The nickname ‘Redskins’ predates the team playing football in Washington. The organization began playing football in 1932 — in Boston — under the nickname Braves. That was changed in 1933 to Redskins, and the franchise moved to Washington in 1937.
So where did the name Braves come from? The NFL was a fledgling league in the ’20s and ’30s, and teams in that era often chose names synonymous with the local baseball team. George Halas saw the success of the Cubs and named his team the Bears. When the Portsmouth Spartans moved to Detroit in 1934, the name “Lions” made sense for a city that already loved the Tigers. Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants began playing in New York in the 19th century, so it didn’t take the football team long to come up with a nickname in 1925. Like the Giants, the Boston football team simply copied one of the baseball team’s names — and they didn’t pick ‘Red Sox’. In 1932, the Atlanta Braves were still playing in Boston at Braves Field, and since that’s where the football team was scheduled to play, I imagine the team spent all of several seconds coming up with a name.
So how did the baseball Braves get its nickname? According to Wikipedia, the team’s owner, “James Gaffney, was a member of New York City’s political machine, Tammany Hall, which used an Indian chief as their symbol.”
So the Washington Redskins played at Braves Field as the Boston Braves in 1932, in essentially a “do what it takes to stay profitable” move. But on July 5th, 1933, Washington President and Owner George Preston Marshall announced that the team was undergoing a name change. Here is what the Boston Globe published on July 6th, 1933:
Regardless of the specific reason for the selection of the name, the move was likely uncontroversial. In 1921, the Cleveland football team was coached by Jim Thorpe and known as the Indians before folding. The next Cleveland expansion team two years later also called themselves the Indians but then merged with and into the Canton Bulldogs after one year. The Akron Pros renamed their team the Indians in 1926, which was also that franchise’s final season. In 1931, another Cleveland Indians team was born, but it lasted just one year, a common occurrence in Depression-era America. Of course, all four Ohio teams were surely trying to piggyback off of the success of Cleveland’s baseball team.
FOOTBALL BRAVES BECOME REDSKINS
It will be the Boston Redskins, and not the Boston Braves when the National Football League season gets under way next Fall. When Pres George Marshall entered an eleven from Boston in the professional football league last year the team was naturally christened the Boston Braves, but yesterday, just before starting for Chicago to attend the League’s annual meeting, he announced the change in name.
This new name is rather appropriate in more than one sense. The head and since the close of the 1932 season Pres Marshall and Coach Dietz have signed up a number of Indian players.1 Not only that, but the Boston National League ball park has long been called the Wigwam.
And Jim Thorpe coached and starred in a team composed entirely of Native Americans called the Oorang (Ohio) Indians in 1922 and 1923. So it seems unlikely that anyone batted an eye at the name “Redskins” being chosen by Marshall.2 And as the Globe’s article points out, the home stadium for the team was known as the Wigwam (and for a brief period when the baseball Braves were known as the Bees, the “Beehive.”) But that didn’t last long, either, because fifteen days after the name change, the Redskins announced that they were moving to Fenway Park. Here is what the Boston Globe printed on July 21, 1933:
REDSKINS’ FOOTBALL TEAM TO SHIFT TO FENWAY PARK
Fenway Park will be the scene of the home games this Fall of the Boston Redskins, formerly known as the Braves, the local club of the National League of Professional Football, George Marshall, president of the Redskins, announced last night.
In his communication Mr. Marshall emphasized that the change was made solely because of the more intimate advantages of playing in the Red Sox park, where the gridiron may be plotted closer to the grandstand and pavilion seats, and the 5000 temporary field seats are almost flush with the sidelines.
Disassociating the team with the Braves didn’t seem like a good reason to remove the Native American association. Perhaps ‘Redskins’ was chosen instead of ‘Indians’ to make fans think of their new co-tenants, the Red Sox, or perhaps Coach Dietz had some influence on Marshall. I’ll note that in 1980, another account of the situation by the Boston Globe indicates that while the events may have been publicly been announced in that order, the cause and effect may have been reversed:
When the “baseball Braves” hiked the rent for 1933, George Preston Marshall moved his club to Fenway Park and was faced with a dilemma. He didn’t want to give his former landlord the satisfaction of retaining their nickname, but his team’s uniforms were imprinted with Indian insignia.
Marshall solved the problem with a practicality and shrewdness that would become his trademark. He dubbed his team the “Redskins,” a name he kept when he moved his roadshow from Boston to Washington four years later.
The Native American Chief pictured on Babe Ruth’s Braves jersey sure looks similar to what the Redskins wore that year, so the explanation that Marshall already had his uniform in place (and modeled after the Braves) and thus needed a nickname to fit it makes sense. Whatever the reason behind the name change, it certainly didn’t work: the team struggled to gain acceptance in Boston. Attendance sank within a few years, and in 1936, the team regularly played in front of fewer than 5,000 home fans. After looking at Chicago and Los Angeles, Marshall eventually settled on bringing his Redskins to Washington and Griffith Stadium, home of baseball’s Senators. The franchise was an immediate hit both on and off the field, thanks in part to the drafting of Sammy Baugh in 1937. Had that not been the case, the organization would have likely folded… or perhaps Robert Griffin III would today be a Senator.
- As hard as it might be to believe, that sentence was not the result of a typo on my behalf. I’ll also note that the authenticity of Lone Star Deitz’ Native American heritage has been a point of contention. [↩]
- In Boston’s inaugural season, the team rostered Corrie Artman, who played for the Stanford Indians in college. Yes, before Stanford was nicknamed the Cardinal, they were known as the Indians. [↩]