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TO BE SEEN SEEING THE REDSKINS
Edwin Shrake
October 04, 1965
The team is impressive socially, if not athletically, and Washington's elite turns out on Sundays
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October 04, 1965

To Be Seen Seeing The Redskins

The team is impressive socially, if not athletically, and Washington's elite turns out on Sundays

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When you come down East Capitol Street from town early on a Sunday afternoon, passing through the eyeball gauntlet of kids on row-house porches, suddenly there is D.C. Stadium—gray marble and white steel and concrete in sweeping Bowditch curves, a thing that looks ready for flight, as if it is pausing briefly in a pasture before taking off again. Since this is Washington with its notorious climate, the stadium is likely to be hugged in smoldering wetness during September and October and later in the year pelted by snow that somehow feels colder and wetter than snow ought. The fog in the bottoms where the stadium rests is at times so thick that a game can be followed only by listening to the shouts and crashes from the murk. But the people come. They may come by limousine from Maryland or Virginia or Spring Valley, by taxi from the hotels, by foot or bus from the poorer sections, but they come. They come partly to see the Washington Redskins and partly to be seen seeing them, a providential situation because quite a bit about the Redskins is not worth looking at.

The Redskins' opening game with the Cleveland Browns was sold out by the first week in August. The game was played on a day that had a jungle-rot feel, a day when paper matches faded onto shirt pockets and mascara ran like ink, and players occasionally could not find the strength to run at all. The receivers had difficulty holding a ball that was slick with perspiration, and the passers had little better fortune throwing it, and you knew it was going to be that sort of day when you woke up and saw the heat being mashed down by the heavy air of the Potomac River valley. And yet a crowd of 48,208 showed up to suffer with the Redskins. Many undoubtedly were beguiled by preseason publicity that billed this as the best Redskin team in years, which is true but is not saying a whole lot. But for every person who came as a believer there was another who came because the stadium is the place to be on Sunday afternoon when the Redskins are in town. The popularity of professional football granted, a Redskin home game is a social event.

The President stays away out of deference to those who believe vigorous activity on Sunday afternoon is fiddling with the devil. But Luci Baines Johnson was there for the opener, surrounded by men who looked like former Knox College tackles. Chief Justice Earl Warren sat in one of the owners' boxes. Justice "Whizzer" White, who has a lifetime pass, was there, and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, and Justice Tom Clark, and Senators Symington and Magnuson—in fact, more Senators and Representatives than would ever admit having known Bobby Baker, who would have been there but had no tickets. Nobody could have enjoyed being exposed to that weather and watching a game that would have embarrassed the Canton Bulldogs. In the stands, where the pastel seats slanting up to the bowl rim give you the sensation of being inside a giant ceramic ashtray, it was a mass steam bath, with everyone overdressed for it. "Look at this," said Dr. Joseph Bailey, a prominent heart specialist, pointing to the red stain left on his shirt by a sweated-through tie. "My wife is going to think this is lipstick." The crowd booed Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, and the Redskins lost 17-7. "I was lousy today, but I've been booed worse than this," Jurgensen said. "I made a national hero out of King Hill when I was in Philadelphia." But the people were there, and they will be for six more Sunday afternoons this autumn whether the Redskins win or lose.

The fans of a pro football team are a mirror of the city. When you imagine a fan of the Rams you think of him driving up to the Coliseum in his convertible and sitting in the smog in polo shirt and dark glasses with a girl who either is or should be a go-go dancer. You see a Giants fan hustling off the subway with his toboggan cap and thermos. Or a fan of the Cowboys arriving at the Cotton Bowl looking very white-collar with his Junior League wife. Although a large portion of the crowd at D.C. Stadium reflects the rising Negro population of the District, the heart of it is white, upward of middle class and oriented in some way, of course, toward the government—politicians, lobbyists, generals, career men. "We could get a quorum of the House any time we ring a bell," says Redskin Official Dave Slattery. A Redskin ticket confers automatic status, the degree of status being dependent on what section the ticket is in. At a game last year eight Supreme Court Justices were in the same high-status section. The concept of achieving status by paying $6 for a pro football ticket is no accident. "The old man made it social," says Washington Attorney Doc Law, referring to the team's founder, George Preston Marshall. "He wanted class people in the ball park."

One thing you do not do if you are really in there with the class people in Washington is come to the stadium without a necktie, unless the weather makes the wearing an excessive cruelty. "I've been debating with myself for a week about whether I can wear my gold sport shirt to the opener," said Slattery, the night before the Cleveland game. "I want to be sure the shirt looks all right with my Redskin jacket. I wouldn't want to dishonor this jacket in any way." Slattery stroked his palms along his Redskin blazer, which is the color of a squashed plum, and then looked down at a burgundy necktie that had a tiny Indian head on it. The Indian is from no particular tribe but seems fierce enough. "It took me 10 days to decide on the exact color to order for these ties," Slattery said. "I can't make our players play like Redskins, but I can make them dress like Redskins."

