Did you now that the Boston Red Sox, though through no fault of their own, are at least partly responsible for one of the longest running controversies in the history of the National Football League?
This is, as they say, the story behind the story.
In 1933, a new entry in the NFL began playing its home games at Boston’s Braves Field. It took the name of its landlord and played that season as the Boston Braves. Using the name of a city’s more established baseball team was not uncommon in the NFL in those days; thus there were the New York Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals. Other teams chose names that were related to their city’s baseball teams, such as the Chicago Bears (Cubs) and the Detroit Lions (Tigers).
But after that first season in Braves Field, the landlord raised the rent, so owner George Preston Marshall moved the team a mile or so up the road to Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. Now he no longer wished to identified with the Braves but with his new landlord, the Red Sox. But another complication arose. The team’s football uniforms featured a patch of an Indian chief like the patch the baseball Braves wore on their uniforms. (Google a picture of Babe Ruth during his final season with the Braves and you’ll get a good look at it on his left sleeve.) Marshall was not about to invest in new uniforms after only one season of use. NFL teams of eight decades ago were hand-to-mouth operations, more on a par with minor league baseball teams. College football ruled the pigskin universe back then. The quandary facing Marshall was to find a name which somehow related to the Red Sox, but also included Indians in its meaning.
Let’s see, Red Sox….RedSKINS! Of course! Problem solved.
No one bothered to ask if it was all right with Native Americans if the team took a name commonly used to disparage them. This was not an age of great sensitivity toward minority groups. After all, the biggest movie star of color during the thirties was Stepin Fechit (real name, Lincoln Perry) who appeared in thirty movies during the decade, always playing the same character, a slow talking, slow moving servant, and who, during his vaudeville days, billed himself as “the laziest man in the world”. Talk about demeaning, racist stereotypes.
When the team’s new name, the Boston Redskins, was announced, there was not a whiff of controversy. But now still another, more pressing, problem came up; nobody went to see them play. Crowds, if you can call them that, of five thousand or less were not uncommon at home games. After three fruitless years, Marshall gave up the ghost and relocated the team to the nation’s Capitol before the 1937 season—and so it was that the Washington Redskins came into being. They were an immediate hit in D.C., due mostly to the arrival of a sensational rookie quarterback from Texas Christian University named Sammy Baugh. Slingin’ Sammy Baugh was the NFL’s first superstar quarterback, as offenses began to morph from three yards and a cloud of dust to aerial attacks.
When, in the fifties, people were becoming more attuned to civil rights matters (the movie business had dried up for Stepin Fechit) the team’s name became a secondary issue because its owner, George Preston Marshall, refused to even integrate it, much less change the name. It was not until 1962, when the Kennedy administration threatened to cancel the lease on the federally owned stadium, in which they played that the Redskins signed their first black player. But the name remained, and remains, the same, though it’s a source of great discomfort to many, including players.
And it all traces back to the Boston Red Sox, but don’t blame them. Blame George Preston Marshall.