It’s hard to imagine today as Robert Griffin III has the nation’s capital swooning, but 50 years ago this season, Bobby Mitchell was making bittersweet history as the Redskins’ first black player.
Mitchell was Washington’s Jackie Robinson, a pioneer for racial relations through sports who delivered terrific performances while under tremendous pressure.
Robinson faced daily abuse while breaking baseball’s color line, but Mitchell didn’t have it that much easier 15 years later playing on Sundays in what was still a Southern-oriented city. And while Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey was the driving force in Robinson’s presence on the Dodgers, Mitchell was foisted on the Redskins after the Kennedy Administration demanded that owner George Preston Marshall integrate his franchise if it was going to play its games in just-opened D.C. (now RFK) Stadium which had been built on federal land.
Mitchell had been happy playing second fiddle to the game’s best running back, Jim Brown, on a fine team in Cleveland. He and his wife Gwen had just bought their first home when he learned in December 1961 that he was being traded to Washington in exchange for the No. 1 overall draft pick, Heisman Trophy-winning running back Ernie Davis.
“When Jim and I used to come here, we saw so many beautiful black folks everywhere because Griffith Stadium was in a black area,” Mitchell recalled. “We’d say, ‘A guy could have it made in this town.’ But you’re not thinking about it being you. I was shocked when the trade happened because I was having a hell of a year.”
Not only was Mitchell suddenly under the microscope in Washington, he was supposed to turn around a franchise that had gone 2-21-3 the previous two years and hadn’t reached postseason since 1945. Coach Bill McPeak also switched Mitchell to receiver, figuring the newly acquired standout would do better without having to rely on the Redskins’ shaky offensive line to create space for him to work his magic.
Mitchell debuted for Washington with two touchdown catches, one an 81-yarder, as well as a 92-yard score on a kickoff return in a 35-35 tie at Dallas before stunning his former team 17-16 in Cleveland on a scintillating 50-yard catch-and-run with just 96 seconds left.
“[Browns linebacker] Galen Fiss and those guys were knocking me to the ground every time I came off the line,” recalled Mitchell, who was still adjusting to being a receiver. “I got knocked down on that play, too, but I got up and started waving to [quarterback Norm] Snead who managed to get the ball to me. I was so excited when I caught it, I turned the wrong way, to the short side of the field. I made a sharp right just before the [Cleveland] sideline. I still don’t know how I made that cut.”
On Sept. 30, Mitchell showed Washingtonians what kind of player he was for the first time in a home uniform, catching touchdowns of 23 and 40 yards as the Redskins beat St. Louis 24-14. Despite his fantastic performances, Mitchell wasn’t exactly the toast of the town. Some whites screamed racial epithets at him. He was spit on at Duke Zeibert’s restaurant downtown. But as Robinson had, Mitchell remained stoic.
“At first I thought, ‘As soon as we get a couple other blacks on the team, they won’t be thinking about me,’ but I was wrong,” Mitchell remembered. “I had to accept the fact that I came to Washington as a star and the focus was going to be on me no matter how many great players we added. But it was also very tough for me in the black community. They wanted me to be a superstar every game. I couldn’t drop a ball. I couldn’t fumble. Washington is a tremendous social town for black folks, but you just don’t get in there. Getting my wife and kids accepted in black society was very, very difficult.”
After their shocking 3-0-2 start, the Redskins returned to normal, losing seven of their final nine games. They never managed a winning record during Mitchell’s seven seasons, let alone made the playoffs. But he was a true star. He led the NFL with 72 catches, 1,384 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 1962. The next season, he produced 1,436 receiving yards, a franchise record that stood for 42 years.
Mitchell’s dominance of Washington’s offense began to slip with the arrival of fellow Hall of Fame receiver Charley Taylor in 1964 and superb tight end Jerry Smith in 1965, but he still averaged 62 catches and seven touchdowns from 1964-67. Taylor, Smith and Mitchell finished 1-2-4 in the league in catches during the latter season.
However, by the summer of 1969, Mitchell’s 34-year-old legs had worn out and he retired to the front office where he remained until 2003. But he has never left Washington, the city he never figured to love after the abuse he took upon his arrival 50 years ago.
“I often wonder what would’ve happened to me if I hadn’t been traded to Washington,” said the 77-year-old Mitchell, who raised millions for charity over the years with his golf tournament. “There’s no way it could have worked out any better. My wife and I were invited to Lyndon Johnson’s first state dinner. I was sitting right across from him and he winked at me. We had known each other when he was Vice President. I must have met six Presidents. Those type of things wouldn’t have happened if I had remained in Cleveland. I don’t care what happened when I first got here. That was nothing compared to what Washington ended up being to me and my family.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin