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Johnny Siegal, 97

There’s macro NFL history — George Halas, television, expansion, The Big Stuff — and then there’s micro NFL history . . . as personified by guys like Johnny Siegal. Siegal, a two-way end from 1939 to ’43, was the oldest living former Chicago Bear when died earlier this week at 97. That made him older than the league, and how many ex-players fall into that category anymore?

Though he was part of three title teams, Siegal had, by any other measure, a modest pro career. He was mostly a backup behind George Wilson, who later coached the Lions to a championship, and in five seasons had 31 receptions, six of which went for touchdowns. His obituary in the Chicago Sun-Times was downright perfunctory.

But Siegal had another role with the Bears — involving Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman — that probably left a bigger mark on pro football. Why don’t I tell you about it?

In 1939, Johnny’s first season, Halas and his assistants were trying to reinvent the wheel. That is, they were developing the first modern offense: the T formation with man-in-motion. But they desperately needed a quarterback to run it, one who could really throw. With this in mind, Papa Bear traded end Eggs Manske for Pittsburgh’s first-round choice in the ’39 draft, and used the pick to select Luckman, the Columbia star.

But there was no guarantee in those days that a college player would move on to pro ball. It just wasn’t that glamorous a profession – or the greatest paying necessarily. Luckman’s first inclination was to go into the family trucking business, which had been suffering because of unusual circumstances: his father, who had mob ties, had been hauled off to prison for murder.

El Sid

El Sid

After the draft, Sid said, “I discussed the possibilities of professional football offers with [Columbia coach Lou] Little several times, and he advised me against it. I don’t know exactly what Mr. Little has in mind for me, but if he says it’s good that’s good enough for me. It wouldn’t have made any difference if the Giants or [Brooklyn] Dodgers had drafted me. I still would turn down any offer to play professional football.”

But Halas was a persistent man, and the following July, just before camp opened, he talked Luckman into signing for $5,000. The decision came as a surprise even to Sid’s family, who were kept out of the loop until the deal was finalized.

Hoping to ease Luckman’s transition, Halas made a little-noticed trade three weeks later. He sent guard Gust Zarnas to Brooklyn for its 17th-round pick in the  ’39 draft. The 17th-rounder was Siegal, who just so happened to be Sid’s favorite receiver at Columbia.

Halas knew the pressure his young quarterback would be under. Luckman would be joining a veteran team, one of the most successful franchises in sports, and – to complicate matters further – would have to make the difficult switch from single-wing tailback to T-formation QB. George just wanted to make Sid more comfortable, give him somebody familiar to throw to and, just as importantly, to talk to. Veterans in that era could be merciless on rookies, especially rookies who were making more money than they were.

How much Siegal helped Luckman survive the bumps and potholes can be debated, of course. What’s clear, though, is that — at the beginning, at least — Sid had few friends on the roster. Indeed, when he struggled at his new position, some vets went to Halas and told him he should trade the kid to his hometown Dodgers, who wanted him as a drawing card and could play him at tailback in coach Potsy Clark’s single wing.

Luckman was so overwhelmed those first few months that Halas lined him up at running back — just to get him on the field. Bears back Joe Maniaci told me that during camp, “I went over to Sid and told him, ‘Sid, I don’t know. I don’t think you’re going to hang around. It doesn’t look too good. There’s too many good runners and stuff.’ And he got mad at me, and we broke up as roommates.”

(Luckman and Maniaci, a Fordham grad, had been lifeguards together at Manhattan Beach. Joe had even gone to his wedding earlier that summer.)

Luckman (in my 1995 interview with him): “Dan Topping owned the Dodgers at that time — he eventually owned the New York Yankees — and he offered Halas $50,000 for me. But Halas absolutely refused to do it. The players [who tried to talk George into it] probably figured he could use that money to give them all a raise.

“At that point Halas had me at left halfback, because obviously I didn’t know anything about the T formation. But he brought in a coach named Carl Brumbaugh [one of the Bears’ early T quarterbacks], and every day after practice Carl and I would get together with one of the centers and work on the taking the snap and setting up on pass plays. It was very hard for me to get used to doing that. Over time, though, I won the respect of the players. They knew how hard I was working. They knew I was studying the plays every night. I’d take the playbook home and review everybody’s position.”

10-14-39 Luckman head in Eagle

At late as Week 6, there was still speculation Luckman might get shipped to the Dodgers. On Tuesday of that week came this report in the Brooklyn Eagle: “Topping hasn’t abandoned his quest of luring Sid Luckman away from the Chicago Bears. He intends to wait until Sunday for an answer from the Bears, believing that after the Giants-Bears clash on Sunday, George Halas, Chicago boss, may part with the Chicago star.”

As it turned out, that Giants-Bears clash at the Polo Grounds was Luckman’s coming-out party as a T-formation quarterback. When Chicago fell behind 16-0, Halas put him at QB — and the rest is history. Sid led the Bears to two touchdowns in the final seven minutes, tossing a 68-yard scoring pass to helmetless end Dick Plasman and setting up another TD with completions of 53 and 30 yards. This was no ordinary Giants team, either. It finished 9-1-1 and went to the title game.

Afterward, Halas said, “Not a chance in a million of us letting Sid go. He’s a great player, and he fits in very well with our scheme of things. Besides, he seems to like the city of Chicago very much.”

To which the Eagle added: “Whether Halas was just as intent on keeping Luckman before yesterday’s game with the Giant[s] is something to conjure with. Everyone in football circles knew that Dan Topping, Dodger[s] owner, wanted Sid and wanted him badly. They knew that Dan had the bait out for him and that Halas had taken a little nibble.”

Luckman again: “I was probably more emotional and stressful in that particular game than in any other game I’d ever been in. My adrenal glands were really working. Of course, it was my first opportunity to play quarterback, and my family was there. [Herbert] Hawkes, the dean of Columbia, was there. Lou Little, the [Columbia] players and the coaching staff were there. And Paul Sullivan, my high school coach, was there. The [P.A.] announcer who announced I was coming into the game was a fella named Lou Wilson, who had become sort of a real good friend of mine. He’d come over to the house [in Brooklyn] to visit, and we’d go out to dinner once in a while.

“Anyway, I went in, and one of the halfbacks [Bob MacLeod] told me he could get behind the defender. I would have taken anybody’s play, I was so . . . in another world, you know? So I called his play – the stop and go – and sent him in motion, and he faked out the Giants[s] defender. I was so nervous, though, that I threw the pass end-over-end, and the Giants fella was waiting to intercept it. But [MacLeod] came in from behind and took the ball [away from him]. It was probably the worst . . . pass in the history of sports.”

