When Slingin' Sammy Baugh arrived 45 years ago for his and the Redskins' first season here, owner George Preston Marshall prevailed upon his new star to wear cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat.

Baugh, who had just signed a contract for $5,000 a year to make him the highest-paid Redskin, confessed that while he was indeed from Sweetwater, Tex., he had never ridden a horse. And the boots pinched.

Facing his own inaugural season, Washington Federals owner Berl Bernhard announced that his team had made Southern Methodist tailback Craig James its first-round pick. Bernhard knew he had a Texan, but it took him a while to remember a crucial detail.

Sitting in an RFK office, Bernhard, joined by Jim Gould, Federals president, remembered his draft pick's full name: Jesse Craig James.

"A cowboy! Fantastic!" said Bernhard.

Gould stayed silent, but his eyes widened:

Visions of Sammy Baugh.

Visions of Jesse Craig James riding down K Street in a Texas-sized Cadillac, wearing a holster and a ten-gallon hat.

Visions of Jesse Craig James filling the RFK Ponderosa.

James is a powerful runner with a cherubic face. At 21 years old, he hardly remembers the days of the American Football League, much less Sammy Baugh. At SMU, alternating with Eric Dickerson, James won All-Southwest Conference honors for three straight years, gained 3,771 yards rushing, and led the SWC in punting in 1982 with a 44.9 average.

James is a football player.

Jesse Craig James is a marketing idea.

The Washington Federals need both.

The USFL has guaranteed national exposure with two two-year television contracts with ABC and ESPN valued at about $10 million per year. Owners like Bernhard know that with all the television exposure--three games a week beginning March 6--they can hardly afford shoddy, obscure rosters.

The USFL cannot grow up in private. The draft, completed yesterday, gave every indication that the owners would at least try to sign the nation's top collegiate players--for football and marketing reasons.

The draft, however, is the easy part. A number of obstacles may deter blue-chip college players from signing with USFL teams.

Even if the new franchises offer million-dollar, multiyear contracts to draftees such as James, Dan Marino (Los Angeles Express) or John Elway (Oakland Invaders), the players' decisions will not be easy but they will have to be quick.

The USFL season will be in its eighth week when the NFL conducts its own draft April 20-21. A college senior would have to forgo the prestige, and possibly the superior offers, of the NFL and delay graduation in order to make the USFL's February training camps.

Eric Dickerson, who was James' running mate at SMU and the Arizona Wranglers' first choice, announced yesterday that he will wait for the NFL draft. More than likely, Dickerson will not be alone in making such a decision.

Perhaps the biggest dilemma facing someone like James is the new league's future.

Yesterday, Bernhard and Gould took James and his agent Sherwood Blount to lunch at Mel Krupin's, a downtown Washington restaurant. James was hatless. The promotions are a long way off. First, James has to think about signing.

"We didn't talk about money," said James of the meeting. "We're just getting to know each other. We just sat there and said hello."

But James seemed to be catching on to the idea of the new team, and the new business, rather quickly.

"I love this place," he said. "It's Jesse James comes to Washington."