Monday, April 6, 2020

Bobby Mitchell, 1935-2020

Occasionally -- as with this past Friday, the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, or with Congressman John Lewis invoking his experience as the youngest major figure in the Movement when he argues with Donald Trump -- we get a reminder that the Civil Rights Movement was not that long ago.

So it is with the death of Bobby Mitchell, an important figure in the history of American sport.

Robert Cornelius Mitchell was born on June 6, 1935 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. During his youth, Arkansas was racially segregated, and he attended the all-black Langston High School. Not named for Langston Hughes. Given his poetry, I'm thinking the white men who led Arkansas at that time didn't even want the black kids to know of his existence.

But times were changing. Bobby was about to turn 12 when Jackie Robinson reintegrated what would come to be called Major League Baseball. By the time he graduated from Langston in 1953, more than half of the teams in MLB were integrated. The St. Louis Cardinals would bring up their 1st black player the next year, Tom Alston, and were signing others. They offered Bobby Mitchell a contract. He had also played basketball and run track at Langston.

He decided to stick with football, accepting a scholarship from the University of Illinois, inspired by one of their black players who had starred in the NFL, Buddy Young of the Baltimore Colts. In 1955, his sophomore year, he led Illinois to an upset of Michigan, then ranked Number 3 in the country.

He was injured for much of his junior year, but his senior year was good enough to get him into the College All-Star Game, a preseason contest held every year from 1935 to 1976, in which college all-stars would play the defending NFL Champions (and usually lose) at Soldier Field in Chicago. He scored 2 touchdowns, and the All-Stars beat the Detroit Lions.

But he also decided to stick with track. He helped Illinois win the 1958 Big Ten Championship, and was considering attending the U.S. trials for the 1960 Olympics in Rome. But the Cleveland Browns chose him in the 7th round of the NFL Draft, and head coach and general manager Paul Brown (the team was not named for him, or for Jim Brown) offered him a $7,000 salary. This was enough to make Mitchell forget about his dream of a Gold Medal.

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Playing for Paul Brown wasn't easy. He was a great coach, but also a tyrant. The one man he seemed unable to tyrannize was running back Jim Brown, often called the greatest football player ever. As Mitchell later explained, if the white Paul Brown was angry at the black Jim Brown, he would direct his anger at another player, usually another black player, such as Mitchell: He would say, "Bobby Mitchell! Who do you think you are? We are getting ready to play a football game, and your head is not in the game!" Jim and Bobby both knew that this meant that Paul was actually angry with Jim.

Paul Brown was not inherently racist. Indeed, he had been pro football's "Branch Rickey," bringing running back Marion Motley and guard Bill Willis into the All-American Football Conference when it, and the Browns, were founded in 1946. At the same time, the NFL's Los Angeles Rams brought in a pair of black players who had played at the Los Angeles Coliseum for UCLA, running back Kenny Washington and lineman Woody Strode. So pro football had "four Jackie Robinsons."

In a 1959 game against the Washington Redskins, Mitchell ran for 232 yards, including a 90-yard touchdown. Whenever a black player scored against the Redskins, Shirley Povich, the great sports columnist for The Washington Post, would write that the player "integrated the Redskin end zone."

You see, the Redskins were the last NFL team that had not yet integrated. Their owner, George Preston Marshall, had been asked many times when they would sign a black player. His answer was the same every time: "We will sign black players when the Harlem Globetrotters sign white players."

Marshall was one of the most important NFL executives. Not only did he move the Redskins from Boston, where they couldn't seem to draw fans, to Washington, where they were instantly popular upon their 1937 arrival and remained so even when they lost most of their games in the 1950s, but he helped to reform the League. It was his ideas that established the NFL Championship Game, the forerunner of the Super Bowl, set the NFL's revised rules of the 1930s that made the modern passing game possible, and helped negotiate the NFL's early TV contracts.

