Beginning in 1923 and for all but one of the 13 years, George Whitney Calhoun of the Green Bay Press-Gazette interviewed coaches, other club officials and sportswriters to choose a National Football League team. In 1932, the only year Calhoun was not involved, Art Bystrom, then the Press-Gazette’s sports editor, took on the task.
First, a few things about Calhoun.
He was a co-founder of the Packers in 1919, their publicist – although perhaps a volunteer – during their first 27 years in the NFL and also the club’s official secretary for most of that time, as well as a member of the team’s board of directors from when it became community property in 1923 until his death in December 1963.
By trade, Calhoun was a journalist.
From 1921, when the Packers joined what was then the American Professional Football Association, until 1927, his Press-Gazette duties at various times included: telegraph editor, sportswriter, sports columnist, and covering Packers games at home and on the road. . Thereafter, he would cover the Packers for the newspaper only on their annual end-of-season Eastern Swings, including writing game history through 1937, while doing double duty performing his office job as as publicist for the team.
Arguably, no one in the league at the time had so many influential friends, from owners to coaches to sportswriters. Even after Calhoun’s bitter falling out with Curly Lambeau in 1947 and his retirement from the Press-Gazette in 1957, the likes of NFL commissioner Bert Bell and Bears owner and coach George Halas, not to mention many others , would make a point of visiting Calhoun. at his home on W. Walnut St., or at nearby Brehme’s Bar on Saturdays when they were in Green Bay for a game. “I have lost one of my oldest and dearest friends,” Halas said upon learning of Calhoun’s death.
Calhoun was also one of 16 contributing nominees in the original Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot in 1963 for his many contributions to the league and its history.
In January 1952, Bell and the league owners invited Roger Treat to attend their annual meeting and endorsed his work as editor of the first official NFL encyclopedia, which was published later that year- the. In turn, Calhoun was the first person Treat thanked in his preface and suggested that the project might not have been possible had he not passed on his “valuable and voluminous records…”, which led Treat to “unearth facts that once seemed… unreachable.”
Calhoun has also been credited with authoring what has been recognized as the NFL’s first weekly newspaper, beginning in 1938. And when he wrote a letter to Bell in August 1954, informing him that the Packers had decided to discontinue their Football News Bulletin, the Commissioner replied on league stationery: “I want you to know that for me and the members of the National Football League, we deeply appreciate all that you have done for us; and it comes from the hearts of all of us.” In the next paragraph, Bell added that he appreciated Calhoun’s willingness to continue to track his records, knowing “they will be a great help to the league office.”
When the Pro Football Hall of Fame was being built and looking for memorabilia and materials for its exhibits in the spring of 1963, Dick McCann, the original director, wrote to Calhoun, thanking him for his help and asking for his continued support. “I don’t think there is anyone else who knows more about professional football than you do, and I hope you don’t forget me,” McCann wrote.
But Calhoun might not have given the NFL a greater gift than his annual all-pro teams.
“Total Football II: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League”, published in 1999, lists four teams selected in the league’s first three seasons, 1920-22, in its chapter on “All-Pro Selections”.
They included a team selected by the Rock Island Argus sportswriter in 1920, one selected by a sports columnist for the Buffalo Evening News in 1921, and teams selected in 1922 by player-coach Guy Chamberlin of the Canton Bulldogs for the daily newspaper of this city. News and by Halas, then a Bears player-coach, who also wrote sports articles for the Chicago Daily Journal at the time.
There were other teams selected in those years that seemed equally if not more credible – for example, a sportswriter for the Akron Evening News picked one in 1920 when his home team, the Akron Pros, won the first APFA championship; and a Buffalo Courier columnist caused a stir with his 1921 selections than the one briefly noted in the city’s Evening News – but Total Football chose to ignore those selections for some reason.
Once Calhoun began polling others for his team, the only other fully professional team that was included in “Total Football” and survived even longer than the Press-Gazette one appeared in Collier’s Eye, a magazine Chicago-based sportsman.
