There is much debate today about names of streets, buildings, and sports teams. One team that has been in the headlines for several years about their name is the Washington Redskins. Now, I have to be upfront…I have been a Redskins fan since I was a young child. I remember most of the glory years of John Riggins, Joe Gibbs and many other Hall of Famers. In the years of the 1980’s, not much was said about the name as a racist connotation. I am sure there were protests, but they were not mainstream and everyone in Virginia, Maryland and DC in those years followed the team. The name Redskins was not a racial connotation that their racially “challenged” owner George Preston Marshall (who had many issues with his own racism) came up with degrade Native Americans. It was a name that harked to a historical theme.
What we know today as the Washington Redskins began in 1932 as the Boston Braves. Now this new professional football team was not the only team in Boston named the Braves. At that time, the oldest baseball team in Boston were also called the Braves. This team began as the Boston Red Stockings and then the Boston Beaneaters, changing their name to the Boston Braves in 1912. Here is where the history gets murky. The owner of the Boston Braves, James Gaffney was a product of Tammany Hall, a powerful political machine out of New York City. Tammany Hall used as their moniker an American Indian Chief, with other Native American symbols in their imagery and media. With his connection to Tammany Hall, many believed Gaffney used the same imagery to rebrand his baseball team. Others in Boston believed Gaffney was playing to the local historical ties of the Boston Tea Party. During the Boston Tea Party, colonists dressed up as “Indians” (Mohawks to be more precise) to raid three tea ships at Griffin’s Wharf, destroying over 300 chests of East India Company tea. Most of them covered their skin in burnt ochre, which gave a dark reddish tint. We will never know if Gaffney chose the name “Braves” for Tammany Hall or the Boston Tea Party, but both were fitting historical ties.
So, how does this tie into the football team? As George Preston Marshall brought professional football to Boston, he wanted to tie into the local sports lexicon of the region. Picking the name “Braves” for his team fit well as it matched the popular baseball team in town and also the football team played in the same stadium as the baseball franchise. Also, the previous team that played professional football in Boston was a traveling franchise named the Cleveland Indians. Though not sure, I believe Marshall had all of these in his mind in naming the team the Braves. Native American imagery and mascots were well known in Boston at this time, it seems that Marshall was trying to set his new team up for success. That first season the Braves finished .500 and Marshall moved the team to play their games at Fenway Park. Fenway was a state-of-the-art stadium at the time, built in 1934 and was the home to Boston’s other professional baseball team, the Boston Red Sox (which, also claimed their lineage to the same team the Boston Braves did, the Boston Red Stockings).
In moving the team, Marshall tried to distance himself from the Braves baseball team and changed the name to Redskins. There were no other professional teams called the Redskins, though some minor league and local teams used the name. This move was more marketing than anything else, trying to establish their own professional sports team identity. Also, Marshall was known for being economical, and by using the name Redskins he wouldn’t have to change uniforms. The Boston Redskins would go on to play in Boston until 1936, moving to Washington, D.C. in 1937. Marshall, for all his faults, was a smart businessman and believed there was money to be made in bringing professional football to the south. By moving the Redskins to Washington, they were the first NFL team in the south (how many of us would consider Washington, D.C. the south today?). Even the original song “Hail to the Redskins” had the lines “fight for old Dixie” which have been changed to “fight for old D.C.”
Part of me believes the name is more contentious today mostly because the team on the field has not been very good since the 1990’s. If this was a perennial winner like they were in the 1980’s, would this be a hot topic? Maybe it would as we look at all of our names and mascots, but I think it is highlighted by the losing and the current unpopular owner, making the current pressure unbearable. We know the name will change (though I have my own personal opinions of why they should not change the name), but the original name is rooted in American history and is more complex than you see on ESPN or other news outlets. Through this brief synopsis of the team’s name, I hope the basis for the name is clearer. I know we all won’t agree on what is offensive and not offensive and we will never know if Gaffney and Marshall named their teams to honor the colonists at the Boston Tea Party. But for one young kid who grew up in Virginia who loved history and the Redskins, its was a great match of history and sports.