Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Political Venue: The History of RFK Stadium, Part Five

When Bobby Mitchell came

After deciding to make the Redskins a new home in DC, the government decided to get in George Preston Marshall's business. One way or another, a black player was coming to this team. Curly R's special series on the history of RFK Stadium continues.

Part One: Faded Glory
Part Two: Government Intervention
Part Three: Football and Race
Part Four: A Complex Relationship
Part Five: Ernie Davis, Bobby Mitchell and Ron Hatcher
Part Six: Wednesday
Part Seven: Thursday
Part Eight: Friday


The 1961 NFL season opened for the Redskins with two games on the road before their first game in their new home, the price tag of which had risen to twenty-four million dollars. When Sunday 1 October 1961 finally rolled around, the Redskins lost to the New York Giants in a game that featured Washington scoring three touchdowns in the first quarter behind rookie quarterback Norm Snead to take a commanding 21-7 lead. The Redskins would not score again as New York quarterback YA Tittle led the Giants to seventeen unanswered points.

More than thirty-seven thousand people attended the game, sixteen thousand more than had attended either the 1960 season opener or closer.

Media opinion of the new stadium itself was mixed; DC Stadium was the first of a new breed of stadiums and most viewed it somewhat as a curiosity; its nonstandard lines were off-putting to some and the reflection of noise back from the cantilevered roof was instantly noticeable to others.

There were others at this inaugural game besides fans and media: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people. Angry NAACP supporters picketed the stadium over the team's lack of black players, fifteen years as it was after black players came back to the NFL following the 1933 lockout, and nine years after the next to last team had begun using players of any color on its roster.

Still unsatisfied with the team's position on integration, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall pledged publicly following that first game in DC Stadium that he would personally boycott Redskins games as long as the NAACP continued picketing, which was of course by the NAACP's own position until such time as the Redskins signed black players to the active roster.

It was two more long months before the 1962 draft was held, during which time the Redskins went 0-4 in DC Stadium, averaging nine points per game on offense. When the 1962 NFL Draft was finally held on December 4, 1961, the Redskins famously drafted Ernie Davis first overall. Ernie, a Syracuse tailback, was the first black football player ever to win the Heisman Trophy and was highly coveted in both the NFL and AFL. A bidding war for his services was expected to ensue between the two leagues.

As the story goes, the Redskins traded Ernie's rights less than two weeks later to the Cleveland Browns. In a sad twist of fate, Ernie would never play a down in the NFL, he was diagnosed with leukemia in the 1962 offseason and would succumb to the illness a year later in 1963. In exchange for Ernie, the Redskins would receive Bobby Mitchell, a tailback and flanker who would come to revitalize the Redskins franchise, Bobby was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1983 and remained in the Redskins organization altogether for more than forty years.

But before that trade even happened, something else memorable happened following the draft: The Redskins signed their first black player, eighth round pick Ron Hatcher, a tailback out of Michigan State. Ron was not heralded, and certainly would never have garnered the headlines of an Ernie Davis, still he will always be remembered as the first black player signed by the Redskins, the last team to include players of color in its roster. Ron would appear in three games, amassing no plays for no yards in his one year NFL career.

The cynical eye may regard Ron as the exact token black that Bobby Kennedy and Stewart Udall had no interest in seeing.

Political Venue: The History of RFK Stadium continues tomorrow with part six, Palace Intrigue.

RFK Stadium: Dudley Brooks / Washington Post photo from here via here.




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