For Sid Luckman, that’s where it all began. That was his first shaky step on the road to Canton. Two Sundays later he flipped a touchdown pass in the Bears’ 30-27 win over the Packers — who would go on to win the championship — and the next season he quarterbacked Chicago to the title . . . in 73-0 fashion. It was the first of four rings for Luckman in a seven-year stretch.

And it might never have happened if Halas, not always the most patient guy, hadn’t turned down a pile of money for him — in the midst of the Depression, no less. Would Luckman have had the kind of career with the Dodgers that he did with the star-studded Bears? Not likely. He also wouldn’t have transitioned to the T formation, which was made for him, so soon, and he might not have lasted 12 seasons. Tailback, let’s not forget, was a much more physically demanding position than quarterback. You were expected to be a running threat (and occasionally to block).

No, Chicago was the better place for Luckman — the ideal place, really — and Siegal’s presence was a small part of that. Somehow, Johnny found time to go to Northwestern Dental School in his off hours (as did fullback Bill Osmanski). That was Halas for you. He liked players who could win with their minds as well as their muscles.

(When Siegal went into the military during World War II, Hugh Fullerton Jr. of The Associated Press ran this funny item in his column: “Lieut. [jg] Johnny Siegal, former Columbia and Bears end, has left the Bainbridge [Md.] Naval Training Station to take up his new duties as dentist at Annapolis. Maybe Johnny isn’t going to help Navy put in the ‘T,’ but he’ll sure put in the teeth.”)

During the ’42 season, when the Bears came to Brooklyn, Luckman and Siegal spent their Saturday afternoon watching their alma mater beat Colgate. The star of the game was Columbia’s latest tailback sensation, Paul Governali, who hit 17 of 25 passes and threw for three touchdowns.

“He was better than Luckman ever was,” Little told the attending scribes, “and I never thought that would be possible to see. Of course, you must remember that Sid worked wonders with Paul during the summer and showed him how to move and throw. He ‘made’ Governali. Now Paul shuffles and cocks his arm just as Sid does. In fact, I think they are identical passers, or as close as any performers can be.”

While the Baker Field crowd cheered one of Governali’s TD tosses, Siegal leaned over to Luckman. “See?” he said, as only a longtime teammate can. “I told you Governali is a better passer than you are, and now I am sure of it.”

Sources: Brooklyn Eagle archives, pro-football-reference.com.

The NFL’s not-so-benevolent despots

NFL commissioners have acted like dictators — sometimes of the Chaplin variety — pretty much from the beginning. Roger Goodell is merely following established precedent: The Despot’s Playbook. Nobody much remembers today, but the Packers had their franchise taken away after the 1921 season for using three college players in a game. As Chuck Johnson wrote in The Green Bay Packers:

Every team in the league was employing college or high school players under assumed names. Many of the top college stars of the day would play on Saturday under their own names, then play again with the pros on Sunday, using another name.

Joe Carr, first [commissioner] of the league, wanted the practice stopped, not only because he thought it reprehensible to have players using aliases, but because it was hardly endearing the fledgling professionals to the colleges, which Carr foresaw as the league’s source of talent in years to come. So Carr made an example of the Packers.

Who just happened to play in the NFL’s smallest city (and were in their first season in the league). Four years later, Red Grange would gallop hither and yon for the Bears before his college class had graduated — indeed, just five days after his last game for Illinois — but nobody tried to kick George Halas out of the league. And five years after that, Halas did the same thing with Notre Dame fullback Joe Savoldi . . . and lived to tell about it.

But the Packers were almost strangled in the cradle, thanks to the NFL’s questionable concept of justice. (Fortunately, Curly Lambeau applied for a new franchise the following summer — after the original owner bowed out — and Green Bay got a second chance to write its remarkable story.)

The only thing that’s really changed over the decades is that, occasionally, owners fight back now. Al Davis took the league to court — and won — when it sought to prevent him from moving the Raiders to Los Angeles (and back). Jerry Jones exchanged lawsuits with his lodge brothers after having the audacity to sign separate sponsorship deals for the Cowboys’ stadium.

And now we have the Patriots’ Bob Kraft and his quarterback, Tom Brady, ready to go to the mattresses over Deflategate — and the hole-ridden report used as the basis for the team’s whopping penalties. No, it ain’t 1921 anymore.

Frank Filchock

Frank Filchock

And that’s a good thing. In the old days, the commissioner would rule and his “subjects” would simply bow their heads and accept their fate. There wasn’t much recourse. When the Giants’ Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes were banned indefinitely for failing to report a bribe offer before the 1946 title game, their collective goose was cooked. They were free to play in Canada, which they did, but they were persona non grata in the NFL until the commissioner said otherwise. For Hapes, that was essentially forever. Filchock, meanwhile, was out of the league for three years (and played, ever so briefly, in just one game when he returned with the 1950 Baltimore Colts).

“They needed a scapegoat in the whole business and I was it,” he said later. “They dealt me one off the bottom of the deck. They took the easy way out.

“Twice since my suspension I wrote to [Bert] Bell and asked him for the chance to talk this over. He answered me, all right, but just wrote that if I had any new evidence to put it into writing. . . . He’s just got me hanging. [The gambler behind the fix attempt] is out [of prison], isn’t he? What about me?”

Nobody had a bigger gripe than the Pottsville Maroons. In 1925 the Maroons were the best team in the NFL. They proved this by winning 10 of their 12 games, racking up seven shutouts and beating the next-best team, the Chicago Cardinals, 21-7, on the Cards’ turf. (And believe me, a 21-7 road win the ’20s was a Serious Skunking.) But you won’t see them on the list of league champions because they made the mistake of playing an exhibition game late in the season in Philadelphia, the Frankford Yellow Jackets’ territory.

The Yellow Jackets complained, Carr suspended the Pottsville franchise — denying it the championship — and, well, it’s one of the low points in league history, if you ask me. Joe, who’s in the Hall of Fame, has a lot of defenders, but I can’t see any reasonable rationale for such a harsh penalty.

I wrote about the whole sorry episode back in 2003 for The Washington Times. Give it a look, if you’re interested, and see what you think. Maybe it’ll help answer the question: Where does Goodell get his chutzpah?

Here it is:

The NFL title that wasn’t

The Pottsville Maroons were in the news recently. That alone is news. The Maroons, northeastern Pennsylvania’s contribution to NFL history, haven’t belonged to the league since 1928, since the days of dropkicks and leather helmets. They’re less a team than a trivia question, a $1 million answer. Name the first coach of the Pottsville Maroons. Name the last. Name anybody who ever had anything to do with the Pottsville Maroons.

The Maroons did have one brief, shining moment, though. In 1925, they won the NFL championship. At least, they thought they did. But then they played an exhibition game in Philadelphia, home territory of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, and got bounced from the league before they could collect their trophy. The title ended up going to the Chicago Cardinals, who Pottsville had beaten by two touchdowns just a week before at Comiskey Park — and who had considerable baggage of their own (as we shall see).

