Monday, October 03, 2011

Book Review: Showdown

Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins by Thomas G. Smith tells the story of how the Washington Redskins were essentially forced to start using black players. D.C. Stadium, later RFK, was just built on federal land. JFK's Interior Secretary, Stewart Udall, in furtherance of federal government regulations banning discrimination on the basis of race, declared the Redskins, who'd signed a 30-year lease for the facility that was crucial in getting it built, wouldn't be allowed to play in the new building unless they agreed to add their first black player. Redskins owner George Preston Marshall got Udall to agree to a one-year extension, then drafted and otherwise acquired black players. The end.

Admittedly, the story is somewhat more complicated than that. Marshall, who originally acquired the team when it was in Boston and then moved it to D.C., made a conscious business decision that seemed to match his personal predilections to keep the team lily-white, even at the cost of success on the field. Baseball and the rest of the NFL integrated, the Redskins got worse, Marshall kept trying to act like he was a football man like his friend George Halas, the Redskins got even worse but still apparently made money, then eventually agreed to integrate under federal and NFL pressure.

Smith pads out the Redskins integration story with some of the color of Marshall's life and the story of integration, including perspective from the black newspapers. The Redskins integration story itself is relatively thin; Smith, a professor of history, got on to the story from writing about Udall and environmental policy. The subtitle is misleading-Udall seems to have done it on his own, without any push from or even the assistance of JFK and the rest of Camelot. Marshall spent the last half-decade-plus of his life in particularly ill health, estranged from his family, and didn't seem to ever have elaborated on why he made the final decision to integrate or even go to court for the right to use the stadium without integrating. Bobby Mitchell, the most notable player to integrate the Redskins, might have been able to share some interesting tales; he gave Smith an interview in 1985, when the academic work that formed the basis for Showdown was being written, but didn't cooperate with the actual writing of Showdown (which ended up not being released until September 2011).

Questions that I'd like to see flesh out notwithstanding, Smith tells the story in Showdown reasonably well, and I can see why the suggestion was made to expand his academic articles into a book, but at just over 200 pages of narrative, the book feels about 50 pages too long. As you'd expect from a book by a professor, Showdown includes endnotes, a bibliography, a brief bibliographic essay, and an index, each a feature too often missing in books about football. I noticed a couple nits; the man who threw to ball to Don Huston is referred to as Arnie "Huber" rather than Herber, some of the Redskins stock sales are referred to as purchases but sound more like redemptions (a distinction you may have to be a corporate attorney to care about), and one more that's so important I don't remember what it was.

Overall, I found Showdown an interesting story about something I hadn't known that much about. The material wasn't quite enough for a fully-satisfying book, but it was a worthwhile read as a library rental. Recommended for what it is.

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