By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 4, 2006
In 1937, there was no Super Bowl. They played the game in leather helmets and, when the ground was too frozen for cleats, in rubber-soled basketball shoes. The forward pass, the graceful arcing spiral that defines the modern game, was almost as rare as a warm day in the Chicago winter.
It was a cold day that December in Chicago. But a 23-year-old rookie named Sammy Baugh was about to revolutionize the game of football, in the process becoming the most popular Redskin of his time, perhaps of all time.
The game was the NFL championship. With Baugh's help, the Redskins had made it there in their first season in Washington.
Minutes in, the Chicago Bears had the visitors from the District of Columbia precisely where they wanted them. With a stark wind off Lake Michigan knifing into Wrigley Field, the Redskins had the ball on their own five-yard line. On first down, they huddled in the end zone around Baugh, a tall, skinny kid who had performed miracles all year.
"Punt formation," Baugh told his teammates, "but we're gonna pass."
Years later, Baugh would tell a writer: "I sure got some weird looks on that one." Before Baugh, teams rarely passed, and certainly not from their own end zone.
On the snap the Bears' front line scratched, clawed and burrowed ahead to block the punt. The 6-foot-2 Baugh calmly flicked a pass to halfback Cliff Battles, who went for 42 yards. A few plays later the Redskins scored, on their way to a 28-21 victory and their first NFL championship.
The rookie quarterback was awesome, completing 17 of 34 passes for 352 yards, four yards more than the entire Chicago offense. He threw touchdowns of 35, 55 and 78 yards.
"Baugh was a one-man team," one of the Bears coaches told reporters. "He licked us by himself."
Fans came to expect such heroics from Slingin' Sammy Baugh. He led the team to five title games and two NFL championships in his 16 NFL seasons, all with the Redskins. Baugh led the league in passing six times, in punting four times and in interceptions once. His punting records still stand.
More than all that, he made the forward pass a strategic weapon, not a desperation heave. That change made pro quarterback into the glamour position later occupied by such luminaries as Bart Starr, John Elway and Dan Marino.
A sportswriter of the time described Baugh as "the brightest star of them all, the Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden and Bobby Jones of pro football."
"I still think he's the greatest quarterback who ever lived, college or pro," says acclaimed sportswriter Dan Jenkins.
Fans of a fading generation still revere him. They wear his jersey -- No. 33 -- to Redskins games. Annapolis resident Ray Augsterfer, 77, even wears a throwback leather helmet in homage -- he was a youngster in the stands for Baugh's first Redskins game, and he was there in '41 for his record 85-yard punt, still the longest punt in NFL history. More than half a century after he retired, Baugh still gets fan mail.
But in 1952, Baugh left Washington and has never returned to the city that adored him.
Back in Texas, he coached the Hardin-Simmons University Cowboys for a few years, commuting from his ranch nearly 100 miles away. He coached the Houston Oilers of the fledgling American Football League for a couple of years and then the New York Titans -- forerunner to the New York Jets -- for two years after that.
For the old quarterback, that was football enough for a lifetime. From 1965 on -- except for a few temporary assignments as a quarterbacks coach here and there -- he remained a cigar-smoking, tobacco-chewing cowboy, an easygoing man who was almost comically profane whatever the topic.
"There are a lot of old football heroes," he told the Dallas Times Herald in 1980. "Who needs to be a goddamn football hero? Listen to me a minute. I've been happier the last damn 10 years than I ever have been in my life."
Slingin' Sam is the only surviving member of the 17-member charter class of the NFL Hall of Fame. At 91, he lives in a nursing home in a little West Texas town not far from his beloved Double Mountain Ranch. Age and a broken hip last spring have robbed him of his remaining mobility. Alzheimer's disease has ravaged his agile mind. There will be no last-minute miracles.
* * *
Samuel Adrian Baugh is a Texan, born and bred, although in the beginning he wasn't a cowboy.
Born in 1914, in the central Texas town of Temple, he spent his high school years in Sweetwater, 200 miles west. His father worked for the Santa Fe Railroad.
"He grew up really poor," his daughter-in-law, Jean Baugh, recalled earlier this month. "His dad was an alcoholic, a gambler and a chicken fighter who had a friend named Ruby."
Dad ran off with Ruby, the Baughs divorced and Sam's mother raised the three Baugh children.
Young Sam starred on the Sweetwater High football, basketball and baseball teams, and then enrolled at Texas Christian University, where he earned nine letters in three sports.
The nation's top college passer, he led the Horned Frogs to a Sugar Bowl victory over Louisiana State in 1936. At a time when college football was in its glory years -- with Army, Navy and Notre Dame huge in the East, TCU and SMU big in the Southwest -- Baugh was an all-American.
In that summer's College All Star game, Baugh sparked his fellow collegians to a 6-0 victory over the NFL champion Green Bay Packers. Pro football, confined to teams in the Northeast and Midwest, had its fans, although it was nowhere near as big as major league baseball. Pro football didn't have a Babe Ruth or a Lou Gehrig -- until Baugh came along.
The Redskins called to tell him they had made him the No. 1 draft pick. "I didn't know what they were talking about, because frankly, I had never heard of either the draft or the Washington Redskins," he told sportswriter Whit Canning a few years back.