But the Collier’s Eye teams have also been selected by individuals.
Sportswriter EG Brands picked the teams from 1923 to 1926; Frank Korch, who later became a talent scout for the Bears, picked him in 1929 with input from coaches; then Bears halfback Red Grange began making selections in 1930 and proceeded to be named to the first team that year and the next.
Sportswriter Wilfrid Smith of the Chicago Tribune also picked his own team from 1926 to 1929 and certainly had the qualifications to do so. A 6-foot-4, 204-pound lineman, Smith had played for four different teams in the NFL’s first five years, including the Chicago Cardinals in 1924 and 25.
But, by and large, all of these teams were picked on one person’s observations and whims, including some who in all likelihood didn’t even get a chance to watch all of their picks play.
Nobody got down to business quite like Calhoun.
In 1923, the first year of his selections, he received the votes of 15 sports journalists from 12 different NFL cities: Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Duluth, Green Bay (probably his own), Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Racine , Rock Island and St. Louis. The following year, Calhoun received votes from 12 writers in NFL towns, as well as six officials who worked on NFL games. In 1926, a total of 17 sportswriters and team managers from 17 different NFL cities voted. In 1929, an unknown number of league owners were among the 16 electors in addition to coaches, writers and officials. In 1934, coaches from all 10 NFL teams, plus six playing officials selected the team. In 1935, the last year of Calhoun’s ballot, coaches again became involved.
Press-Gazette selections included 11 first and second teams, plus a third team in five of the 12 years. When Bystrom handled the picks in 1932, he picked a 22-man squad and wrote that it was based on discussions with players from four of the NFL’s eight teams and his own observations while covering nine of the 14 Packers games. For the record, the 1932 team was not listed in Total Football, nor was the 1931 team in Press-Gazette, again, for some reason.
The Packers also did not benefit from the impartiality of Calhoun or anyone else, despite the team being published by their hometown newspaper.
In the 12 years Calhoun oversaw drafts, seven different Packers made a first team. Fourteen different players from the Bears made it one and eight from the Cardinals, even though they won only one NFL title in that span compared to the Packers’ three championships. The New York Giants, who didn’t field a team until 1925, had 12 different players to form a first team.
In 1931, there were other all-professional teams besides Calhoun selected based on polls rather than a single person’s opinion. However, the vote was anything but decided and the Total Football lists raise several questions.
In 1931, Total Football asked the United Press news service to choose a team for the first time, but the selectors were hardly neutral. Chicago-based UP staff correspondent George Kirksey said he picked the team based on feedback from Halas, Bears publicist Rocky Wolfe and Bears and Cardinals players.
Total Football also asks the NFL to choose an official team for the first time the same year, but the choices were exactly the same as those of the Press-Gazette for the three teams of 11 players. In other words, if the NFL did sanction any team, it was Calhoun’s.
In 1932, newspapers across the country credited the Associated Press with choosing a team based on a coaches’ vote, but Total Football lists it as the NFL team, not the AP team. . Again, for the record, Total Football does not list an AP team before 1940.
In 1935, the final year of the Press-Gazette selections, Total Football again listed the newspaper’s team, along with others by UP and what it referred to as the official NFL team. The UP national wire story of their picks was again written by Kirksey, but no explanation could be found for how the team was chosen. History that ran with NFL draft picks said they were made by league coaches and were the official league team, but carried AP credit.
What to do with all this?
The Press-Gazette selections were the only ones in the 1920s to represent the opinions of many league insiders and could have been just as credible as any after the involvement of news agencies during the first mid 1930s.
Additionally, websites and publishers of team media guides that have relied on Total Football for their all-pro lists might want to do more research to see if they are accurate and complete.
Finally, even though Calhoun fell off the radar screen as a contributing candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, those who compiled the list for that category in 1963 probably had a much better grasp of his credentials than anyone today. At the very least, it’s hard to imagine Calhoun not deserving of one of Canton’s new “Awards of Excellence” for his public relations work among so many other things.