A classic NFL/civil rights story--the showdown between the Washington Redskins and the Kennedy White House.
In 1961-as America crackled with racial tension-the Washington Redskins stood alone as the only professional football team without a black player on its roster. In fact, during the entire twenty-five-year history of the franchise, no African American had ever played for George Preston Marshall, the Redskins’ cantankerous principal owner. With slicked-down white hair and angular facial features, the nattily attired, sixty-four-year-old NFL team owner already had a well-deserved reputation for flamboyance, showmanship, and erratic behavior. And like other Southern-born segregationists, Marshall stood firm against race-mixing. “We’ll start signing Negroes,” he once boasted, “when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.” But that was about to change.
Opposing Marshall was Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, whose determination that the Redskins-or “Paleskins,” as he called them-reflect John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier ideals led to one of the most high-profile contests to spill beyond the sports pages. Realizing that racial justice and gridiron success had the potential either to dovetail or take an ugly turn, civil rights advocates and sports fans alike anxiously turned their eyes toward the nation’s capital. There was always the possibility that Marshall-one of the NFL’s most influential and dominating founding fathers-might defy demands from the Kennedy administration to desegregate his lily-white team. When further pressured to desegregate by the press, Marshall remained defiant, declaring that no one, including the White House, could tell him how to run his business.
In Showdown, sports historian Thomas G. Smith captures this striking moment, one that held sweeping implications not only for one team’s racist policy but also for a sharply segregated city and for the nation as a whole. Part sports history, part civil rights story, this compelling and untold narrative serves as a powerful lens onto racism in sport, illustrating how, in microcosm, the fight to desegregate the Redskins was part of a wider struggle against racial injustice in America.
“Full of colorful detail.”—James Sullivan, Boston Globe
“Smith skillfully follows two narratives-the founding and growth of the Redskins franchise and the move to integrate pro football-until they collide in 1961.”—The Sunday News
“A classic gridiron tale for history junkies and avid sports fans alike.”—Phillip Hoose, author of Hoosiers
“Thoroughly researched … does a fine job of filling in this bleak episode on our cultural history.”—Michael Tomasky, The New York Review of Books
“In a fascinating narrative, indefatigable team owner George Marshall is an aging football lion surprised to find himself backed into a corner by the gathering forces of a new era.”—John Eisenberg, author of That First Season
Chapter 5 The Washington Whiteskins
On November 23, 1947, the Washington Redskins held a fanappreciation day for their iconic quarterback, Sammy Baugh. They presented him with a glistening maroon car with wide, white-walled tires, the number “33” on the front bumper plate, and a door panel reading “Slingin’ Sam--the Redskins Man.” On that special day, before more than 30,000 fervid fans, Baugh had one of his best games, rifling six touchdown passes to down the defending league champion Chicago Cardinals, 45-21. After the game, he drove his sister and brother-in-law to Philadelphia. On his return to Washington that same evening, an oncoming vehicle forced him into a skid that demolished his spiffy new automobile. Baugh was unhurt, but the car wreck would come to symbolize the Redskins’ football fortunes in the years following World War II. From 1946 through 1961, the Redskins enjoyed only three winning seasons, appeared in no title or championship games, and amassed a record of 69 wins, 116 losses, and 8 ties. They devoured eight head coaches and played no black athletes. The most obvious reason for the Redskins’ futility is that they did not have enough skilled players, and for that crucial shortcoming, George Marshall must be held accountable. His skill at promotion did not extend to the building of a winning franchise. His monumental ego, and perhaps the team’s past success under Sammy Baugh, gave him an exaggerated sense of his understanding of the game and his ability to assess talent. Arrogant, autocratic, meddlesome, bigoted, and caustic, he also failed to establish a comfortable work environment for his players and coaches. By the mid-1940s, if not earlier, Marshall had developed an obsession with football that bordered on the pathological. To