LONG BEFORE there were Super Bowls or Dallas Cowboys or instant replay, there were the Washington Redskins. They came here 75 years ago, and their ups and downs, fumbles and triumphs have been a memorable part of the city’s history and sometimes the nation’s. They won the National Football League championship in their first year in Washington, 1937. Four years later they were popular enough that on one December afternoon a fair number of the country’s military and political elite had to be summoned to their offices over the stadium loudspeaker, for reasons unknown to the rest of the fans. The Redskins beat the Philadelphia Eagles that day, 20-14, and, incidentally, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
With the passing arm of Sammy Baugh of Texas, the Redskins early established what has become a staple of NFL wisdom: The quarterback is everything. The Redskins were good in the 1940s, not so good in the ’50s and ’60s. But through the bad days, they continued to have a loyal following (though it’s true a kid could take the streetcar up to old Griffith Stadium on game day and buy a ticket at the gate for a few dollars). For a long time, the team was sadly unrepresentative of the people of Washington — the last in the league to have no black player. But with the color line finally broken in 1962, the Redskins established what may be the country’s largest and most enthusiastic African American fan base. In fact, as many have argued, they’re probably the greatest uniter in the Washington region — its most important source of pride or, in recent years, anguish.