapped Cardinals played just half a season that year.
Four other African-Americans played briefly between 1928 and 1933, when the ban went into full effect. It remained so until 1946, when the Rams’ move to the West Coast resulted in a political demand in Los Angeles that they employ black players. They hired two – Kenny Washington and Woody Strode – beating major league baseball integration by a year. But it was two more years before the Detroit Lions became the second team to sign two black players.
By then, Slater had moved on to become only the second African-American elected a judge in Chicago, once again breaking down racial barriers in his new field. But is not simply because Duke Slater almost single-handily held racism at bay for a decade in the NFL that he belongs in Canton, although that alone would be reason enough.
The real reason is he was one of the best two-way lineman of his era, a six-time All-Pro at a time when there were barely six black players in all of pro football. Oddly, Duke Slater was a Hall-of-Fame finalist in 1970 and 1971 but did not gain enshrinement and slowly faded away. If you can explain why, let me know.