It’s easily the most controversial ending to any NFL season, and Pottsvillians have stewed about it ever since. In 1963 they got the league to reconsider the matter, but the owners decided to let sleeping Maroons lie. At last week’s NFL meetings in Philadelphia, however, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell pleaded Pottsville’s case and convinced the league to take another look at it. The town isn’t asking that the Maroons be declared champions this time, only that they be allowed to split the title with the Cardinals.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the former lawyer, seems to share the sentiment in Pottsville that the punishment exceeded the crime. “People recognize that the passion of fans, not only in Pottsville but throughout Pennsylvania, should lead us to try to do something that’s positive recognition of those fans and the accomplishments of that Pottsville team,” he said. Would that the league had been so judicious 78 years ago.

In 1925, alas, the NFL operated much differently. Its presidency — the commissionership didn’t come until later — wasn’t even a full-time position, and scheduling was left up to the teams themselves. The Duluth Kelleys played three games that year; Frankford played 20. Some clubs, such as the Dayton Triangles, never had a home game; others, the ones that could draw a decent crowd, rarely had a road game. Everybody was scrambling to make a buck, from the Chicago Bears on down.

Late that season, the Bears caused a sensation by signing Red Grange, the celebrated “Galloping Ghost,” after his last game for the University of Illinois. They proceeded to parade him around the country, filling stadiums in Philly and New York (where a record 65,000 watched). Never before had pro football gotten so much attention.

Around the same time, Pottsville contracted to play an exhibition against a team of Notre Dame all-stars featuring the Four Horsemen. This, too, figured to be great for the pro game. Problem was, the Maroons’ field, Minersville Park, seated only about 9,000. If they were going to cash in, they needed a bigger place. So they moved the game to Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, home of the baseball A’s.

Joe Carr

Joe Carr

This didn’t sit well with the Frankford club. The Yellow Jackets protested to NFL president Joe Carr, and Carr agreed that the Pottsville game violated their territorial rights. He advised the Maroons not to play the Four Horsemen in Philly — and that there would be dire consequences if they did.

But Pottsville was a tough mining town that tended to play by its own rules. (Six of the infamous Molly Maguires, a group that wreaked vengeance against abusive mine owners, were hanged there in 1877.) There was a state law back then that prohibited sporting events on Sundays; Pottsville, typically, ignored it. As a local historian once put it, “Who was going to tell anthracite miners that they can’t have football on their one day off?”

On game days, the Maroons dressed in the fire station, then ran the two blocks to the stadium. Their field, opponents complained, was covered with more coal slag than grass. “After a rain,” Dr. Harry March wrote in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, “the minerals from the soil were so toxic that little wounds became infected and were dangerous.”

So, no, Pottsville wasn’t going to be dictated to by any part-time NFL president. And really, how much harm did their game figure to do to Frankford, especially if it was a one-shot deal? It’s not like the Maroons were thinking of moving to Philly. They were merely following George Halas’ lead in his handling of the Grange tour. The Bears had switched their game against Providence to Boston (which didn’t have an NFL team) and the one against the Yellow Jackets from Frankford Stadium to Shibe Park — all for the purpose of selling more tickets.

Indeed, in later years, the league would allow the Redskins to shift the championship game from Boston to New York in 1936 and the Cardinals to play the Lions in Milwaukee in ’45. Why? Because the Redskins couldn’t get anybody to come to their games in Beantown, and the Cards couldn’t find an available stadium in Chicago. So for the good of the league, exceptions were made.

Why Carr didn’t see the Pottsville-Four Horsemen game as an exception remains unclear. He was still recovering from an appendectomy when the controversy arose; maybe that had something to do with it. Or perhaps it was just the way the NFL worked in those days. Pottsville was in its first season in the league — the first of just four, as it turned out. It was probably viewed as a junior member, if not an intern.

Four Horseman game headlineConsider: Only one Pottsville player, end Charlie Berry, made the 11-man all-pro team that year, even though the Maroons were the best club in the league. (The Bears, who finished with seventh-best record, placed three on the squad, and the Cardinals and Giants two each.) Also, more than a few people think Pottsville back Tony Latone belongs in the Hall of Fame. After the Four Horsemen game, Ed Pollack of the Philadelphia Public Ledger gushed, “[Latone] hit the line like a locomotive plowing into an automobile at a grade crossing — and with the same result.” But Latone, of course, isn’t in the Hall of Fame.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, were charter members of the NFL — and are still with us today. That might explain why Carr didn’t revoke their franchise when they ran afoul of league rules late in the season. The stunt the Cardinals pulled, after all, was infinitely more scandalous than what the Maroons did. In their next-to-last game, they annihilated (59-0) an undermanned Milwaukee Badgers club that was supplemented by four players from a Chicago high school. (The kids, one of them just 16 years old, had been recruited by the Cards’ Art Folz, an alumnus of the school.)

Folz was banned from the NFL for life, and the Milwaukee owner was ordered to sell his team. Cardinals’ owner Chris O’Brien, however, got off with a one-year probation and a $1,000 fine, even though he admitted in a statement, “Just before [the game started], I learned that there were high school amateurs on the Milwaukee team. Now I know the mistake I made was in not canceling the game right then. But there were several hundred people out there to see the game. Things were moving fast. I didn’t sit down and think it out carefully.”

That win — plus another over the Hammond Pros, who hadn’t played a league game in more than a month — left the Cardinals with an 11-2-1 mark to Pottsville’s 10-2. A more suspect 11-2-1 team the NFL has never seen. No fewer than eight of the Cards’ games were against clubs that finished with one or no wins. Their opponents had a combined record of 46-70-13. Oh, and did I mention they had only one road game — against the cross-town Bears?

Granted, the Maroons enjoyed some scheduling advantages, too. Six of their wins were over teams that had played the day before (and presumably had been softened up). Their opponents, though, had a combined record of 71-66-9 — and they did crush the Cardinals 21-7 in Chicago.

O’Brien, to his credit, refused the championship when the league tried to award it to him, but it was a moot point. Pottsville had been banished — it was reinstated the following year — and the Cardinals had the best record of the remaining teams. Amazingly, the Cards’ victory over Milwaukee, the club with the four high schoolers, remains on the books, even though Carr said it would be stricken. Without that win, their record would be the same as the Maroons’, 10-2 (ties didn’t count).

