Editor's Note: Chris Willis is head of the Research Library at NFL Films and is the author of the upcoming Red Grange: The Life and Legacy of the NFL's First Superstar.
He also authored 2014's The Man Who Built the National Football League: Joe F. Carr and 2012's Dutch Clark: The Life of an NFL Legend and the Birth of the Detroit Lions.
In 2017 he released Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe, and the Oorang Indians: How a Dog Kennel Owner Created the NFL's Most Famous Traveling Team and a decade earlier he wrote The Columbus Panhandles: A Complete History of Pro Football's Toughest Team, 1900-1922
In 2005 he wrote Old Leather: An Oral History of Early Pro Football in Ohio, 1920-1935'
Pro Football Journal is pleased to present his picks of the best-ever Pre-WWII players—
Choosing the greatest of any position during the Pre-WWII period (circa 1920-1944) is always a daunting task, but resources used to put together this list was going through game footage; newspapers of the era; testimonies of players, coaches & executives, as well as sportswriters who wrote about the game; magazines and any individual honors, All-Pro teams, and greatest of all-time lists.
As for statistics, the NFL didn’t keep official stats until 1932, so that is taken into consideration when making these evaluations. Besides Total Football I and II, another great source used was The Football Encyclopedia, by David Neft, Richard Cohen and Rick Korch, who recreated stats for the NFL’s early years through play-by-plays and newspaper reports. It’s the closest thing we have to early numbers.
In 1920 the Rock Island Argus (sportswriter Bruce Copeland) choose the “first-ever” APFA-NFL All-Pro team (APFA in 1920)- he listed 3 squads. The Associated Press, UP and I.N.S., selected their All-Pro teams during this era, while newspapers such as Green Bay Press-Gazette (GBPG), Buffalo News and Courier, New York Daily News (NYDN), Boston Post, Detroit Free-Press, Milwaukee Sentinel, and Chicago Tribune would select All-Pro teams as well. Publications like Collyers’ Eye and Pro Football Illustrated magazines also listed All-Pro honors. NFL coaches, such as George Halas, Guy Chamberlin, Curly Lambeau, Leroy Andrews and Ray Flaherty also picked All-Pro teams during this era, as well as NFL players like Red Grange, Ernie Nevers and Lavvie Dilweg. NFL President, Joe F. Carr, selected an All-Pro team (two squads) in 1925 that was printed in Liberty Magazine.
Team success also contributed to the ranking, as well as combing through newspapers such as GBPG, Pottsville Republican, Canton Repository, Chicago Daily Journal, and more who would publish play-by-plays of early NFL games.
Resources such as the Pro Football Hall of Fame, NFL teams (especially the Packers and team historian Cliff Christl), Newspapers.com, Pro Football Reference, and more contributed mightily to the rankings.
First up will look at the center position. A pre-WWII center was asked to do a variety of jobs.
1) Passing the ball accurately to the back who is to run-pass or kick it; 2) keeping his feet under his opponents’ charge so that he will not be pushed back into his own players (spoil the play); 3) charging his opponent hard, either to open a hole or to get by and downfield to help clear the road in case the runner gets loose.
The pre-WWII center would generally do this out of single-wing, double-wing and T-formations. “A center should be, preferably, a fast man with a keen eye, quick judgement, iron courage, and exceptional tackling ability,” wrote former NFL head coach Potsy Clark in 1935.
