In 1903 Marshall became the first Black football player to play for the University of Minnesota. He also starred for the school’s baseball team and later became the first Black semipro hockey player in the nation’s history.
After several seasons with one of the best Black baseball teams of the Deadball Era, the 1909-1910 St. Paul Gophers, Marshall became the first Black high-school football coach in Minnesota’s history. Then at age 40, along with Fritz Pollard, Marshall became one of the first two Black athletes to play in the American Professional Football Association (APFA) in 1920. Two years later, in 1922, the APFA was rechristened the National Football League. Marshall played in the NFL through the 1925 season before finally retiring from professional sports at the age of 52 and in 1971 was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
In the twenty-first century, the name of Fritz Pollard is – rightly – well-known throughout the ranks of professional-sports historians and is enshrined in the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The Fritz Pollard Alliance was created by the NFL and other sports professionals to educate the public about equal opportunity in sports and provide scholarships to “aspiring sports industry professionals of color.”1 The name of Robert Marshall, Pollard’s NFL predecessor by two weeks, however, has been consigned to obscurity in that same sporting world, at least outside the upper Midwest.
Robert Wells Marshall was born March 12, 1880, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father, Richard, worked as a lunchroom attendant and as an apprentice blacksmith. Bobby Marshall’s mother, Symanthia, was the daughter of Ezekiel Gillespie, who had been born into slavery in Tennessee before buying his freedom and moving to Wisconsin. There he sued the state to allow him to vote. In winning that lawsuit, Gillespie became a de facto civil-rights leader in the state for the remainder of his life.
Bobby Marshall’s family moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, when he was a child, and it was there, at Central High School, that Marshall revealed his immense athletic talent. Almost at his adult height of 6’1” by the time he was a sophomore, the right-handed Marshall helped to lead Central to three state football titles and two baseball pennants, all while also starring in track, wrestling, basketball, and tennis. Away from school, he also was a standout in that northern sport of choice, ice hockey. When his mother died while Marshall was still a student, he took a part-time job as a janitor to help pay the bills in addition to his athletic endeavors.2
After graduating from Central, Marshall enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1903 and continued his athletic dominance. The young player took advantage of the opportunity to play for Minnesota assistant coach William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, the first acknowledged professional football player.
Primarily playing offensive and defensive end and occasionally kicking, Marshall not only was the first Black football player in the school’s history, but he also led the Gophers to two Western Conference (later Big Ten) championships and was a unanimous selection to the all-conference squad in 1906. Marshall was, as writers later observed, “a fast and rangy end, and famed for the trickery which drew opponents into traps. He made a study of the business of playing end”3
This was an era in football’s history that was so violent it led to the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to cause rule changes to reduce serious injuries and even fatalities on the field. In 1905, while Marshall was at Minnesota, 19 high-school and college players died and 137 were severely injured playing football.4 Those injuries included rib and spinal fractures; broken shoulders, legs, arms, and collar bones; and concussions.
Such was the nature of the game just after the turn of the century — violent and often brutal, and a mirror for much of the wider society — and Marshall was a terrific player. For Marshall to be called out specifically by football writers for his willingness to hurl his body into the on-field fray during an age of routine mayhem underscored his courage and, perhaps, his desperate desire to win. He was, clearly, a tough man in an age of tough men.
Although Marshall began play in the era when ends couldn’t catch passes, he still earned the title of the most gifted Minnesota football player.5 In one game, against Carleton College, he ran for two touchdowns, including one of 70 yards, returned kickoffs, and kicked a Gopher extra point.6 In 1906 after the rules were changed to permit forward passing on a wider scale, Marshall became an even more potent weapon.
Even with his football success, though, the brilliant athlete found other sports in which to excel. On the baseball diamond, he flashed a similarly brilliant set of skills, playing first base for the 1907 Western Conference champion Gophers, a team that posted impressive wins over the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago.
After he graduated in 1907, in addition to practicing law, Marshall took over the Central High School football team, thus becoming the first Black head coach in Minnesota scholastic history. He also served as an assistant coach at his collegiate alma mater, thus becoming the first Black coach in what is now Big Ten history. Marshall, however, loved playing games even more than coaching them, and he continued to hone his baseball skills each summer. After he filled in for one game as catcher for the St. Paul Colored Gophers, a new semiprofessional segregated team that barnstormed throughout the Midwest, he signed on to play for the summer on a town team in nearby Lamoure, North Dakota.
The Minneapolis Colored Keystones, another Black team, were established in 1908 to counter the rival Colored Gophers. Playing for manager Kidd Mitchell, Marshall joined players, such as Bill Binga, a star from the old Page Fence Giants of Adrian, Michigan, and “Topeka” Jack Johnson, and took over first base later in the year.7 Marshall also made appearances at catcher and in right field,8 and won 10 games as a pitcher.9 Seamheads.com credits Marshall with 13 plate appearances, but there undoubtedly were more.