paraphrase Washington Post writer Richard Coe, George Marshall not only owned the Redskins, but the Redskins “owned” him. “I’ve never found anything I enjoyed more,” Marshall said of football. “If I get out of football, I’ll retire; there’s nothing else I’d want to do. To do anything well, you have to enjoy it first. And not just for the money, either. Anything else is just another form of prostitution.” In 1946, he sold his laundry business to devote more time and attention to football. Aside from football, only the theater captivated him. When he went out on the town, which was often, he did so mainly for selfaggrandizement and promotion of the Redskins. Marshall’s preoccupation with football strained his family life. He rarely saw his two children from his first marriage, and his union with Corinne became a sham. “How anyone can be interested in football when he’s married to Corinne Griffith is one of the great mysteries of life,” wrote one baffled sportswriter. She lived most of the year in Beverly Hills, California, where she sold real estate. Marshall saw his wife occasionally when the Redskins travelled to Occidental College in southern California for training camp, but mostly the couple lived separate lives. Corinne moved west because she resented subordinating her life to football. On a local 1953 television program called The Redskin Show, Marshall said of Corinne: “She used to be the Corinne Griffith of the movies until she became more famous as Mrs. George Preston Marshall.” Corinne did try to take an interest in football. She wrote the lyrics to “Hail to the Redskins,” helped choreograph halftime shows, initially attended games, and plugged the team in a 1947 book, My Life with the Redskins. But she never developed any affection for the game. After twenty-two years of marriage, the couple divorced in 1958. Commenting to the press on the breakup, she said: “Please don’t blame George. He just couldn’t love me. It’s that simple.” There was, she continued, “[n]o other man. No other woman. Just things that got in the way. And as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t learn football.” As Corinne intimated, Marshall let nothing get in the way of football. Yet, in spite of his passion and commitment, he could not field a winning team. The Redskins still had some talented athletes following their 1945 championship appearance. Even in decline, Baugh was an effective quarterback, and he had a sure-handed receiver in Hugh “Bones” Taylor. But, after sixteen seasons, Baugh retired in 1952, and Taylor left two years later after an eight-year career. Finding an adequate replacement for Baugh proved especially difficult. Eddie LeBaron, a diminutive sixteenth-round draft choice, was arguably the team’s best quarterback in the decade following Baugh’s retirement. After Dick Todd retired in 1948, the Redskins scrambled to find a durable running back. They obtained Bill Dudley in 1950 from the Detroit Lions, and he offered some flashes of brilliance with the Redskins, but the future Hall of Famer was past his prime. The team drafted Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice in 1950, but the twotime runner-up for the Heisman Trophy got injured and never lived up to expectations. Vic Janowicz, who won the Heisman Trophy with Ohio State University, signed with the Redskins in 1954, but his promising career ended two years later when he was paralyzed in an automobile accident. Eventually the University of Oregon’s Dick James performed productively at running back from 1956 to 1963, but the team had no winning seasons during his tenure. Although Dick McCann carried the title of general manager, Marshall,effectively had total control over the personnel decisions. Coaches had input, of course, but Marshall prided himself on evaluating talent and always got his way on trades and draft selections. The Redskins and most NFL teams did not have the elaborate scouting and assessment systems that prevail in the twenty-first century. “They used to say the Redskins scouting budget was 50 cents, the cost of Street and Smith and another football magazine,” said Eddie LeBaron. The Redskins did so little preparation for draft day that some owners accused them of cheating. “At the player draft meetings,” recalled Paul Brown in PB: The Paul Brown Story, “we all sat at separate tables with our lists spread before us, and Marshall inevitably made the rounds of each table, coming up from behind, leaning over and giving the big hello. At the same time, he would look over our shoulders at our lists, trying to get some information. After a while, it became so obvious that everyone just closed his book when he saw Marshall coming.” Some owners, said