Was Carr within his rights to kick Pottsville out of the NFL (temporarily)? Absolutely. But was his action just? That’s a question the league must wrestle with. And it doesn’t make it any easier that Carr is a beloved figure in pro football history, renowned for his fairness and leadership. “Many times at league meetings, we would recess late Saturday night in turmoil and on the verge of permanent dissolution,” March wrote in Pro Football. “The next morning, he would lead the boys of his religion to Mass, and they would return in perfect harmony.”

In this case, however, the case of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons, ol’ Joe might have blown one.

From The Washington Times, May 29, 2003

Sources: The Pro Football Chronicle, pro-football-reference.com.1925 Maroons

The bootlegger who bought an NFL team

NFL owners live in a fishbowl these days, just as their players and coaches do. When the Colts’ Jim Irsay runs into addiction problems or the Browns’ Jimmy Haslam has the FBI descend on his company, they’re major stories, endlessly discussed by fans and media alike.

Big Bill Dwyer

Big Bill Dwyer

It wasn’t always thus. In the early days, when the league and its owners were more below the radar, a team could be sold to somebody who’d spent 13 months in federal prison for bootlegging . . . and nobody would say a word.

William V. Dwyer was the somebody’s name. In 1930 he brought a dormant franchise that he turned into the Brooklyn Dodgers (who played their games at Ebbets Field, home of the baseball Dodgers). This is the same Big Bill Dwyer who’d been dubbed the “King of the Bootleggers” during Prohibition and presided over a huge illegal empire. How huge? Time magazine summed up his operation this way:

William V. Dwyer manufactured liquor in the U.S. He imported liquor from Canada, Cuba, Europe. He owned trucks, speedboats, 20 ships of foreign registry. He employed 800 men, a few women. He bribed Prohibition agents, put some of his own men into the Coast Guard service. In two-and-a-half years preceding January 1926, he had done a liquor business of some $50 million. Manhattan was the center of his activities.

From July 1927 to August 1928, Dwyer’s home was the U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta. By this time he was already involved in pro sports as the owner of the NHL’s New York Americans. When he was paroled, he added the Dodgers to his portfolio and also got more heavily involved in horse racing, building Tropical Park Race Track outside Miami.

“Big Bill was a promoter on a vast scale,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1949. . . .

He also owned limitless quantities of alcohol and if, during the turbulent ’20s, you imbibed whisky that didn’t burn a hole in your esophagus, chances are it was Dwyer’s. At any rate, he obtained control of the idle borough franchise and brought in John Depler, a former Illinois captain, as coach.

He also brought in a vast array of talent — Father Lumpkin, Stumpy Thomason, Ollie Samson, Jack McBride from the Giants, Tex Thomas, Indian Yablock, and later [Hall of Fame quarterback] Benny Friedman and Jack Grossman. . . .

[The Dodgers’] average attendance was 17,000, but they drew as many as 28,000 one day. But Big Bill began to feel the Depression in 1933 and sold out to Chris Cagle and Shipwreck Kelly [for a reported price of “more than $25,000”].

(Cagle and Kelly were still active players — the last, in fact, to own an NFL team.)

After that, it only got worse for Dwyer. His financial difficulties forced the NHL to take over his Americans franchise in 1936, and three years later the U.S. government won a $3.7 million judgment against him for unpaid taxes. When he died in 1946, though, he was still living in an exclusive neighborhood in Rockaway Beach, so the tax suit couldn’t have totally cleaned him out.

Nowadays, of course, Dwyer wouldn’t survive the NFL’s vetting process. But in 1930, when the league was desperate for owners with deep pockets — deep enough to bankroll a team in a big market — Big Bill’s bootlegging past could be winked at.

Besides, public opinion toward such activities was a little different in those years. As actor George Raft, who walked in Dwyer’s world for a time, reminisced in his autobiography:

I knew that Owney Madden, Larry Fay, Big Bill Dwyer, Waxey Gordon and others were powerful in New York. They all wore expensive clothes, drove custom-built cars and lived in kingly suits.

To me, a Hell’s Kitchen kid with no education and no special talent, the Prohibition gangsters were no criminals. They were big men, the only heroes available in my crowded, violent little sidewalk world. When they patted me on the back and said, “Georgie, you’re an O.K. guy,” it was like an orphan getting the nod from John D. Rockefeller.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Beantown embraces pro football

The Patriots are in the midst of a historic run — 13 playoff berths in 14 seasons, eight conference championship games, five Super Bowls, three titles, a .752 winning percentage (188-62, playoffs included). I wrote about it back in August, about how only George Halas’ Bears dynasty in the ’30s and ’40s ranks above Bill Belichick’s bunch. Nothing that happened in 2014 has changed that. The Pats earned the home-field advantage in the AFC could very well win it all again.

Looking at New Englanders now, decked out in their red, white and blue Patriots regalia, it’s hard to believe that 50 years ago, folks were still wondering whether pro football had a future in Boston. It had, after all, always been a baseball town, and three NFL teams had come and gone, leaving barely a trace — I’m talking about the Bulldogs (1929), Braves/Redskins (1932-36) and Yanks (1944-48) — before the AFL’s Patriots took another crack at the market in the ’60s.

It’s an amazing transformation, it truly is. In 1936 the Redskins drew so poorly — despite winning the Eastern Division — that owner George Preston Marshall moved the championship game against the Packers from Fenway Park to New York’s Polo Grounds (then home of the Giants).

The Yanks’ last home game in 1948 attracted a crowd of just 9,652. Late in the season, owner

The Boston Yanks' all-time passing leader.

The Boston Yanks’ all-time passing leader.

Ted Collins told The Associated Press he’d lost “exactly $720,000” in his four years in Boston. That was a lot of money back then. Heck, franchises went for a fraction of that.

“Boston has two good baseball clubs [the Braves, remember, were still in town], a major-league hockey team, horse- and dog-racing tracks and tomorrow three major college football games are scheduled there — Iowa and Boston University, Yale and Harvard and St. Mary’s [of California] and Boston College,” Collins said. “I believe most of our problems would disappear if we came up with a winning team. Somehow, we always seem to play our worst games at home.”

By the time the Patriots came along, of course, the Celtics had been added to the mix. Indeed, they were the best team in basketball, in the process of winning an unfathomable 11 titles in 13 seasons.

Fifty years ago, Boston Globe columnist Harold Kaese wrote a piece for the Sunday Magazine chronicling Beantown’s sorry pro football history. You won’t believe the headline:

Globe Alas headline 1964

(Alas? What’s with the Alas?)

Kaese begins this way:

By finishing the [1964] season, the Patriots will tie the endurance record for a Boston professional football team.

Five seasons!

Holders are George Marshall’s Redskins (1932-36) and Ted Collins’ Yanks (1944-48). The Patriots undoubtedly will set a new record next season, for pro football at last has found a home in our city.

