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The Best Eagles I Never Saw: Al Wistert, Hall Of Fame Snub

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An all time great Eagle and an all time HOF snub.

Philadelphia Eagles

A hall of fame will always have snubs and poor selections, as it is a celebration of a group of people’s opinions and sometimes their cronyism. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is no different, with the official and unofficial guidelines that the Pro Football Writers of America and veterans committee use. The Pro Football Hall of Fame was established in 1963 and inducted 17 members that year, and since then has inducted a maximum of six or seven members a year through the PFWA and veterans committee votes. This low cap on inductees (by comparison the Baseball Hall of Fame has no limit, however voters can only vote on 10 players) creates a natural gridlock to a game with so many players. An additional log jam has been created by the extreme reluctance of the PFWA to vote more than one non-QB at a time, Barry Sanders and Marcus Allen in 2004 were the last same position duo to be voted in together, though this year Bill Polian and Ron Wolf will be inducted as General Managers. It’s good to have friends in the media. This has caused issues such as Tim Brown, Chris Carter and Andre Reed waiting years longer than they should have to be inducted. It is ironic that multiple quarterbacks have been inducted in the same year when only one is on the field at a time, while positions such as defensive end, linebacker, offensive tackle and wide receiver have multiple players on the field but the writers only induct one at a time.

So even with the best intentions, there will always be snubs. Former Eagle Al Wistert is one of them.

Evaluating players from and before Wistert’s era is difficult. Games were not televised nationally, and reporting was part facts, part colorful storytelling. However, wisdom of the crowds often proves right, and by incorporating as many sources as possible we can paint a picture of the ability and stature of Al Wistert.

Wistert didn’t start his football career until he was a sophomore at the University of Michigan, where he originally played basketball and baseball. Nicknamed "Ox", he excelled at tackle in an era where players played both offense and defense. His youngest brother Francis "Whitey" preceded him and the middle of the Wistert brothers, Alvin, who did not attend until he was in his 30s, succeeded him at Michigan, all three played tackle and all three wore #11. Their #11 jersey was retired, one of only seven numbers retired by the Wolverines, among them former President Gerald Ford, who was a star center and linebacker. The Wistert brothers are enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1942, Al Wistert was a consensus All-American, in 1943 he was a co-captain of the College All Star team that defeated the Redskins 27-7.

Drafted in the fifth round of the 1943 draft, Wistert thought he would be suiting up after another draft, the one for World War II. However a wrist injury he suffered in 1941 and played through in 1942 classified him as 4-F, unfit for duty, and he joined the Eagles as a two way tackle. The Eagles at this point were about to enter their tenth year of existence and had never had a winning record. With rosters depleted due to the war, some teams suspended operations. For the 1943 season the Eagles and Steelers merged to become the Steagles. The Steagles finished 5-4-1, and after the season the merger ended. The Eagles remained intact and finished with a winning record for the next six seasons, the Steelers merged with the Cardinals for the 1944 season.

One major reason for the Eagles turn around was Wistert, who was an All Pro in every season but his rookie year. Contemporary stories don’t offer much detail of the ability of anyone, but Wistert was frequently one of three Eagles mentioned or quoted in newspaper stories at the time along with coach Greasy Neale and running back Steve Van Buren. Not until 1950 did the NFL allow unlimited substitutions, during Wistert’s era players played both ways, generally play the same position on offense and defense. Al Wistert played offensive and defensive tackle, and was praised for his abilities on both sides of the ball.

Contemporary articles describe Wistert’s play on defense as a game changing tackle. Noted for his speed and tenacity, able to make tackles in the backfield on sweeps. Hall of Fame coach George Allen called him one of the 10 best defensive linemen in his 1982 book Pro Football’s 100 Greatest Players. The other nine defensive linemen he lists are all in Canton. Allen did not coach against him, but his description of Wistert as a sure tackler and outstanding run defender with great balance (and Allen’s notoriously high work ethic) indicates he didn’t come to this conclusion lightly.

On offense, Wistert was recognized as controlling the line of scrimmage, an excellent downfield blocker and as the best offensive lineman on the Eagles, who also had All Pros Bucko Kilroy and Vic Sears. Behind them Steve Van Buren led the NFL in rushing four times, becoming the first player to rush for 1,000 yards, in 1948 and 1949 Bosh Pritchard finished 7th and 9th respectively in rushing despite Van Buren leading the league in attempts both of those seasons. Kilroy, Sears and Wistert were all members of the NFL’s 1940s All-Decade Team. In The Hidden Game of Football, Bob Carroll wrote in 1988 that Wistert "he was the top lineman, among several outstanding guards and tackles, on one of the NFL’s dynasties, the post-war Eagles." Allen praised the undersized Wistert for his variety of blocking techniques that made him "as fine a blocker as you could want." Teammates and newspaper reports from the time state that he had excellent speed and was often the first defender to the ball on punts and kickoffs.

And he was a highly respected leader. In either 1946 or 1947 Wistert was named team captain, a title he held until he retired. Neale credited him with inspirational pep talks said he was the best tackle he ever saw. After losing the NFL Championship Game in 1947, the Eagles won it in 1948 and 1949, both times the defense recorded a shutout. In the 1948 game, Wistert threw a key block, taking out two defenders, on the only score of the game.

