Eddie LeBaron, the Washington Redskins’ “Little General” of the 1950s who, despite his diminutive size, won over skeptics and became one of the top quarterbacks in the National Football League, died April 1 at an assisted-living facility in Stockton, Calif. He was 85.
His death was confirmed by a son, Wayne LeBaron, who said the cause had not been determined.
In his 11 years in the NFL, Mr. LeBaron never won a championship — in fact, he played on only two winning teams — but he remains one of the most remarkable players in football history. At 5-foot-7, he was tiny for a quarterback even in 1950, when he was drafted by the Redskins.
Before he stepped on the field for a regular-season game, Mr. LeBaron was called up for active duty in the Marines. As a combat officer in the Korean War, he received two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star before returning to Washington to put on his uniform for the Redskins. He briefly wore No. 40 before switching to 14.
The team’s owner, George Preston Marshall, insisted on exaggerating Mr. LeBaron’s height at first, but one look at the 160-pound quarterback wearing No. 14 told the story.
“Oh, I was 5-foot-7,” Mr. LeBaron told ESPN in 2009. “When I got to the NFL, Marshall thought 5-7 sounded too small, so they listed me at 5-9.”
Mr. LeBaron tied with Davey O’Brien, who played with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1939 and 1940, as the shortest quarterbacks in NFL history.
Mr. LeBaron took over the starting job in 1952 from the Redskins’ aging Hall of Famer, Sammy Baugh. Facing players who outweighed him by more than 100 pounds and who were sometimes a foot taller, Mr. LeBaron became one of football’s most unlikely stars.
After a disappointing season in 1953, Mr. LeBaron headed to the Canadian Football League for a year. He returned to the Redskins and staked his claim to the quarterback job in the season’s first game, on Sept. 25, 1955, against the defending NFL champions, the Cleveland Browns. The Redskins had never beaten the Browns, and Cleveland had won their previous encounter by a score of 62-3.
In what Mr. LeBaron called the greatest game of his career, he threw for two touchdowns and set up another with a 70-yard pass.
With the Redskins holding a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter, Mr. LeBaron guided his team to the Cleveland 13-yard line. He dropped back to pass but could not find an open receiver. Scrambling, he headed to the right sideline, then cut back through the entire Browns defense and raced into the left corner of the end zone.
“It was the little Baron,” Washington Post sportswriter Jack Walsh wrote, “who scampered an unbelievable 13 yards for the clinching touchdown in the last six minutes. Eddie ran to the right, forward, backward and, finally, to the left before going all the way.
“There was a great discussion in the press box. The argument was whether 10 or 11 Browns had a shot at LeBaron.”
After the Redskins won, 27-17, Cleveland coach Paul Brown said, “The little man beat us personally.”
Mr. LeBaron led the 1955 team to an 8-4 record, the Redskins’ first winning season since 1948 and their last until 1969. In 1958, he led the league in passing efficiency, or yards per attempt, besting such future Hall of Famers as Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Norm Van Brocklin, Y.A. Tittle and Bobby Layne.
Known as one of the gamer’s greatest ball handlers, Mr. LeBaron “was a magician with the ball,” former teammate Jim Ricca said in an interview with football historian Michael Richman for “The Redskins Encyclopedia.”
Mr. LeBaron’s final season with the Redskins was in 1959, the same year he graduated from law school at George Washington University, sixth in his class. He planned to retire from football and take a job with a law firm in Texas.
But when the NFL expanded, the coach of the newly formed Dallas Cowboys, Tom Landry, coaxed Mr. LeBaron back on the field. He was the Cowboys’ first quarterback and played four more years before retiring in 1963.
Mr. LeBaron threw 104 touchdown passes and ran for nine touchdowns in his NFL career and was named to four Pro Bowl teams. He was even the Redskins’ punter for three years and had a 41-yard average.
Opposing players marveled at his toughness and all-around skill. Chuck Bednarik, the Philadelphia Eagles linebacker who died March 21, once told NFL Films, “The greatest little football player that ever lived was Eddie LeBaron.”
Edward Wayne LeBaron Jr. was born Jan. 7, 1930, in San Rafael, Calif. His father was a farmer and rancher.
Mr. LeBaron entered the College of the Pacific in Stockton (now the University of the Pacific) in 1946, when he was 16. His coach in his freshman year was 84-year-old Amos Alonzo Stagg, who had helped develop football in the 19th century.
In his final three seasons at Pacific, Mr. LeBaron was a first-team “Little All American” — a designation for small colleges, not a player’s size. He led his team to a perfect 11-0 season as a senior. With Mr. LeBaron playing both offense and defense, the Tigers scored a then-NCAA record 575 points and gave up only 66.
In 1950, Mr. LeBaron led a college all-star team to a 17-7 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, the defending NFL champions. He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. LeBaron was a football broadcaster for CBS, while practicing law full time. He became the general manager of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons in 1977 and held other front-office jobs for the team until 1985. He moved to Sacramento in 1989, where he practiced law until 1997.
During his playing career, Mr. LeBaron helped establish the players’ pension fund, and he served on various NFL committees. He also worked as a volunteer counselor for Marines returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as recently as 2013.
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Doralee Wilson LeBaron of Stockton; three sons, Edward Wayne LeBaron III of Stockton and San Diego, William LeBaron of Sacramento and Richard LeBaron of Woodbridge, Calif.; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
“Size was never a factor for me,” Mr. LeBaron told the Washington Times in 2008, reflecting on his football career. “Most of the guys I played with thought that if you could do it, you did it. They didn’t care how big you were.”