SNIDER: George Preston Marshall wasn't worth remembering

Rick Snider
June 19, 2020 - 11:29 am

It took nearly 20 years to remove the George Preston Marshall marker at RFK Stadium.

The marker, along with ones for Clark Griffith and Robert F. Kennedy, were going to be removed by spring when the stadium is expected to be demolished. But the marker to the founding Redskins owner, who refused to sign African American players until forced by the federal government in 1962, has long annoyed city leaders without resolution until recent events made it easier to exile it to parts unknown.

RFK leaders first sought to remove Marshall's marker in 2001 because it was prime real estate. They wanted a concession stand where thousands of metro riders approached the stadium. There were lots of discussions on what to do with it. District officials didn't want it anywhere downtown. Indeed, the late Mayor Marion Barry once exiled his 1871 predecessor Boss Shepherd's statue to a car impound lot on the city's edge for decades, saying "Boss" was a racist term. Today, statues of Barry and Shepherd bookend City Hall's entrance on Pennsylvania Ave.

The Redskins declined moving the statue to FedEx Field.

The Romney, West Va. cemetery where Marshall is buried agreed to take it in 2005 if someone paid transportation costs. Back then, it was estimated at $35,000. Naturally, nobody wanted to pay it so the marker just remained on site. With RFK practically closed in recent years, only drivers whipping around the circle saw it.

But, the city is raising the stadium for something. Maybe a new Redskins stadium or music venue, maybe housing or commercial needs. That's another long debate.

The demolition contract hasn't been awarded yet and it will be at least next spring before the nation's first of seven multi-purpose stadiums comes down. The other six were demolished years ago.

But it was a heady time for Washington sports when the Redskins christened the stadium in 1961 and the new expansion Senators followed in 1962. George Washington and Howard universities, high school championships and even the USFL's Federals played football there. So did five soccer teams, plus international games along boxing, Grand Prix racing, rugby, cycling and even a mass wedding and rock concerts.

But RFK is largely remembered for the Redskins and those shaking midfield stands. The Redskins won three championships while playing at RFK. They haven't won three playoff games since leaving for FedEx Field in 1997.

Marshall was a Washington businessman; really cleaned up in the laundry business. He and three others spent $1,500 each to acquire the franchise in 1932 that became the Boston Braves. Marshall bought out his partners two years later and moved the team to Washington in 1937, where it won the title that season behind rookie quarterback Sammy Baugh, who is arguably the team's best player ever. At least, that's what Sonny Jurgensen says.

Marshall was a marketer. He created the NFL's first marching band, a 225-piece orchestra dressed as Indians that was known as the "Matinee at Midfield" to lure women to attend halftime shows and bring their husbands or boyfriends. Marshall dressed cheerleaders as squaws and made them dance around teepees on the concourse while the band marched along.

The wave of national interest in American Indians crested in the 1930s and eventually Marshall relented to demands. Cheerleaders went to traditional outfits by the 1960s along with changes to the team's theme song "Hail to the Redskins" that deleted "scalp 'em" from the lyrics, along with a short-term use of Dixie versus D.C.

Marshall's health started deteriorating and he seemed to have little tolerance for outside interference when the federal government demanded African American players be signed in 1961. RFK is on U.S. park land and leased to the District, so U.S. attorney Bobby Kennedy had the power to evict the team if not becoming the last NFL team to play African Americans.

Marshall replied he'd do so when the Harlem Globetrotters signed white players, but finally relented. Three African American players, including eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, played in 1962.

In 1963, Marshall sold 25 percent of the team to Jack Kent Cooke, who let minority owner Edward Bennett Williams run the club. When Marshall died in 1969, Cooke bought controlling interest and owned the team until his 1997 death. Overall, the team sold in 1969 for a reported $16 million.

Marshall's will created a foundation in his name to support local youths with the provision no money was spent on projects for minorities. The foundation remains open, but has ignored that rule for decades.

Now the last visible tie to Marshall has been removed and his name is spoken only by trivia and history enthusiasts.

Rick Snider has covered Washington sports since 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @Snide_Remarks