But he was a jerk, and the reasons why were not limited to prejudice. He was every bit the football tyrant that Paul Brown was. His personal life was also stormy. And broadcasting may have been the reason behind what was seen as his racism. In the 1950s, the Redskins were losing because teams that were willing to bring in the best available talent, regardless of race, had passed them by.

The teams that won titles in the 1950s had great black players: The 1950, '54 and '55 Browns (the aforementioned Motley and Willis); the 1951 Rams (Washington and Strode were gone, but they had running back Paul "Tank" Younger); the 1952, '53 and '57 Lions (Dick "Night Train" Lane); the 1956 New York Giants (Mel Triplett, Roosevelt Brown and Emlen Tunnell); and the 1958 and '59 Colts (Young was gone, but they had Lenny Moore and Jim Parker, among others). The San Francisco 49ers, the one team in the '50s to reach the Championship Game without winning any, also had a solid black presence (reaching the '57 title game with John Henry Johnson and Joe Perry, but losing it to the Lions).

So why didn't Marshall integrate? Even if he wasn't personally hateful toward black people, he let a business decision decide it for him. The Redskins were then the Southernmost team in the NFL. Much like the baseball Cardinals, who did so before Washington's baseball team, the Senators, could, he built up a vast network of radio stations to broadcast his team's games throughout the South.

He had a stranglehold on Southern audiences: They would listen to their favorite college team -- be it 'Bama, Tennessee, Ole Miss, LSU or anyone else -- on Saturday, and the Redskins on Sunday. And he figured that if he signed any black players, white Southerners would abandon his team, and he would lose money.

That "Southern" status also inspired Marshall to refuse to let a Dallas team into the NFL. Lamar Hunt, son of oil baron H.L. Hunt, wanted to put an expansion team in the NFL, but Marshall said no. This was incredibly short-sighted, as it led Hunt to found the American Football League in 1959, to begin play in 1960.

To counter this, the NFL wanted to put their own team in Dallas for that season, considering granting a franchise to another oil baron, Clint Murchison. Marshall decided to try to block this move, and he had allies who could have made the block happen.

But Murchison was smarter than Marshall. He bought the rights to "Hail to the Redskins," the team's fight song. He said he would sell the rights back to Marshall for one dollar if he'd let his team into the League. Otherwise, every time the song was played by the Washington Redskins Marching Band, he would owe Murchison royalties. Marshall agreed to drop his objection, and the Dallas Cowboys were born. (Gee, maybe Marshall should have said, "To Hell with it, I'll write a new fight song.")

The Redskins' biggest problem may have been that they had the NFL's smallest stadium. Griffith Stadium, which they shared with the baseball Senators, topped out at 35,000 seats when temporary bleachers were brought in for football. A new stadium was being built, to be called District of Columbia Stadium (or "D.C. Stadium" for short -- it would be renamed Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in 1969). Marshall wanted it.

But it was being built by, and built on land owned by, the federal government. And Stewart Udall, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, who had oversight, told Marshall that he couldn't use it unless his team were integrated. Realizing that, especially with an improved TV contract, he would lose less money by pissing off Southern bigots than he would by staying in a 35,000-seat stadium, Marshall relented.

In the 1961 NFL Draft (in those days, the Draft was held in December, so the players selected were rookies for the next calendar year's season), the Redskins selected Syracuse running back Ernie Davis, who had become the 1st black man to win the Heisman Trophy. But Davis refused to play for Marshall, believing him to be racist. So Marshall arranged a trade, sending the rights to Davis to the Browns, in exchange for Mitchell, a similar player, who had already been named to the 1960 Pro Bowl.

(Davis was found to have leukemia, and never played a down of pro football, making it a bad trade for the Browns, who won the NFL Championship Game in 1964, but also lost it in 1965, 1968 and 1969. Davis died in 1963.)

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Mitchell was willing to report to the Redskins for the 1962 season. He ended up being the 1st black man to sign for them, and 1 of 3 to play for them that season, along with guard John Nisby and running back Ron Hatcher.

