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January 6, 2012

Redskinsí First Supreme Chief

Roy Meachum

No matter how hot about Washington’s football team, few fans know the name of the West Virginia man who bought the NFL’s Boston Braves, in 1932.


George Preston Marshall wore his hair in a center part, like my father. In his day, with his lanky form and with money from his Palace Laundry owner-father in pocket, he was known as a “ladies man” – not altogether a compliment. He tried and failed as a Hollywood actor, but submitted to marriages: his first was a Ziegfeld Follies dancer. With him at the time of our relationship was silent screen star Corrine Griffith.


Mr. Marshall – I never called him George – was welcomed into the first NFL Hall of Fame class, but little had to do with his on-field contributions. He was the creator of the half-time shows, the league’s first marching band and cheerleaders, whom I remember for their stifling costumes: not real leather-skin enveloping dresses, moccasins and smothering black wigs adorned by a single feather. Furthermore, his wife was given credit, along with society bandleader Barnee Briskin, for “Hail to the Redskins!” In successful gridiron years, it becomes Washington’s “national anthem,” instead of Fredericktonian Frederick Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner.”


Also rarely remembered was the string of triumphant seasons when the Boston Redskins moved south; the original label was attached chiefly because the Braves – before moving to Milwaukee - were so successful and Mr. Marshall yearned the baseball’s luster might rub off on football. When he was forced to seek a new location, the name was left behind. Shortly after, he moved out of Beantown entirely.


We met when I was marketing and public relations director for the National Symphony. Typically, Mr. Marshall booked Conductor Howard Mitchell and the orchestra for a shocking half-time show: A symphony on a gridiron where players brutalized each other! I arranged a press conference to announce the performance. I received credit from the Redskins’ owner – which I didn’t deserve in any way – for Howard’s photo that covered The Daily News’ front page. In full Indian head-dress!


More substantially, he gave me season tickets when games were still played in rickety Griffith Stadium; the most consistent memory from those years was the bakery odors floating in the air not far from Howard University, which took over the property when the Redskins vacated for a new arena. Deeper in my thoughts were the hours I spent in Mr. Marshall’s office and dining room with lunches prepared by one of the most talented chefs I’ve known: an African American woman.


This was in the 1950s, when the ink was hardly dried on the Supreme Court’s decision that public schools must not be segregated. Long before the decision, The Washington Post’s Shirley Povich assaulted the Redskins for not being integrated. It made no difference to Mr. Povich, who was raised in Bath, Maine, when assembling all the blacks could not form a basketball quintet. And the Jews were not overabundant, but their few numbers included the sports columnist’s family.


Mr. Marshall offered no defense to the charges of bigotry against African Americans, at least within my ear shot. Everybody “knew” that while ticket sales were less than brisk – Griffith didn’t sellout for most games – the club dodged red ink with a radio station network that covered where now operate the Carolina Panthers, the Atlanta Falcons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Miami Dolphins, the New Orleans Saints, the Tennessee Titans and the two Texas’ franchises.


The Dallas Cowboys were not yet a gleam in original owner Clint Murchison, Jr.’s eyes; they came into existence in 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected to the White House. A few years on, when faced with the probability of being locked out of the new District stadium, George P. Marshall went along with the Kennedy Administration’s civil rights policy. In 1962, the Redskins fielded not one but five “colored” players, as they were known at the time.


My favorite personal story was how Mr. Marshall used me to fend off Paul “Bear” Bryant’s grasping for what we knew was an empty head coach’s desk in the Redskins corporate structure. We never discussed it, but when the Alabama football immortal tried to make a point in favor of his quest, the NFL owner threw out something that he knew I was interested in. Finally, he ordered his chauffer to take Mr. Bryant wherever he wanted to go. As I said, it took me time to figure out my role that Saturday.


The current Redskins surrendered with scarcely a whisper to the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday. The past few days have gone into packing, generally clearing out. They’ll return to their practice facility for spring.


The last time I saw Mr. Marshall was at a baseball game at RFK Stadium, which featured his statue out front. Inside, he sat bound in a wheelchair, a male nurse along to wipe away spittle that doused the corners of his mouth.


I still miss him.


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