Here’s the list of the Top 15 Pre-WWII Centers:
1) Mel Hein (1931-1945) Easy choice for number one spot. Hein was an NFL 1930’s All-Decade selection…selected to NFL’s 50th and 75th Anniversary teams…won 1938 NFL MVP Award (Joe F. Carr Trophy)…helped Giants win 2 NFL Championships, 1934, 1938…Charter Member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963…Made 4 Pro Bowls, 1938-1941…Durable, played 15 seasons with the Giants at a high level (170 games). Film study confirms Hein was one of the best athletes to ever play his position, very mobile at 6-2, 225 pounds, Hein was tough at the point of attack, equally good at run and pass blocking, and flawless on snaps in Steve Owen’s single-wing and “A” formations offense. On defense, always around the ball and makes many of his tackles at the line of scrimmage, not downfield…had 10 career interceptions, returning one for a score- a 50-yard return against the Packers in 1938 (Nov. 20) to win 15-3…Giants retired his no. 7 jersey….First-team All-Pro by the NFL 8 straight years, 1933-1940; by UP 5 times, 1934-1935, 1938-1940; by NYDN, 4 times (1937-1940); by I.N.S. 4 times (1937-1940; Collyers 3 times (1934-1936); and GBPG 2 times, (1934-1935)…Second-team 3 times by UP (1933, 1936-1937); by NFL twice in 1931-1932 and Collyers in 1937, 1939; once by I.N.S. in 1944…Honorable mention by NFL in 1941-1943 and by the AP in 1944.
“I’ve been around this league a long time and I’ve never seen a player who made fewer mistakes than Mel. He has a feel for football, an instinctive understanding and grasp of it that allows him to command every bit of action on the field…teaching him was like teaching Babe Ruth. Mel was a dynamic offensive blocker, a most accurate snapper, and a genius at backing up the line. Hein could discourage the most accomplished attacking stars who ever lived.” —Steve Owen, Giants Hall of Fame coach.
“He could center a ball from 50 yards and hit a needle in its eye…even as a rookie (1931) there was no one like him. Usually you look for the rookies on another team and try to take advantage of them. We tried working on Hein from the beginning, he was too smart.”—George Halas, Bears Hall of Fame coach.
“Hein is the perfect center- that’s all. He does everything right and he seems to do everything instinctively.” —Curly Lambeau, Packers Hall of Fame coach.
“There were some other great ones, we the Bears had some great ones, but Mel Hein was the greatest linebacker that I played against … He had the ability to analyze plays and where the play was going to develop. He was always in the right spot at the right time. He was a deadly tackler once he got his hands on you.”— Bronko Nagurski, former bears Hall of Fame fullback.
“The first time I saw him he looked like a giant back there backing up the line. As soon as I got through the line of scrimmage, he knocked me back into it. But Mel was a hog on defense, and a tremendous pass defender, and still took care of the linebacking duties. On offense he was a tremendous blocker, so he was an all-around great football player.”—Clarke Hinkle- former Packers Hall of Fame fullback.
2) George Trafton (1920-21, 1923-1932)- Nicknamed “the Brute,” big Trafton, at 6-2, 230 pounds, was a durable center, played 12 seasons (148 games), all with the Chicago Bears…member of 2 NFL Championship teams with the Bears, 1921, 1932…NFL 1920s All-Decade Team…was one of the first centers to rove on defense (like a linebacker) and the very first on offense to center the football with only one hand…Red Grange called Trafton the "toughest, meanest, most ornery critter alive”…First-team All-Pro in 1920 by the Rock Island Argus; as well First-team by Guy Chamberlin in 1922; Green Bay Press-Gazette in 1924; Collyers and NFL President Joe Carr in 1925; and the Chicago Tribune in 1926-1927…Second-team by Collyers twice (1923, 1926) and Leroy Andrews in 1927…Elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1964 (Hall’s 2nd ever class).
“Trafton was the only guy who claimed he was the world’s greatest at his position…and actually was.”—Jimmy Conzelman, Hall of Fame coach.
“It is conceded in every professional camp this year that Trafton of the Staleys has no superiors, or any opponents who could outlast or outgame him, whichever way they chose…Perfect physical condition was largely responsible for Trafton’s superplaying. He grew stronger as a game progressed until, at the end, he could have started and finished another contest without weakening one iota.” —wrote Bruce Copeland, sports editor, Rock Island Argus, naming Trafton First-team All-Pro in 1920.
“None of them looked any better than George Trafton at center. The Bears’ snapper-back was a demon on the defense and he passed perfectly to his backs.” —wrote the Green Bay Press-Gazette in 1924, after naming Trafton first-team All-Pro center.