LeBaron, exposed lists of players that they did not want, hoping Marshall would take them. Some of the Redskins’ draft picks made it seem like Marshall was taking the bait. With their first pick in 1946, the Redskins selected UCLA running back Cal Rossi, but he was ineligible for the draft because he was only a junior. Stubbornly, they selected Rossi again the following year, even though he had no intention of playing pro football. Looking for another Baugh, Marshall used the first overall choice in the 1948 draft to select Alabama’s Harry Gilmer instead of future Hall of Famers Y. A. Tittle and Bobby Layne. In fairness, it should be pointed out that Gilmer was an excellent prospect, and six other teams also bypassed Tittle and Layne. In the draft, Marshall was partial to quarterbacks, choosing seven with the team’s first pick between 1948 and 1960--Gilmer, Larry Isbell, Jack Scarbath, Ralph Guglielmi, Don Allard, Richie Lucas, and Norm Snead. “Marshall was a showman first of all. He wanted entertainment. That’s how I looked at his draft picks,” recalled LeBaron. “We never had very good defensive teams when I was there, but we kept drafting offensive players. He wanted big names, people who would draw fans and bring excitement. It was like treading water.” Arkansas native Hugh “Bones” Taylor, one of Baugh’s favorite receivers in the postwar years, also was baffled by Marshall’s player personnel decisions. “It was weird. If Marshall could get a big name or some player from Maryland, Virginia, or North Carolina, he did, even if it didn’t help us,” he complained. “We should have been signing blacks. Len Ford grew up in the shadow of the stadium in D.C. and never had a chance to play for us. Why? What difference did it make if he was black” Like all teams, the Redskins made some regrettable transactions. Against the advice of Baugh, Marshall traded quarterback Frank Filchock to the Giants after the 1945 season. He also lost two fu ture stars. Considering Harry Gilmer a can’t-miss prospect, he dealt quarterback Charley Conerly to New York, where he excelled for fourteen seasons, winning three division titles and the NFL championship in 1956. The Redskins in 1954 also sent defensive tackle Dick Modzelewski to the Steelers, who, in turn, traded him to the Giants. Winner of the 1952 Outland Trophy as the nation’s top collegiate lineman, Modzelewski anchored the Giants defensive line from 1956 through 1963. Blinded by racism, Marshall refused to tap into the pool of African American talent. “There were only so many good players anyway,” said former Redskins running back Jim Podoley, “and when you eliminate half of them, it was tough. Very tough.” Podoley’s teammate Joe Tereshinski was certain that the black ban “was a very important reason we did not reach ultimate success.” Meanwhile, teams like the Cleveland Browns, using gifted blacks such as running back Marion Motley and guard Bill Willis, dominated play, first in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) and then in the NFL. The Browns won the title from 1946 through 1949, every year of the AAFC’s existence. During those years, they also drew more fans than every team in the NFL. Named coplayer of the year in 1949 by the Washington Touchdown Club, Otto Graham surprised his audience by addressing the issue of racial intolerance and taking an indirect shot at George Marshall. “I wish the people of this country and the world had the philosophy of our Cleveland football team,” Graham began. “We don’t rate our fellows on their background or the[ir] religion or parentage or color. We have Protestants, Jews, Catholics, white players and Negro players in our gang, and it’s a happy one. The prejudiced people could take a tip from our success. Our coaches are interested chiefly in what we can do on the football field and rate us on that. It’s the best spirit on any team I’ve ever played with and it would be truly wonderful if that view of men were world wide.” After joining the NFL, the Browns appeared in seven championship games, winning titles in 1950, 1954, and 1955. After Marion Motley retired in 1953, they added Syracuse University running back Jim Brown, who arguably became the game’s greatest player. Dur ing his brief, nine-year career from 1957 to 1965, he led the NFL in rushing eight times, appeared in nine Pro Bowls, won the Rookie of the Year Award and three Most Valuable Player awards, averaged 5.2 yards per carry, and never missed a game. The Browns played particularly well against the Redskins, winning nineteen of twenty-three contests between 1950 and 1961, including drubbings of 45-0 and 62-3. In Cleveland’s first appearance in Washington, in December 1950, a black health educator