It was not easy. Baseball, hockey, horse racing, dog racing and basketball made it first. Since 1926, seven attempts have been made to put over pro football here [counting non-NFL clubs]. The first six failed.

The Patriots, too, might have failed, except for a financial windfall from television. . . . Starting in 1965, for five years the Patriots and their seven American Football League associates will each average between $900,000 and $1,000,000 from their new TV contact with NBC.

If television is here to stay, so are the Patriots.

Before the $36 million [AFL] deal was clinched, Patriots stock for which the public paid $5 per share had dropped to a bid price of $1.75. . . . They have yet to have a profitable season. . . . The covered stadium they hope to play in eventually is still only a gleam in [owner Billy] Sullivan’s eye.

That was 1964. And here we are, half a century later, and the Patriots are one of the NFL’s flagships, a model franchise. But only after they overtook dog racing.

What to do about the Snyderskins

After another season with double-digit losses, their fifth in six years, the Redskins need more than just a rebuild. In a perfect world, there would be a knock on the door in Ashburn, Dan Snyder would look nervously through the peephole, and Harvey Keitel would be standing there, ready to Do What He Does. The scene would go something like this:

A cleaner! That’s what the Redskins could use. Because, let’s face it, much of this “organization” is beyond saving, beyond even donating. Better to just dissolve it in hydrochloric acid — or whatever Harvey’s chosen solvent is — and start over.

It’s all a pipe dream, of course. The Redskins never really start over. They just change the curtains on the Titanic and head off in search of another iceberg. Fire the coach? Bring in a genuine general manager? Turn over two-thirds of the roster? What difference does it make unless you can also find a way to lock the owner in a broom closet? The team, after all, is Snyder’s toy. If he wants to leave it out in the rain, there’s only so much anyone can do about it.

A better question is: How can an owner like this even exist? Snyder, you see, is only part of the problem. The other part is the league itself, an enterprise so profitable that even a stumblebum like Dan can make money — and see the value of his franchise go up and up.

In the real world, a business that has been run as cluelessly and soullessly as the Redskins would end up filing for Chapter XI — or else be absorbed by a less clueless, less soulless competitor. But here we are, 16 years later, and Snyder is still behind the wheel, just like Jim Backus in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World:

(Bruce Allen, meet Buddy Hackett.)

That’s Dan Snyder’s true genius. He sank his fortune into a venture that’s 100 percent Dan Snyder-proof! Well, maybe not 100 percent. The occasional miracle does happen in the NFL (as fans in the Music City can attest). That’s pretty much what it would take, though, for anyone other than Daniel M. Snyder to be signing the Redskins’ checks in the foreseeable future.

Which brings us back to Harvey Keitel. Are you with me on this?

Zigging when he should have zagged

A winter-themed post as the cold weather settles in:

Today’s NFL owners don’t have a whole lot of pizazz. Unless they’re announcing some charitable endeavor or hiring/firing somebody, they’re hardly ever in the spotlight. Most of them strike you as the kind of guys who, if they had a hobby, would probably make duck decoys.

It wasn’t always thus. In 1947 fans could open the newspaper and read this story about Alexis Thompson, the Eagles’ dashing young owner:

2-19-47 Lex's bobsled accident

Thompson, who was 26 when he bought into the NFL, was what used to be known as a sportsman. He didn’t just employ athletes, he was one — in college at Yale and as an adult. Soccer, lacrosse, bobsledding; Lex was just a jock. He was even a member of the men’s field hockey team that represented the U.S. at the 1936 Olympics. (Don’t get too excited. It tied for last.)

This wasn’t the first time he’d been hurt on a bobsled run. Six years earlier he was training at Lake Placid and “broke an ankle,” The Associated Press reported, “when his bobsled skidded and crashed over the retaining wall. . . . Thompson entered the twenty-second curve on the mile course a bit too high.”

On another occasion “he suffered a crushed kidney in a spill on the Cresta bobsled run in Switzerland,” according to AP.

“I should have won the junior AAU [bobsled] championship last week,” he said in 1942. “It looked like a cinch. But what happened? One of my crew didn’t show up and I had to grab a guy right out of a saloon to take his place. Never been on a sled before in his life. All we got was second place. It’s a crazy game. I might give it up some time and go back to lacrosse.”

What a life Thompson led. He inherited millions at 15 from his father, a steel executive, and later started a profitable company of his own that sold eyewash. After his first marriage broke

Betty Grable's famed poster.

Betty Grable’s famed poster.

up in the late ’30s, he became “more or less a permanent member of café society,” AP reported, “squiring first one beauty and then another. At one time it was Betty Grable, but for a good while now his attentions have centered upon Lana Turner.

His apartment in Manhattan is one of the fanciest, and Alexis throws parties with imagination and zest. Once, on Halloween, he hired an outside moving van, had it completely and tastefully furnished and loaded everybody inside.

There was absolutely no interruption to the party as it was transferred out to Alexis’ country place on Long Island. If anything, it gained momentum. The most fun, one of the guests cheerfully recalls, was bobbing for apples in champagne, of course.

Close friends of the young promoter prefer, though, to tell of his good deeds. Such as when he bought a set of tires for a taxi driver who was down on his luck, the lone stipulation being that Alexis got free rides for a month.

See what I mean? Granted, NFL owners tend to be older now and less physically active, but they don’t make ’em like Alexis Thompson any more. Robert Kraft and his lodge brothers are careful men, not guys who would risk going over the wall on a bobsled run just for the thrill of it.

From the Eagles' 1948 media guide.

From the Eagles’ 1948 media guide.

When Bill Veeck “bought” the Raiders

The Raiders’ talks with San Antonio officials are one of the great dog-bites-man stories of the season. This is the franchise, after all, that divorced Oakland in 1982, shacked up with Los Angeles for 13 years, Lost That Lovin’ Feeling and remarried Oakland. And now, of course, the Raiders want a nice, new stadium, just like the 49ers have, and are hoping for a Public Handout to accomplish this objective. The San Antonio flirtation is supposed to expedite things, but we’ll see how badly the city wants to keep this shipwreck of a football team.

Forgotten fact: In January 1961, after their very first season in the AFL, the Chicago Tribune reported that the Raiders had been sold to a group headed by White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who planned to have them play at Comiskey Park. The stadium had lost its football tenant when the Cardinals moved to St. Louis the year before, and Veeck and his partners were looking for another renter.

On Jan. 14, this headline topped the front page of the Chicago Tribune sports section:

Tribune Veeck headline

Here’s the gist of the story:

Tribune Veeck story

The story made sense on many levels, not the least being that the Raiders had lost an estimated $270,000 in their inaugural season and had major stadium issues. They’d played their first four home games at Kezar Stadium, home of the NFL’s 49ers, and their last three at Candlestick Park, home of the baseball Giants.

