In 1962, more than a quarter of a century after leading the move to segregate the entire league, he finally integrated his own team -- the last in the NFL to do so -- but only after being threatened by the federal government with eviction from its home field if he did not desegregate.
They were almost named the Washington Red Sox -- not the baseball team, the one that plays in the National Football League.
The now formerly Washington Redskins, whose name for years was rightfully chastised as demeaning toward native Americans -- if not outright racist -- were almost called the Red Sox.
A little history: in 1932 George Preston Marshall, a Washington, D.C. businessman who owned a string of laundromats in and around the nation's capital, and several partners were awarded a NFL franchise to be located in Boston. They leased Braves Field for their home games, and, seeking to be identified with the more established baseball franchise, called the new football team the Boston Braves. Following a money-losing inaugural year in 1933, Marshall's partners bailed out, leaving him as the sole owner. Then, the baseball Braves went up on the rent, so Marshall moved his team down the street to Fenway Park.
He first thought about renaming his team after his new landlords, the Red Sox. But here was the rub: the football uniforms featured a likeness of an Indian brave, modeled after the one on the baseball Braves's uniform. Marshall was not about to spring for a set of new uniforms, so he convened a meeting with himself to decide on a name, which would convey an identification with the Red Sox while at the same time provide an excuse for keeping the uniforms with an Indian likeness on them.
Aha! He must have thought after giving the matter a moment or two of thought. Let's call them the Redskins! The first half of the name replicates that of the Red Sox, and the name itself is a slang term for Indians. The tiny detail that it was and is a derogatory slur did not, we can be sure, bother Mr. Marshall one whit. After all, he was a world-class bigot.
He didn't just hold out against integrating his team until the federal government threatened not to renew his lease on DC Stadium (now RFK Stadium); he was also responsible for segregating the NFL in the first place. When he came into the league, there were a smattering of black players in it, but he sweet-talked the other owners into weeding out the blacks, so he is the man responsible for the league becoming lily-white until after Word War II. In 1962, more than a quarter of a century after leading the move to segregate the entire league, he finally integrated his own team -- the last in the NFL to do so -- but only after being threatened by the federal government with eviction from its home field if he did not desegregate.
Back in Boston in 1934, the change of the name from the Braves to the Redskins caused hardly a ripple of concern. The '30s were not a time of social awareness; besides, nothing the team did caught the attention of the Boston populace. Interest was low and attendance was sparse; it got so bad that when the Boston Redskins played in (and won) the league championship game in 1936, Marshall switched its site from Fenway Park to the Polo Grounds in New York City.
In 1937, he was granted permission to relocate the franchise, disparaging name and all, from Boston to Washington, D.C. This worked out well for the owner since he already lived in Washington -- plus, the team's uniforms could now be washed at one of his laundromats.
Once in the capital, the Redskins became an immediate success at the gate and in the standings. That was due in large part to the arrival of Sammy Baugh from Texas Christian University, where he'd been an All-American. Baugh became the NFL's first superstar quarterback and had a long and fruitful career, lasting from 1937 through 1952, all with Washington. One wonders what might have happened if he had graduated from college a year earlier and begun his professional career in Boston. Would his drawing power have been enough to keep the team in the Hub? Would that have prevented the establishment of the New England (then Boston) Patriots in 1960? Who knows?
Given the tenor of the times, the Redskins management is now busily trying to remove all mention of Marshall's name from its history. A statue of him has been taken down from in front of RFK Stadium, the team's former home field. His name is being removed from the Ring of Fame at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, where they currently play. Interestingly, it is being replaced by that of Bobby Mitchell, an excellent running back and wide receiver who became the Redskins first-ever black player when Marshall reluctantly traded for him as a result of the government's eviction threat in 1962. The lower seating area at FedEx Field is also being named for Mitchell, replacing that of you-know-who.
Marshall's name is also being removed from all official team material, from its website, and from the Wall of History at FedEx Field. It's like the team is trying to pretend that he never existed. It's somewhat akin to what CBS did to Arthur Godfrey's name as a result of years of acrimonious battles between him and company executives. They scrubbed Godfrey's name from their official history, but the fact is that he was the network's meal-ticket for more than 30 years. He held sway over "Arthur Godfrey and His Friends," a daily morning talk show on both radio and TV; he presided over "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" on Monday evenings; and anchored the network's prime time lineup on Wednesdays with "The Arthur Godfrey Show." Then, CBS gave him the old George Preston Marshall disappearing act treatment.
Washington's management would not only like us to forget all about Marshall and his prejudices, but now they'd they'd like us to forget about that disparaging nickname, too. Current owner Dan Snyder said for years that the name would never be changed because the moniker was too steeped in tradition to ever do so. But he's undergone a change of heart, encouraged by the threatened defection of major sponsors. Isn't it amazing, how the loss of a few hundred million dollars in revenue can help one to see the light?
If the now Washington No-names are doing their homework, they'll discover that the only reason the team was ever called the Redskins in the first place was that the guy who used to own them was too cheap to buy new uniforms when they moved from Braves Field a mile or so down Commonwealth Avenue to Fenway Park.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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