The First of the Gunslingers

Legendary Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh, 94, died Wednesday night. He was the last surviving member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's inaugural class.
By Joe Holley and Bart Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 18, 2008

Slingin' Sammy Baugh, 94, a record-setting passer, punter and defensive back who led the Washington Redskins to two NFL championships in 16 seasons with the team and whose wide-open style of play helped usher professional football into the modern era, died yesterday at Fisher County Memorial Hospital in Rotan, Tex.

Baugh, a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, had lived for the past few years at a nursing home in the small West Texas town of Jayton, about 30 miles from his beloved Double Mountain Ranch. His daughter-in-law, Jean Baugh, said he died of kidney failure and pneumonia. Doctors told her his body just wore out.

"Sammy happens to be just about the most valuable football player of all time, according to most pro coaches I've talked to," legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice said in 1942.

More than a half-century later, sportswriter Dan Jenkins called him "the greatest quarterback who ever lived, college or pro." Jenkins, a Fort Worth native, saw Baugh play at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and as the Redskins quarterback.

"Sammy Baugh embodied all we aspire to at the Washington Redskins," Redskins owner Daniel Snyder said. "He was a competitor in everything he did and a winner. He was one of the greatest to ever play the game of football, and one of the greatest the Redskins ever had. My thoughts and prayers are with his family tonight."

Baugh, a tall, rangy Texan, was a superb all-around athlete -- he signed a professional baseball contract with the St. Louis Cardinals the summer before joining the Redskins -- and would have been a star no matter whom he played for, but he happened to play for George Preston Marshall, the crafty showman and promoter who owned the Redskins.

Marshall transformed the TCU all-American into the quintessential cowboy. He insisted that Baugh buy himself a western hat and a pair of boots before flying up to Washington to sign his $8,000 annual contract. Never mind that Baugh was a small-town boy, not a cowboy. When Washington sportswriters asked him about the boots, he said, "They make my feet hurt."

Marshall, who had moved the Redskins from Boston after his wife convinced him Washington would be a good town for pro football, got a return on his investment almost immediately. As a rookie, Baugh led the team to its first division title and an opportunity to play the Chicago Bears, the fearsome "Monsters of the Midway," for the NFL championship.

Sunday, Dec. 12, 1937, was so bitingly cold that most Bears fans chose to listen to the NFL's fifth annual championship game on the radio. Maybe they had made it to church and back earlier, but Wrigley Field, temperature 15 degrees, wind chill minus-6? No way. Only 15,878, including 3,000 well-lubricated Redskins fans who arrived by rail from Washington, had that much faith and fortitude.

The players, of course, had no choice. Their hands and faces chapped and red, their feet skidding out from under them on the crystal-hard playing surface, their misery compounded by a stark and punishing wind off Lake Michigan, they lined up for the opening kickoff wearing rubber-soled basketball shoes.

No one expected it to be that much of a game. The Bears had gone 9-1-1 in their march to the Western Division title. Their lineup was studded with stars, and they were playing at home in their kind of weather. The Redskins, 8-3 in their first season in the nation's capital, were a good team -- they'd clinched the Eastern Division title a week earlier with a 49-14 defeat of the New York Giants -- but the Monsters of the Midway were as fearsome as their name. They were too big, too fast, too experienced.

The Redskins, on the other hand, had a secret weapon, although the exploits of rookie quarterback Sammy Baugh -- "Slingin' Sammy Baugh," from his baseball exploits -- had made him less of a secret as the season unfolded. On that championship Sunday, those hardy fans shivering in the stands at Wrigley Field witnessed a legend in the making, a star who, like Ruth or Jordan, transformed the way the game is played.

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