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Sports Legend Revealed: Were the Washington Redskins once the Duluth Eskimos?

March 15, 2011 |  4:25 pm

FOOTBALL LEGEND: The Washington Redskins used to be the Duluth Eskimos.

STATUS: Close Call, but I'm Going With False.

I wrote about the Duluth Eskimos a while back (you can check the legend out here), and how their owner, Ole Haugsrud, managed to work his connection with one of the earliest professional football star players, Ernie Nevers, into a deal that eventually landed him 10% of the Minnesota Vikings (it's a really interesting story - just go read it). However, while his ownership of the Eskimos eventually led to Haugsrud owning a piece of the Vikings, Haugsrud always believed that his Eskimos (after he sold them) had an interesting life of themselves. He believed (as do many) that the Eskimos eventually evolved into the team that is now known as the Washington Redskins.

Is that true?

 Let's find out!

Again, as I mentioned before, it was Haugrud's connection to Ernie Nevers that made him so valuable to the National Football League (NFL). Nevers had a personal contract to play for Haugsrud, not the Duluth Eskimos themselves. So when the Eskimos took the 1928 season off due to poor ticket sales, so, too, did Nevers take the season off. The NFL wanted Nevers back into the league, so they cut a deal with Haugsrud. They helped him sell the Eskimos (or perhaps even did the sale for him - it's a bit unclear if the NFL bought the team from Haugsrud or just facilitated the sale) to Edwin Simandi, who moved the franchise to Orange, New Jersey. Before the deal, though, Haugsrud first sold most of the players to other teams, including sending Johnny Blood (who had played for Pottsdale in 1928) off to Green Bay, where he became one of the most famous Packers on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Haugsrud then took a job with the Chicago Cardinals, bringing Nevers along with him (who went right back to being a star player for the Cardinals). Eventually, the NFL ruled that personal services contracts were no longer allowed, so the Cardinals cut ties with Hausgrud.

Simandi named the team the Orange Tornadoes. They had an awful 1929 season. So awful that their head coach, Jack Depler, decided to leave and buy another football team. He bought the Dayton Triangles and moved them to Brooklyn and made them the Brooklyn Dodgers. He took most of the 1929 Tornadoes with him. So in 1930, Simandi moved the team to Newark with a new coach and mostly new players. Not so surprisingly, it also did not go so well for the team. They closed down shop after the 1930 season (the Great Depression left little room for error for professional sports teams).

Here's where it gets tricky.

So, due to the depression, no new NFL teams were added for the 1931 season. 1932 saw the league allowing new franchises. It was here that George Preston Marshall, Vincent Bendix, Jay O’Brien and M. Dorland Doyle were given a franchise that they initially named the Boston Braves. A year later they changed to the Boston Redskins. In 1937, they moved to Washington and have remained the Washington Redskins ever since. That much is not in dispute.

What is in dispute is exactly what franchise did these owners acquire?

In 1931, the NFL owners proposed to sell the dormant New Jersey franchise.

In 1932, the new ownership group purchased a franchise which the owners insist be in Boston (at a discounted fee, provided that they certify that the franchise would last at least two seasons in Boston).

These facts are agreed upon.

However, there is some considerable difference of agreement on whether the 1932 franchise was the Tornadoes, or another franchise, the Boston Bulldogs.

The Boston Bulldogs lasted one year in Boston, 1929, after moving from Pottsville the previous year (this is the team Johnny Blood played for). They played in Boston the same year that the Tornadoes were playing in Orange.

OK, so they are out of business for 1930 and 1931. The Newark Tornadoes are out of business for 1931.

This new ownership group comes in an is awarded a franchise in Boston. There is no official record of which team that they were awarded, but here are a couple of notable facts...

1. The 1932 Boston Braves had no one in the organization from either the Bulldogs or the Tornadoes. For all intents and purposes, this was just a new franchise awarded the same place in the league as one of those teams. This is why the NFL recognizes the Redskins only as an original franchise, not as a continuation of another team.

2. There is no record of the NFL officially selling the Newark Tornadoes. It is discussed, but there is no record of it actually taking place.

Really, the key reason most people believe that the Tornadoes became the Redskins is because Ole Haugsrud said so back in 1970s, in an oral history on the subject. It is his 40-year-old recollection that has been the main support for the belief that the Eskimos became the Redskins. And if you look at his recollection, it's false on the face of it, "George Preston Marshall of Boston bought the Orange franchise in 1931 and later took it to Washington, D.C. where his “Red Skins” have since become nationally famous." That is clearly not correct.

But was the franchise Marshall and his group purchased the Tornadoes?

I lean toward no.

I think that either it was just a brand-new franchise (again, there is no record of the Marshall group purchasing the Tornadoes or the Bulldogs) or, if it was considered to be taking the place of any franchise, it would be the Bulldogs, not the Tornadoes. Do note that Simandi's Tornadoes played in the American Association in 1936. Simandi kept a skeletal organization behind when he moved the team from Orange to Newark, and the Orange Tornadoes started play in the American Association in 1936 (before eventually being sold to George Halas in 1938). Does that sound like the behavior of a guy who sold his franchise to the NFL? I think that the two events (discussing selling the Tornadoes in 1931 and awarding a franchise in 1932) are two separate events, two separate events that have been joined together to form a logical belief, but not, I believe, an accurate one.

Thanks to Jon Charles Winter for his work on this subject! Winter notes that some reports have said that the Braves were to be awarded "the inactive Boston franchise," which would even further bolster the "it was the Bulldogs they were given" claim, especially since the Bulldogs never played again. I don't necessarily disagree with Winter there, I just haven't found a reliable account that made that claim, so I didn't factor it in - if that's true, though, that's even more evidence.

--Brian Cronin

Be sure to check out my Sports Legends Revealed for more sports legends! I have archives up for a number of sports, so you can easily browse through past legends. For instance...

Check out the football legends archive to read about legends like: Discover the strange tale of how Ohio State gave up a touchdown...to its own player!

Check out the baseball legends archive to read about legends like: See the interersting way that new Yankees catcher Russell Martin pays tribute to his mother.

Check out the basketball legends archive to read about legends like: What basketball Hall of Famer is also in the Volleyball Hall of Fame?

Also be sure to check out my Entertainment Legends Revealed for legends about the worlds of TV, Movies, Music and more! Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com. And buy my book, "Was Superman a Spy? And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed! here.

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