Late in the year, the Colored Keystones met the Colored Gophers for three games to determine the unofficial regional champion. After the Gophers won the first game, 6–3, Bill Gatewood started the second for St. Paul. Stellar play by right fielder Marshall, coupled with several Gopher errors, allowed the Keystones to even the series.10 The third game was played three weeks later at Minnehaha Park, and the Keystones took the game, 4–3. Marshall was back at first and batted second behind Binga. The former scored one of the four runs and also closed out a rally-killing double play at first when the Gophers threatened in the seventh inning.11
Marshall moved over to the St. Paul Colored Gophers in 1909, joining “Candy” Jim Taylor and “Steel Arm” Johnny Taylor on a team that was credited with more than 95 wins for the year.12 That July, St. Paul hosted the powerful Leland Giants for a five-game series. At stake, the Minneapolis Tribune opined, was “the colored championship of the country.”13 In the opener on July 26, the teams were tied, 8–8 tie after 10 innings. In the top of the 11th, Marshall smacked a two-run homer to center field to provide the margin in St. Paul’s 10-9 win.14 Given the level of competition and the preseries hype, Marshall’s blow was, perhaps, the single greatest feat of his baseball career. The Gophers lost the next two games but defeated the Giants’ Bill Gatewood twice and claimed an impressive 3–2 series victory.15
Marshall was invited to join those Giants in Chicago for an October exhibition series against the 100-win Cubs. Marshall started the first game but made two errors, one sufficiently critical that it directly contributed to a 4–1 Cubs win. Marshall then rode the bench for the final two games.16 Marshall started the 1910 preseason with the Giants and joined them for their southern tour in April and May. He returned to Minnesota in June and rejoined the Colored Gophers for what proved to be their final season.
Instead of remaining with the Colored Gophers during their slow demise, Marshall started a smaller touring team named the Twin Cities Gophers. Ostensibly, this allowed the now-30-year-old to try to build his law practice, but in reality, Marshall was more focused on playing baseball. In 1911, Marshall surrendered the dream of becoming a successful attorney when he accepted an appointment to the Minnesota state grain offices.17 He would work there for the next 39 years.
Marshall’s athletic gift hardly seemed to fade with time. In 1912 he captained a new semiprofessional squad, the Hennepin Clothing company team, which had raided the rosters of the Colored Gophers, Keystones, and even the Leland Giants. The roster included former teammate Binga.18Marshall also joined the St. Cloud Pretzels and a local team in Hennepin, Minnesota.19
Marshall also played semipro football with the Minneapolis Marines. His undeniable football skill earned him a tryout with the larger Rock Island Independents. Marshall used some interesting tactics to compensate for his age, such as wrapping a padded piece of metal around his rib cage to protect bones and vital organs.20
The extra money came in handy in 1918 when he married Irene Knott. She was 18, 20 years Marshall’s junior, but the couple welcomed four children: Robert Jr., William, Donald, and daughter Bette. The marriage ultimately ended in divorce, but the demands of fatherhood fueled Marshall to even greater athletic heights.
Between 1917 and 1919, the aging end and kicker sustained his excellent play, so in 1920, with the formation of the APFA and Rock Island’s entry into the league, 40-year-old Bobby Marshall became the first Black player in professional football history. On September 26, he helped the Independents blank the St. Paul Ideals, 48–0.21 Two weeks later, Fritz Pollard made his professional debut.
Minnesota in 1920 wasn’t as violent as the South, but there still were lynchings, including those of three men in Duluth that year.22 That same year, prior to a Sunday club game against a team from New Prague, Minnesota, Marshall was ordered by the visitors to leave the field, or the game would be cancelled. He refused, and the game was played. Marshall’s grandson Bill told writer Mark Craig in 2020 that “my grandfather always carried himself as a complete gentleman. He stressed education first. His general attitude was people respected you if you were educated. The racists, in his opinion, were unbelievably stupid.”23
During that 1920 campaign, Marshall started seven of the nine games in which he played, on a team that posted a 6-2-2 record. From 1923 through 1924, Marshall rejoined the Minneapolis Marines, now members of the NFL, and in 1925, he played end for the Duluth Kelleys. The team failed, and Marshall didn’t catch on with another team for the 1926 season, ending his professional football career.
Meanwhile, Marshall continued to play baseball during the summer. After 1919 he played in North Dakota and Saskatchewan. In 1922 he joined the Askin and Marine Colored Red Sox, where he played infield, and caught for the semipro St. Paul Uptown Sanitary squad. That same year he joined J.L. Wilkinson’s All Nations barnstorming team. There he had the chance to team with immortals John Donaldson, “Dink” Mothell, and future manager Newt Allen while, literally, seeing the country.
