Former CFL and AFL legend Cookie Gilchrist (pictured at right during his time with the Denver Broncos in 1965) left behind a complex legacy when he passed away in January; he was fondly remembered by many on both sides of the border (and even further afield) for both his outstanding play and his leadership on civil rights issues, but he thought he was treated poorly by management in both Canada and the U.S. He still took the time to connect with some of his former teams, including speaking to the current Tiger-Cats after a practice two seasons ago, but it was widely reported that he'd turned down induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a protest against then-commissioner Jake Gaudaur.
However, the true story may not be that simple. The Waterloo Region Record just posted a fascinating piece on Gilchrist Friday (link via Drew Edwards), written by Kitchener resident Larry Scholtis, whose family Gilchrist boarded with during his time playing for the semipro Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen. Scholtis was a young kid at the time, but he has many powerful memories of growing up around Gilchrist, and they kept in touch for decades afterwards. The whole piece is well worth a read, but the most interesting part of it is what Gilchrist told Scholtis about the Hall of Fame controversy:
It has been reported Cookie turned down induction to the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame in Hamilton. But he told me he never actually said no to being inducted.
John Agro, then counsel for Canadian Football League Players Association, had informed Cookie about his nomination to the hall, then told him to be nice to Jake Gaudar [sic], then commissioner of the league. Cookie said he would take it "under advisement" because of his strained relationship with Gaudar [sic]. Today, the hall of fame is missing one of game's greatest players and continues to embarrass itself by not inducting him.
Thus, according to that piece, Gilchrist never rejected the Hall of Fame. Instead, he told the CFLPA he would take being nice to Gaudaur (who he clashed with when Gaudaur was the Tiger-Cats' president and GM) "under advisement," and that was enough to keep him from being inducted? Obviously, that's quite the story, and there are many who would take it with a grain of salt; Scholtis may have misremembered some crucial detail, or Gilchrist may not have told him the complete story. Upon a further reading of Earl McRae's excellent piece on Gilchrist, though, it looks like there's some support for this. Here's part of what Gilchrist e-mailed McRae in 2010:
"My throat cancer is in remission, my weight is the same. Tell Kaye Vaughan and the crew those days were the greatest in my life. I have great respect for every Canadian Football Player who played with and against me.
"I loved Canada and the Canadian people. However Canada does not love Cookie Gilchrist. And I never turned down the Hall Of Fame. When John Agro told me to be nice to Jake Gaudaur, when he told me I was nominated to be inducted, I told Jake I would take that under advisement, and he or they made a lie out of it. Adolf Hitler said the truth when he said the bigger the lie, the more people believe it.
"What is my crime? I never robbed, raped, stolen, lied, cheated, sold drugs, beat my wife or children. So. Why did the country treat me as a persona non grata from 1956 to 2010? But it's okay, I know how to deal with all the players now. It will all come out in the production of my life story once all the T's are crossed and the I's dotted.
On its own, that isn't the clearest statement, but when read in combination with Scholtis' piece, it fits right in. Gilchrist's comments to both Scholtis and McRae present a clear version of the story, from his perspective, and it's one that doesn't include him rejecting the Hall. What the other side of the story is may be more difficult to uncover, as Gaudaur passed away in 2007 and John Agro has also passed on (his name lives on in the CFL's outstanding special teams player award, though). Still, regardless of if Gilchrist's version is the complete story of how the Hall of Fame situation went down or not, it's an important side of the story to have. At the very least, Gilchrist clearly was open to the Hall of Fame in his later years; at most, he was always open to the Hall of Fame but was kept out by political machinations and/or misinterpretations.
The Hall could fix a past mistake by inducting Gilchrist this coming year. Yes, his name isn't listed among the group of eligible players, but they're still taking nominations to round that list out. I believe Gilchrist would need to be nominated by the veterans' subcommittee, as he played over 25 years ago, but that hasn't prevented players like 2011 inductee Ken Lehmann from getting in. Gilchrist was clearly considered worthy when he was up for induction the first time, and his CFL resume (five all-star nods in six seasons, plus a key role on Hamilton's 1957 Grey Cup-winning team) certainly seems to hold up over time. Now that it's become clear that he was at the least open to induction later in his life (and perhaps unfairly barred from it earlier), is there any reason he shouldn't be in the Hall?
Gilchrist's story is a complicated one that doesn't entirely reflect well on the CFL, but that makes it perhaps all the more important. The league's history is a crucial part of its continuing appeal, but we need to recognize that that history wasn't all positive for everyone involved. Yes, the CFL offered tremendous opportunities for players like Warren Moon and Damon Allen who were initially passed over south of the border thanks to their skin colour, but it's worth remembering that there were other black players like Gilchrist who weren't happy with the way the league treated them. This was reflected in an excellent history project on "Race in the CFL" I saw at a competition I helped judge a few weeks ago; it included the typical examples like Moon and Allen, but it also talked about Gilchrist and the complications his story presents. Including Gilchrist strengthened that project substantially, and the same can be said for the Hall of Fame. Yes, his story isn't entirely positive for Canadian football, but it's better to include it and discuss it than ignore it. Gilchrist had a Hall of Fame career, and by his own account was certainly open to induction later in life; the Hall voters should right an ancient wrong and send him in with the 2012 class.