Redskins owner George Preston Marshall offered him $5,000. Baugh's college coach, Dutch Meyer, advised him to hold out for $8,000. Marshall met his demand, making a rookie the highest-paid player in the NFL.
When Baugh reported to the Redskins, the story goes, Coach Ray Flaherty handed him a ball and said, "They tell me you're quite a passer."
"I can throw a little," Baugh said.
"Let's see how good," Flaherty said. "Hit that receiver running down the field in the eye."
"Which eye?" Baugh drawled.
Marshall realized what he had. A flamboyant forerunner to New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin -- who would christen his own rifle-armed rookie quarterback "Broadway" Joe Namath -- Marshall relentlessly marketed Baugh as Slingin' Sam, a real, live Texas cowboy. Never mind that the young man had grown up in town and had rarely been on a horse. Marshall outfitted him with boots and a Stetson and flew him into Washington to meet the press.
A reporter asked him about the boots. "They hurt my feet," Baugh complained.
"Son, is it true that you once killed a buffalo?" another reporter asked.
"Naw, I just winged him," Baugh replied.
Marshall was as volatile as he was flamboyant but Baugh just rolled with it. "I always got along with him pretty well," Baugh told Canning, "but he was always doing crazy things, and most of the guys didn't like him worth a damn. I think while I was there he fired three coaches in the middle of the season."
Marshall quickly got returns on Baugh's western duds and high salary. Not only were the Redskins league champions in '37 and '42, but the perennially popular quarterback played to 40 consecutive sellouts in old Griffith Stadium. During several seasons he played every minute of every game -- on both offense and defense.
Baugh finished his career in 1952 as the Redskins' 38-year-old player-coach. In the final game of the year, a 27-21 win over Philadelphia at Griffith Stadium, he played for several minutes before retiring to a prolonged standing ovation from the hometown crowd.
"Washington, especially in the autumn, will be a duller and sadder place," The Washington Post editorialized.
* * *
By then, Marshall's faux cowboy had become the real McCoy. Early in his Redskins career, Baugh paid $200 an acre for a ranch on the rugged rolling plains of West Texas, 80 miles northwest of Abilene. Owning his own spread was his dream, as it is for many Texans. Six distant gates from the nearest paved road, the old ranch house in the shadow of Double Mountain had no electricity at first, and no running water. The toast of Washington, D.C., and his wife, the former Edmonia Smith, took baths in a horse trough.
With the rocky, hard-packed ground filigreed by canyons, ravines and dry washes, with stubbled grass and mottes of dry mesquite almost the only vegetation, Baugh's West Texas isn't much to look at. But Baugh took to it. The hard work outdoors, the peace and quiet, even the extremes of West Texas weather -- he found all of it deeply satisfying.
The first two seasons with the Redskins, Baugh and his wife lived in a Silver Spring apartment. After the children started coming -- the Baughs had four boys and a girl -- Edmonia stayed home to run the ranch, with help from her mother and mother-in-law.
Baugh lived in a Washington hotel for six months of the year and returned to Texas when the season was over. Once he got within view of Double Mountain, a bifurcated, flat-topped butte jutting up from the plain, he knew he was home.
"He told me one time that if he had it all to do over again, he wouldn't be a big athlete," his son David says. "He'd be a rancher, a roper, a cowman."
"The reason I played football was to pay off this ranch," Baugh told writer Skip Hollandsworth in 1980. "And now I'm through with it and that's it."
David Baugh recalls a time in the late 1980s, when actor Robert Duvall stayed at the ranch for a few days, preparing for his role as Augustus McCrae in the TV miniseries "Lonesome Dove." Duvall listened to Baugh's stories, played golf with him and slapped down dominoes with him at a table in the old ranch house.
"In two hours, Sammy Baugh gave me the finishing touches for Augustus McCrae, and he didn't even know it," Duvall told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Baugh had his own Hollywood sojourn as well. In 1951, he made $6,400 for starring in a 12-week serial as a dark-haired Texas Ranger named Tom King. Called "King of the Texas Rangers," the episodes ran in theaters as Saturday-morning matinees and co-starred Duncan Renaldo, later famous as TV's Cisco Kid.
* * *
These days, Double Mountain Ranch is in the hands of David Baugh. Now 62, he himself retired five years ago from coaching high school football. Baugh's ranch is still a cow-calf operation, on 20,000 acres.
"We probably ought to diversify and branch out," David says, sitting at his dining room table. "We could do horses, could raise bulls. Probably the next direction we go is to sell heifers."
He lapses into the past tense. "He was a remarkable man," the younger Baugh says of his father. Edmonia Baugh died in 1990, after 52 years of marriage to her high school sweetheart.
"Pretty much, he's lived his life the way he wanted to," David Baugh adds, glancing through the window at Double Mountain, cloud shadows subtly changing its late-afternoon hue.
A couple of hours later and nearly 30 miles away, on a gray and gusty evening, residents of the Kent County Nursing Home and Health Clinic in Jayton make their way to the dining room for supper.
In a room down the hall, a frail man with a ruddy face and a white fringe of hair lies on his back sleeping, the covers pulled up to his chin. A burgundy-and-gold Redskins blanket is draped across his knees.