“Trafton of the Bears is the best pro center…Trafton an argumentative type, is an accurate passer. His weight aids on line plunges, and his ability to sense forward passes has bolstered the Bears’ secondary.”—wrote Wilfrid Smith of the Chicago Tribune, in naming Trafton First-team All-Pro in 1926.
3) Bulldog Turner (1940-1952)- Another durable player, 11 seasons (114 games) and just like Trafton, all with the Bears- although some of his years were after WWII…member of NFL championship teams with the Bears (1940-41, 1943, four if you count, 1946)…First Team All-Pro 7 times by the Associated Press, 6 times by the New York Daily News and 5 times by UP…anchored Monsters of the Midway offensive line that would led the NFL in rushing 5 times during his career (1940-42, 1946, 1951)…just as productive on defense with 17 career interceptions, including an then NFL record 8 in 1942…Showed off his speed and athleticism in a 1947 game against the Redskins when he returned a Sammy Baugh interception 96-yards for a TD (was longest INT for a TD in Bears history until 1962)…Member of NFL 1940s All-Decade Team.. elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966…Very athletic for size at 6-1, 237 pounds, film study shows Bulldog could run just as fast as some NFL backs; flawless snapper…Bears retired his no. 66 jersey.
“He just controlled the middle of the line of scrimmage. Easily the best center to come along for years and years.” —Jim Parmer, former Eagles player and NFL scout for 35 years.
“He made a science of snapping the ball. He never made a bad pass. He knew just how many revolutions he needed to get the ball back with the laces up…he was the first center quick enough to block the onside guard on sweeps, the first linebacker to cover receivers coming out of the backfield and he’d be with them stride for stride.” —Luke Johnsos, former Bears player and coach.
“(Turner) was Dick Butkus on defense and Jim Ringo on offense.”—Sid Luckman, former teammate and Hall of Fame quarterback.
In 1999 I interviewed former Bears Hall of Fame lineman, George Musso, who compared Mel Hein and Bulldog Turner:
“Bulldog Turner and Mel Hein were 2 of the greatest that’s ever played pro football. They’re great blockers, great centers. They could block on that line. Mel Hein was a little taller than Bulldog. Bulldog was stockier. Both of them were great ball players. The name fits him (Turner). He was a bulldog. He’d get a hold of you, he wouldn’t turn you loose. He’s like a pit bull.”
Now, back to the list!
4) Charley Brock (1939-1947)- The 6-2, 207-pound Brock played 9 seasons (92 games), all with the Green Bay Packers…Member of 2 NFL Championship teams with Packers, 1939, 1944…NFL 1940s All-Decade Team; elected to 3 Pro Bowls…First-team All-Pro by Collyers in 1940 (also in 1945 by UP, AP, NY Daily News)…Second Team in 1943 (AP) and 1944 (UP)…Brock played most of his career in Curly Lambeau’s Notre Dame Box offense. That required him to repeatedly deliver sure, short snaps to any of four backs. Film study shows Brock with excellent power, great movement, and the ability to make all blocks. Shows outstanding athletic ability in space. Another of Brock’s strong traits was his leadership. He served as permanent captain of the Packers his final three seasons…Just as good on defense too, excellent in pass coverage, having a knack for interceptions with 20 career INTs- had 4 career TDs with three on interception returns…Elected to Packers Hall of Fame in 1973.
“Brock is the best center in professional football, I include Bulldog Turner… I have a great deal of respect for Bulldog Turner. He is fast, too, but does not maneuver with the skill of Brock, who has the coordination of a halfback.”—Curly Lambeau, Packers head coach, said in 1945.
“As a center, he never made a bad pass (snap).” —Clarke Hinkle, Packers Hall of Fame fullback.
5) Frank Bausch (1934-1941)- Big, tough center at 6-3, 220 pounds, Baush played 8 seasons (78 games) for 3 different teams (Boston, Bears, Philadelphia)…Sometimes known to throw a punch in a game, once being ejected in 1934 against the Eagles and in 1936 against the Packers…anchored line with Boston Redskins for three years, lead blocker for Redskins Hall of Fame back Cliff Battles; member of Redskins team won Eastern title in 1936…moved on to play center for Bears (1937-1940), playing in 2 NFL Championship games, winning one with the 1940 Bears…selected to 1 Pro Bowl (1940)…First-team All-Pro by UP in 1936, pushing Mel Hein to 2nd team; and by Collyers in 1937-38)…Second-team All-Pro by the NFL (1936-38) and UP (1938). Only negative, sometimes erratic with snaps.
