- The Washington Times - Monday, September 16, 2002

The way it was

"Some say it might be good to watch once, but people won't go back week after week because the game is too imperfect. Everybody on the field is great. College football is more interesting."
Thus did one Washington sports columnist herald the arrival of pro football in the nation's capital on the night of Sept. 16, 1937. Guess what? he was wrong. Yet when flamboyant businessman George Preston Marshall hijacked the Redskins out of Boston to his hometown, there was ample reason for skepticism.
Maryland, George Washington, Georgetown and Catholic University were playing major college football at the time, each with legions of loyal supporters. And the National Football League, in its 18th season, remained a shaky structure whose teams played mostly in baseball parks and moved from city to city with feckless abandon.
The Redskins had won the Eastern championship in 1936, but fan support was so meager that Marshall switched the NFL title game to a neutral site, New York's Polo Grounds. That finished him in Beantown, so the move to Washington was a necessity rather than a whim. And the team responded dramatically in its first regular-season D.C. game with a 13-3 triumph over the New York Giants, the principal divisional rival.
Several mysteries remain about that game, the answers lost in the mists of time. For one thing, Griffith Stadium did not acquire permanent lights until 1941, so how was the field illuminated? Newspaper accounts gave no indication, but we may surmise that portable floodlights were imported from one of the area colleges that had played night games earlier.
In addition, the baseball Senators languishing in sixth place with a 63-72 record played the Detroit Tigers that afternoon in a game that ended about 5:20, which meant workmen had only a couple of hours to prepare the field for football. Perhaps magic was involved.
And how many fans saw the game? Clark Griffith, who owned the Senators and the ballpark, had added 10,000 bleacher seats (as well as a new P.A. system and tarp) for his new tenants, bringing the capacity to about 30,000. But the attendance is listed variously as 19,941, 20,411 and 24,092.
Regardless, the customers were treated to a good time from beginning to end. Marshall had a background in show business, and he knew how to entertain people. "You must remember that night games were not common in those days, particularly night football," he said years later. "[The lights] made it a little different, added color."
Before the game, a swing band outfitted in Indian costumes tootled, and an Irish tenor sang. As the Post described it, a pretty, feminine rider dressed as "The Spirit of the Redskins" rode the length of the field on a pinto pony under the "revealing [!]" glare of the spotlights. As each player was introduced, his college fight song was played.
Coach Ray Flaherty retained most of the players who lost the '36 title game to the Green Bay Packers 21-6, and Marshall added Sammy Baugh, the college game's greatest passer at Texas Christian. Now the stage was set for the team's big debut in a game played on Thursday night so as not to conflict with local high schools on Friday or colleges on Saturday.
Finally, football replaced pageantry, and the Redskins went to work with the chunky, lemon-colored ball used for night games. For decades afterward, their media guide described the Redskins' victory this way: "Jesse L. Jones, director of the [New Deals] Reconstruction Finance Corp., throws out the first ball, and Riley Smith plays with it all night."
Smith, a third-year quarterback from Alabama, scored all the Redskins' points with field goals of 13 and 15 yards (the posts were on the goal line then), a 60-yard interception return for a touchdown and an extra point. But the Redskins' biggest star, as he would be for the next 16 seasons, was "Slingin' Sam."
Baugh, playing left halfback in Flaherty's single-wing offense, completed 11 of 15 passes for 115 yards, meager totals by today's standards but startling at the time, and would have done better except for several drops. His deadly accuracy kept Giants defenders off balance, brought gasps from the crowd and caused New York coach Stout Steve Owen to describe him afterward as "the greatest passer the game has ever seen I can't see how any team can stop him."
Baugh also punted and played defensive back on the Redskins' 25-man squad all for a salary of $8,000 that was by far the team's highest. There had been speculation that the lanky Texan would not stand up to the pounding of pro ball, but he constantly smacked down runners who broke into the secondary.
"He's as tough as a steer," said Giants blocker Lee Corzine. "Early in the game, I hit him so hard I darn near stunned myself. All he said was, 'Say, fellow, you keep blocking that way, and they'll give you your varsity letter.' Then he grinned at me."
Fittingly perhaps for the greatest Redskin of them all, Baugh returned the opening kickoff when the game started shortly after 8:30. (Can you imagine having your No. 1 draft choice and key offensive player on special teams today?) On the Redskins' first offensive play, he gave the Giants a warning of things to come by completing a 5-yard pass to back Erny Pinckert.
"I figured if Sammy connected, it would throw an awful scare into the Giants," Flaherty said, "and that opened them up for runs by Don Irwin and Baugh."
That's right Baugh also carried the ball. He gained eight and 11 yards on the first drive, completed a 13-yard pass to Charlie Malone and held for Smith's first field goal.
In the second quarter, the Redskins brought the crowd alive with a goal line stand after the Giants had driven 79 yards to the 1. Three plays later, Baugh punted from his end zone to midfield, and New York never mounted another serious threat.
The evening was a tough homecoming for former GW star Tuffy Leemans, the NFL's leading rusher in 1936, who was held to 72 yards in 12 carries before departing with an injured ankle. With the Redskins leading 6-3 in the fourth quarter, Smith's interception return settled the issue.
That game began the Redskins' march to their first NFL title with an 8-3 regular-season record. By Dec.6, the team had so captured the capital's imagination that 10,000 fans drove or took trains to New York and marched up Fifth Avenue behind a brass band before the rematch with the Giants. The Redskins won it 49-14 as Baugh and Co. went wild, clinching the Eastern crown. A week later, they defeated the Chicago Bears 28-21 at Wrigley Field to capture what was called the "world" championship.
During its first nine seasons in Washington, the team won five Eastern and two NFL titles before a 26-year postseason drought set in. The Redskins have had many ups and downs in six-plus decades, but one thing has never changed the loyalty of their fans in a love affair that began 65 years ago today.

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