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Redskins name debate traces to Boston

Owner George Preston Marshall (below, middle) in 1932 brought his NFL team to Boston, where it played at Braves Field for a season. He then moved it to Fenway Park, its home from 1933-36, and changed its name to Redskins.

globe file photos

Owner George Preston Marshall in 1932 brought his NFL team to Boston, where it played at Braves Field for a season. He then moved it to Fenway Park, its home from 1933-36, and changed its name to Redskins.

George Preston Marshall, laundry magnate and well-known racist, watched his Redskins capture the National Football League championship their first season in Washington in 1937.

Nearly forgotten in time is the fact that Marshall’s team was born in Boston. He broke ground in big-time football with his Boston Braves in 1932 and abruptly changed the name to Redskins, in part as a cost-saving measure, upon bolting Braves Field to play the next four seasons at Fenway Park.

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Now, decades later, the franchise that the oft-controversial Marshall founded here and packed up lock, stock, and logo in December 1936 is embroiled in an increasingly contentious public debate. Should current owner Daniel Snyder hold steadfast to the team name, one that he claims honors both the proud heritage of the American Indian and his storied franchise? Or is it finally time for him to surrender the Redskins name to the mangled scrapheap of racial pejoratives?

“The name was never a label,’’ Snyder explained earlier this year in a letter to the team’s season ticket-holders. “It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor.”

Redskins owner George Preston Marshall claimed that despite making the playoffs, the team lost $20,000 in its final season in Boston before he moved it to Washington.

neil leifer/sports illustrated/getty images

Redskins owner George Preston Marshall claimed that despite making the playoffs, the team lost $20,000 in its final season in Boston before he moved it to Washington.

In May, when commenting to USA Today about the growing controversy, Snyder said, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.’’

A portion of Snyder’s letter to season ticket-holders, however, mischaracterizes one of the most dubious chapters of that heritage. The Boston-based 1933 team, the first to carry the Redskins moniker, included four players and a head coach who were, according to Snyder’s missive, Native Americans. That coach, the flamboyant William “Lone Star’’ Dietz, a man inclined at times to wear top hat and tails, years earlier was sentenced to 30 days in a California jail, exposed by the feds for pretending to be . . . an Indian.

In the eyes of Uncle Sam, Lone Star Dietz, who indeed went on to recruit a number of native North Americans to play for his Boston Redskins, was nothing but an artful draft dodger. The government ultimately prevailed in its claim that he fabricated details of his Oglala Sioux heritage as a means to avoid serving military duty in World War I.

During Dietz’s 1919 trial, Leanna Dietz, the Wisconsin woman many believed to be his birth mother, told a convoluted tale of giving birth in 1884 to a child who died only hours after delivery. It was the newborn’s death, she told the court, that prompted her husband to dash to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and return home with the infant who stood before the court that day as 35-year-old Lone Star Dietz. The account she gave was widely believed to have been scripted by her son.

Dietz in his younger days played football alongside the legendary Jim Thorpe in Carlisle, Pa., under the eye of famed Carlisle Indians coach Pop Warner. Dietz forever clung to his story of being a native North American, thus making him a logical fit more than a dozen years after his trial to coach Marshall’s team of Redskins. Upon arriving in Boston in 1933, seemingly no note was made of his prior incarceration.

Cheap way out

The Redskins were named — most likely out of sheer pragmatism — by Marshall, whose slogan in his Washington-based laundry business was, “Long Live Linen!’’ Widely labeled a bigot during his years after leaving Boston, the dapper Marshall was the last NFL owner to include an African-American on his roster — finally surrendering his obstinance under political pressure of the day from, among others, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

In December 1936, Marshall took his team to Washington in a huff, peeved that Bostonians failed to support his “Marshall Mohawks.” His losses across five years of ownership reportedly approached $100,000. During his Hub tenure, Marshall reportedly at times donned a long ceremonial Indian headdress to promote his team, hired the faux native North American as coach, and perhaps most significantly named his team the Redskins.

It appears the name change was nothing other than a cheap, pragmatic way for the Redskins to play under a new name at a new venue with uniforms that were but a year old.