(Source: Green Bay Press-Gazette, Dec. 31, 1938)
6) Clyde Smith (1925-1928)- Smith played 4 years (33 games) for 3 teams (Kansas City, Cleveland, Providence). Was starting center for the 1928 Providence Steam Roller that won NFL Championship…somewhat smallish but powerful at 5-10, 184 pounds, Smith only played four seasons but was named First-team All-Pro three straight years by the Green Bay Press-Gazette (1926-28) being chosen over Trafton each year…First-team All-Pro by NFL managers in 1928; named Second-team All-Pro in 1928 by the Chicago Tribune. If he played longer might’ve ended up in the Hall of Fame.
“Smith made the all-pro eleven last year while playing with Kansas City and he continued his top-notch play this fall. He is a perfect passer and follows the ball closely. Smith ‘scents’ an opponent’s play as quick as any player in the league.”—wrote Green Bay Press-Gazette in 1927, after naming Smith First-team All-Pro center.
7) Alex Wojciechowicz (1938-1950)- “Wojo” played 13 years (134 games) with the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles. Probably lower than expected on list, but some of his better years were after World War II while playing for the Eagles (winning two NFL championships in 1948-49). But his years from 1938-1944 is the focus here…Known for his exceptionally wide center stance…Excellent pass defender with 19 career INTs and 1 TD return…Member of the NFL 1940’s All-Decade team…First-team All-Pro in 1939 by the Chicago Herald-American and Collyers; also in 1944 by Pro Football Illustrated…Second Team by New York Daily News (1939)…Elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968.
“Wojciechowicz’s style of play involved hands and feet and arms and maybe even fingernails, plus some conversation.”— Allie Sherman, former NFL player, coach and Eagles assistant.
“He moves faster than any center I have seen. He certainly doesn’t look like an east mark. He looks ready for anything.” —Dutch Clark, Lions head coach, on Wojciechowicz in 1938.
8) Joe “Doc” Alexander (1921-1922, 1924-1927)- Played 6 years (40 games) in the NFL. Compact at 5-11, 220 pounds, “Doc” was well respected in NFL circles, playing 3 years each with the Rochester Jeffersons and New York Giants…helped the Giants win a NFL title in 1927 (playing in 4 games)…First Team All-Pro honors for most of his years in the NFL- Buffalo Evening News in 1921 (over Trafton); Canton Daily News (chosen by Guy Chamberlin); and George Halas All-Pro squad in 1922…In 1926 named Second Team by the Chicago Tribune and Third Team by Collyers…Had 4 career TDs (2 on INT returns and 2 on fumble recoveries).
“Alexander, one of the all-time heroes of Syracuse, was the only man I eve saw with one shoulder pad. He always tackled and blocked with his right shoulder, and didn’t see the need of toting extra, unnecessary weight. The one pad he wore was skinned down, at that.” wrote Steve Owen in his book My Kind of Football (1952).
(Source: Chicago Tribune, Oct. 16, 1922)
9) Jug Earp (1921-1932)- Earp played 12 years (132 games) for 4 different franchises, but was mainly a productive player for the Packers…Durable, large center at 6-feet, 236 pounds, showed longevity with Packers by playing in 120 games in Green Bay, also played some tackle…Could consistently moved the line and was solid in pass protection for Curly Lambeau’s offense…Vital member of three Packers championship teams from 1929-1931…Named Second-team All-Pro by Green Bay Press-Gazette in 1929, as well as by Leroy Andrews, Giants head coach…very dependable center, who like Trafton employed the one-hand snap technique…With Green Bay, he started 86, including 57 at center and 29 at tackle…Elected to Packers Hall of Fame in 1970.