cringed as fans abused Marion Motley with racial epithets. Residents of Cleveland, he said in a letter to the Cleveland Call and Post, had integrated African Americans into their community, whereas Washingtonians had not. “Residents of Cleveland,” he continued, “could be a vital force for good if they could each pen a letter to George Preston Marshall . . . and ask him to give racial tolerance a chance by following Cleveland’s example of Democracy in sports.” Following the successful example of the Cleveland Browns, NFL owners--except for Marshall--gradually added black players. To avoid offending some white fans, owners established unofficial quotas of no more than eight minority players per team. Those few pioneers paved the way for additional African American players and often made a difference between winning and losing seasons. The New York Giants won the 1956 NFL championship with the help of linemen Roosevelt Brown and Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier, running back Mel Triplett, and defensive back Emlen Tunnell. The Baltimore Colts, who defeated the Giants for the title in 1958 and 1959, attributed much of their success to defensive tackle Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, offensive lineman Jim Parker, and running back/flanker Lenny Moore, who was Rookie of the Year in 1956, a perennial Pro Bowl selection, and, like Parker, a future Hall of Famer. Other heralded African American players of the 1950s included lineman Lamar Lundy, defensive backs Abe Woodson, J. C. Caroline, Johnny Sample, and Dick “Night Train” Lane, and running backs Willie Gallimore, Ollie Matson, John Henry Johnson, and Joe Perry, the first runner to record consecutive thousand-yard rushing seasons. African Americans also made gains outside the lines, despite scant leadership from the White House. (Although President Dwight D. Eisenhower disavowed racial intolerance, he did not believe that federal laws and dictates could “change people’s hearts.” (If General Eisenhower had pursued the enemy with the same vigor that he pursued racial equality as president, said one black leader, “we’d all be speaking German now.”) In the 1954 Brown decision, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled against segregation in public schools. The following year, the court mandated the speedy integration of all public schools. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white man, triggering a boycott that led to the integration of the bus service in Montgomery, Alabama. When a truculent mob in 1957 tried to prevent nine courageous black students from attending Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Eisenhower (however reluctantly) sent federal troops to protect them. Major strides for racial justice prompted Lillian Smith, a white Georgian, to predict to the New York Times that Jim Crow would end in Dixie by the mid- 1960s: “Although signs will still be nailed to a few people’s minds and hearts, the signs over doors--those words White’ and Colored’ that have challenged democracy throughout the world--will be down. A prophet is not needed to make this forecast. Anyone who looks closely at recent events in the South . . . will know that the future holds no place in it for the philosophy and practice of segregation.” George Marshall did not get that message. Like other strident segregationists, he bristled at federally directed desegregation efforts and resisted integration. Adding blacks to the team, he reasoned, would offend white Southern racial sensibilities and his profit margin. Marshall, said a Cleveland Call and Post writer, was “an unreconstructed grid rebel” and the only thing he “likes about Negroes is the color of their money.” Marshall also appeared to be bigoted toward Jews. As a guest on the Oscar Levant Show, he repeatedly disparaged the physical appearance of his host. When Levant said, “I hear you’re anti- Semitic,” Marshall replied, “Oh no, I love Jews, especially when they’re customers.” The insensitive remark brought a flurry of protests, and Levant apologized to his audience for inviting Marshall on the show. “I shouldn’t have done it. Variety raised hell with me. Marshall kept saying how ugly I was--right there on the show. He said, What an ugly fellow you are, Oscar.’ “ The flap left Marshall unabashed. “If I’m doing a show that’s supposed to be amusing and entertaining, and if Levant asks me a facetious question, I’ll give an amusing answer,” he told a Sports Illustrated writer. “The audience laughed like hell. No one of intelligence has ever questioned my theories on race or religion. Ah is an independent boy!” In fairness, it should be pointed out that during Marshall’s decades with the Redskins, his vice president and treasurer was Milton King, who was Jewish. For racial and commercial considerations, Marshall took pains to curry favor with his mainly white, Southern fan base. At halftime, he had the band play “Dixie,” “The Eyes of Texas,” and other songs with Southern appeal. In the NFL draft, he went out of his way to select players from Dixie schools, bypassing not only blacks, but sometimes more qualified non-Southern whites as well. Not only did he hold a fan appreciation day for the legendary Texan Sammy Baugh, but in 1954, before a packed stadium, he honored “Choo Choo” Justice, a North Carolinian who played only four mediocre seasons for the team. Besides his bigotry and limited ability to assess athletic prowess, Marshall had an exaggerated sense of his command of the game. Former player Joe Tereshinski said that Marshall longed to be a coach: “I always firmly believed that his life would have been complete if he could have coached the team for one season. He was always competing with George Halas, and it made Mr. Marshall jealous because Halas would be on the field and Marshall would have to sit up in the stands.” From the stands, he telephoned plays and player substitutions to the head coach. On one occasion, according to Arthur Daley of the New York Times, one of the owner’s recommendations brought victory when substitute quarterback Jim Youel scampered for a fortyyard touchdown. Marshall said afterward: “There’s nothing difficult about coaching.” On occasion, when he found it too time-consuming to travel by train to Texas or the West Coast, he watched games on television from home. But he could still meddle. “I’m plugged into the bench,” he told Bud Shrake, a Dallas reporter. “I can call the coach from my living room and tell him what to do. Sometimes the coach doesn’t do it, and that’s how we lose.” Marshall made light of his interference. One year after the team started with two wins and two losses, a fan asked him if it was true that he was coaching the team. “Partially,” Marshall responded. “I coached them in the two they won, and the other coaches were in charge in the ones they lost.” Players resented Marshall’s meddlesomeness, and during games, they tried to sabotage communication between the owner and the coach. Redskins running back Jim Podoley recalled that on one occasion, they draped heavy parkas over the phone at the bench. “When Marshall saw what was happening, he’d send his chauffeur down there to take the cape off the phone.” Unlike Redskins players, rival coaches took comfort in Marshall’s meddling. New York Giants coach Steve Owen told a New York Times reporter, “One thing we’re sure of, and pleased about, is that George Preston Marshall will be there in a raccoon coat. He will start looking at the game from the stands but before long, he’ll be right down on the bench sending in substitutes, and we like that. The subs George sends in always help us very much.” Ray Flaherty, who had guided the team to two world championships during the late 1930s and early 1940s, would not tolerate game-calling interference from Marshall. But subsequent coaches were less confident and insistent. In a twenty-year stretch from 1943 through 1963, Marshall went through ten head coaches. Coaching the Redskins, wrote the Washington Post’s Shirley Povich, “has all the permanency of a soap bubble.” After burning through Dudley DeGroot and Turk Edwards, Marshall in 1949 turned to U.S. Navy admiral John Whelchel to bring strict discipline to the team. He promised the commander full authority over the team, saying, apparently in all seriousness, “I never wanted to interfere in the coaching of the Redskins. But I felt it was necessary. I’m glad I can turn everything over to my new coach.” The new coach was fired after seven dismal games. Herman Ball, Dick Todd, and Curly Lambeau followed Whelchel in brief coaching stints.
Prologue: ìRedskins Told: Integrate or Elseî
1) Boston Beginnings
2) Out of Bounds
3) The Redskins March
4) Leveling the Field
5) The Washington Whiteskins
6) The Owner, the Journalist, and the Hustler
7) The Black Blitz
8) The New Frontier
10) Hail Victory
11) Running Out the Clock
Notes on Sources
- Click here to read a review of Showdown in Maclean's
- Click here to listen to an interview with Thomas Smith on The Robert Wuhl Show, which aired on September 26th
- Click here to read a review of Showdown in the Boston Globe
- Click here to listen to an interview with Thomas Smith on Weekend All things Considered, which aired on September 4th
- Click here to listen to an interview with Tom Smith on Sirius XM's The Joe Madison Show
- Click here to read a review of Showdown in the September 4th issue of the Washington Post