Grave Story: Bobby Marshall (1880-1958)

Here lies Bobby Marshall, a pioneer in professional football. He, along with Fritz Pollard, were the first African-American players in the National Football League. However, Marshall was an accomplished baseball player as well, playing for several teams in the years before the Negro Leagues were established. He was active in sports well into his late 50s.

(Editor’s Note: For an exhaustive look at the life and times of Bobby Marshall, I would recommend downloading a copy of this article from Minnesota History by Steven Hoffbeck, which I found through Marshall’s Wikipedia entry. As the article itself points out, Marshall’s accomplishments have been largely forgotten, though he was once a legend in Minnesota.)

Robert Marshall was born in Milwaukee, Wis., on March 12, 1880. Marshall’s family moved to Minneapolis, where he attended high school at Central High. He was on the football and baseball teams there, and he was starting to demonstrate his athletic abilities at pretty much any other sport as well. A 1902 newspaper recap of a high school competition stated that Marshall won a quarter-mile bicycle race, with a time of 32 seconds.

“To show that color was no bar to his popularity the winner was heartily applauded by the spectators and warmly congratulated by his competitors,” reported the Star Tribune.

Marshall was the first baseman on the Central High team that were the Twin City High School champions in 1900 and 1901. He then attended the University of Minnesota and became the first African-American football player to ever play in the Western Conference – the forerunner of the Big 10. He played baseball as the first baseman of the 1904 and 1905 teams – the latter was the Western Conference champion.

Bobby Marshall as a member of the University of Minnesota football team. Source: Hennepin County Library.

Marshall lettered in track and played hockey and boxing too, but football was where he made his mark. He played end for the Gophers for 1904-06, and his teams went 27-2 in that time. As was the custom of the time, he played on the offense as well and ran, caught and kicked the ball. His most famous game, and the one that made him a Minnesota sports god, came against the University of Chicago and Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg on November 10, 1906. In the words of his coach, Dr. Henry L. Williams, Marshall played one the greatest defensive games at end that he had ever seen.

“He ripped holes from the backfield and played with the speed of a racehorse and the power of a traction engine,” reported The Minneapolis Journal. He kept Chicago’s quarterback at bay for most of the game, holding the opposition to a safety. Marshall also booted a 40-yard field goal (which was worth 4 points then) to give Minnesota a 4-2 win. He teamed up with some of his Gopher teammates to form a semi-pro football club called the Deans after graduation. Marshall was the coach and quarterback.

When it came to baseball, Marshall played with the Minnesota Lind-Lands in 1906, along with a team from Lamoure, N.D. (1907), the Minneapolis Keystones (1908) the St. Paul Colored Gophers (1909-11) and the Chicago Leland Giants (1909-10). He bought the Gophers team in 1911. His teams played other Negro League teams of the era, as well as semipro teams throughout the Upper Midwest. He played with and against the likes of Jim Thorpe, John Donaldson and Smoky Joe Williams.

There aren’t many statistics available for his playing career. Seamheads lists just 17 games in his career over three years (1908-1910), with a .211/.262/.368 slash line, 2 home runs and 3 stolen bases. As with any statistics tied to the Negro Leagues, you have to take it with a grain of salt. Those games were not diligently reported on like the major leagues, and there are countless exhibition games that were never recorded. The Hoffbeck article I referenced earlier notes that the Twin Cities sportswriters from 1907 through 1909 wrote pretty extensively about independent baseball, and black teams like Marshall’s were included. That coverage faded out afterwards, though.

The Star Tribune from July 18, 1909, stated that Marshall, then playing for the Colored Gophers, “is a big hit all over the circuit and never fails to get the glad hand for his wonderful fielding stunts around first base.” When he joined the Leland Giants in 1910, reports called him “the best negro first baseman in the country.”

Post-graduation, Marshall worked at the law office of William Franklin and later at Nash and Armstrong, an African-American-owned law firm. He also served at a high school and college football coach. Marshall started working for the state of Minnesota in 1911 as an inspector in the state grain department, and he held that job until his retirement in 1950.

Marshall stayed active in semipro baseball and football for years, and he played at a pretty high level well into middle age. He was a part of the reformed Minnesota Colored Keystones team of 1919, joining Smoky Joe Williams and others brought in from the Midwest. He finally was able to play in a professional game when he joined the Rock Island Independents of the American Professional Football Association in 1920 (which would become the National Football League in a couple years). Marshall was 40 and more than 15 years past his collegiate glory, but he helped integrate the league as a right end. He played in 9 games and started 7, and Rock Island finished fourth with a 6-2-2 record. He came back again for the Duluth Kelleys in 1925, playing in all 3 of the NFL games that the team had that season, when he was 45. Marshall retired from football in 1936, when he was 56, though he hinted at a comeback. “I can still run with the tackles,” he said. He quit baseball a few years after that and finally retired from softball when he was 65.

Bobby Marshall takes a swing at a University of Minnesota Gophers baseball team reunion. Source: Star Tribune, June 6, 1934.

I hope that none of what I’ve written here gives the sense that Marshall was free to do whatever he pleased in Minnesota. Even though he broke many sports barriers by integrating teams and leagues, Marshall was still an African-American at the turn of the 20th Century. He was the grandchild of slaves. The newspaper accounts, written by white journalists for a largely white audience, report only the good side and gloss over how he may have been treated on or off the field. Marshall achieved tremendous success in his athletic and business life, but he did so with disadvantages that I don’t think most of us will ever understand.

In the interest of honesty, I will add that Marshall was sued for divorce in 1924 by his wife, Irene. She charged “cruelty, nagging, stinginess and said that on two occasions he blacked her eyes.” She was 25 years old at the time and was nearly 20 years younger than Marshall. They had three children. Either the divorce did not occur or they remarried later, as Irene was listed among his survivors at is death.

Bobby Marshall died of Alzheimer’s disease on August 27, 1958 at the age of 78. About a month before his death, his son Billy, a former Golden Gloves welterweight champion, collapsed and died at a local golf course at the age of 35. Marshall is buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. He was inducted posthumously into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

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