“Jug might’ve invented the one-hand snap back to the quarterback. He always said ‘I can pass the ball back with one hand and protect my nose with the other.’ So he did.”—Mike Michalske, former Packers teammate and Hall of Fame guard, in a 1969 interview.
10) Clare Randolph (1930-1936)- After spending one year with the Chicago Cardinals (1930), Randolph played six seasons with the Portsmouth Spartans-Detroit Lions (78 games)…Very dependable, powerful at point of attack, stood 6-2, 205 pounds, anchored line at center for the Spartans-Lions during his six years with team…His squads- coached by Potsy Clark- loved to run the ball with Dutch Clark, Glenn Presnell, Ernie Caddel, Pop Lumpkin and Ace Gutowsky, out of the single-wing…in 1936 helped Lions set an NFL record with 2,885 yards rushing in 12 games- a record that would last until 1972 when the Dolphins rushed for 2,960 (in 14 games)…starting center for Lions that won 1935 NFL Championship…named Second-team All-Pro in 1935 by UP and NFL…also productive on defense….helped Lions led the NFL in rushing in 1936 and finished second twice (1934-1935).
(Source: Green Bay Press-Gazette, Oct. 7, 1932)
“You know who the only guy was who could tackle the Bronk (Bronko Nagurski) one-on-one? Clare Randolph! I'm not sure how he did it. Bronk was a lot heavier, but Randolph had a lot of Moxie. He'd just stick his head in there and somehow get Bronko off his feet without any help.”—Dan Fortmann, former Bears Hall of Fame guard.
"He's the only guy in the league who could tackle Nagurski by himself."—Fortmann's Hall of Fame teammate Joe Stydahar concurred.
“Randy was a hard worker, very conscientious player. He wasn’t the biggest, strongest guy in the world, but he was very durable, he played many sixty-minute games and gave us everything he had.”—Glenn Presnell, former Spartans-Lions teammate, said in a 2002 interview.
11) George “Hobby” Kinderdine (1920-1929)- Nicknamed “Hobby” the overlooked Kinderine played 10 seasons, all with the Dayton Triangles (76 games)…Very durable, underrated center of his era, despite his smaller size at 5’11, 180 pounds starting 75 of his 76 career games…selected Second-team All-Pro by the Canton Daily News (Vince Dolan, sports editor) in 1923…although he didn’t have the honors of the previous centers, was a tough and capable blocker and snapper during his career; voted Triangles team captain. Also, in 1920 Kinderdine kicked extra points for the Triangles, including making the first extra point in NFL history against the Columbus Panhandles (Oct. 3, 1920).
“Hobby was our center and I never knew one better. Several years ago they enshrined George Trafton, Bears center into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, at Canton. Not to take anything away from Trafton, we used to play the Bears every year, and Hobby, played head to head against big George, never was outplayed by him. He not only held his own, he beat him again and again.”—Dave Reese, former Triangles end, in a 1967 interview with the Dayton Daily News.
(Source: Dayton Daily News, Sept. 11, 1923)
12) Herb Stein (1921-1922, 1924-26, 1928)- Stein played 6 years in the NFL (54 games) for 4 different franchises…Had best years with the Pottsville Maroons (1925-26, 1928)…Member of 1925 Pottsville Maroons that almost won NFL Championship…after his first two years playing mainly guard, the 6-1, 186-pounder moved to center…was named Second-team All-Pro by Collyers in 1924 and Green Bay Press-Gazette in 1926. Named First-team in 1925 by NFL President Joe Carr…Known for roving on defense (linebacker) and charging over center. Had many interceptions on defense, including having three interceptions in the fourth quarter of the 1925 Pottsville-Chicago Cardinals (Dec. 6th), according to the play-by-play account from the Pottsville Republican.