A Case For The Hall Of Fame

Football historians consider Wistert to be a notable Hall of Fame snub. Comparing him to his peers, Wistert stacks up extremely well. One method of comparison are All Pro selections, which give us a good indication of contemporary opinion. Today the Associated Press is the now the official All Pro selector of the NFL due to its longevity, in the 1940s there were multiple publications that produced All Pro Teams. In addition to the AP, the United Press International was also a major national publication that named an All Pro team. From 1944 to 1947 both outlets named him 1st team All Pro, UPI also named him in 1948. Many other smaller publications also gave him such honors during this time, no tackle was named to as many many major and minor All Pro 1st teams as Wistert. In 1950 the NFL played its first Pro Bowl, Wistert was selected to it.

Wistert retired after the 1951 season when he felt that he could no longer play at the high level he had established for himself, in 1952 the Eagles retired his #70. He and Steve Van Buren’s #15 were two were the first numbers retired by the Eagles. In 1969 the voters of the Hall of Fame named him to the 1940s All-Decade Team. Then it seems they forgot about him and his era. Of the six tackles named to that team, only George Connor has been inducted to the Hall of Fame. But Connor’s NFL career didn’t begin until 1948, the other five members started theirs in or prior to 1943. Connor was a four time All Pro and Pro Bowler from 1950-1953, he belongs on the 1950s team, not the 1940s.

Among the other four tackles of the 1940s All-Decade team who actually played in the 1940s, Wistert was the best of them. Vic Sears and Bucko Kilroy (who actually played guard for most of his career) were Wisterts teammates and Wistert was considered the best of the trio. The other members of the 1940s team were Buford Ray and Al Blozis. Ray was a key player on the Packers 1939 and 1944 championship teams, but only made a UPI 1st team All Pro once and never made the the AP All Pro team. Blozis was a sentimental choice, he played only for two full seasons before dying in France in 1945 when he went on search for missing members of his platoon and never returned. Among the members of the NFL’s 1940s All-Decade Team, voted on by Hall of Fame voters, Wistert was considered by contemporary writers to be best.

However two tackles from the 1940s are in the Hall of Fame but were not named to the All Decade Team. Frank Kinard made three 1st team AP and two 1st team UPI All Pros between 1940 and 1944, which was both during a talent depleted time due to the war and less than Wistert, who made two of his four AP and three of his five UPI All Pros after WWII. After being named UPI 1st team All Pro from 1937-1939, Joe Stydahar was an AP 1st team All Pro in 1940, his last season making an All Pro team. His best playing years were in the 1930s. Probably giving him a boost was that he also was a successful head coach with the Rams, in 1950 his offense scored a staggering 38.8 points per game, a record that still stands to this day, the lost to the Browns in the NFL Championship, in 1951 the Rams won the NFL Championship.

So by two significant measures, both the actual members of the Hall of Fame and by an All Decades team selected by Hall of Fame voters, in addition to contemporary reports, Al Wistert appears to be the best tackle of his era, the 1940s. No tackle that played at least half his career in the 1940s received as many All Pro selections, and he compares extremely favorably to Hall of Fame tackles from the 1930s. He was considered the best player on a dominant offensive line on a dominant team. He was the captain on a team that won back to back titles and reached a third title game. He was the best defender on those teams and four times in his career his team finished first in scoring defense. The best offensive player of those teams, Steve Van Buren and their head coach, Greasy Neale, have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, along with linebacker Alex Wojciechowicz, who was a great center/linebacker with the Lions for nine seasons before joining the Eagles. Historians, coaches, contemporary writers and players consider Wistert a great of his era.

Why then has Wistert not been named to the Hall of Fame? Circumstance and the Hall of Fame’s poor methods of inducting players. After its initial 17 inductees from five decades in 1963, Hall of Fame voters spent 1964-68 inducting almost exclusively players from the 1920s and 1930s half a dozen at a time, then in 1968 turned it’s attention to back log of players from the 1950s and early 1960s. Players from the 1940s are underrepresented.

Only nine offensive/two way linemen who played just two seasons in the 1940s (as to eliminate stars from the 1930s who ended and 1950s who began their careers with just one season in that decade) are enshrined in Canton. Of them only four were tackles: Mel Hein, considered by many to be the finest tackle of the "pre-modern era"; Lou Groza, who was also a great kicker and achieved his fame in the 1950s; and the previously mentioned Frank Kinard and Joe Stydahar. Only one defensive tackle who played just two seasons in the 1940s is enshrined, Arnie Weinmeister, who played the majority of his career in the 1950s.

The 1940s are a tough time to evaluate due to the quality of competition of the league when rosters were depleted from World War II. Even taking that into consideration, the Hall of Fame is lacking in players from that era. Only only seven players at any position who began their careers between 1940 and 1945 are in the Hall of Fame, only six who started their careers prior to 1940 but played at least three seasons between 1940 and 1945 are enshrined. Even if voters were to offer significant demerits for playing during the war depleted years, Wistert’s high profile seasons came after the war, so quality of competition should not be a large factor. With a higher yearly quota, even for just the first few years of the Hall to clear out decades of candidates, Wistert and other stars from the 1940s probably would have gotten the attention they deserved.

In defense of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, even the Eagles were slow to recognize him. Despite having his number retired immediately after his playing career ended, Wistert was not inducted into the Eagles Hall of Fame until 2009, alongside Randall Cunningham.

Perhaps eventually he can join fellow Eagles greats in Canton too.