“Arrogant, autocratic, meddlesome, bigoted, and caustic” — as Thomas G. Smith puts it in “Showdown” — Marshall acted out of not only racism but also what he saw as his self-interest. The Redskins’ road games were televised throughout the South, and Marshall was determined to maintain the Skins as “Dixie’s team.” There was nothing subtle about it:
“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.”
It must be very hard for today’s football fans, especially those under the age of 60, to imagine what the game and the country were like back then. Today about two-thirds of the NFL’s players are African American or another minority, but in the 1950s black players were still rare. Today Washington has a large black middle class, but when I first moved to the city in the summer of 1961, it was something else altogether. Segregation was for the most part de facto rather than de jure, but it was very real, and it was everywhere. Job opportunities for blacks were mostly menial, with the exception of a few lower-level white-collar positions in the federal government, and though public places were generally desegregated, blacks were made uncomfortable if they tried to use them.
By 1961 the Redskins had been in Washington for almost a quarter-century, moved there by Marshall from Boston in 1937, and had had a few successful seasons during the late 1930s and early ’40s. But “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.” They had a reasonably strong base — “fans flocked to games and devoured reports about the team on television, radio, and the daily newspapers” — but it was a far cry from the Redskins mania that burst forth in the 1970s and ’80s.