(Nisby, from the University of Oregon, had previously played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, made 3 Pro Bowls, served on the City Council in his hometown of Stockton, California, and died in 2011. Hatcher, from Pittsburgh and Michigan State, only played in the NFL in that 1 season. He is the last survivor of these men, now 80 years old.)

The Nation's Capital had become a city with a majority of its residents being black. The Homestead Grays of baseball's Negro Leagues had alternated their home games between Washington and Pittsburgh (Homestead is a city outside Pittsburgh), and had included all-time greats Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard.

But the Redskins had never had a black player, the Senators had only recently integrated (and had more white Cubans than black Americans), and by the time the NBA had integrated in 1951, the city's franchise in it, the Capitols, had gone bust. Mitchell was being asked to be not just the Redskins' 1st black player, but the city's 1st black star. He lived up to the expectation, paving the way for such men as Doug Williams, Elvin Hayes and Anthony Rendon.

The rivalry between the Redskins and the Cowboys may have begun with Murchison buying the rights to a song, but it didn't really rev up until George Allen became Redskins head coach in 1971. Nevertheless, Redskin fans can take some happiness in the fact that, in his very 1st game with their team, Bobby Mitchell returned a kickoff for a 92-yard touchdown against the Cowboys.

Moved from halfback to flanker by head coach Bill McPeak, he led the NFL with 72 catches and 1,384 yards, huge totals by the standards of the NFL, although some AFL receivers had already topped them. The Redskins went 5-7-2, their best record in 5 years. In 1963, he caught 69 passes for 1,436 yards, including a record-tying 99-yard touchdown pass, from George Izo.

For the 1964 season, the Redskins acquired quarterback Sonny Jurgensen from the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Jurgensen-to-Mitchell combination became the deadliest in the NFL, along with the Colts having Johnny Unitas to Raymond Berry.
Mitchell wearing the arrow helmet logo the Redskins used
from 1965 to 1969, copied by Florida State and many high school teams

In 1966, Otto Graham, who had preceded Mitchell on the Browns and become one of the all-time great quarterbacks, was named head coach of the Redskins. With the rise of Charley Taylor, who would go on to become the NFL's all-time leader in receptions, Graham moved Mitchell back to halfback for 1967. At that point, Frank Gifford of the Giants and the aforementioned Lenny Moore of the Colts had been the only running backs to also be significant pass-catchers, but Mitchell remained a good option for Jurgensen.

In 1969, a year after retiring as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, whom he'd led to 5 NFL Championships, Vince Lombardi was named head coach and general manager of the Redskins. He told Mitchell he was willing to move him back to flanker. But Mitchell was now 34 years old, and realized he'd lost a step. Lombardi offered to make Mitchell a scout, and so Mitchell retired.

He did so with 14,078 all-purpose yards: Rushing, receiving and returning. At the time, that was 2nd all-time to his former teammate Jim Brown. He had scored 91 touchdowns: 65 on receptions, 18 on runs from scrimmage, 5 on kickoff returns, and 3 on punt returns. Those 91 touchdowns were then 2nd all-time to early Packer legend Don Hutson. He had made 4 Pro Bowls.

Mitchell was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983. As a result, when the Browns introduced their Ring of Honor, and the Redskins their Ring of Fame, they each elected him.

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Marshall had suffered a stroke in 1963, and the team's caretakers slowly improved the team. He died in 1969, the year Lombardi arrived. He got them to a record of 7-5-2, their 1st plus-.500 season in 14 years. But he developed cancer, and died in 1970.

After a season with Bill Austin as interim head coach, Edward Bennett Williams, who had bought the team from the Marshall estate, hired Rams coach George Allen, who revamped the team. In 1971, with Allen coaching, and Mitchell and others having scouted key players, they made the NFC Playoffs, their 1st postseason appearance since the 1945 NFL Championship Game. In 1972, they beat the Cowboys for the NFC title, before losing Super Bowl VII to the Miami Dolphins. They remained a strong team throughout the decade, reaching 5 Playoff berths and just missing 3 others.

