Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Stewart Udall made certain that the Redskins, through trades and the draft, added color to their roster in the early ’60s. Udall wasn’t the team’s general manager at the time. He was the secretary of the interior.
The Redskins can celebrate the 40th anniversary of the team’s integration with next month’s NFL draft. The Skins were, by several years, the last team to sign a black player, and would have stayed all-white even longer had Udall not forced owner George Preston Marshall to do so. It is believed to be the only time in U.S. history that the government dictated a player personnel move to a professional sports franchise.
Udall made a federal case out of the Redskins’ integration shortly after being named by President John F. Kennedy to take over the Department of the Interior. Aside from Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, Udall was the youngest member of the Camelot Cabinet. He is far better remembered for establishing such programs as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and for the four national parks and 56 wildlife refuges founded during his nine years on the job. Even for just being Mo Udall’s brother.
But the longtime civil servant, now 82 and living in Santa Fe, N.M., deserves some time in the limelight for his role in ending the discriminatory ways of D.C.’s football team.
“Clearly, something had to be done about the Redskins,” Udall recalls. “It was ridiculous that the football team in the nation’s capital was refusing to have any black players. It had become infamous. So many years after Jackie Robinson, everybody was asking, ‘What the hell is the NFL doing?’”
And Udall decided to get some answers to that question. That meant taking on Marshall, who had become a powerful figure in both football and political circles since moving the team here from Boston in 1937.
For decades, Marshall, a West Virginia native, had the only major professional sports franchise south of the Mason-Dixon Line. And he marketed the team to exploit that monopoly. The Redskins under Marshall were a regional franchise as much as they were Washington’s team: The original chorus to “Hail to the Redskins,” a song written by Marshall’s second wife, Corinne Griffith, ended with the line, “Fight for old Dixie!” not D.C. And though the NFL had been integrated since 1946, Marshall had long alleged that he kept blacks off the roster to appease his fan base.
Udall didn’t care about the motivation behind Marshall’s racist policies. He just wanted them to end.
“My lawyers [at Interior] came to me and said we could make the Redskins integrate,” says Udall from his home. “My first reaction was I wasn’t sure that we had any control over the situation. Then I thought about the stadium.”
“The stadium” was then known as D.C. Stadium. It was slated to become the new home of the Redskins beginning in the 1961 season, replacing Griffith Stadium, which was located near Florida and Georgia Avenues NW. D.C. Stadium was built on federal land and with the government money that Marshall had pried from his friends in Congress. Udall decided that Marshall wouldn’t be getting the new digs unless he changed his ways.
Udall says he wasn’t sure how the president would react to making the Redskins’ integration a front-burner issue. So he didn’t tell the boss about his Marshall plan.
“Jack Kennedy wanted to do a lot of things, but he was always looking at the next election,” says Udall. “He’d carried the South, but I got the impression he didn’t really want to roil the order there. I didn’t discuss [the Redskins] with the president, but I went to Bobby [Kennedy], and the attorney general just told me, ‘Go get ’em! Make him do it!’ So I did.”
Marshall didn’t go along quietly. When informed of Udall’s stadium ultimatum, Marshall whined that his integration campaign was “anti-South” and threatened to get pal Joseph Kennedy, the first father, involved with the aim of putting the secretary of the interior out of a job. And from the start, Udall says, the Skins owner lived down to his reputation as an all-around no-goodnick.
“The word about Marshall was that he wasn’t just anti-Semitic or racist,” Udall says. “The guy hated everybody but the whores.”
Whatever his nature, Marshall’s hardball tactics bought him a short reprieve. Udall agreed to let the Redskins play one season at D.C. Stadium in exchange for a pledge that by 1962 the roster would be integrated. The 1961 season, the last as an all-white outfit, was memorable only for its horridness: The team went 1-12-1, the worst record in franchise history. Home crowds were small, and pickets organized by the NAACP were a fixture at Redskins games.
With the top pick in the 1962 draft, the Redskins took Ernie Davis from Syracuse, the first black Heisman Trophy winner. But Marshall never signed Davis, who had also been drafted in the first round by Buffalo of the fledgling American Football League. Instead, the owner traded the rights to the running back to Cleveland for two black players, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Jackson, the Browns top pick. (Davis developed leukemia and died without ever playing a down in the NFL.)
Mitchell, by virtue of the Hall of Fame career he had in Washington, usually gets credit for breaking the Redskins’ color barrier. But that designation actually belongs to Ron Hatcher, a fullback from Michigan State who was taken in the eighth round of the 1962 draft and given a Redskins contract before the trade for Mitchell was completed.
Hatcher, now living in Lansing, Mich., says he was unprepared for the publicity circus that greeted him when he came to D.C. to sign his $10,000-a-year contract, with an additional $3,500 worth of bonuses.
“I was too young to know all the implications of what was going on,” says Hatcher. “I was just out of college, and I wasn’t a worldly person. Things were happening too fast around me to take it all in, really. The strangest part came after the season actually started, when I found out I was one of the higher-paid guys on the team and was making more than guys who’d been in the league for a while. I guess somebody with the Redskins felt pressure to make sure I signed.”
Marshall didn’t show up at Hatcher’s signing.
For the home opener of the 1962 season, Udall called up Marshall’s office and asked if he could watch the newly integrated squad from one of D.C. Stadium’s boxes. Udall was initially surprised that the request was approved.
“But they gave me a box high in some far end of the field,” Udall says with a laugh. “It had to be the worst box in the stadium.”
Udall’s opening-day guests included Earl Warren, Byron “Whizzer” White, and several other members of the Supreme Court. Although his memories of the game, a 24-14 Redskins win over the Cardinals, are spare, there was one play that Udall says he’ll never forget.
“[Quarterback] Norm Snead threw a bomb that Bobby Mitchell made a marvelous, over-the-shoulder catch on for a long touchdown,” Udall says. “And after the score, in the stands around us this large black man stood up and in a very loud voice says, ‘Thank God for Mr. Udall!’”
Udall was instrumental in renaming the Skins’ home venue after Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 assassination. Marshall died in 1969. A memorial of the former owner stood outside the stadium until last year, when it was removed by order of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which operates the stadium. No local takers stepped forward to claim the memorial. —Dave McKenna