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