A day later, everybody was denying everything. Raiders owner Wayne Valley said, “It’s the first I’ve heard of it, and it’s completely untrue. It’s a shot in the dark.” And Veeck said, “We would like to have a tenant for Comiskey Park in the offseason, but I wouldn’t go as far as buying Oakland to get one.”

The Oakland Tribune began its story thusly:

Making one of the quickest trips on record, the Oakland Raiders of the American Football League today moved to Chicago and within a couple of hours were back in Oakland.

How did the Chicago paper get it wrong? Well, the reporter either jumped the gun, had unreliable sources or . . . there was one other possible scenario, suggested by United Press International: When AFL owners, meeting in Houston, first heard the report, “a spokesman said they ‘appeared to be amused by it — especially its origin in Chicago on the same day the Chicago Bears lost one of their key players to the AFL,’” the wire service reported. (Translation: George Halas, or one of his operatives, planted the story to rile the rival league.)

The player was receiver Willard Dewveall, who had played out his option with the Bears and signed with the AFL’s Oilers. Dewveall wasn’t a superstar, but he’d totaled 804 receiving yards in 1960, seventh best in the league, and was the first recognizable NFL player to jump to the AFL.

It would have been fun to see what would have happened if Veeck had gotten hold of the franchise. This was the iconoclast, after all, who once sent a midget up to bat for the St. Louis Browns, the guy who gave us the exploding scoreboard. But the Raiders managed all right under Valley and Al Davis in Oakland, even if they have always had an eye out for greener pastures.

Better Gaedel

The man who gave the Redskins their name

With the Redskins name controversy at full boil again, it might be a good time to revisit a piece I once wrote about their founder (and namer) George Preston Marshall. The last owner of a U.S. sports franchise to integrate, Marshall has been so demonized over the decades that he’s become a one-dimensional figure, virtually lacking in definition. Hopefully this will give you a better feel for him.


Oh, to be in the Blue Room of the Shoreham Hotel after a Redskins home game, when George and [wife] Corinne would make their grand entrance. “Marshall would time [it] to be sure that Barnee Breeskin and his orchestra would be on the grandstand playing,” Harry Wismer, the Redskins’ radio and TV voice in those days, recalled in The Public Calls It Sport. “Then he and Corinne would enter the room, and Breeskin would stop the music, tap twice with his baton and lead the orchestra in ‘Hail to the Redskins!’ [which, incidentally, Barnee and Corinne joined forces to write].”


It’s September 1945, the last week of the NFL preseason, and George Preston Marshall is doing what he does best — working the Senate dining room on Capitol Hill. Trailing along in his wake is Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram, who has taken the train down to Washington to write a column on “the aristocratic laundry man who owns the Redskins.”

Marshall stops at the table of Sen. Bob LaFollette of Wisconsin. “And of course you are coming to see us play the Green Bay Packers Sunday,” the Redskins’ boss says. “Certainly there is some little thing you can do for your constituents.”

“Why, yes, I had been sort of planning on it, George,” LaFollette, replies. “Send a couple of passes over to my office.”

Marshall (frostily): “The price is $2.20 per.”

After making the rounds, Marshall ends up at a corner table full of senators, where the talk is of sports in general and the Redskins in particular. Only Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who comes over to exchange pleasantries, “had no comment to make on any sport,” Williams notes.

“He’s worrying about the Four Freedoms,” Marshall explains to the writer, “and I’m worrying about my four starting backs Sunday. That’s the only difference between us. Otherwise, we are both great American leaders.”

*  *  *

He was a big guy — 6-foot-2.

He slicked his hair back with Savage’s Bear Grease.

He didn’t own a driver’s license, never flew in a plane, loved trains.

He might have known more about trains, in fact, than he knew about football. As Lee Hutson wrote in “The Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore”:

He knew the railroad’s routes, its depots and its schedules. He knew the small towns and the flat lands and the mountains. He could look out at acres of wheat fields from the window of his Pullman car and tell you how the farmers were going to do that year. In even the smallest town he could put you on to the best place to eat, and he knew when the Rocky Mountain trout was at its most delicious. He knew when and where he could get off the train and pick up ripe casaba melons, which he loved, and he believed that the dining cars on America’s trains served the best corned beef hash and poached eggs in the country.

Impulsive? George Preston Marshall ran off two coaches in training camp (Curly Lambeau, Dick Todd) and got rid of another (Dud DeGroot) after the Redskins lost the championship game by a point in 1945. (His defense: “To make a mistake and pick the wrong man is one thing, but to keep him is compounding stupidity. I take pride in only one fact: I have never fired a genius, proof of which is that no guy who ever left me has gone on to conquer the world.”)

That’s nothing, though, compared to asking his second wife, silent-screen star Corinne Griffith, to marry him on their first date. They bumped into each other in front of the Gotham Hotel in New York one afternoon, and George — never one to pass up an opportunity — had invited her to lunch. While they were eating dessert, he popped the question.

Griffith didn’t give him an answer right away. And after being courted by Marshall for a month, she still wasn’t sure. “George spends half his life in night clubs,” she complained to a friend. “We’ve been to 29 different night clubs for 29 different nights now. . . . If there’s one thing I don’t care about, it’s spending half my life in night clubs.”

But George eventually got his way. He usually did. If he couldn’t bully you into something, he’d sweet-talk you. And if that didn’t work, he’d simply wear you down. Think of him as an amalgam of George Steinbrenner and Jerry Jones (with a dash of Jay Gatsby mixed in).

Cleveland coach Paul Brown, another man used to getting his way, considered Marshall an “obnoxious” presence at league meetings. What Brown especially objected to was George’s “habit of sleeping most of the day [because he was carrying on in nightclubs until the wee hours] and showing up at the meetings late in the afternoon. . . . By that time all of us were pretty tired and ready to adjourn, but he was rested and mentally sharp. That was when he tried to work some of his little deals.”

One year, Marshall didn’t like the schedule the owners had spent three days working on and, in a fit of pique, erased it from the blackboard. Normally this wouldn’t have been such a big deal, but no one had bothered to write the thing down. “It took us another three days to do it again,” the Steelers’ Art Rooney lamented.

Sportswriters like Joe Williams, however, thanked the heavens for Marshall because he filled up their notebooks (or, if those weren’t handy, their cocktail napkins). “Erratic, explosive and altogether charming” was Williams’ apt description of him. Translation: George made great copy. He was always saying or doing something interesting or outrageous.

Marshall on equipping players with helmet radios: “Frankly, it’s a potentially dangerous thing. Coaches will run out of alibis if they take the responsibility for all their offensive and defensive decisions.”

