News & Politics

Washington’s Grand History of Terrible Sports Owners

Dan Snyder has a lot of competition.

From left, George Preston Marshall (via Library of Congress), Michael Jordan (Wikimedia Commons), Calvin Griffith.

Even though the team has yet to play a single football game, the Washington Redskins are already losing. This is life when the most hated owner in the sport owns your team. Welcome to year XVII of Dan Snyder’s Reign of Error.

But Snyder is by no means the worst owner in Washington sports history. From the horribly racist to the flat-out incompetent, three other DC sports owners challenge him for that miserable crown.

Calvin Griffith, Owner of the Washington Senators from 1955-1961

For most of the 72 seasons prior to its current incarnation, Washington’s baseball teams were horrible–finishing under .500 50 times. And for 32 of those seasons, they were owned by the same family–the Griffiths.

While patriarch Clark Griffith gets a pass for winning a World Series, being a Hall of Famer, and helping to bring Cuban ballplayers to the majors, his nephew Calvin Griffith does not. Unfortunately, presiding over a bad baseball team was not his worst transgression.

Born in Montreal, Calvin moved to D.C. as kid to live with his aunt and uncle. He became the Senators’ batboy and fetched pine during their world championship season of 1924. Over the next 30 years, he rose through the ranks to become head of concessions. When his uncle died in 1955, Calvin was elected club president.

The team had been bad for years, but somehow Calvin made them worse. He was cheap. As one player creatively put it, “he threw around nickels like manhole covers.” He was combative, refusing to accept the federal government’s offer of a municipal stadium because he didn’t want to pay rent or get shut out of concession profits. He thought the proposed site at the National Guard Armory would inconvenience suburbanites.

And he was a liar. In 1958, he wrote an article in the Washington Post promising that he would never move the Senators. Three years later, he moved the team to Minnesota.

Oh, and he was a bigot. In 1978, as owner of the Twins, he explained exactly why he had moved the team from DC to Minnesota: “I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota. It was when I found out you only had 15,000 blacks here… We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking, white people here.”

Michael Jordan, Part Owner of the Washington Wizards from 2000-2001

There is little argument that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player (and seller of shoes) ever, but as a team owner he was (and still is) downright bad.

Only 18 months after making an iconic and thought-to-be-career-ending shot against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals, Jordan purchased a stake in the Washington Wizards. In his January 20 press conference, it was announced that he would also assume the job of president of basketball operations. One of his first orders of business was to hire University of Miami basketball coach Leonard Hamilton, the organization’s third head coach that year, following Gar Heard and interim head coach Darrell Walker. Less than a year later, Jordan let Hamilton “resign” (translation: the Wizards wanted to avoid paying out the rest of his contract). Later, Hamilton said that Jordan worked mostly from his home in Chicago and “he would go for days without talking to Jordan.”

The Wizards were quite terrible during the 2000/2001 season, winning only 19 games. But in the NBA a record that dismal usually means a high draft pick for a potential superstar the next season. That’s exactly what happened (or so the Wizards thought). At Jordan’s insistence, the team drafted Kwame Brown. Well, we all know how that went.

Jordan came back as a player, repeatedly humiliated Brown, and the result was…an entirely mediocre team. When Jordan decided he had enough carrying a bad team he had built, he assumed he was going back to his cushy office position. Then, owner Abe Pollin fired him, and Jordan drove away in his Mercedes. To this day, no one except Michael Wilbon likes talking about Jordan’s time with the Wizards.

George P. Marshall, Owner of the Washington Redskins from 1937-1969

It is a good bet that Dan Snyder isn’t going to get a monument built to him anytime soon (though: he could always build one). But George P. Marshall has one right in front of RFK Stadium.

In 1937, Marshall brought professional football to Washington, moving his team from Boston. He is also credited for helping to turn football into the national attraction it is today by inventing the halftime show, hiring a marching band, and establishing exclusive media rights for the team.

He also refused to integrate the team to the point that the federal government had to step in.

In 1946, the NFL reintegrated the league (a year before Major League Baseball) when four African-American players were signed to contracts. By 1962, Marshall’s team was the only one not to have an African-American player on the roster. Legendary Washington Post writer Shirley Povich often salted his daily columns with shots at the team, saying its colors were “burgundy, gold and Caucasian” and that “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”

Marshall’s unapologetic bigotry was doomed by his cheapness. When Marshall signed a 30 year lease for his football team to play at the newly constructed DC Stadium, he was was ecstatic it was being paid for by public money and located on federally owned land.

But in March 1961, President Kennedy signed into law an executive order that prohibited “federal government contractors from discriminating on account of race.” Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall used this order to threaten to revoke Marshall’s lease if he didn’t hire an African-American player. A highly publicized standoff ensued with Marshall claiming that the federal government had no right to do such a thing.

With the backing of President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the feds won out and Washington’s football team opened their 1962 season in D.C. Stadium with Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Jackson on the roster.

Marshall would only run the team for one more season, but continued to own it until he died in 1969. In his will, he established the “Redskins Foundation,” an organization dedicated to the betterment of “health, education and welfare” of the District’s children. The will went on to say that none of his inheritance can go to “any purpose which supports the principle of racial integration in any form.”

And you know the Washington team name and fight song that have received a lot of well-deserved unflattering attention as of late? Both were Marshall’s doing.

Matt Blitz is the head of the Obscura Society D.C., the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura. He writes about discovering the world’s mysteries for Smithsonian Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and Washingtonian.