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March 12, 2013

Washington Redskinsí Name

Roy Meachum

Not for the first time, there’s a movement afoot to change the name of Washington’s staunch NFL subsidiary, to something else, less offensive to American Natives. Only real Indians didn’t start the movement.


My friend and erstwhile colleague, the late Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich, detested George Preston Marshall, who started the team – and until his death was the only stockholder of importance. I never understood. Above all else, the West Virginia native was a serious businessman. His father started Palace Laundries; by the time he died, the son inherited about 100 locations. His 7th Street office, where I first met him, was over towered by a building cleaning and starching shirts and other items.


Mr. Marshall – I never called him George – was an unabashed miser; it can be strenuously argued that his cause of entry into professional sports, in the late 1920s: the price was right. He tried basketball first in Washington and soon gave up. Boston was a hot-bed sports town; they had two major league baseball teams. Trying to capitalize on the popularity of the Braves, his football club was named for the MLB team, until there was a dispute and he was forced to change the practicing to Red Sox’s Fenway Field. The Redskins were hanging on to the brand name, parsimoniously.


Disgusted with Bostonians’ non-appearances at games, Mr. Marshall shuffled to Washington where he owned all the laundries. Ever the promoter, he established not only the NFL first marching band and cheerleaders, but the ladies were attired in long faux leather dresses and wigs so they were seen as Indians; the musicians wore similar uniforms feathers.


As a part of the promotional effort, he created a radio network to carry the games in the South, where there were no franchises when the broadcasts began. Television came later. Keeping in mind his stinginess, in those pre-integration years, he refused to sign an African American player, which made Shirley Povich mad as hell. He lost “Hail to the Redskins” to the Dallas Cowboys. Clint Murchison, Jr., had bought it from song’s composer, Barnee Briskin, who conducted the Griffith Park strings and brass. It was held in hostage until Mr. Marshall agreed to an NFL team in Texas, shattering his self-imposed segregation – and insuring the perpetual ire of Shirley Povich.


A few years later, I returned as a Washington Post reporter, which caused me to doubt my youth’s hero. On an assignment to the National Gallery of Art, I was latched onto by Branch Rickey, everywhere recognized as the integrator of major league baseball, through Jackie Robinson. On my way through the sports department, I excitedly announced my “scoop” to Shirley. He lambasted Mr. Rickey with dirty language, as integrating “nothing.”


When I was the public relations agent for the National Symphony Orchestra, I invited news photographers in to announce the musicians would be playing at the Redskins half-time. By chance – I had no influence – the Daily News editors decided to run Conductor Howard Mitchell in feather headdress on the tabloid’s front cover, which brought me lunches at Mr. Marshall’s well-fed table. I also received season tickets for several years, until I moved out of town.


The Washington NFL owner became my friend, more so than when he mentioned Leon Bakst; the dance designer moved to Hollywood when the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo died. I knew him from my several years administrating Marjorie Merriweather Post’s National Ballet Foundation. Mr. Marshall shared other adventures.


I can’t imagine the man inventing the name coming up with an exception to changing Redskins – unless it cost business and most of all, profits.


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