It began on Thursday night in 1937; 19,941 curious rode street cars, taxis and Model A Fords to the ball park at Georgia and Florida Avenues in Northwest Washington to watch a group of professional football players called the Redskins make their debut.
That same season, on a Sunday in December, more than 10,000 Washingtonians boarded special trains for the four-hour ride to New York City to root for their team in a championship game. In New York, they marched 10,000 strong up Broadway, behind a marching band chanting "Baugh, Baugh, Baugh," to the old Polo Grounds. Later that afternoon, they hooted and hollered as Slingin' Sammy Baugh, Turk Edwards and Cliff Battles routed the New York Giants, 49-14, for the Eastern championship of the National Football League.
From that first seasion in 34,000 seat Griffith Stadium through Monday night's victory over the Dallas Cowboys at RFK Stadium, Washington has had a special love affair - a magnificent obsession - for its football team.
Today, with the Redsins riding a five-game winning streak, the towns seems caught in the beginning stages of ecstosy last seen here in 1972, the Super Bowl season.
Through war and peace, seasons of champs and chumps, years of Sammy and Sonny, Millner and Mitchell. Battles and Butz, Redskins fan support has consistently overshadowed every other professional franchise that ever played in or near this city.
"I don't know what the reason is," says Bullet and Capital owner Abe Pollin, an original season-ticket holder in that first 1937 Redskin season. "It can't be winning because people followed them passionately when they were losing. It's a very nice position to be in, though."
Consider how nice. In 1937, the Redskins became the first professional football team to sell season tickets, 958 that year. Five years later they were up to 12,078 and in the 1946 season sales totaled an unheard-of 31,444.
There were lean years through the 1950s, in cluding a low of 13,000 in 1952. But in 1964, every home at the new stadium was a sellout and since 1967, every seat in RFK Stadium has been sold on a season basis.
The Redskin-Cowboy game last Monday night marked the 86th consecutive sellout, and that streak is not expected to end in our lifetimes. At the moment, there are more than 10,000 names on the season-ticket request list. After the 1977 season, less than 50 season-ticket holders failed to renew for 1978.
"Unless the stadium is enlarged," says Redskin ticket manager George Christophel, "I very seriously doubt if anyone who adds his name to that list today will every get a Redskin season ticket."
To understand precisely why all of this has happened, a look at the history books seems in order. One Redskin historian, David Slattery, author of "The Washington Redskins, a Pictorial History" (Jordan & Co. $14.95) insists there is only one major reason. The name was George Preston Marshall, the team's founder and owner until his death in 1969.
"Give him a lot of credit," says Slattery, who covered the team for the old Washington News for 10 years, later joined the Redskin front office in 1960 until his retirement two years ago.
"He was one of the greatest promoters of all time. He started the Redskin band when no one had a band. He started selling season tickets. He had a radio and television network. He commissioned "Hail to the Redskins.' He staged great half-time shows.He made the stadium the place to be on Sunday afternoons. And it still is. It's a great social event, a place you want to be seen.
"He always said you have to get the women to go out of the stadium. He knew they could care less about football. But if they could to the game in their Sunday best and have a good time, too, he knew it would go over. So he gave them more than football. He gave them a happening.
"He also was directly responsible for the media coverage. He catered to the press. He and his father had been a publisher, and he knew a good story when he saw it.
"He also made the reporters aware of it.
"I tell you, he was probably rolling over in his grave when George Allen shut the writers out and closed the practices. He'd always tell you "writers don't lose football games, coaches and players do."
Joe Kuharich, the Redskin coach from 1954 to 1958 and now a scout with the Philadelphia Eagles, concurred.
"Even when we had some bad teams there in the '50s, there was always tremendous interest," he said. "Mr. Marshall always saw to that. He'd bring in the National Symphony to play at halftime. There's be elephants, clowns, jugglers, Santa Claus. He was an unbelievable promoter. And he'd always come up with a story for the papers that would get the people excited."
The Redskin renaissance truly flowered in the early 1960s, a direct result of a number of significant occurences off the playing field.
In 1958, the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants in an overtime football game televised nationally. That one game seemed to vault the NFL into the national conciousness more than ever before. And television has helped to keep it there.
In 1960, Marshall, according to Slattery, abandoned his fight against expansion, doing a complete aboutface. He demanded that Dallas and Minnesota come into the league and that Dallas be placed in the Eastern Division."
In 1961, the Redskins abandoned Griffith Stadium, its messy toilets, unpainted stands and inadequate parking facilities for RFK Satdium.
In 1962, Marshall also relented on his resistance to having black players on his football team. In his last year as active president of the Redskins, Marshall gave the go-ahead for Bill McPeak to trade the Redskins' No. 1 draft choice to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell.
"Richard," Marshall told Dick McCann, his general manager at the time, "you're right. I'm tired of watching the Redskins chase black players into our end zone."
The black community became more engrossed in the fortunes of the football team, even if the Redskins were less than winners.
There was wide-open and oh-so-entertaining offenses, with Jurgensen. Mitchell, Charley Taylor and Jerry Smith, thrill-a-minute games through the 1960s. And with games sold out on a regular basis, even home games were available for local fans on television.
George Allen arrived as all-everything and turned the football team into a playoff contender, bringing in town agony and ectasy for seven memorable seasons. Of course, there have been other factors expanding the Redskin's popularity. Media coverage had alwasy been good and over the last decade coverage has almost reached saturation level.
The Washington Post sent a staff of 13 to cover the 1972 Super Bowl, fewer than half as many covered man's first walk on the moon for the newspaper. Both local daily newspapers assign reporters to the team and stories - two and three a day - appear daily from the start of training camp in mid-July until the final gun of the final game has sounded. And in the offseason, trades, contract disputes and the draft evoke headlines and thorough coverage. Similarly, radio and television sent countless microphones and mini-cameras to Redskin Park on a daily basis.
"But I honestly do not believe we go overboard," says Andy Ockerhausen, vice president of operations for WMAL/Radio. "I believe all of us in the media reflect the public mood. I don't think people can get enough of it."
"I think there are days when it's out of proportion with the way you cover other teams," he said. "But the media is tuned into what the people want, and they feed on each other. If it's important to somebody, then the media wants to cover it. I would like to think the Bullets and Capitals will get the same kind of coverage. We are also major factors in this city. And I think we should be treated as such."
Longtime Washington sports publicist Charlie Brotman believes the maniacal following of the Redskins also is partially due to Washington's unique status-conscious culture.
About 15,000 season-ticket holders control the 55,000 seats at RFK Stadium, and, says Brotman, "to forbid is to attract in this town. The tougher you make it to get something, the more they want it.
"There are people who could give a hoot about the Redskins, but because it's an image maker, the in place to be on Sunday afternoon, people will do anything to get tickets. They'll even lie and tell you they have them.
"And if you don't want to be left out conversatios on Monday, you better be at the stadium or watch it on TV. Nobody talks about the weather here. Nobody talks about the Middle East. And nobody likes to tell you they were at the hockey game."