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Posted at 12:27 PM ET, 12/07/2011

How the Washington Post covered the Pearl Harbor Redskins game

Seventy years ago, the Redskins closed their season with a 2 p.m. kick against the Eagles, just as the country began to learn about Pearl Harbor. People inside Griffith Stadium, as you’ve probably heard, were often described as the last people to know.

“First word of Japan’s attack on Hawaii came from the White House,” The Post reported the next day, deep in its lede-all WAR! story. “It came at a time when thousands of Washingtonians were gathered in wind-swept Griffith Stadium watching a football game between the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles.”

Before that game, the story lines had been pretty lame; could the 5-5 Redskins finish above .500? (They did.) Could they tie the Brooklyn Dodgers for second in the East, earning each man a playoff share in the neighborhood of $100? (The Dodgers also won, so they did not.) Could they break the 1940 season-attendance mark? (They did, barely, with a total attendance of 193,551.) Would they be ok with just a 30-man roster, after Ed Justice injured his leg and Dick Todd and Wilbur Moore “left for home”? (I guess they were.) And how would the “Georgetown Day” honors for three ex-Hoyas on the Eagles be received?

If you can believe it, most of these issues were discussed in the sports section’s day-after game report, which — somewhat remarkably — focused on football and not war.

Excerpts from that gamer:

The Redskins were up to their old tricks yesterday, of leaving it up to Sammy Baugh to pull them out of an embarrassing situation, and the passin’ Texan replied with one of his finest performances, which netted a 20-14 triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles in the season’s final game.
The Redskins were trailing 14-7, when Baugh’s fourth period club took over on its own 8-yard line and within eight minutes, Sammy found Joe Aguirre’s big mitts for two touchdowns.
The non-scoring moments of the second half were filled with crazy football; pass interceptions, fumbles, sensational passes or drives called back by the often booed officials and finally the desperate Thompson-led drive of the Eagles which ended in Vic Carroll’s interception and the ball game.

Hard to imagine writing something like that amid the obvious drama of the day. The AP report was similarly bereft of context:

Slingin Sammy Baugh rifled three touchdown passes to give the Washington Redskins a 20-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in a National Football League game today.

Which left it to Shirley Povich’s column to cover the scene at what had to have been one of the strangest football games of all time for the press box folks, who knew about Pearl Harbor even while the fans were kept in the dark. Povich wrote about the experience 50 years later for The Post, but his original file was even more impressive. If you’ll forgive the length, here it is.

Japan Kicks Off!

War’s Outbreak is Deep Secret to 27,102 Redskin Game Fans

By Shirley Povich

“Keep it short.”

That innocent-sounding order flashed to its football reporter at the Redskins-Eagles game by the Associated Press headquarters downtown prefaced the jolt that was to follow later in the afternoon for 27,102 exciting fans at Griffith Stadium yesterday.

If the reporter was wondering at the sudden insignificance of his football “lead,” he understood fully a few minutes later in the first quarter when his office flashed this intimate message: “The Japanese have kicked off. War now!”

Unaware of the bombing of Hawaii and war in the Pacific, the bulk of the 27,102 in Griffith Stadium sat through the 2 ½ hour game, thrilling to the three touchdown passes of Sammy Baugh.

But to the jabbering press box workers and eaves-dropping fans in the vicinity, the action on the field below was a blur in the light of events in the Pacific. Somehow, with America at war and lives already lost, a football game had lost its importance.

For the crowd, though, there was a hint of something of importance in the air. As early as eight minutes of the opening quarter, the public address system began a field day of its own. Important persons were being paged, too many important persons to make it a coincidence.

Intermittently the public address announcer interrupted his football spiel to summon big-shot fans from their seats.

“Admiral W.H.P. Bland is asked to report to his office at once!” the big horns blared, midway of the first quarter. To the knowing, that meant the chief of the Bureau of Ordnance of the United States Navy.

“The Resident Commissioner of the Philippines, Mr. Joaquim Elizalde, is urged to report to his office immediately!” came another announcement a few minutes later.

By the end of the half, there was a buzzing in the grandstands, but Redskins officials, appraised of the news, refused to permit a public address announcement of the outbreak of war.

“We don’t want to contribute to any hysteria,” said General Manager Jack Espey in forbidding the announcement.

Reports that did reach the customers were set down for the most part as incredible rumor and gossip. There was no lessening of volume in their cheers for the Redskins. At the game’s end, there was a rush for the goal posts by hundreds of exuberant fans.

But by the end of the first half, a lone photographer was working the ball game. All other camera men had been hastily summoned by their offices to speed to the Japanese Embassy and other points of interest.

The paging of notables continued throughout the second half. “Joseph Umglumph of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is requested to report to the FBI office at once,” came an undistinct announcement during the between-half ceremonies.

“Capt. H.X. Fenn of the United States Army is asked to report to his offices at once,” was the announcement preceding the second-half kickoff.

Newspaper offices loaded the public address system with frantic calls for star reporters who were at the game. The names of circulation managers were blared through the big horns, commanding them to return downtown immediately, as the news offices prepared to hurry extra editions on the streets.

Before the end of the first quarter, the radio-listening wife of one newspaper editor demonstrated her own news sense and took no chances that her football fan husband might not know of the war. She telegraphed this message to Griffith Stadium: “Deliver to Section P, Top Row,Seat 27, opposite 25-yard line, East Side, Griffith Stadium: War with Japan Get to office.”

In a box on the 50-yard line, Cabinet Member Jesse Jones was handed a message and departed from the game.

But for the 27,102 customers the only thing in progress yesterday afternoon was the football game they were watching. They were on their feet in high glee when big Joe Aguirre took Baugh’s third touchdown pass for the winning score.

At the exits to the stadium at the finish, though, the news of war broke like a thunderclap as departing football fans encountered cab drivers and park employees who had been listening to radio reports of Japan’s attack on Hawaii.

“That settles it,” cracked one indignant football fan. “I’m going right home and tear down those Japanese lanterns.”

END

Not bad, eh?

Still, there was space in the sports section for other Redskins news, like this indignant response to Baugh not being named an All-Pro.

Followers of pro football today are wondering what a fellow has to do to get named on an all-star selection. The Associated Press’s All-Pro team, announced this morning, completely ignores Sammy Baugh, who has been the Redskins’ only threat this season. He had a brilliant season and almost all of his team’s points resulted from his dazzling aerial work. He only made honorable mention.

And by Dec. 9, the Redskins beat writer was covering the season-ending luncheon at “Harvey’s.”

“The general theme of the brief speechmaking was that the season was not the failure that many fans seemed to think,” he reported. “They had played good ball in defeat, had held the respect of Washington’s football public and there were no regrets from the management.”

The front office, he later noted, was already focused on acquiring prepaid orders for 1942 season tickets.

By  |  12:27 PM ET, 12/07/2011

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