As Slattery spoke, the voice of the Browns owner, Art Modell, sounded from a nearby ballroom at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel. "My good friends," Modell was saying, "this great game...means a lot...." Modell was making a speech at a party given in his honor by the Redskins and their new president, the criminal lawyer Edward Bennett Williams. Five musicians in blue coats with shiny black lapels waited for Modell to finish, and the crowd, which included a few generals and politicians, stood among rubber elephant ears, gilt mirrors and electric candles. The waiters had passed out platters of shrimp, cheese balls and egg rolls. Williams, himself, had been dancing what could have been a polka and shouting, "Hey, Art!"

" Williams is a very smart man," said Slattery, whose title is Assistant to the President. "He's probably got the old man beat all over the place when it comes to brains. When Mr. Marshall kicked a decision he kicked it from here to Dallas. But this league will never see another man with Mr. Marshall's vision. He was mainly responsible for legalizing the forward pass from anywhere behind the line, for moving the goalposts to the goal line, for getting the tackle-eligible play ruled out—he said that play was cheating, since the fans couldn't spot it—and for setting up the league in two divisions. He even voted against his own team by voting for the draft when the Redskins were strong. He was afraid of domination by one powerful team in New York, and he was for anything that would equalize the teams in the league. Here at home he insisted on giving the people a show. He used to walk around the office singing the tunes we were going to play at half time, testing them out."

If Marshall, now an invalid and president emeritus of the Redskins, had a particular preoccupation it was with the quality of his half-time shows—especially the Christmas show. It is a Redskin tradition to have Santa arrive each year in a different and highly secret fashion. One year, shortly after World War II, Santa visited the old Griffith Stadium by leaping out of a helicopter in a parachute. Unfortunately, Santa landed on the roof of a house near the stadium, and the neighborhood kids thought he was the real thing. The Chicken Club—an irreverent social organization with members in Washington and Dallas—tried to spoil the Christmas show in 1961 by salting the field with chicken feed and unloosing a dozen crates of chickens in front of Santa's husky dog team. That attempt failed when a Chicken Clubber, mistaking the Redskin general manager of that time, Dick McCann, for an usher, said, "Here, boy, here's $100 to keep your mouth shut about them chickens in the dugout." Slattery gets damp-eyed angry remembering that incident and one the following year when the Chicken Club did manage to get chickens onto the field during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. But little else has gone wrong with Redskin entertainment. The club owns $35,000 worth of band equipment, has 22 professional musicians working at union rates, employs two dozen dancing Redskinettes, brings in visiting bands, pays $600 a week to singers and $675 a week for arrangements and furnishes $100 worth of hot dogs and soft drinks during weekly rehearsals. Those things were Marshall's doing and his concern. In 1960, when a blizzard delayed the Giants game for 45 minutes and the weight of the snow made it impossible to get the cover off the field, Marshall told the Giants' owner, Jack Mara, "I hope our tubas don't freeze."

The Redskins moved into the new D.C. Stadium in 1961 and began an upturn that was slow and uneven until last year when their 6-8 record was their best since 1956. The new stadium was one factor in the revival, since it holds nearly 20,000 more than Griffith Stadium did and provides extra money for scouting and signing, practices in which Washington is just now beginning to compete. To insure that the stadium would be filled and that he would not lose his class audience, Marshall insisted that the seats be 21 inches wide (rather than 18 inches) and have backrests—a double concession to ladies who, Marshall believed, have bad backs and also enjoy wearing fur coats. The wider seats took up space that could have held 5,000 more people.

The new stadium is in line with the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, so the National Commission of Fine Arts required that the lights be hidden below the curling rim so as not to disturb tourists. Marshall agreed to that easily enough, but it was his final concession that was his big one. Marshall had steadfastly resisted having Negro players on the Redskins (one columnist called the team the Palefaces), and Secretary Udall warned that the Redskins might be barred from the new stadium unless Marshall consented to accept Negroes. Finally, on Dec. 14, 1961, the Redskins announced a trade for Bobby Mitchell of the Browns, and the main step in the Skins' rejuvenation had been taken. The man who most influenced Marshall's decision was his old friend Edward Bennett Williams, who had just become a stockholder and had been named Man of the Year in Harlem for 1960. Williams was presented his award at the Hotel Theresa by Adam Clayton Powell, the Harlem Congressman whom Williams had got acquitted on an income-tax-evasion charge. " Edward Bennett Williams is a greater man than Abraham Lincoln," Powell told his audience that night. " Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but Edward Bennett Williams freed Adam Clayton Powell."

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