Thursday, September 14, 2006

Cowboys & Redskins: Part I - It Didn't Start with Allen

The Roots Of Evil. It's Dallas Week. With the Redskins' return to competitive play (thank you, Joe Gibbs), Dallas Week again means something, although it's far from the two-city enthusiasm of the seventies and eighties. It's a common misconception that the Cowboys-Redskins rivalry started with George Allen. While Allen stoked those fires, there was a heated relationship between the teams from the inception of the Dallas Cowboys. And why not, since Redskins founder and owner George Preston Marshall tried to strangle the Texas baby in the cradle.

This Land is My Land. Washington sports fans are well acquainted with Peter Angelos effort to deny a major league baseball franchise to the Washington area. Angelos had an aggravating notion that the Washington TV market belonged to Baltimore and a team located so close his would damage the value of his team, The Baltimore Orioles. Angelos did not originate this twisted logic. Four decades before, Marshall held the same view for the Redskins.

The Dallas Redskins? Marshall asserted that the Redskins market was the South. All of it, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. If it was below the Mason-Dixon line, it was Redskins territory. He built a radio network to broadcast Redskins games and had had quite a large following in the Southeast U.S. His business strategy led practices now viewed as unsavory. To avoid offending his southern listeners, Marshall refused to add Negro players to his teams, even though every other NFL franchise was doing so. Marshall would have the Redskins band play a chorus of Dixie between verses of Hail To The Redskins. The cheers were louder for Dixie than for the Redskins fight song.

By the 1950s, the Redskins were struggling on the field and financially. In a weak moment, Marshall considered selling the team. One prospective buyer was Texas oil man Clint Murchison who was seeking to bring a NFL franchise to Dallas. They nearly concluded a deal that would have moved the Washington franchise to Texas until Marshall insisted on a change in the terms. Murchison suggested what Marshall could do with his change of terms and the deal fell apart.

My Kingdom for a Song. Murchison's next move was to work with Pete Rozell on an expansion team when Marshall created the marketplace argument that would later be used by Peter Angelos. Expansions could only be approved by unanimous vote of the owners. Marshall would have none if it. Then he made a critical mistake, two actually. First he had a falling out with Barnee Breeskin, The Shoreham Hotel orchestra leader who was also leader of the Redskins band from 1937 to 1951. It was Breeskin who wrote the music for Hail To The Redskins. Two, Marshall failed to acquire the ownership rights to Hail, which he discovered to his horror when Breeskin, in a snit, sold those rights to Clint Murchison. Now, a big part of the Redskins mystique is the fight song. Kids learn that song about the same time they learn the words to Jingle Bells. You can't be a true Washingtonian unless you know the first four lines of Hail To The Redskins! It's the song as much as anything that has fans clinging to the team name Redskins. With his beloved tune held ransom, Marshall relented on the Dallas franchise. But, boy was he pissed.

Quarterback Controversy. It was bad enough that Murchison outmaneuvered Marshall to land his team. To rub salt in the wound, Dallas selected Redskins pro-bowl ('55, '57, '58) quarterback Eddie LeBaron off the Redskins roster. Never mind that Marshall failed to add LeBaron to his protected list. Marshall considered Murchison and his Texans underhanded. Historically, that made Marshall the first Washingtonian to say "Cowboys suck!" He took it personally and made sure his team took it personally.

A Rivalry Is Born. In a rivalry full of irony, Marshall insisted that the Cowboys play in the Eastern Division with the Redskins. The Minnesota Vikings were the second expansion team and Marshall did not want to play a late season game in the cold North.

The Dallas Cowboys played their first game in the 1960 season. The Redskins 1960 victory over the Cowboys was their only win that year. The Cowboys were winless. The Skins won two of the first four and tied two others. The rivalry grew as Dallas fans pulled off a series of pranks in the early years. In December 1961, they conspired to release two crates of chickens onto the field during halftime of the Redskins-Cowboys game. The plot was discovered before the chickens were released. The night before the third Redskins-Cowboys game, the nefarious plotters managed to sneak a turkey into Marshall's hotel bathroom, giving Marshall quite a start. At the game, two acrobats in chicken suits ran onto the field at halftime after giant "Chicken" banners were unfurled in 50 yard line stands.

After the first four games, when the Skins went 2-0-2, the tide slowly turned in the Cowboys favor as superior coaching and better talent asserted themselves. In nineteen times in the sixties, the Redskins' record against the Cowboys in that decade was 7-10-2. Rivalries are more than games and records. You must have memorable moments. Those Cowboys-Redskins games were real donnybrooks. In the mid-60s, the Cowboys and Redskins dueled in a remarkable four game series that forever set the tone of the rivalry. More on that in Part II, Jurgensen and Meredith, Aces Wild.

For more information, go to ESPN's A Rivalry For A Song, or to Wikipedia's Cowboys-Redskins rivalry.

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