Football and Baseball

I was hanging out at one of my regular message boards this week when I stumbled across a post entitled “Things you didn’t know were real until you were an adult”. Posters admitted to all sorts of youthful naivete, like thinking that lobotomies were something made up for books and movies, or that “Jews for Jesus” was just a Richard Belzer joke, or not knowing that “cavalry” and “Calvary” were two different words.

One of the posters – who is not a sports fan – admitted that he had no idea there were two teams named the “Giants”: a baseball team and a football team.

Yes, there are two sports teams called the “Giants”. What’s more, they originally played in the same city: from 1883 to 1957, the baseball team was the New York Giants. In 1925, the NFL’s New York Giants team was born. To avoid confusion, they were often called the “New York Football Giants”, something you still hear sportscasters like Joe Buck say from time to time, even though the baseball team moved to San Francisco in 1958.

In the early days of the NFL, it was common to name NFL teams after long-established baseball teams. The Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, were known as the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1933 to 1940. In 1934, there was an NFL team called the Cincinnati Reds. There was an NFL teams known as the New York Yankees (1926-1928), the Brooklyn Dodgers (1930-1943) and the Cleveland Indians (1931.) There were at least two baseball teams with the Washington Senators name, the inspiration for the Washington Senators football team, which played a single season in 1921… when the NFL was still called the American Professional Football Association.

But one of the most interesting stories of all – especially given the current controversy – involves the Washington Redskins. Four men bought the rights to a Boston team in 1932. They named their team after the Boston Braves, a local baseball team (which moved to Milwaukee in 1953 and then Atlanta in 1966).

As it turned out, the football team lost $46,000 in its first year, the equivalent of $805,000 in today’s money. So three of the investors bailed, leaving George Preston Marshall as the sole owner. The next year, Marshall hired a new head coach, a Native American named Lone Star Dietz. He also signed many Native American players. But the players objected to the “Braves” name, so Marshall named them the “Boston Redskins” instead. And the Native American players were apparently OK with this: the 1933 team photo featured the entire team in warpaint and feathers.

I find this interesting. You could say that this was a different era, a time when American society would look at football players wearing warpaint or feathers and not only not object, but probably say something like “that’s cool!”. At the same time, it’s not like pro football paid big money back then. I’m not sure what kind of racism Native Americans would have experienced in Massachusetts, but almost any other job would have paid more money than being an NFL player. I bet restaurant dishwashers or taxi drivers made more money than most NFL players back then. My point being: this wasn’t a situation like, say, North Dakota, where Native Americans were forced to engage in stereotypical ways for tourists out of economic necessity.

It’s also interesting because Marshall was known for being the most racist owner in the entire NFL. While the rest of the league began signing black players in 1946 (and actively seeking them out in drafts in 1949), Marshall refused to sign any black players. Part of this was the situation Marshall was in: his was the southernmost NFL team, and the Redskins were popular from Virginia south to northern Florida, and west to Mississippi. Given the racial situation in the South at the time, Marshall was hesitant to anger his fanbase by signing a black player… even if he hadn’t been a racist bastard personally, which he most certainly was. Marshall didn’t sign a black player until 1962, and that was because Attorney General Robert Kennedy forced him to: the Redskins played at D.C. Stadium, which had been built by the local D.C. government, which was an arm of the federal government. Kennedy threatened to revoke the Redskins’ lease if Marshall didn’t sign a black player. So he did.

Marshall knew about angering his fan base, though. In 1936, the Boston Redskins were on their way to the playoffs. Marshall, eager to cash in, hiked ticket prices from 50¢ to 75¢ on the day of the game… without telling anyone in advance. Hundreds of fans refused to pay Marshall’s jacked-up price and boycotted outside the stadium. Local media sided with the fans, and dedicated rivers of ink to call Marshall out on his shenanigans. This, of course, angered Marshall. It angered him so much that he actually moved the next game – the NFL Championship Game! – to New York… making this the very first “neutral site” game in NFL history. His team ended up losing to the Packers, 21-6, by the way.

As it turned out, Marshall had had enough of Boston. He happened to own a chain of dry cleaners in DC, so the next season he moved the team to the nation’s capital. And that, as they say, was that.

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