Practically everybody knows that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. It was a seismic moment in American history that started the integration of America’s national pastime.
If people thought major league baseball was bigoted, football wasn’t much better. The National Football League could boast that one of its original coaches, Fritz Pollard, was black, but that was about it. There was a sprinkling of African-American players in the NFL through the 1920s, but by 1934, they were barred from the NFL by gentlemen’s agreement. It would be 12 years before any blacks would play professional football again and even then it wasn’t easy.
There was one owner who was a blatant, unabashed racist. George Preston Marshall owned the Washington Redskins for 35 years and was the last holdout in fielding an all-white team. It didn’t matter that by the time the NFL was fairly integrated in the early 1950s, his team constantly put out mediocre squads. He wasn’t about to integrate.
The story of Marshall and the eventual integration of his franchise are told in Thomas G. Smith’s fast-paced book, “Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins.” Smith talks about Marshall’s life and his background as a segregationist. He was a successful businessman and his passion for football led him to buy the Redskins in 1932. Although he recommended rule changes that produced much of the game we see today, he is best known for his intolerance in allowing the league to integrate.
By 1961, Marshall had been around so long and was powerful enough as a team owner that the league itself was not going to take him on. However, the new interior secretary in the John F. Kennedy administration, Stuart Udall, was not intimidated by Marshall. He thought it was an outright disgrace that the Redskins were not integrated and he was hell-bent on doing something about it.
I should mention here that the one weakness with the book is the title. JFK really had very little, if anything to do with the breaking of the color barrier on the Redskins. He may have favored integration, but he was treading lightly with race relations because he didn’t want to irritate Democratic senators from the South.
D.C. Stadium had just been built with public money and was to be the new home for the Redskins. Marshall had helped design the stadium and signed a 30-year lease. However, the use of the stadium fell under the auspices of the Interior Department and Udall decided to use his power to force Marshall to integrate or not be able to use the stadium.
It became a clash of titans, two stubborn men who were not going to be cowed by the other. Udall held the upper-hand because he controlled the use of D.C. Stadium. It also didn’t hurt that the Redskins were horrid. They won only one game in 1961 and were the laughing stock of the league. Despite threats of lawsuits and intimidation, Marshall was eventually forced to back down. He promised he would sign an African American player before the 1962 season.
That player, Bobby Mitchell, became a Redskin mainstay after Marshall acquired him by trading his No. 1 pick, Ernie Davis, to the Cleveland Browns for him after the 1962 college draft. Many fans were initially furious with the trade because Davis, who was also African American, was the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and a “can’t miss” NFL superstar. In a sad but strange twist of fate, Davis died of leukemia without playing a down of pro football while Mitchell ended up in the Hall of Fame.
Interestingly, when they won the Super Bowl in 1987, 42-10 over the Denver Broncos, they were led by Doug Williams, the first African- American starting quarterback to win the NFL title.
The rise of the Redskins coincided with the fall of George Preston Marshall. His health declined soon after he integrated the team and he wallowed away until he died in 1968.
If there was any doubt that he was a racist it was erased by his will which established a foundation to benefit unprivileged children as long as it did not mix the races.
Smith tells an important story. It alerts us to the fact that baseball wasn’t the only sport that discriminated. Many sports did.
Jackie Robinson was a star running back and four sport athlete at UCLA. He easily could have ended up in the NFL and left the trailblazing in baseball to someone else.
Pro football’s history is not all peaches and cream and Smith is right to remind us of that fact.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.