In 1961, 50 years ago, the Nation Football League expanded to 14 teams and 14 regular season games. The league signed its first joint television package with CBS. Washington District of Columbia Stadium opened. And the 1961 Washington Redskins played there as the NFL’s last segregated team.
Born in 1932 as the Boston Braves, the Redskins were part of the NFL when the league established an unwritten color barrier excluding African-Americans in 1934. Though league owners denied that one existed no NFL team signed an African-American until the Los Angeles Rams signed halfback Kenny Washington and end Woody Strode to contracts under pressure from the L.A. Coliseum board in 1946. The 1932 and ’33 Braves did not have any African-Americans on their roster and Washington Redskin team owner George Preston Marshall refused to sign them during the leagues segregated years or after 1946. So going into the ’61 season the team was still all white.
Marshall had many reason for not signing African-Americans, none of which made sense. He fashioned Washington the team of the south. The original lyrics to ‘Hail to the Redskins’ included the line ‘fight for old Dixie.’ In later years Dixie was changed to D.C. Marshall felt that signing African-Americans would hurt his fan base and cause problems when the team barnstormed in the south.
Marshall was steadfast in his beliefs and was not afraid to say so. In the NFL highlight video ’75 Seasons’ Redskins hall of fame quarterback Sammy Baugh says that whenever Marshall was asked when he would sign blacks his reply was, ‘We will play black players when the Harlem Globetrotters play white players.’ Though it was true that the Globetrotters were all black, their owner was a Jewish man named Abe Saperstein. Marshall never mentioned this.
As for the rest of pro football, 83 African-Americans were on the other 13 NFL rosters in 1961 and every team in the two-year old American Football League was integrated. This included three NFL teams in the south, the Baltimore Colts, Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Cardinals and two in the AFL the Dallas Texans and Houston Oilers.
But pressure was mounting for (and against) Marshall to sign African-Americans from the public and Capitol Hill. Picketers for integration carried signs with things such as:
‘Redskins. White skins. How about some brown skins?’
And those against:
‘Mr. Marshall keep Redskins white!’
Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich was a staunch supporter of integration and took every chance he could to call Marshall on the carpet in print. A famous article he wrote after a 1960 Redskins-Cleveland Browns game can be found by clicking the link in the previous sentence.
The pressure from Capitol Hill made Marshall give in and agree to sign African-Americans. According to Michael MacCambridge’s book ‘America’s Game’, because D.C. Stadium was built on federal land as part of the National Capital Parks System it had rules forbidding discrimination in hiring. Using this rule, the secretary of the interior at that time, Steward Udall, forced Marshall to make a deal or risk being banned from the new stadium.
After some posturing and a couple of talks with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, Marshall agreed to a deal that would allow the Redskins to play in D.C. Stadium in 1961 under the condition that they would become integrated beginning in 1962.
This did nothing to help the 1961 Redskins. In his first year as the team’s head coach Bill McPeak fielded a team with very little talent and finished with a record of one win 12 losses and one tie.
The team was led by number one draft pick quarterback Norm Snead of Wake Forest. He started every game of the 1961 season and in the words of McPeak ‘took a beating.’ Snead finished the season with 2,337 passing yards, 11 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions. He also fumbled six times.
The teams leading rusher was number 47 Dick James. He rushed for a grand total of 374 yards and scored three touchdowns. James scored two more touchdowns receiving to lead the team with five. James also played defensive back and returned kicks.
The top receiver was end Fred Dugan who caught 53 passes for 817 yards and four touchdowns.
The Redskins offense was so bad that they only scored 174 points an average of 12 a game. This placed them last in scoring. To put those 174 points in context, Green Bay Packer Paul Hornung set a league record the year before by scoring 176 points himself, two more than the entire 1961 Redskins. And he did it in a 12 game schedule compared to 14 for the ‘Skins.
The defense wasn’t much better. The top performers were safeties Jim Kerr who led the team with seven interceptions and Dale Hackbart who had six. Washington finished next to last in points allowed while giving up 392. Only the expansion Minnesota Vikings gave up more.
Washington had no one in the top five in any positive offensive category, though James ranked second in kickoff returns. On defense, Kerr finished in the top ten statistically as he ranked tied for fifth in interceptions. Hackbart tied for second in interceptions returned for touchdowns with two. The team’s only award winner was defensive tackle Bob Toneff who made the ‘Sporting News’ All-Pro first team and the Pro Bowl.
The highlight for the Redskins was when John Aveni kicked a 52 yard field goal, the longest of the NFL season.
All of this led to a 0-9 start. Washington lost the first game played at D.C. Stadium to the Giants 24-21 on October 1, 1961 in front of 36,767 fans. When the teams met again on November 5 at Yankee Stadium Snead was sacked for an early safety by Giants defensive tackle Dick Modzelewski and the Giants crushed the Redskins 53-0. This game was the last of a string in which the Redskins were shut out three times in four games.The losing streak ended with a 28-28 tie against the Cowboys in Dallas on November 19. Snead scored on two short runs and threw a touchdown pass in that game.
The team did not win its first game of the season or at D.C. Stadium until the finale in which they beat Dallas 34-24 on December 17. James was the star of this game as he scored four of his season total five touchdowns. In fact, James scored more touchdowns in this game than anyone except Fred Dugan did the entire season.
Washington’s miserable 1961 season had come to an end. It was their second consecutive one win season. They finished with fewer wins than the second year Cowboys who won four and the expansion Vikings who won three.
Marshall signed four African-American players to the team in 1962. They were halfback Bobby Mitchell, fullback Ron Hatcher, guard John Nisby and halfback Leroy Jackson.
And the 1961 Redskins took their place as the last segregated team in NFL history.