Marshall on our national pastime: “Baseball? Who cares? It’s dying out. Football is the game. Imagine, some of those major league owners go through 154 games and a whole summer of agony just to lose money. We play 18 games, and the gravy spills over on our neckties.”

Marshall on the rival All-America Conference (one of whose investors was the actor Don Ameche): “I’ve even got a slogan I will give to the All-Ameches:

If you want football that’s peachy

Go to Don Ameche.

They don’t make ’em like George Preston Marshall anymore.

*  *  *

The earliest Marshall sighting — in my haphazard research, at least — is in 1934. That was the year the Brooklyn Eagle reported the day after a game: “That nervous, well-dressed gent who held one of the poles on the sideline was George Preston Marshall, owner of the Boston club.”

An NFL owner working on the chain gang (to save money, no doubt). Welcome to pro football in the ’30s.

Marshall was 36 then and in his third year running the Redskins. The team had yet to enjoy a winning season, never mind turn a profit, and George was looking like he should have stuck to his laundry business in Washington.

His father, T. Hill Marshall, had come into the business by way of a bad debt, and George had built the Palace Laundry into an empire with 57 outlets. But watching clothes spin round and round was never going to be enough for George. Having done some acting and theatrical producing, he was drawn to the arena. His first sports venture, a professional basketball team known as the Washington Palace Five (after the laundry), was a dismal failure; he bailed out after one season. He was more patient with pro football, though, convinced it could attract the kind of crowds the college game was getting.

“We have got to develop the spectacle end of football,” he said. “The color and show of football have more appeal for women and children than for men. The future of the sport is with them. We must try to educate the vast high school public. . . . They are not a college crowd, but a vast public looking for an allegiance.”

Things finally began to come together for the Redskins in 1936, when Marshall hired New York Giants player-assistant coach Ray Flaherty. Flaherty would lead the club to four title games and two championships in the next seven seasons, as golden an age as the franchise has had. The next year George moved the Redskins to Washington and added legendary passer Sammy Baugh to a team that already had three other future Hall of Famers (not counting Flaherty): running back Cliff Battles, tackle Turk Edwards and end Wayne Millner. A dynasty was born.

Corinne Griffith, who was now his wife, always claimed that she planted the Washington seed in Marshall’s mind. “You see,” her argument went,

there are so many displaced citizens in Washington from places like Muleshoe, Texas; Ekalaka, Mont.; and even Beverly Hills, Calif. I know. As a matter of fact, the D.C. after Washington means: Displaced Citizen.

Most of these D.C.’s are alone in Washington with nothing to do on Sunday afternoon other than sit in parks and feed the squirrels and pigeons. . . . I have a definite feeling that Washington’s D.C.’s would welcome a little more action on Sunday afternoon.

Whoever came up with the brainstorm, it was one of the all-timers. The Senators, the only other professional team in town, were in decline, and Washington was oh-so-ripe for pro football. A decade after their arrival, the Redskins were selling enough season tickets to fill Griffith Stadium (capacity 31,444), and the sellouts continue today.

Marshall, meanwhile, turned home games into, as he put it, a “spectacle.” For the Redskins’ nighttime debut in Washington, for instance, he didn’t just introduce the starting lineups. Not George. No, he had a spotlight follow each player out to the center of the field while the band played his college song. (After which a government official — this time Jesse Jones, head of the Reconstruction Finance Corp. — threw out the first ball.)

Corinne, for her part, helped stage elaborate halftime shows. “The show before Nov. 7 [1944], election Tuesday, was to be a political show with a candidate promising everything,” she wrote in My Life With the Redskins. “We had decided he was going to march on the field following individual banners that read: FREE BEER! FREE GASOLINE! FREE AUTOMOBILES! FREE-WHEELING! NO TAXES! NO JAILS! NO LOVE — NO NOTHING!”

It’s hard to appreciate today what a glamorous life they led — the current group of NFL owners being, by and large, such low-key types. And it wasn’t just George and Corinne, either. Brooklyn owner Dan Topping was married to Sonja Henie, the famous figure skater. Eagles owner Bert Bell was married to Frances Upton, a former Ziegfeld Follies girl. Green Bay boss Curly Lambeau was married to an ex-Miss California. Lex Thompson, Bell’s successor in Philadelphia, ran with the Hollywood crowd (as did Rams owner Dan Reeves). It was almost like they were having a contest to see who could get photographed with the most beautiful woman.

Corinne liked to joke that she hung out with the “non-working class.” If she wasn’t dancing with the Prince of Wales, she was chatting up Greta Garbo or sleeping in Cardinal Richelieu’s bed at San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s estate. (“Never eat meat and potatoes at the same time,” Garbo advised her. “It goes to your hips.”)

One time she went to a New Year’s Eve party at socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean’s, and the hostess was wearing the Hope Diamond. Another time she appeared on George Jessel’s TV show with Dean Martin, and Deano grabbed her big straw hat and put it on his head. And yes, that was Corinne who placed the wreath of roses around Needles’ neck after he won the Kentucky Derby in 1956.

Oh, to be in the Blue Room of the Shoreham Hotel after a Redskins home game, when George and Corinne would make their grand entrance. “Marshall would time [it] to be sure that Barnee Breeskin and his orchestra would be on the grandstand playing,” Harry Wismer, the Redskins’ radio and TV voice in those days, recalled in The Public Calls It Sport. “Then he and Corinne would enter the room, and Breeskin would stop the music, tap twice with his baton and lead the orchestra in ‘Hail to the Redskins!’ [which, incidentally, Barnee and Corinne joined forces to write].”

Everything Marshall did, he did grandly. (Except pay his players, but that’s a whole ’nother story.) During World War II, he took out a $100,000 insurance policy on Baugh — five times Sammy’s salary — to cover him on his flights to and from his Texas ranch every week to play for the team. (Baugh had a deferment.) George even parked a plane in front of the Redskins’ practice field and identified it as the one his quarterback used. It wasn’t really, though. It was just a trainer plane, capable of going maybe 75 miles an hour.

When Sammy was asked about it, he just laughed and said, “I wouldn’t go near that thing on a bet, let alone fly in it. It’s just another of George’s promotions.”

Marshall is often referred to as a promotional genius, but it might be more accurate to say he knew a good idea when he saw one. He may have been the driving force behind the splitting of the NFL into two divisions, staging a championship game every year and making pro football a more offensive game, but he was only following baseball’s example. And besides, the two-division setup was being discussed at league meetings as early as 1924 — eight years before he became an owner. Granted, the Redskins were the first NFL team to have their own marching band, but the colleges beat him to that punch by a couple of decades. Even the Redskins’ flashy satin-pants look was borrowed (from NYU).

