New York had Joe Dimaggio. Boston had Ted Williams.
And Washington, D.C.? Well, we had Sammy Baugh, the greatest football player ever to pull on a jersey.
In 1943, Baugh led the NFL in pass completions, punting, and interceptions as a defensive back with 11, calling forth the tribute of legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, “Sammy Baugh is just about the most valuable player of all time, according to most pro coaches I’ve talked to.”
To those of us in grade school in Washington in the 1940s, Sammy Baugh was already a living legend.
A first-string all-American at Texas Christian, the lanky 6 foot, 2 inch Texan had led his team to a national championship and back-to-back victories in the Cotton and Sugar Bowls, then led the College-All Stars to a 6-0 victory over the Green Bay Packers in that time when the best of the college boys could beat the pros.
In 1937, George Preston Marshall, who had moved his team from Boston and renamed it the Redskins, picked Baugh as his first-round draft choice. As Washington Post writers Joe Holley and Bart Barnes relate in their splendid eulogy, when Baugh arrived at his first practice, coach Ray Flaherty said to him, “They tell me you’re quite a passer.”
“I reckon I can throw,” said Baugh.
“Let’s see it,” said Flaherty, pointing to a player running down the field, “Hit that receiver in the eye.”
“Which eye?” Baugh replied.
In his rookie year, Baugh led the Redskins to an 8-3 record, the division title and the NFL championship game against George Halas’s Chicago Bears, the “Monsters of the Midway.”
So icy and frozen was the turf in Wrigley Field, with a wind chill of 6 below, both teams wore rubber-soled shoes and only 15,000 fans, 3,000 of whom had taken the train out from Washington, showed up in the stands.
Led by “Bronko” Nagurski, fullback and linebacker, who would be one of only a dozen players inducted into Football’s Hall of Fame charter class in 1963, the Bears were bigger, faster, stronger, more experienced, and heavily favored.
Baugh took over the Redskin offense on his own five-yard line. In those days, when the ground game was the game, it was expected that Baugh would punt it out from his end zone.
Baugh went into punt formation, but, from deep in his end zone, he threw a completion to Cliff Battles, who carried the ball to midfield. Baugh then fired a short pass to Notre Dame All American and future Hall of Famer Wayne Milner, who carried it all the way for the score.
As he picked the Bears’ defense to pieces, Baugh, when tackled, would be piled on by Bears players stepping on his hand and twisting his leg to stop him. Nagurski was instructed to knock him out of the game and chased Baugh even after the whistle had blown. On defense, Baugh was often the last man between Nagurski and the goal line. He played in a leather helmet with no facemask and far fewer pads than today.
On that frozen turf that day, Baugh threw for 335 yards and three touchdowns of 35, 55, and 78 yards, leading the Redskins, in their first season, to the NFL title, changing the game of football forever.
“When they call the roll of football heroes, the name of Samuel Adrian Baugh will be hovering near the top.” wrote The Washington Post‘s Shirley Povich, who would himself become one of the legendary names of that Silver Age of American sports.
Soon the slogs in the mud for which Halas’s Bears were famous would give way to the air wars conducted by Unitas, Namath, Montana, Elway, Marino, Bradshaw, Brady, and Favre. But as Holley and Barnes write, Sammy Baugh was “The First of the Gunslingers.”
Amazingly, given the change in the game, many of Baugh’s team and NFL records stand. He led the league in passing six times. Twice, he threw for six touchdowns in a game. His NFL record for punts, a 51.3 yard average in 1940, has never been equaled. In one game, Baugh both threw for four touchdowns and intercepted four passes. And he played for 16 seasons.
He led his team to five division titles and two NFL championships. His No. 33 has been retired. When the Football Hall of Fame was opened in Canton, Ohio, in 1963, only a dozen players joined “Papa Bear” Halas and Marshall in the charter class. Among them: Nagurski; “Red” Grange, the “Galloping Ghost”; Jim Thorpe, decathlon champion of the 1912 Olympics; and Sammy Baugh.
In 1949, Baugh came out to Chevy Chase Playground to visit the Blessed Sacrament CYO championship team. Standing in a raincoat, he fired off a pass that hit my oldest brother Bill in the numbers. Bill held onto the football. A memorable moment in family lore, thanks to a most memorable man, Sammy Baugh, dead at 94 this Christmas.
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