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.
The first time the Redskins got possession of the ball, the Bears had them backed up near the goal line on an out-of-bounds kick to the 5-yard line. Baugh, who had never played in such treacherous weather, ambled onto the field, stood in his end zone and calmly assessed the Chicago defense. His breath misting, he watched the Bears, then walked over to the Redskins huddle.
"Punt formation," the 23-year-old quarterback told his teammates, "but we're gonna pass." Ten surprised teammates stared back at him.
"On two," he barked.
The Redskins broke the huddle, and Baugh dropped back to punt, a common strategy in those days before slimmer, easier-to-grip footballs and split-T offenses opened up the game. On the snap, the Bears' formidable front line scratched, clawed and burrowed ahead on the icy surface, intent on blocking the kick.
The 6-foot-2 Baugh, with his offense lined up in what was essentially today's double-slot spread, straightened and whipped a forward pass from the end zone, possibly the first such throw from that precarious field position (and certainly the first such throw on ice, with players in sneakers). Running back Cliff Battles gathered in the ball and rambled 42 yards before being pulled down. A few plays later, Battles scored on a reverse, and the Bears realized that with Baugh on the field -- he played both offense and defense -- they were in for a game.
The fans got their money's worth, despite the punishing cold. As shadows lengthened across the field, the lead changed hands four times, with Slingin' Sammy completing pass after pass. Midway through the third quarter, with the Bears leading 14-7, Baugh found his favorite receiver, former Notre Dame all-American Wayne Millner, who took a short pass on the Redskins 47-yard line and gingerly scurried the rest of the way into the end zone.
The Bears couldn't stop Baugh, legally that is. Bronko Nagurski, their hard-nosed fullback and linebacker, had only one mission on defense: stay with the rookie quarterback and knock him out of the game. Nagurski succeeded temporarily when he hit Baugh so hard the young quarterback missed most of the second quarter.
In the third quarter, Baugh suffered a badly gashed throwing hand when he was stepped on in a pileup. Anytime he went down, Bears defenders were kneeing him, twisting his ankle, grinding him into the gravel-pocked ice; they were trying to knock him out for good. Nagurski chased him 20 and 30 yards behind the line of scrimmage, even after the whistle blew. (In those days, defenders could continue hitting the quarterback until the whistle blew.)
Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, a legend in his own right by the time he retired years later, described Baugh taking off on a 10-yard run through the middle of the Bears line before being brought down by "the beefy Chicagoans," four of them on top of him when he hit the frozen turf. "Somewhere, somehow in the pile, somebody gave his leg an awful wrench," Povich reported. "Baugh was the last to arise."
Still, Baugh kept pitching. With the score tied at 21 in the fourth quarter, he methodically picked apart the Bears' defense. With time running out, he tossed a 35-yard game-winner to Ed Justice, and any Redskins fans not yet frozen to their Wrigley Field seats went absolutely crazy.
Baugh threw for an astounding 335 yards that day, with touchdown passes of 35, 55 and 78 yards. "Baugh was a one-man team," one of the Bears coaches told reporters after the game. "He licked us by himself."
"When they call the roll of football heroes, the name of Samuel Adrian Baugh will be hovering near the top," Povich wrote.
During 16 seasons with the Redskins, Baugh would direct the team to four division titles and a second NFL championship in 1942. He retired after the 1952 season as a popular icon of football excellence and a folk hero of Washington sports lore.
For most of his career in Washington, he played both defense and offense as well as on special teams. But he was always best known as a pinpoint passer who could hit his receivers over long and short distances while under extreme pressure from a defensive pass rush. In nine seasons -- 1937, 1940, 1942, 1943 and 1945-49 -- he led the NFL in completion percentage. Twice he threw six touchdown passes in a single game. His career totals included nearly 1,700 completed passes, 187 of them for touchdowns.
He was also a superb punter, the last master of the all-but-forgotten stratagem of the quick kick, and a formidable defensive back. Against the run, he was a fierce tackler who could bring down the fabled fullback Nagurski. Defending against the pass, he was an interception threat. He had 31 over his career. In one season, 1943, he led the NFL in pass completions, in punting and in interceptions -- which he caught, not threw, with 11. He's the only player ever to lead the league in offensive, defensive and special teams categories.
Baugh played on Redskins teams that included such future Hall of Famers as Battles, Millner and tackle Albert "Turk" Edwards. But it was mainly Baugh who became the primary author of a passion for Redskins football that came to envelop the Washington area with ever-increasing intensity each autumn.
In his first pro game, which was also the Redskins' first game in Washington, he caught Povich's eye. "There was Slingin' Sammy Baugh, putting his college reputation squarely on the spot, and justifying every advance notice with his magnificent forward-passing barrage against the Giants," Povich wrote. "No touchdown pass sped from the throwing hand of Baugh, but glory fairly dripped from the lean, lank Texas kid who was a marked man tonight, but made the transition from the college gridiron to the professional ranks with a tremendous thump."
There were 19,941 fans at Washington's old Griffith Stadium when the Redskins beat the Giants, 13-3, including 958 season ticket holders. Each had paid $9 for the package of six home games, or $1.50 a game.
From the start, the Redskins were a Washington sensation, and Baugh rode the crest of their rolling popularity wave. For the final game of the 1937 regular season, 10,000 Redskins fans boarded trains to New York for the victorious rematch with the Giants. The following week, 3,000 traveled to Chicago.
