Marshall, George Preston
MARSHALL, George Preston
(b. 11 October 1896 in Grafton, West Virginia; d. 9 August 1969 in Washington, D.C.), flamboyant businessman and professional sports entrepreneur who originated many of the ideas that made the National Football League a popular and commercial success.
Marshall was the only child of T. Hill Marshall, the publisher of West Virginia's Grafton Leader and the owner of a Washington, D.C., laundry, and Blanche Preston (Sebrell) Marshall, a homemaker. After graduating from Friends Select School in Washington, D.C., Marshall briefly attended Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, before beginning a theater apprenticeship as a stock company player. Although he lacked great acting skills, Marshall enjoyed performing before an audience and learned the importance of publicity and showmanship.
Marshall considered a career in theater management, but he was drafted into the military during World War I in 1918. By the time of his discharge in 1919, he had inherited his father's laundry business. Launching an aggressive advertising campaign under the motto "Long Live Linen," Marshall expanded the company into a chain of fifty-seven stores.
During this business success, Marshall retained some ties to his theatrical past. In 1920 he married Elizabeth Mortensen, a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer; they had two children. Marshall associated with other show-business personalities and occasionally produced local theater. He also became interested in sports promotion. In 1925 he founded the Washington Palace Five of the short-lived American Basketball League. Marshall also promoted automobile racing at New York's Roosevelt Raceway.
In 1932 Marshall and three partners purchased a National Football League (NFL) franchise in Boston. They named the team the Braves because they shared a stadium with the baseball team of that name. Marshall hoped to use the Native American imagery associated with the team's name and his own sense of showmanship to create interest in the Braves. The team members occasionally played in war paint and had publicity photos taken in feathered headdresses. Still, the public remained cool. The Braves lost $46,000 the first year. Marshall bought out his partners before the start of the 1933 season, moved the team across town to Fenway Park, and renamed them the Redskins. The team continued to lose money.
Although the Redskins were not a financial success in Boston, Marshall immediately became a leader of the NFL. He believed the key to football's success was to score points and generate excitement. To do this he suggested moving the goalposts from the back of the end zone to the goal line to make field-goal kicking easier. Marshall proposed legalizing the forward pass from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, as well as moving the ball out from the sidelines to hash marks nearer the middle of the field at the end of each play. Finally, Marshall suggested splitting the league into two divisions and having the winners meet in a post-season championship game. All of these suggestions were implemented.
Marshall's influence on professional football may have been felt in one other area as well. Since the founding of the NFL in 1920, African-American players, although rare, had been an accepted part of the game. Following the 1933 season, the league became segregated. This change apparently was enforced through a gentleman's agreement. No formal rule barring African-American players was ever passed or even discussed at league meetings. Most football historians believe Marshall was the leader in segregating the NFL.
In 1935 Marshall divorced Mortensen, and on 20 June 1936 he married the silent film star Corinne Griffith, a woman whose theatrical sense matched his own. Griffith brought two adopted children into the marriage, and she played a large role in changing the Redskins' fortunes. They later divorced in 1957.
The 1936 Redskins were the first of Marshall's teams to reach the championship game. Despite their high quality of play, fans in Boston continued to be few. Griffith urged Marshall to move the championship game to New York, where the Redskins lost to Wisconsin's Green Bay Packers 21–6, and then to permanently relocate the team to Washington, D.C., in 1937. Marshall had a lot of contacts in Washington because of his laundry. He was known to support congressional representation for the District of Columbia, and he had been involved in the arts community. Marshall's wife helped to create a volunteer Redskins marching band, with a team fight song, and to choreograph elaborate halftime shows, including an annual arrival of Santa Claus. Marshall's Redskins played in an almost collegiate atmosphere. For many Washington politicians, bureaucrats, and military personnel, the Redskins became a substitute alma mater, linking the transient community together. Soon tickets were hard to find, and trainloads of fans appeared at away games.
Another reason for the Redskins' success was the 1937 drafting of Sammy Baugh from Texas Christian University. Marshall dressed up the urbanized Baugh as a Texas cowboy for the media. Baugh was one of the greatest players of all time. With his passing and punting and the running of backs like Cliff Battles, the Redskins became consistent winners. During their first nine years in Washington, Marshall's team played in five championship games, winning two. Marshall basked in the limelight of his winning team. He came to games dressed in a full-length raccoon coat and berated officials, coaches, and players. Even though he had little football experience, he tried to make on-the-field decisions for his team, hiring and firing coaches, signing players, and making trades almost on a whim. Marshall sold off his laundry business in 1945 so he could focus exclusively on football.
With the end of World War II, the Redskins' fortunes began to decline. In 1946 the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns broke the gentleman's agreement and reintegrated professional football. Marshall refused to go along. For years he would not even give tryouts to African-American players. From an economic standpoint, this policy may have made sense. Marshall was one of the first NFL owners to recognize the potential for television revenue. Because they were the only team south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the Redskins were able to create a network of southern stations to carry their games. Teaching the marching band to play "Dixie," drafting primarily southern players, and keeping the team all-white helped to sell Marshall's team to the South. But cutting the Redskins off from the African-American talent that other teams were using hurt the team on the field. After appearing in six championship games in ten years, the Redskins did not appear in any during the last twenty-three years of Marshall's life. In fact, they only had three winning seasons.
In 1962, under pressure from President John F. Kennedy's administration, Marshall finally signed his first African-American players. It was one of his last football decisions. In 1963 a stroke left Marshall unable to manage the Redskins. Three court-appointed conservators ran the team until his death from hemiphlagia, a heart ailment that in Marshall's case was compounded by diabetes.
Marshall was one of seventeen charter members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. He also originated the Pro Bowl, an annual showcase for the game's All-Stars.
Marshall's impact on professional football was unique. He was the first team owner to see football more as a form of entertainment than a sport. Generating excitement, filling seats, and building interest were as important to him as wins and losses. Viewers of the televised pageantry of Super Bowls at the end of the twentieth century saw football the way Marshall wanted it played. In fact, he advocated a warm-weather championship game held at a neutral site years before it became a reality. At the same time, Marshall's bigotry overshadowed his positive contributions to the game.
Memorabilia and newspaper clippings about Marshall's career are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. For the best account of how Marshall ran the Redskins and his role in the NFL, see the reflections of his second wife, Corinne Griffith, My Life with the Redskins (1947). Additional information about Marshall is in George Sullivan, Pro Football's All Time Greats (1968); Thom Loverro, The Washington Redskins: The Authorized History (1996); and Richard Whittingham, Hail Redskins: A Celebration of the Greatest Players, Teams, and Coaches (2001). Obituaries are in the Washington Post and New York Times (both 10 Aug. 1969).
Harold W. Aurand, Jr.