Smith (History/Nichols Coll.; Green Republican: John Saylor and the Preservation of America’s Wilderness, 2006, etc.) charts the sordid racial history of the Washington Redskins, the last NFL team to field black players.
The author focuses on the Redskins’ innovative but controversial and preening owner, George Preston Marshall, the principal obstruction in the stream of racial equality that began to break through in the mid 20th century. Marshall, who made his fortune in the laundry business, bought into the NFL in 1932 and soon moved to Washington D.C., where his teams enjoyed swift and enduring success on the arm and acumen of quarterback Sammy Baugh. Smith notes that a few blacks played in the NFL in the ’30s, but—principally due to the influence of Marshall, he avers—the league soon became all-white and stayed that way for more than a decade, when Paul Brown’s eponymous team broke the mold and soared to glory with Marion Motley and Otto Graham. Noting the Browns’ success, other teams soon followed, though Marshall remained intransigent. As the civil-rights movement gathered momentum, the pressure mounted on Marshall to relent, but it took the efforts of an unlikely hero, JFK’s Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, to find the financial leverage to do so. (He told Marshall he could not use a public stadium if he violated fair-hiring practices.) The author cannot conceal his disgust with Marshall, attaching to him just about every available synonym for racist, but Smith does celebrate the efforts of D.C. journalists, white (Shirley Povich) and black (Sam Lacy), to prod Marshall into the 20th century. He also notes the oddity of D.C.’s black fans swarming to the stadium to see the all-white team.
Thorough research and thick disdain form a corrosive substance that consumes the brazen racist Marshall.