By 1925, despite being 45 years old, Marshall still played baseball regularly for teams, such as the Potts Motor Company club and smaller teams in Ironwood, Michigan, and Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. It seems there were few limits as to how far Marshall would go to play. In 1940 at age 60, he was still catching on the Minnesota Grain Commission team. There was no money in that last billet, so Marshall played simply for his sheer love of the game.
Marshall’s later life – he retired from the Grain Commission in 1950 – included his active role with the St. Peter’s AME church in Minneapolis, as well as speaking to groups and coaching some of Minneapolis’ young athletes in football and boxing. On August 27, 1958, Marshall passed away due to complications arising from Alzheimer’s disease. He is buried at the Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
In view of his vital contribution to the game, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971. In 1999, the Minneapolis Star Tribune named him the one of the greatest football players in Minnesota history and the 51st greatest athlete overall.24
But it was his life beyond the athletic fields and rinks and rings, though, that better defined the man among those who knew him best. Steven Hoffbeck, a St. Paul deputy police chief, labeled Marshall the “outstanding man of the Minneapolis African American community.” Local writers and activists agreed. Terry McConnell wrote in his 2021 biography of Marshall that the man’s “greatest contributions may not have been on the field of play … [he] stood as a reminder to all Minnesotans that African Americans had integrity and ability on and off the playing field during decades when African Americans were banned from professional sports and many other opportunities.”25 It’s high praise, indeed, still might fall well short of properly describing Marshall and capturing the breadth of his humanity.
This biography was reviewed by Phil Williams and Will Christensen and fact-checked by Larry DeFillipo.
This biography was not limited by available newspaper articles concerning events in Bobby Marshall’s life. One particularly useful piece, by Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Mark Craig, provided an overview of Marshall’s life from a more distant perspective and framed much of the narrative construction. Steven Hoffbeck’s outstanding article in the journal Minnesota History connected Marshall’s football and baseball exploits with an exploration of the player’s affect on Minnesota and his family from a social point of view. Finally, the most thorough deep dive into Marshall’s life is the biography written by Terry McConnell, Breaking Through the Line, a wonderfully thorough study of the man penned with obvious affection for the person and high regard for his achievements, but maintaining a distance that sustains the credibility of the author and the story.
2 Steven Hoffbeck, “Bobby Marshall: Pioneering African American Athlete” Minnesota History, Winter 2004-2005;: 160, http://collections.mnhs.org/mnhistorymagazine/articles/59/v59i04p158-174.pdf.
3 Dick Cullum, “Cullum Picks All Time Minnesota Grid Team,” Minneapolis Tribune, August 28, 1949: 103.
4 “Football Claims a Heavy Toll in Lives” San Francisco Call, November 27, 1905: 1.
5 “Bob Marshall is Perennial Star of the Gridiron, Plays at Age 42.” Minneapolis Journal, December 19, 1920: 39.
6 O’Loughlin, “Carleton’s Game Fight Did Not Check Gophers,” Minneapolis Journal, October 3, 1904: 12.
7 “Fast Colored Ball Team in This City” Minneapolis Tribune, April 3, 1908: 8.
8 “Lunds and Keystones Play First of Series at Nicollet Park Today” Minneapolis Tribune, June 6, 1908: 14.
9 “Colored Keystones Here” Austin (MN) Daily Herald, June 30, 1908: 6.
10 “Sporting Gossip of the Day” Minneapolis Tribune, August 31, 1908: 5.
11 “Keystones Again Defeat Gophers,” Minneapolis Tribune, September 21, 1908: 3.
12 Todd Peterson, “Can You Hear the Noise? The 1909 St. Paul Gophers,” Society of American Baseball Research Journal, 2007, https://sabr.org/journal/article/can-you-hear-the-noise-the-1909-st-paul-gophers/.
13 “Gophers to Play Lelands,” Minneapolis Tribune, July 11, 1909: 22.
14 “Gophers Trim Leland Giants,” Minneapolis Tribune, July 27, 1909: 8.
15 “Gophers Beat Lelands,” Fennimore Times (Fennimore, WI), August 4, 1909: 5.
16 “City Champs Win from Lelands, 4-1,” Chicago Tribune, October 19, 1909: 8.
17 “Mr Bobby Marshall has received an appointment…,” Minneapolis Appeal, September 2, 1911: 3.
18 “Hennepins Organize,” Minneapolis Journal, April 7, 1912: 30.
19 “Manager and Secy Resign,” Brainerd (MN) Daily Dispatch, August 18, 1914: 3.
20 Hoffbeck, 169.
21 Mark Craig, “100 Years Ago, One Giant Step,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 4, 2020: C1, C11.
22 Katie Gailoto and Brooks Johnson, “A Century of Shame,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 17, 2020, https://www.startribune.com/in-duluth-a-century-of-racial-shame/571188312/.
23 Craig, C11.
24 Craig, C11.
25 Terry McConnell, Breaking Through the Line, (Minneapolis: Nodin Press, 2021), 171.