By 1978, Mitchell was the assistant general manager, and fully expected to be named the 1st black GM in the NFL. But when the position opened, Williams passed Mitchell over in favor of Bobby Beathard. In a business sense, Beathard was certainly qualified: He had helped build World Championship teams as a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs and as director of player personnel for the Miami Dolphins. And the results bore this out, as the Redskins reached 4 Super Bowls in 10 years, winning 3 of them.

Beathard left the post in 1988, after the Redskins won Super Bowl XXII. Again, Mitchell expected to be named the new GM. By this point, Jack Kent Cooke had bought Williams out, and he named Charley Casserly the GM. Again, there was some justification, as Casserly had also been part of the front office that had built the D.C. ballclub's title teams, and a win in Super Bowl XXVI did follow, based on the moves made by Casserly, and also in part by Beathard -- and also in part by Mitchell.

Mitchell remained in the Redskins' front office, and remained a beloved figure in the D.C. area and among the nationwide fan base that the Redskins, like many other teams, had built due to constantly being shown on TV as one of the more successful teams.

The last straw came in 2002. Steve Spurrier, the "Ol' Ball Coach" who had starred as both player (1966 Heisman Trophy winner) and coach (1996 National Champion) at the University of Florida, did something no Redskin coach had dared to do since Mitchell's retirement.

The Redskins don't retire numbers (Sammy Baugh's 33 is the lone exception), but some numbers are withheld from circulation, considered "unofficialy retired." Mitchell's 49 had been one. But Spurrier gave it to Leonard Stephens, a tight end who hadn't yet played a regular-season professional down. It wasn't just that the number was given out, but to the quality of player.

Spurrier, himself a former quarterback, enraged Redskin fans by giving out 3 such numbers. In addition to Mitchell's 49, he gave out 2 numbers last worn by team quarterbacking legends: Joe Theismann's 7 to Danny Wuerffel, who had worn it under Spurrier on Florida's 1st National Championship team, and had himself won the Heisman (which Theismann, who changed the pronunciation of his name to rhyme with the Trophy's, infamously finished 2nd for at Notre Dame in 1970); and Jurgensen's 9 to Shane Matthews, another of his Florida Gator quarterbacks.

The backlash was nasty, and both men volunteered to end it by switching numbers. Spurrier relented, giving Wuerffel 17 (previously worn by Billy Kilmer, the 1st quarterback to take the Redskins to a Super Bowl, and Doug Williams, the 1st black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, but not withheld from circulation) and Matthews 6.

By the next season, both were gone from the Redskins; by the season after that, so were Spurrier and Stephens. Stephens did not ask to switch from 49 to another number, and Spurrier didn't switch him.

And so, after the 2002 season, after 41 seasons with the Redskin organization, Mitchell left. he continued to live in Washington, with his wife Gwen, a lawyer. They had 2 children, Robert Jr. and Terri.
Bobby and Gwen Mitchell, at FedEx Field,
home of the Redskins since 1997

He continued to work with civil rights organizations, including the National Urban League and the United Negro College Fund, and the Howard University Cancer Research Advisory Committee. Howard, the D.C.-based school known as "the black Harvard," built its hospital on the site of Griffith Stadium.

He also raised money for the University of Illinois, and from 1980 onward hosted the Bobby Mitchell Hall of Fame Classic, a golf tournament that raises money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society -- perhaps as a tribute to the man for whom he was traded, Ernie Davis.

Bobby Mitchell died yesterday, April 5, 2020. He was 84 years old. No cause has yet been announced. I suspect that if the cause were the coronavirus, someone would have said so. But, to my knowledge, he was not already sick.

Bobby Mitchell was a legend on multiple levels. It's a shame that he wasn't fully appreciated by the team he did so much to uplift.

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