Back in December, when ES member Khun Kao posted a team photo of the 1945 Redskins, I couldn't resist reminiscing in a post that this was the team that infected me with the bug. Gibbs Hog Heaven read my post and led others in encouraging me to write something about my experience.
1945 was a memorable year for me. In July, I turned ten. In August, I stood on the running board of a 1939 Pontiac as it rolled slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue through a huge crowd wildly celebrating Japan's surrender and the end of WW II. In November, my older brother, back safely from the war, took me to see my first Skins game. The opponent that day was the loathsome Bears team from corrupt Chicago.
For a dime each, my brother and I traveled by bus from Southeast DC, near the PG County line, to Barney Circle. There, we got a free transfer to a streetcar which took us all the way to Griffith Stadium located in the Northwest section of the city. The streetcar stopped conveniently within 25 yards of the main stadium entrance. We bought tickets for cheap seats in the South Stands.
The South Stands in Griffith Stadium were temporary, hiney-on-board bleachers erected on the baseball field for Redskins games. If the spectator didn't mind being fixed firmly into a wall of inebriated humanity, the view of the action was excellent. You sat close enough to hear the impacts and evaluate the lineplay.
I saw Sammy Baugh, the player that Harry Wismer, the radio broadcaster, had raved about. It was, of course, exciting to see him in real life and in Redskins colors.
Baugh had been put under center in the T-formation the previous year, so I never saw him at tailback and I can't recall seeing him play defense that day. At tailback in the single and double-wing formations, Baugh had posed a double-threat in third-and-long situations. He could pass or punt. The "quick kick" was a useful field-position weapon in its day. It caught the opponent's deep safety in a bind, not knowing until too late whether he should go back to field the punt or come up to defend the pass. When Sammy was moved under center, the quick kick threat was eliminated, so I never saw as much of the versatility that he displayed earlier in his career.
Seeing the fast and elusive Steve "Bugsy" Bagarus, who wore double-zero on his jersey excited me almost as much as seeing Sammy Baugh on that November day. A broken leg cut short Bugsy's pro career. 1945 was his rookie season and his best. He ran from a halfback position and returned punts and kickoffs. Sammy Baugh has called him the best receiver out of the backfield he ever played with.
I had to do some research to fortify my faded memory of my first live Redskins game. The 1945 Skins whipped the Bears 28-21 with Baugh and Bagarus connecting on a 70 yard TD. Bagarus also scored on an 18 yard run.
As a boy, it gave me pleasure to hate some world-class villains: Adolf Hitler of Germany, Hideki Tojo of Japan, Benito Mussolini of Italy, and Ed Sprinkle of the Chicago Bears.
There's a Sammy Baugh story that was stolen by Hollywood and used in the film, The Longest Yard, with Burt Reynolds in the role of a quarterback. The NFL Channel recently ran an old film clip of Sammy telling the story himself.
[Remember, this takes place before the invention of face masks and at a time when maiming an opponent's quarterback enough to get him out of the game was an acceptable strategy]
Baugh was being hammered hard and repeatedly by a defensive end. "I can't stop him" a lineman told his quarterback in shame. "Well, just step aside and let him through then," Baugh said. The lineman did as instructed. The defensive end came charging. Slingin' Sammy hit him in the face with a football-bullet. According to Baugh, the player went to the ground, then left the game woozy and with a broken nose. "Didn't stop him, though," Sammy added. "He returned to the game and just kept coming."
In that NFL clip, Baugh doesn't identify the evil opponent, but when I first heard the story, probably in 1946, my brother identified the player as Ed Sprinkle of the Chicago Bears. The Bears were a dirty football team (the Chicago Mob had a better reputation) and Ed Sprinkle, their defensive end, was their notorious ringleader.
I lay claim to a few redeeming qualities as a human being. One of them is that I don't hold grudges. Life's too short. Forgive and forget. That's why I can't explain about Ed Sprinkle. I don't know why, after more than 60 years, I still hate the prick.
I was 13 in the summer of 1948, still living in a segregated Southeast neighborhood, when someone warned me not to go near the Anacostia pool on its opening day. The pool was to be desegregated. The first race riot in the city took place that day on the Anacostia flats. The public wasn't as well-armed as it is today, so the rioters had to make do with baseball bats and switchblade knives.
That same summer, I was in the leftfield bleachers when Larry Doby, the Cleveland centerfielder, made his first appearance at Griffith Stadium. The usually rowdy bleacher crowd was subdued that day. I think most fans were like me, just curious to see if Doby could play the game... He could.
Larry Doby changed my perception of black athletes. Even as a boy, I knew that hating people because of race or religion was stupid. Yet, knowing that didn't stop me from accepting racial stereotypes. During the seventh inning stretch at Senators' games, the stadium announcer invited the white crowd to attend Negro National League games when the Senators were about to go on the road. The invitation didn't interest me. I imagined an inferior brand of baseball. I didn't know that the best baseball team playing regularly at Griffith Stadium was the elite Homestead Grays who had a roster loaded with great players like Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard. I never saw them play.
It wasn't until 1962 that the Redskins signed their first black player. To be candid, the immorality of George Marshall's racial stance didn't trouble me as much as the fact that the Skins weren't signing players nearly as good as Marion Motley and Jim Brown. When Bobby Mitchell came to town in a trade, all I cared about was whether he could play the game... He could.
In my preteen years, I could spend a quarter at the movies on Saturday and watch three B-Westerns with cowboy stars such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Buster Crabbe. It was easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys in those films. The bad guys always wore black hats and the good guys wore white hats. On Redskins Sundays, even though the skin color of the players over the years changed from all white to mostly black, it has always been easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. The good guys always wear burgundy.