Baugh was the best passer in college football and one of the nation's outstanding professional prospects during four years at TCU, which he led to victories in the Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl. Marshall, a flamboyant and innovative sportsman, signed him for his football team in 1937, the same year he transferred the Redskins' NFL franchise to Washington from Boston. Compensation was a $500 bonus and a salary of $8,000.
But to bring Baugh to Washington, Marshall first had to work a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, now the Steelers, who had a pick ahead of Washington in the NFL's 1937 college draft. The Pirates wanted Baugh, too, but they also wanted a Duquesne University football all-American who was a local favorite with the Pittsburgh fans. Marshall let it be known that he'd take the Duquesne player if the Pirates chose Baugh. So the Pirates took the local favorite from Duquesne and the Redskins got Baugh.
When he jogged onto the practice field for his first meeting with Redskins Coach Ray Flaherty, their encounter would endure in the oral memorabilia of Baugh legend.
"They tell me you're quite a passer," the coach is said to have observed, handing Baugh a football.
"I reckon I can throw," Baugh reportedly answered.
"Let's see it. Hit that receiver in the eye," said Flaherty, pointing to a man running down the field.
"Which eye?" said Baugh.
He led the Redskins to a second NFL championship with a 14-6 victory over the Chicago Bears in 1942, coming from behind after the Bears scored first on a 50-yard runback of a Redskins fumble. In that contest, Baugh stunned the Bears with an 85-yard quick kick on a third-down play, tossed a 38-yard touchdown pass to halfback Wilbur Moore and orchestrated an 80-yard drive for the final score that ended when Andy Farkas ran the ball into the end zone from the 1-yard line.
That game was sweet revenge for a 73-0 humiliation of the Redskins by the Bears in the 1940 NFL championship game. Playing at Griffith Stadium, 10 Bears players scored a total of 11 touchdowns. The Redskins, who had defeated the Bears, 7-3, on the same field three weeks earlier, botched a scoring opportunity early in the title game when the usually reliable receiver Charlie Malone dropped a Baugh pass on the goal line. At the time, the Bears had scored only seven points, and the outcome of the game was still in doubt.
Someone later asked Baugh if the result would have been different had Malone not dropped the pass.
"Sure," Baugh said. "The final score would have been 73-6."
Like any world-class athlete, Baugh hated losing, and his image on the field of play was that of a tough-hided, no-nonsense competitor. But in the huddle he could also be compassionate and forgiving of a missed block or a dropped pass, and he won the support and loyalty of erring teammates with simple admonitions such as, "Get it next time."
On the practice field, he was not so forgiving of his own performance. He liked to complete 100 consecutive passes before leaving for the day, and if he missed one, he'd often start all over again. "He could throw a pass standing on his head," Marshall once observed.
Samuel Adrian Baugh was born March 17, 1914, in Temple, Tex., and moved to Sweetwater in high school. He played on his eighth-grade elementary school football team and four years of high school football, but his main sport was baseball, and he was recruited to play third base at TCU. He did, but he also joined the football team, and he was an all-American as TCU won the 1935 national championship. In 1935, he also was the star of the College All-Star Game, which was sponsored by the Chicago Tribune, throwing a touchdown pass to beat the Green Bay Packers, 6-0.
He played minor league baseball briefly in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization as a shortstop, but he had difficulty hitting a curveball and was playing behind future major leaguer Marty Marion. Football seemed a better option. Two days after his 23rd birthday, he signed with the Redskins.
In Washington, his greatest success came during his early years. In 1948, when the Redskins had a 7-5 record, Baugh had his last winning season. He took the team to its fourth Eastern Division title in 1945, the last one of his career. That year's NFL championship game was played in Cleveland, where the Rams were playing their final year before moving to Los Angeles. At the kickoff, the temperature on the field had dropped to zero and there were gale-force winds. Cleveland won, 15-14, in part because of a Baugh pass from the Redskins end zone that hit the goal post and was scored a safety for the Rams. Under NFL rules of that era, the goal posts were on the goal line, and hitting the goal posts with an offensive forward pass meant two points for the opposing team.
During his final year with the Redskins, Baugh injured his hand in the fourth game of the season, and he was unable to grip the football for a month. He saw only limited action thereafter. In December 1952, he retired with a minimum of fanfare after the Redskins' last game and drove home to Texas, where he operated a cattle ranch in the offseason.
"The Redskins will always be my team and Washington will always be my second home. I'll never forget these most wonderful 16 years of my life, and I'll never be able to thank the fans enough," he said.
For five years after leaving the Redskins, Baugh coached football at Hardin-Simmons College, now university, in Texas, compiling a record of 23-28. He also was a coach of freshman football at Oklahoma State University, a backfield coach at the University of Tulsa and head coach for two years of the New York Titans, later the New York Jets, of the fledgling American Football League.
He was head coach of the Houston Oilers in 1964 and had a record of 4-10. But the job interfered with his cattle operations in West Texas, and he left after one year to return to his 6,300-acre ranch near Rotan, where by then he had become the Texas cowboy that Marshall had envisioned back in 1937.
In 1938, Baugh married his college sweetheart, Edmonia Smith, in Sweetwater; she died in 1990.
A son, Bruce Baugh, died in 2006.
Survivors include four children, Tod Baugh of Billings, Mont., David Baugh of Rotan, Stephen Baugh of Midland, Tex., and Frances White of Lubbock, Tex.; 11 grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.