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February 12, 2010

George Preston Marshall

Roy Meachum

My hometown’s Saints made out last Sunday; they beat Archie Manning’s son, who was brought up in the Garden District. Peyton’s father quarterbacked for the New Orleans team during the voodoo bad beginnings. Sunday, the TV rating set a 106.5 million record in this country; that beat out the 1983 last show of M*A*S*H.


George Preston Marshall grinned, wherever he is. The last time I saw the man who interested me in pro-football was in the District’s RFK Stadium, which had a statue of the late Redskins’ owner out front. He was watching a baseball game sitting in a wheelchair, hardly aware of what was happening; he didn’t recognize me. He ended up with dementia.


Mr. Marshall – I never called him George – often invited me for lunch; his male cook was formidable at fixing good old boy meals, solid but very tasty. One Saturday he sent his car to pick me up for a meeting with Paul “Bear” Bryant. As far as I could figure out, I was along to allow him to deflect the future Alabama Hall-of-Famer’s pitch to join the Redskins as coach. “Bear” led the Terrapins to winning seasons while I attended College Park.


George Preston Marshall stood proudly in the ranks, along with Chicago’s George Halas, among the hard-bitten businessmen who founded the National Football League. He started the Redskins in Boston, in 1932. He called them the Braves, hoping the city would cotton to them right away as Bostonians did the baseball team of the same name. Besides, the two teams played in the same stadium. He told me he was forced legally to switch to what became the Redskins.


His next move was South, to Washington, where the man from West Virginia worked out an arrangement with the Senators’ founder, Clark Griffin, to lease his stadium in baseball’s off-season. To finance his team, Mr. Marshall started the Redskins Laundry on 7th Street, N.W., not far from today’s Verizon Center. His office was in the striking modern building. Both the team and his promotional schemes were run out of there, at a time when most people thought REAL football was played at colleges and universities.


George Preston Marshall favored me after I arranged for The Washington Daily News to shoot a picture of National Symphony conductor Howard Mitchell; it was taken in Mr. Marshall’s office and Howard was wearing a full-blown Indian chief’s feathers. It wound up as the entire front page on the now defunct tabloid.


By way of reward, I received season tickets; the team still played in Griffith Stadium. Games finished late, when the several bakeries around pumped their delicious favors into the air. (The stadium site is now part of Howard University’s hospital.) Not incidentally, I was sitting, talking, at the owner’s desk when his administrative assistant, named Chester, popped in the door and excitedly announced:


“Mr. Marshall, we have sold 30,000 season tickets.”


The reply: “Cut ‘em off, Chester. We need some for the ones who buy single games.”


Mr. Marshall’s philosophy about keeping single tickets available was based on the hope for expanding the number of fans for pro football; it worked for me. The NFL was still in the building stage. He started the league’s first band and cheerleaders, who dressed in Indian braids, moccasins and dresses that were supposed to look leather. His wife, silent movies star Corinne Griffin wrote “Hail to the Redskins.” She came up with the words and the music belonged to society band leader Sam Jack Kaufman, who appeared nightly at the Shoreham Hotel.


My free seats were in a “temporary” bleacher erected close to the sideline for every game, somewhere between the Senators’ center and right fields. Some of tickets in that section cultivated other friends for the club; WMAL radio’s Bill Malone sat beside me.


They were temporary enough that when I took my five-year-old son along one Sunday his mother was indisposed, Tommy Meachum forced me to move into the stadium’s vacant area; he took delight in banging down the empty seats while I tried to see the game. Now an attorney in Howard County, Tom quickly adopted out-of-town teams: instead of the Senators he backed Pittsburgh’s Pirates. The Dallas Cowboys caught his fancy until Baltimore’s Ravens came along. He now cheers for both.


George Preston Marshall’s conversations with me were not limited to football. As husband to Ms. Griffith, he had endless stories to tell about Hollywood and its denizens. He was the only person I knew outside ballet who dropped the name of Leon Bakst, a designer for the Ballets Russes, whose dancers included the legendary Nijinsky and Pavlova. Not bad for a self-proclaimed “country boy from West Virginia.”


In all else, he hustled for the National Football League, paying for the National Symphony Orchestra to perform at half-time in Griffith Stadium.


The heavy snow last weekend, along with the longtime hapless Saints versus 2007’s Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts; they helped to boost the TV audience but some credit must go to the first showman in NFL history, George Preston Marshall.


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