13) Charles “Ookie” Miller (1932-1938)- Nicknamed “Ookie” from a young age because he couldn’t pronounce “Cookie,” Miller played 7 years (82 games) with 3 teams the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Rams, and Green Bay Packers…Bears starting center in 1932-1933…the 6-0, 209-pound pivot man was a member of 2 NFL Championship teams with Bears (1932-1933)…had best year in 1933 earning First-team All-Pro honors from Chicago Daily News, Collyers, UP and Green Bay Press-Gazette. In 1935 and 1937 Miller was named Honorable mention All-NFL. Helped anchored a Bears line that led the NFL in rushing in 1932 and in 1934-1935…in 1934 was back-up center on team that helped block for Beattie Feathers, who became the NFL’s first 1,000-yard rusher (1,004).
“Ookie was a good center. He could block and he could tackle. And he could move.”—George Musso, former Bears teammate and Hall of Famer, said in a 1999 NFL Films interview.
“Ookie Miller is the center and his exhibition in the playoff game against (Mel) Hein, New York, left no room for doubt. Miller is a superb passer, follows the ball closely and slashes through consistently when on the defense.”—wrote G. W. Calhoun of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, in naming Miller First-team All-Pro in 1933, selecting him over Hein.
14) Nate Barragar (1930-1932, 1934-1935)- 5 years, 60 games…Barragar was a solid center, 6-0, 212-pounds, whose first season (1930) was split with Minneapolis-Frankford, then finally made a home with the Packers for 4 years (42 games)…member of 1 NFL Championship team with Packers, 1931…a very powerful center; earned First-team All-Pro honors in 1930-1931 (Collyers); and Second-team honors from UP in 1931-1932…elected to Packers Hall of Fame in 1979.
“He (Barragar) was a heck of a center. You know how they warm up before a game and run about 10 yards? He’d run 50 yards each time and be yelling, ‘Come on, come on, the ball is up here.’”—Herm Schneidman, former Packers teammate, told Packers team historian Cliff Christl.
“Small for a league center, he was a fierce competitor who substituted brains for brawn. A ‘player’s player,’ he was outstanding on defense and a terrific blocker.” —wrote Roger Treat, editor, Official NFL Encyclopedia, naming Barrager to NFL All-Time Team.*tie 15) Ki Aldrich (1939-1942, 1945-1947)- The 6-foot, 207-pound Aldrich played 7 years (73 games) with the Cardinals and Redskins…Best years were with the Redskins from 1941-42, then career interrupted by WWII when he joined the Navy…Former number one overall pick by Chicago Cardinals in 1939 Draft; after two seasons moved on to Washington Redskins where he earned 2 Pro Bowls selections and won one NFL Championship in 1942…Second-team All-Pro honors in 1939 by UPI, NFL, and Chicago Herald-American…Named Honorable mention by the NFL in 1940…in 1945 was named Second-team All-Pro by New York Daily News and the Detroit Free Press.
“I never saw anyone play like Ki Aldrich. I never saw anyone who loved it like he did.”—Sammy Baugh, former Hall of Fame quarterback.
*tie 15) George Svendsen (1935-1937, 1940-1941) Huge center at 6-4, 230-pounds, Svendsen played 5 seasons with the Green Bay Packers (52 games). His tenure with the Pack was interrupted for two seasons coaching high school football, then joined the Navy for WWII in 1942….Member of Packers team that won the 1936 NFL Championship…Surprisingly named to the NFL 1930s All-Decade Team…Had best year in 1941 when he was named Second Team All-Pro by the NFL, UP and Collyers; Honorable mention by the AP…Named Honorable Mention by the NFL in 1936-1937…tough as nails at the center position, used his big body very well at point of attack, and very good in pass coverage, often coming up with an interception now and then…very athletic, played some professional basketball (Oshkosh All-Stars)…Elected to the Packers Hall of Fame in 1972.
(Source: Pottsville Republican, Nov. 19, 1925)
Bonus Note: In 1947 the editors of Pro Football Illustrated selected 51 players for their “roster of all-time all-stars” (1921-1946 years). Among those players they selected 4 centers:
Best of the Rest:
Larry Conover (1921, 1923, 1925)
Bernard “Boob” Darling (1927-1931)
Eddie Kawal (1931, 1934-1937)
Frank McNally (1931-1934)
Mickey Murtagh (1926-1932)
Bert Pearson (1929-1936)