Marshall in 1949
|Born:||October 11, 1896|
Grafton, West Virginia, U.S.
|Died:||August 9, 1969 (aged 72)|
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Position(s)||Founder and owner|
|1925–1928||Washington Palace Five|
|1932–1969||Boston Braves / Washington Braves / Redskins|
|Career highlights and awards|
George Preston Marshall (October 11, 1896 – August 9, 1969) was an American businessman who was the founder of the Washington Redskins of the National Football League (NFL). He founded the team in 1932 as the Boston Braves and was its controlling owner until his death in 1969. Marshall, a supporter of racial segregation, was the last NFL owner to integrate African Americans onto a roster, only doing so in 1962 under pressure from the federal government who threatened to block the use of D.C. Stadium, which they owned, unless he did.
Life and career
Marshall was born in Grafton, West Virginia, where his parents, Thomas Hildebrand ("Hill") Marshall and Blanche Preston Marshall, owned the local newspaper. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Washington D.C. after his father bought a laundromat business there. He attended Friends Select School, where he played baseball, and then briefly attended Randolph–Macon College before quitting school at age 18. He pursued acting and was an extra for a local theater but this pursuit was interrupted in 1918 when he was drafted into World War I, although he did not leave the country. He was discharged from the army in December 1918. Upon his father's death in 1919, he took over the 2-store laundromat business. In 1926, he financed the Washington Palace Five basketball team. The team folded in 1928.
In 1932, he and three other partners were awarded an NFL franchise for Boston. The team was known as the Boston Braves, as it played on the same field as baseball's Boston Braves. After the team incurred a $46,000 loss in its first season, Marshall's partners sold their interests to him.
In 1933, he moved the team from Braves Field to Fenway Park, which the team shared with the Boston Red Sox. He hired coach "Lone Star" William Henry Dietz, who claimed to be part Sioux and changed the team name from the Braves to the Redskins. Marshall said that he chose the name so that the team could keep its Native American monikers.
In 1936, the team won the Eastern division and hosted the 1936 NFL Championship Game, which Marshall moved from Boston to the Polo Grounds in New York City. After a lack of support by fans despite winning the division title, he moved the team to Washington, D.C. for the 1937 season.
At the time, college football was more popular than the NFL. Marshall saw the NFL as not just a sport but as a form of entertainment and incorporated elements of college football, including gala halftime shows, a marching band, and a fight song, "Hail to the Redskins".
To increase scoring, along with Chicago Bears owner George Halas, Marshall successfully suggested allowing a forward pass to be thrown from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, rather than at a minimum of five yards behind the line. He also suggested moving the goal posts from the end line to the goal line, where they were in Canadian football, to encourage the kicking of field goals. This change remained in place for about four decades until NFL goal posts were returned to the end line in the mid-1970s as part of an effort to lessen the influence on the game of kicking specialists.
Marshall also pushed to standardize the schedule so that each team played the same number of games, the teams were split into divisions with the winners meeting in a championship game, and game gate receipts were split between the home team and the visitor using by either a 60–40 split or a guaranteed amount of money, whichever was larger.
In 1946, he sold the laundromat business, having grown it to 57 locations.
In the 1950s, Marshall was the first NFL owner to embrace television. He initiated the first network appearances for any NFL team and built a television network to broadcast Redskins games across the Southern United States.
In 1960, Marshall opposed the addition of the Dallas Cowboys to the NFL, ending his team's stature as the only team south of the Mason–Dixon line. He only agreed to the addition after a rival acquired the rights to the fight song from the writer of the music and threatened to prohibit the team from playing it at games.
In November 1960, Marshall sold 25% of the team to Jack Kent Cooke for $350,000. Marshall was extremely frugal and did not let the team spend money on travel expenses and salaries. He once berated Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney for driving up salaries by signing University of Colorado star Byron White for $15,800, the highest contract in football in the late 1930s. One sportswriter referred to Marshall as "the last of the small-time spenders."
In 1963, soon after his induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Marshall suffered a debilitating stroke that left him legally incompetent to manage his affairs. Three conservators were assigned to manage the football team: C. Leo DeOrsey, who owned 13% of the team and Edward Bennett Williams and Milton W. King, who each owned 5% of the team. Marshall's children sued to get control of the team but lost.
In August 1969, Marshall died in his sleep at his home in Georgetown from hemiphlagia, a heart condition, compounded by diabetes and arteriosclerosis. His funeral was held at the Washington National Cathedral with a huge crowd in attendance. Marshall is buried at the family plot in Indian Mound Cemetery in Romney, West Virginia.
As a result of a "gentlemen's agreement" promoted by Marshall, NFL teams did not sign black players until 1946, when 2 teams broke the agreement. Marshall refused to do so, claiming that integrating the team would cause the team to lose fans in the Southern United States and the team was at the time the southernmost team in the NFL. He said that "We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."
His refusal to integrate was routinely mocked by Shirley Povich, a columnist for The Washington Post, who called him "one of pro football’s greatest innovators, and its leading bigot." Marshall unsuccessfully sued Povich for $200,000 after a critical article.
Marshall downplayed the issue of integration, saying "I am surprised that with the world on the brink of another war they are worried about whether or not a Negro is going to play for the Redskins" and doubted that "the government had the right to tell the showman how to cast the play." Marshall had a long-running feud with Redskins shareholder Harry Wismer, who favored integration.
In 1962, United States Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and Attorney General of the United States Robert F. Kennedy issued an ultimatum that unless Marshall signed a black player, the government would revoke the Redskins' 30-year lease on D.C. Stadium (now RFK Memorial Stadium), which had been paid for by government money and was owned by the city government. Marshall selected Ernie Davis, Syracuse University's All-American running back, as his top draft choice in the 1962 NFL Draft. However, Davis refused to play for the team and was traded to the Cleveland Browns for All-Pro Bobby Mitchell, who became the first African American to play a game for the Redskins. Marshall became an enthusiastic supporter of Mitchell. The Redskins only had three winning seasons in the 23 years between the 1946 integration and Marshall's death in 1969. On a television show, Oscar Levant asked Marshall if he was anti-Semitic. He responded: "Oh no, I love Jews, especially when they're customers."
In June 2020, a statue of Marshall was removed from the grounds of RFK Stadium after it was defaced and vandalized following the George Floyd protests. The same month, his name was removed from the team's Ring of Fame at FedExField.
In 1920, Marshall married Elizabeth Morton, a former Ziegfeld Follies girl. They had two children, Catherine and George P. Jr., separated in 1928 and divorced in 1935. His mistress in the 1920s and 1930s was silent screen actress and Ziegfeld Follies dancer Louise Brooks. She gave him the nickname "Wet Wash" because he owned a laundry chain. He was married to film actress-author Corinne Griffith from 1936 to 1957. She referred to him in print as "The Marshall without a plan."
The George Preston Marshall Foundation serves the interests of children in the Washington metropolitan area. Marshall added a caveat that no money from the foundation would ever go toward "any purpose which supports the principle of racial integration in any form"; however, this requirement was thrown out by the courts.
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- "A 'Showdown' That Changed Football's Racial History". NPR. September 4, 2011.
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- Paris, Barry (October 15, 1989). "LULU AND THE LAUNDRY BARON". The Washington Post.