In the 1950s and early 60s, as professional football began its gradual ascent to the dominant position in American sports that it now enjoys, it also began evolving into a sport dominated by African Americans. Starting in 1933, the National Football League enforced an undeclared ban on black players, but after the Los Angeles Rams signed Kenny Washington in 1946, teams scrambled to hire men they had previously scorned. Soon the likes of Marion Motley, Jim Parker, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Roosevelt Brown, Ollie Matson and Jim Brown emerged as stars.
The trend accelerated in 1960 with the formation of the American Football League, creating a competitive situation that gave talented African-Americans more options. Accelerated, that is, everywhere except Washington. There, the founding owner of the Redskins, George Preston Marshall, obdurately refused even to consider signing black players.
“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.
By 1961, though, pressure on Marshall to desegregate the team had intensified. Redskins fans, who could see other teams flourishing thanks to black stars, grew increasingly impatient. They were egged on by Shirley Povich, the immensely popular sports columnist of The Washington Post, who “deplored racial injustice” (in a time and place when that took some courage) and said: “Marshall was easy to dislike. He bullied many people. He bragged about being big-league, but he deprived his players of travel comforts to save expenses while reaping huge profits. He refused to let Negroes play for the Redskins and thus watched other teams pass him by while he presented the fans of later years with all-white losers.”
The “public feud between Marshall and Povich entertained Post readers for decades,” Smith writes, and the unceasing ridicule to which Povich subjected Marshall had much to do with his capitulation late in 1961. The pivotal figure, however, was Stewart Udall, John F. Kennedy’s secretary of the interior, who “decided to move against the Washington ‘Paleskins,’ ” as he called them, “because he ‘had personal convictions about civil rights and considered it outrageous that the Redskins were the last team in the NFL to have a lily-white policy.’ ” He sent a memo to Kennedy indicating that “if Marshall continued his ban on blacks, he would be denied the use of D.C. [later RFK] Stadium,” for which the Redskins had signed a 30-year lease and which sat on ground owned by the Interior Department. Kennedy approved the move against Marshall, but the implication in this book’s subtitle that he was a central figure in it is wildly off-target; presumably the subtitle is the invention of an over-eager editor, but it is inaccurate and misleading.
Marshall gave in at the NFL draft in December 1961. The Redskins had the first pick and took Ernie Davis, then promptly traded him to the Cleveland Browns for another black player, Leroy Jackson, and a player to be named later. This was the spectacularly talented Bobby Mitchell, also African American, who went on to become one of the greatest players in the team’s history and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The heartbreaking coda to the story is that in 1962 Davis, immensely gifted, likeable and bright, “was diagnosed with acute leukemia and never played professionally. He died in mid-May 1963.”
The acquisition of Mitchell and John Nisby, a black lineman, did not make the Redskins instant winners. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the team’s glory years began, principally under the coaching of George Allen and Joe Gibbs. By then Marshall had “died quietly in his sleep at the age of seventy-two on August 9, 1969,” after several years of bedridden misery. It was probably the only quiet thing he ever did. He was a born showman and promoter who “was visionary on matters of business and entertainment.” He was instrumental in leading the NFL into the television deals that ultimately enriched it almost beyond calculation, and he probably deserved “most of the credit for the establishment of D.C. Stadium,” because of his “thirty-year commitment to rent it for Redskins home games.”
The balance sheet, though, tilts in the opposite direction: “His bigoted racial views hurt his team competitively and marred his reputation historically. One of the sport’s pioneers, he would be considered an iconic figure if not for his racism.”
True enough, but there’s not much else to be said for this book. It plods along chronologically, with pedestrian prose and documentation, little of which will come as news to anyone who knows anything about the history of pro football. Smith, who teaches history at Nichols College in Massachusetts, is earnest and well-intentioned, but “Showdown” scarcely lives up to the promise of its title and subtitle.
Jonathan Yardley is the book critic for The Washington Post.
JFK and the Integration of the Washington Re dskins
By Thomas G. Smith
Beacon. 277 pp. $26.95