The following is an excerpt from Fight for Old DC: George Preston Marshall, the Integration of the Washington Redskins, and the Rise of a New NFL (Nebraska, 2016) by Andrew O’Toole. O’Toole is the author of numerous books, including Paul Brown: The Rise and Fall Again of Football’s Most Innovative Coach, Smiling Irish Eyes: Art Rooney and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Sweet William: The Life of Billy Conn.
George Preston Marshall—this name kept popping up as I researched the life of Art Rooney for an earlier project. Marshall—well, all I knew of him previously was that his Washington Redskins were the last major sports franchise to integrate.
Indeed “Marshall the bigot” is an enduring legacy, but there was much more to the man than this unfortunate memory. He was a showman, a sportsman, a man of great foresight and imagination. The more I learned, the more intrigued with him I became. But was Marshall worthy of a full-scale biography? Perhaps, but in Marshall I saw something else. He reminded me of the great baseball folk figure Bill Veeck. Like Veeck, Marshall seemingly popped up whenever a significant issue confronted his sport. He was there at the ready, with an opinion and a solution to whatever problem might arise.
I began to envision a story in which Marshall played the lead, a role as an individual who finds himself immersed in every vital issue confronting his sport. Previously I have chronicled some of the sports world’s great characters, including Branch Rickey, Paul Brown, and Rooney. Those figures are tough acts to follow indeed, but Marshall’s intrinsic pomposity and unflappable verbosity make him a writer’s dream.
But Marshall is just a part of the tale told here. Interwoven throughout the narrative are the stories of numerous players who crossed his path. Commissioners Bert Bell and Pete Rozelle—two men essential to the rise of the National Football League—are here. So are Shirley Povich and Sam Lacy, two journalists who wielded the power of the pen to poke and compel. There is the politician Stewart Udall, who used his position of authority to make this country more democratic. And then there’s a football player, Bobby Mitchell, who wanted nothing more than an equal opportunity to ply his skills in his chosen profession.
This story plays out against a backdrop of a changing social landscape. The Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States on May 17, 1954; this monumental event was followed three years later by the Little Rock Nine and the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School. And in 1960 the election of John F. Kennedy as the country’s thirty-fifth president offered promise of a more progressive society.
Change was indeed in the air, but this change was met with great resistance on the streets, in the schools, and on the playing field.
I was born into this world Irish, Catholic, and a Pittsburgher—three circumstances one can never escape. I’m three generations removed from the Old Country, a long since lapsed Catholic, and nearly four decades gone from the Iron City. Still, if asked, I would describe myself as an Irish-Catholic Pittsburgher. That and a Steelers fan.
My heritage played a direct part in several of my earlier works. Art Rooney and Billy Conn were natural subjects for me, and I enjoyed every moment I spent with them.
Paul Brown, however, was not a likely fit for me. The founding father of the Browns and Bengals was certainly deserving of a full-scale life study, but there was one aspect of his career that intrigued me more than any other: his role in ending professional football’s unofficial ban on black players. The story of Marion Motley and Bill Willis drew me in. Much has been written about Jackie Robinson’s historic arrival in Brooklyn, and deservedly so, but the pioneers in football have been virtually overlooked in comparison.
How was it possible that sixteen years after Willis and Motley the Redskins still remained an all- white outfit? This disturbing fact fascinated me, and I began to look into the events that surrounded the integration of the Redskins. Bobby Mitchell and George Preston Marshall were the leading stars in the tale, but the backstory was brimming with equally captivating characters.
Today the NFL is a behemoth. Practically twelve months a year the league pervades the news. If it’s not the college draft, it’s the OTAs (whatever the hell those are) or free-agent season. The Super Bowl, the pinnacle of the football season, has become such a spectacle that the game is nearly unwatchable.
How did we get to this point? That is the genesis of this book.
Personally I have to say I agree with George Marshall’s assessment of the NFL more than half a century ago: “The NFL can’t encompass the world. It’s not that important.”
It may not be that important, but the NFL damn near encompasses the world. I have to believe that if George Marshall were still with us he would love every moment of this dominance.