“Simple as that, I think,’’ said Richard Johnson, longtime curator of the TD Garden-based Sports Museum, where an original 1935 Boston Redskins sweater is housed in a second-floor display case. “I suppose someone might find a smoking gun one day that proves otherwise, but by all looks of things, it’s 1933 and he has a trunk full of Braves uniforms from that first year, and now he’s at Fenway, and what’s he going to do? ‘I know,’ he says, ‘We’ll just call them the Redskins.’ ’’

Upton Bell, appointed general manager of the NFL’s Boston Patriots in 1971 at age 33, often was in Marshall’s company in the years when Bert Bell, his father, served as NFL commissioner (1945-59).

According to Upton Bell, Marshall was an intelligent and complex character, a shrewd showman, an aggressive promoter, and sharp-eyed businessman. And above all, he was a survivalist.

“The headdress, I’m not so sure . . . he loved his fedora,’’ Upton Bell said initially, “but you know, yeah, if he thought it would draw one more customer to the game, he would show up in it. That was Marshall.’’

Both the NFL and America were dramatically different places then, Bell points out, noting that it is always difficult to judge history.

“In those days, the NFL needed a flair,’’ said Bell, crediting the likes of his father, Marshall, George Halas (Bears), and Tim Mara (Giants) with keeping the league from folding during World War II. “They started off with Red Grange, and he was a flair in every town — drew thousands of people. As they went along . . . in the ’30s and ’40s, the ’50s . . . Marshall was the guy. If the Redskins had stayed here, oh my God, the controversy. Forget Ted Williams, there probably would have been a fight every day.’’

Marshall was one of four original owners of football’s Boston Braves in 1932. They went 4-4-2 that first season, coached to mediocrity by former University of Pennsylvania star Lud Wray. At season’s end Wray’s charges presented him with a meerschaum pipe, its bowl crafted in the shape of an Indian’s head.

In the Boston Globe story of Dec. 6, 1932, an overwhelmed Wray said he “never valued a gift more highly.’’

By the following season, Wray was off the job. Dietz, the ex-jailbird who led Washington State to a Rose Bowl victory over Brown University his first year as a head coach, was hired in March 1933 as the new coach.

“Football Braves Become Redskins,’’ read the modest headline in the Globe on July 6, 1933. With zero fanfare, Marshall abruptly changed the team’s name. The brief non-byline story included no explanation by Marshall, only noting that he announced the move prior to departing (likely from Washington) for the league’s annual meetings in Chicago.

The story otherwise reported the change to Redskins was in keeping with a plan that had Marshall and Dietz prepared to “sign up a number of Indian players’’ and befitting a team that played its games in “The Wigwam.’’

According to Johnson, Marshall’s parting from Braves Field was forced, with the Braves’ owners advising him to find a new home, possibly because of non-payment or only partial payment of rent.

“Marshall, by all accounts, was a real pain in the ass,’’ said Johnson. “His partners bailed on him after that first year, and he was asked to leave. It would make no sense to leave [Braves Field] of his own volition. It wouldn’t pay to move. They had a home, they had uniforms, a team name . . . and a team identity.’’

Not long for this town

The newly named Boston Redskins, after training in Evanston, Ill., for three weeks and opening with three games on the road (Green Bay, Chicago, Pittsburgh), finally made their debut at Fenway in October 1933 with a win over the Giants, followed by a loss to the Portsmouth Spartans.

Crowds of some 20,000 turned out for those early Boston Redskins home games, but overall their four years were dotted with disappointing losses on Fenway turf that writers of the day claimed worked against capturing fan loyalty. In their fourth and final year, 1936, a late-season run finally pushed Marshall’s club into the playoffs, but a paltry crowd of 4,800 came to Jersey Street for the 30-0 win over the Pirates that clinched the playoff spot.

Globe writer Paul Craigue began his game story this way:

“Charging and smashing with the reckless abandon of young bucks battling for their first scalps, the Redskins slaughtered the Pittsburgh Pirates . . . ’’ The Redskins motif clearly captured the press.

Craigue also noted that Marshall lost $6,000 for the day, yet “was all smiles’’ after the win.

It’s likely Marshall smiled because he already concluded that it was his club’s last game in Boston. The Redskins rubbed out the Giants one week later, Dec. 6, at the Polo Grounds, setting up what should have been the NFL’s first playoff game in Boston against the Packers. Instead, Marshall petitioned then-league president Joseph F. Carr to stage the game at the Polo Grounds and the shift was quickly granted.

