Professional sports may soon return to the virus-ridden American landscape, but certain sports bigots will not.
So long, George Preston Marshall. Now, can Marshall’s old football team please give up its awful nickname?
As America purges itself of lingering vestiges of racism, there are odd bumps in the road. Marshall owned the Washington Redskins franchise, which has resisted all pressure to remove its nickname but now belatedly attempts to compensate by toppling Marshall’s statue outside of RFK Stadium and removing his name from the team’s “Ring of Fame” at FedExField in Landover.
Anyone who’s paid attention to Marshall’s history knows such gestures are long overdue, including fans in Baltimore who remember a football team we had here called the Colts.
Under Marshall, who died in 1969, Washington was the last professional football franchise to integrate. They had to be forced into it by political big shots.
But go back to an afternoon in Baltimore in 1956, a decade after both Major League Baseball and pro football had integrated.
In those years, when the Colts met the Redskins in mid-season competition, they’d promote the game with a luncheon at downtown’s Southern Hotel attended by players and fans. John Steadman, later to become a revered Baltimore newspaper sports columnist, was the Colts’ public relations man back then.
Years later, he remembered Marshall approaching him, complaining that he didn’t like the player the Colts had chosen to speak at the luncheon — because the player was black.
“You tell [the Colts] I’m never, ever coming back here, never, ever again,” Marshall thundered. “The idea, to have a [racial slur] speaking. You don’t bring those kinds of people up here to speak to an audience. Those are the kind of people you use to clean out the toilet in your bathroom.”
The speaker to whom Marshall objected was a young man fresh out of college named Lenny Moore.
The repugnant Marshall is the man the Washington football team chose to honor, across decades, until the current moment when the heat finally got too hot.
Of course, Marshall’s not the only standout bigot in sports. Ever been to Boston’s Fenway Park? For years, the street outside the ballpark was called Yawkey Way. Modern, enlightened ownership in 2018 pulled down the name, which honored Tom Yawkey, the owner of the Red Sox for several generations.
Boston was the last Major League Baseball team to integrate. They did it in 1959, finally bowing to public pressure.
But more than a decade before that, they had the inside track to sign two pretty good ballplayers. The team passed, strictly because of skin color.
Those two players were Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays.
When Robinson signed with the old Brooklyn Dodgers in April of 1947, it was owner Branch Rickey who opened the door. Every National League team owner except Rickey voted against integration. Rickey went ahead anyway.
In his 2011 biography “Branch Rickey” (Penguin Lives), Jimmy Breslin considered that vote and wrote, “The National Pastime, the game that teaches sportsmanship to children, must shake with shame.”
The Orioles of that era weren’t exactly blameless. In 1954, the team’s first year of modern existence, they brought in one black pitcher, Jehosie Heard. He pitched three innings and was released. They brought up an outfielder named Joe Durham at the end of that season. He played 10 games and was gone.
And that was it for integration.
In 1955, Orioles manager Paul Richards, in a summer-long frenzy, used a remarkable 54 different players, 10 at third base alone. They had one black player, part-time outfielder Dave Pope.
Every one of the other 53 players was white.
Across all of the 1950s, the Orioles had only a handful of black players. For a couple of seasons, Bob Boyd became their best hitter and Connie Johnson their best pitcher.
It wasn’t until 1966 that the team added a black player of real impact, a guy named Frank Robinson. They went on to reach the World Series in four of the next six seasons.
Nobody’s taking down Frank Robinson’s statue.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).