Before and since that memorable day in 1937 when Sammy Baugh appeared on the scene for the Redskins, there have been hundreds of quarterbacks who took snaps in the National Football League and then went to work. Maybe a thousand of 'em.
Yet when yesterday's official announcement by the NFL pooh-bahs said that Baugh was being acclaimed as one of the four players who deserved the call as the league's all-time, all-star quarterback, it was more shocking than applaudable.
It was, by any reckoning, damning by faint praise, no big deal and, for the greatest quarterback the NFL has known, a kick in the butt.
Sammy Baugh deserves far better than a quarter of a loaf.
No disrespect here to Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Otto Graham, who were bracketed with him in gross oversight of Baugh's patently superior credentials. They too were great quarterbacks, deserving of loud cheers. They evoked memories of Samuel Adrian Baugh, but not the reality of him. Simply put, they lacked his measure in so many skills.
Unitas, Montana and Graham -- they are proud and famous names, but they are being ranged against The Colossus of passing's art. There are so many questions to be asked: Did any of them dominate the position in the NFL for most of 16 years? Did any of them ever lead the league in passing six times, or rack up a pass-completion percentage of 70.3, as Baugh did in 1943?
Unlike the other quarterbacks who go to the sideline for rest and recreation every time the ball changes hands, Baugh always had work to do. He stayed in on defense, was a 60-minute man, and did any of his rivals ever intercept four passes in a single game, or even a single pass in their NFL careers? Sammy did, 31 times.
And, oh yes, there is this business of punting. Did any of the others ever perform in a punting situation, ever dig his foot into a football? Sammy did, all the time. Led the NFL in punting four straight years. Got one off for 85 yards against the Bears in a championship game, averaged an NFL record 51.4 yards on his kicks in 1940. Was the master of the third-down quick kick that set the opposition on its heels.
Baugh was all of these things for the Redskins.
And on this Sunday Redskins fans will see the striking contrast in Coach Norv Turner's quarterback choice. It was Turner's decision, a hard one, to ignore his first-round draft choice, Heath Shuler, for the starting job. Shuler, however, had never taken a snap in a pro game, never called a signal, never thrown a pass, yet he was a contender. So the job is going to John Friesz. And who is John Friesz? He was the backup last year for San Diego. Where have you gone, Sammy Baugh?
Baugh revolutionized the passing game in the NFL, even as a rookie in 1937, when he took the Redskins to the title, beating the Bears, the Monsters of the Midway, on their home field, the first time Baugh ever saw snow and an icy gridiron.
If the American public wasn't aware of Baugh before, it was that day. On the first play of the game he dared to throw from his own end zone to Cliff Battles for 45 yards. Down 21-14 in the fourth quarter, he looked one way and threw the other to Wayne Milner for 77 yards and a score, then got the winning touchdown on a 35-yarder to Ed Justice. Before that there was a 55-yard touchdown to Milner. All of this on his one healthy leg, the other a victim of the ice.
Sammy is now 80, retired from his west Texas cattle ranch, which is being worked by his four sons. "I'm in good health," he said yesterday to this reporter, who used to be his ghostwriter. "I'm playing golf two, three times a week. The game gets me. I love it and hate it, like everybody else, I guess."
At 180, he said he is five pounds overweight, not quite the rawhide-thin 6-foot-3 Texan who was signed by George Preston Marshall out of Texas Christian. Baugh was not unknown. He had taken TCU to victory in the Cotton and Sugar bowls.
"Yeah," said Baugh, "I did think I was going to play baseball instead of football. I only promised Mr. Marshall I would play football for one year; I got the name 'Slingin' Sammy' from baseball, not football. Had a good arm playing shortstop and third base. I went from the Redskins to the St. Louis Cardinals' camp in the spring of 1938 but after the same job I wanted was a fellow named Marty Marion, and I went back to football. Anyway, I had problems with the curveball."
The first time I saw Sammy Baugh, his feet were hurting and he was cussing Marshall, his new boss. He was deplaning from a tin crate that had flown him from Sweetwater, Tex., for his signing ceremony in 1937.
At that time, Baugh was dressed according to the Marshall Plan. It was Marshall's idea to present Baugh as a rootin', tootin' son of the Wild West complete with cowboy boots, a regular John Wayne type, despite the fact that the only time tenderfoot Baugh ever saw a cow was over a fence.
Entrepreneur Marshall had phoned Baugh in Texas to "buy a nice big Stetson cowboy hat." Baugh asked, "What size do you wear?"
Marshall said, "It's not for me, it's for you."
On instructions Sammy went for the fancy shirt, the flaring Stetson, the whipcord pants and, worst luck, those high-heeled boots, all in evidence as he stepped off the plane.
"Mah feet hurt," said Baugh as he greeted Marshall.
He signed for $8,000 for the first year, including a bonus. "I later learned that poor Cliff Battles, who led the league in rushing, was getting only $250 a game from Mr. Marshall."
Baugh wasn't the quarterback when he started with the Redskins. Played tailback in their double wing. Riley Smith called signals from blocking back.
"They said I'd have trouble when we went to the T-formation in 1945," Baugh said. "But actually it was easier. To get off my quick passes I told our center to snap me the ball close to my right ear where I would be in throwing position."
Baugh startled the league with his innovative passing plus the accuracy of it. Breaking with the tradition that the pass was to be used most commonly on third and long, Baugh brazenly threw on first down or second down or from punt formation. The apocryphal story is that when he reported to Redskins Coach Ray Flaherty he was told: "Now that you're here, Sammy, these guys expect you to hit 'em in the eye with your passes." The story also went that Baugh asked, "Which eye, coach?" Whatever, Sammy got the ball to them nicely for the next 16 years.
And when the Redskin fans gave him a "day" at Griffith Stadium in 1947, Sammy gave them a thank-you note of six touchdown passes against the Chicago Cardinals. He could do things. No other QB can claim his fame.