“We did it for the players’ sake,’’ Marshall explained in a Globe story of Dec. 8. “They get 60 percent of the playoff gate, with 20 percent to the league and 10 percent to each club.’’

Marshall claimed to lose $20,000 that final season, leading him to muse in the run-up to the playoff game, “We certainly don’t owe Boston much after the shabby treatment we received.’’

The Redskins lost the playoff to the Packers, 21-6, and only four days later, Dec. 17, the Globe headline read, “Redskins Move to Washington.” They were headed for Griffith Stadium, home to baseball’s Senators. The National Football League Club of Boston, Inc. was soon liquidated.

Corinne Griffith, the silent film star whom Marshall married only weeks prior to the start of his club’s final season in Boston, promptly penned the club’s cherished fight song, “Hail to the Redskins.’’ The ex-Boston Redskins, with new star quarterback Slingin’ Sammy Baugh leading the charge in Washington, stormed their way to the 1937 NFL title. Oh, what might have been in Boston.

Bigot and survivor

Marshall died in August 1969 at age 72, some 20 years before the first public objections to his team’s name began to percolate. The biggest political issue of his ownership centered on African-American players. Under threat that his Redskins would be prohibited from playing in the new federally funded stadium in Washington (later to be named RFK Stadium), Marshall at the start of the ’60s finally acquiesced and added his first black to the Redskins’ roster, 30 years into his NFL tenure.

The Redskins intended for that player to be Syracuse running back Ernie Davis, the franchise’s first pick in the 1962 draft. But when Davis balked at playing for a club owned by a noted racist, saying, “I won’t play for that SOB,’’ he was dealt to Cleveland for star running back/wide receiver Bobby Mitchell. Mitchell went on to a Hall of Fame career. Davis died the following May, a victim of leukemia.

“You can call Marshall, ‘No good bigot, blah, blah, blah . . . ,’ ’’ said Bell, making clear he didn’t support Marshall’s racial views decades ago or the ongoing use of Redskins as the team name. “But until he opened up his mouth, and he said some stupid things late in his life, if you just looked at the things he did, you might think everything he did was to survive, to hang on, to promote his team. And all the owners were doing just that.’’

Marshall’s non-inclusion of blacks on the Washington roster was long interpreted as his belief that the club’s lucrative television ratings, which penetrated far into the Deep South, would suffer if blacks were on the roster. America’s poor racial scorecard makes that believable. But one can only speculate as to all the ingredients that led Marshall to his beliefs and business decisions. This is a man who specified the charitable foundation that carries his name cannot be used to “support or employ the principle of racial integration.’’

“All the ‘No good bigot’ stuff . . . the continued use of Redskins as the team name . . . it’s partially true,’’ said Bell. “But if you follow the dots, he was all about survival.’’

Meanwhile, Snyder is left to answer today for the continued use of a team name born in Boston in the midst of the Great Depression. Even with better days promised with a new start in D.C., Marshall held on to the Redskins name, kept the uniforms and logo. He may not have liked his history in Boston, but he found it conveniently portable, and no doubt economical.

The movie industry of that era, and for years more, fashioned the killing of Indians as acts of heroism, if not a form of sport. The term redskins was widely accepted.

The Globe in the spring of ’33, less than six weeks before Marshall chose the Redskins name, published an Associated Press story with a Bedford, Pa., dateline, detailing a ceremony that honored seven Pennsylvania Rangers for their bravery when faced with “the tomahawks of the redskins’’ in 1760. The report noted “the treacherous braves infesting the region’’ in that time and how “the redmen continued their barbarity.’’

So, American mind-set toward Indians wasn’t shaped solely by the silver screen and popular culture, but also by the media.

“Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show . . . all they did was kill Indians,’’ said Bell, again reflecting on the past. “And you know, America loved it. Go look at what Teddy Roosevelt said about the Indians: He wanted them slaughtered tomorrow. When you look at Marshall, when you really look at him and study him, he was P.T. Barnum. His whole thing was to keep it going, get ’em under the tent . . . even if we have to bring in some phony football coach that’s not an Indian, do it!’’

George Preston Marshall died Aug. 9, 1969, and was buried in Romney, W.Va., at Indian Mound Cemetery. Something about Indians will be with him forever. No telling if that will be true for the team that plays on under the name he gave it in Boston.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.
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