Marshall did get the league a lot of attention, however, with his gift of gab and general theatrics. He also helped usher pro football into the television age; there’s no denying that. His Redskins network, which stretched throughout the South, was the envy of the NFL. But it probably impeded the integration of the team, as we shall see. . . .

*  *  *

After they lost the ’45 title game to the Cleveland Rams on a fluke safety, Marshall’s Redskins never scaled the heights again. Indeed, they were downright dreadful most of the time. George sold his laundry business that year, and this enabled him to devote all his energies to his football team. It wasn’t exactly what the franchise needed. (Dan Snyder take note.)

Marshall had always been a very hands-on owner. In the early years in Boston, he used to sit on the bench and suggest plays. Flaherty put a stop to that, but then he went into the Navy during the war and George was unleashed again. “He would drive his limousine right out on the practice field and say, ‘Change this guy over here like that,’” ex-Redskin Jack Doolan once told me. “And [Dud] DeGroot would say, ‘Yeah, OK.’ That’s the kind of coach George wanted.”

He went through a bunch of Duds — nine in 18 years. And when he wasn’t making his coaches’ lives miserable, he was alienating many of his players with his pinchpenny ways. “He gypped me out of $400,” Roy Zimmerman says. “We played against the College All-Stars in ’43 [after winning the title the previous year], and you’re supposed to get a game-and-a-half salary for that game. But he traded me to Philadelphia before the season and never paid me. So I complained about it to the Eagles, and they wound up giving me the money.”

That’s something about Marshall that tends to be overlooked. He wasn’t just averse to signing black players, he had a plantation mentality toward white players, too. The whole league was like that. Players were considered very replaceable commodities back then (and until the ’80s had few rights). Check out this quote I came across from Brooklyn owner Shipwreck Kelly after a loss in the ’30s: “I’m going to get rid of six players before the next game. We’re going to get some new men and begin rebuilding for next year.” Not exactly a worker-friendly environment.

The NFL was also rife with racism. From 1920 to ’33 there were a handful of black players in the league, but in the next dozen years there were none. Dr. Harry March, one of pro football’s founding fathers, summed up the owners’ attitude toward integration in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, the first book about the NFL ever published:

There are many sane arguments against playing colored men in games requiring physical contact. There are so many southern boys in the league that much feeling is sure to result. Then, too, the management is frequently embarrassed by the refusal of dining cars and restaurants to serve the colored players and of hotels to give them the desired accommodations which the white players receive.

To recap: The NFL didn’t have any black players from 1934 to ’45 because (a.) it didn’t want to get the southern boys riled up and; (b.) it was just so darn inconvenient.

Because he was the Last Holdout, Marshall has become, over the years, the face of pro football’s racial intolerance. He was hardly the only owner, though, who dragged his feet on the integration issue. The Detroit Lions, to cite just one team, did a curious flip-flop I the ’50s. In 1949 they had as many black players as any club in the league — three. The following year, only one of them remained. In five of the next six seasons, the Lions had zero blacks. That’s practically impossible, sociologically speaking.

The final showdown came in 1961, when the U.S. government threatened to deny the Redskins the use of D.C. (later RFK) Stadium unless Marshall opened the door to black players. He buckled to the pressure and had four of them on the roster in ’62, including wide receiver Bobby Mitchell and guard John Nisby, both of whom went to the Pro Bowl.

A year later Marshall suffered a stroke so debilitating he couldn’t attend his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. (His financial partners, lawyer Edward Bennett Williams among them, had to take over the team.) He died in 1969 at 72, just as Vince Lombardi was launching a Redskins revival.

And now his monument is being hauled away from RFK like a worn-out sofa — to be relocated in some less prominent place. (Shades of Joe Paterno decades later.)

Marshall’s friends will tell you he was no racist, merely a stubborn businessman who was trying to protect his interests. He had extended the Redskins’ radio and TV network as far south as Florida, and had drafted quite a few southern players. If he integrated the club, the logic goes, he risked losing a big part of his fan base.

“He was no bigot,” a former employee says. “He was the nicest guy I ever met in my life. When I was in the service down in South Carolina during the war, he used to send me $20 every two weeks. That was a lot of money. I was only making $21 a month.”

We’ll give Corinne Griffith, his wife of 21 years, the last word on the subject. In her book, Antiques I Have Known, Corinne reminisces about the weekend she agreed to marry Marshall. They spent Saturday night in Mt. Airy, Md., at the home of one of George’s friends, and on the way back to Washington the next afternoon — “coasting down the Blue Ridge Mountains, . . . while still under the spell of Virginia moonlight and honeysuckle, southern accents and southern hospitality” — she said “yes.”

At National Airport, just before a plane took Corinne back to New York, the Redskins owner presented his future bride with a pre-wedding present. And what little bauble did he bestow on her?

“A Confederate flag — one that had been in his family since the Civil War.”

From The Washington Times, Sept. 6, 2001

Art Rooney hits it big at the track, August 1937

Contrary to legend, Art Rooney didn’t buy the Pittsburgh franchise with some of his winnings from a huge score at the racetrack. After all, his nationally publicized run of luck with the ponies was in the summer of ’37. By then, he’d been an NFL owner for four years.

Still, it’s a classic tale that tells you much about pro football in that period, a time when gambling by sports figures didn’t cause nearly the palpitations it does now. The story of Rooney’s hot streak, just before training camp got underway, made the front page of the Pittsburgh Press — and was picked up by plenty of other papers around the country. Imagine a headline like this appearing today:

Art Rooney Gambling Headline

 

(And in ’33, remember, when the Steelers joined the league, franchises cost $2,500.)

Rooney was hardly the only owner who walked in this world, either. The Giants’ Tim Mara was a legal bookie in the days before parimutuel betting. The Cardinals’ Charley Bidwill owned a horse track and some dog tracks. The Eagles’ Bert Bell, meanwhile, routinely wagered on four-legged creatures, two-legged creatures and the occasional three-legged race (and kept it up even during his term as commissioner). It was what a “sportsman” — as so many of them were called — did in the ’30s.

The $100,000 figure — thanks to picking five winners on opening day at Saratoga — was probably just the beginning for Rooney, by the way. Most estimates put his haul at between $250,000 and $380,000. The Press story, you see, only deals with his first pass at the tracks. Being en fuego, he naturally made other visits until the streak ran its course. When he was done, the previously obscure football owner from Pittsburgh was a Known Entity (though it would be another decade before his struggling team began to emerge from the shadows).

“He likes to bet fancies, hunches, on a whim, and the man is not afraid to bet,” Frank Ortell wrote in the New York World-Telegram. “He sends it along in a fashion that recalls the days when the old plungers used to go into action.”

It took a while, but his bet on the Steelers eventually paid off as well — with four Super Bowl wins in six seasons beginning in 1974. Some guys just have the touch.