The Way It Was: An infamous day in D.C.

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It was the worst day in the history of the Washington Redskins - far worse than their 73-0 rout by the Chicago Bears in the NFL championship game 364 days earlier or the losses that would come decades later in Super Bowls VII and XVIII. This day brought a victory for the team but a terrible defeat for the nation.

The date was Dec. 7, 1941 - “a date that will live in infamy” President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it the following day when he asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan. Later that week, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. All told, the toll from Pearl Harbor was 119 ships sunk or damaged and 2,300 deaths.

The first bombs were falling in Hawaii about the time (2 p.m. EST) the Redskins were kicking off to the Philadelphia Eagles at Griffith Stadium in the final game of a disappointing season. There were 27,102 fans in Washington’s old ballpark at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW, including many members of the capital’s power structure.

It is a myth that the NFL didn’t become big time until television and the sudden-death championship game between the Colts and Giants in the 1950s. The Redskins had been very big in town since arriving from Boston in 1937 and winning the league championship in their first season. This crowd was the smallest home gathering of the season - Griffith Stadium held about 35,000 for football - which could be attributed to the team’s worst record (5-5) in five years.

Word of the surprise attack by Japan - her envoys had been in the District the previous day for talks with Secretary of State Cordell Hull - came a few minutes into the first quarter when the Associated Press told its reporter in the press box: “Keep it short.” A few minutes later, his office provided more information in an incongruously hokey manner: “The Japanese have kicked off. War now!”

Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, fearing a panic, never informed the crowd. However, the ominous word spread quickly as the public address system repeatedly summoned Washington’s movers and shakers to their offices.

“We didn’t know what the hell was going on,” Redskins star Sammy Baugh told Sports Illustrated decades later. “We felt something was up, but we just kept playing.”

Although most government officials and newsmen left before the game ended, most ordinary fans stayed to cheer the Redskins’ 20-14 victory. They erupted when rookie end Joe Aguirre, who had kicked off to start the game, caught Baugh’s third touchdown pass for the game-winning points in the fourth quarter.

Baugh, of course, was the finest passer in NFL history to that point (as well as the league’s best punter and a fine defensive back). Operating as a tailback in coach Ray Flaherty’s single-wing - still the offense of choice for most NFL teams despite the Bears’ spectacular success with the newfangled T-formation - Slingin’ Sam completed 17 of 35 passes for 258 yards in a typical performance.

Baugh spent the rest of the war raising cattle for the war effort on his Texas ranch and joined the Redskins only for games on the weekend. He played 16 seasons, then a record, before retiring in 1952 and stands with Senators fireballer Walter Johnson as the greatest athletes in D.C. sports history.

But for Baugh and everyone else at Griffith Stadium that day, an era truly ended. Ahead lay such cataclysmic World War II events as the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima, the death of America’s only four-term president with the end of the war in sight and, finally, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After that came the Cold War, Baby Boomers, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. National leaders would be assassinated so often that such news became practically routine. And the District went from being a rather sleepy town to the bustling capital of the free world, as well as an unenviable leader in crime and traffic jams.

As the spectators entered Griffith Stadium on Dec. 7, 1941, the world might have seemed a rather pleasant, if increasingly menacing, place. When they departed, it was into an uncertain and ominous future in which football and other sports were merely diversions. The Redskins would endure and win championships again - but in a vastly different, virtually incomprehensible world.

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