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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Baugh perfected the perfect pass
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
The thing about Sammy Baugh was that he did, in his day, the work of three current-day players. He was a prime-time passer, an outstanding defensive back and possibly the best punter ever. He set records in each category, some of which still are on the books.
In the Depression-ridden mid-1930s, Baugh put then-tiny Texas Christian University on the national football map as an All-American quarterback. Slingin' Sammy, as he was nicknamed by a Texas sportswriter, led TCU to bowl victories in his final two seasons.
He then helped revolutionize pro football, making the forward pass a routine play from scrimmage. His uncanny passing accuracy twice led Washington to NFL championships. All-Pro six times in his 16-year career, he completed 1,693 of 2,995 passes for 21,886 yards, leading the NFL in passing a record six times.
He still holds the NFL punting record for highest average in a career (45.1 yards) and has the best (51.4 in 1940) and third best (48.7 in 1941) season marks. He was the first NFL player to intercept four passes in a game, a record he shares today. And he is the only player to lead the league in passing, punting and interceptions in the same season.
Baugh was born March 17, 1914 on a farm near Temple, Texas. When he was 16, his family moved to Sweetwater, Texas. Always the perfectionist, Baugh set out to master the art of passing when he became the quarterback of his high school team. Using rope, he suspended an old automobile tire casing from a high tree limb in his yard. Swinging it in a long arc he would back off 10, 15, or 20 yards and try to throw a football through the tire as it moved from side to side in pendulum fashion. He drilled this way for hours, often practicing throwing on the run.
It wasn't until his junior year at TCU that Baugh hit his stride, helping the Horned Frogs go unbeaten in their first 10 games before losing 20-14 to SMU. TCU went to the Sugar Bowl and edged LSU 3-2 in the mud. The following year, Baugh was more proficient, even if his team wasn't. The Horned Frogs lost two games but beat Santa Clara, then the nation's only undefeated team, in the regular-season finale, to earn a berth to the first Cotton Bowl. Baugh was one of three MVPs as TCU whipped Marquette 16-6.
The NFL in 1937 was a far cry from the national craze it represents today. It was mainly a Midwest-Northeast phenomenon with a rough and rowdy reputation, a limited fan base and few economically viable franchises. The plodding, defensive-minded style of play was hardly conducive to improving the sport's image and popularity. After much indecision, Baugh signed a one-year contract with the Redskins, who had just moved from Boston to Washington that year. He received $8,000, making him the highest paid player on the team.
The way the story goes is that at Baugh's first practice, coach Ray Flaherty told him, "Let's see you hit that receiver in the eye." Baugh looked at Wayne Millner, who was running a buttonhook pattern, and asked, "Which eye?"
In his rookie season, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Baugh led the Redskins into the NFL championship game. Some people insist that his play in the bitter cold and wind of frozen Wrigley Field changed pro football forever. Baugh's fingers were numb but he threw and threw and threw, finishing 17-of-33 for 335 yards, unheard of numbers in those days. His second-half touchdown passes of 55, 78 and 33 yards gave Washington a 28-21 victory.
Still, Baugh wasn't convinced football was his best sport. He thought he might have a longer career in baseball. His big ambition was to become a major leaguer. Rogers Hornsby, then a St. Louis Cardinals scout, signed Baugh, who had been a star third baseman for TCU. Baugh was farmed out to Columbus after being converted to shortstop, and then sent down the system even lower to Rochester.
Baugh had a couple of problems. One was that he knew he never would be as good as Rochester's starting shortstop, Marty Marion, who would go on to become a Cardinals regular for 11 years. "The other was I couldn't hit that curve very well," Baugh said. "So I left in August to play football, and after that I stuck with football."
The Redskins and Bears would meet three times in championship games between 1940 and 1943. In 1940, the Bears, who had lost the regular-season meeting 7-3, recorded the most lopsided championship victory, humiliating Washington 73-0. After the Bears scored their first touchdown, Baugh had a pass dropped in the end zone. He was asked if that pass had been caught, would the outcome have been different. After thinking for a moment, he said in his Texas drawl, "Yeah. I suppose it would have made it 73-7."
In 1942, the Redskins won the East with a 10-1 record. But the Bears were true Monsters of the Midway that season, going 11-0 and outscoring their opponents 376-84. In the championship game, Baugh threw a touchdown pass and kept the Bears pinned in their territory with some terrific punting, including an 85-yard quick kick, as Washington won 14-6.
Baugh had his triple the next season, leading the league in passing, punting (45.9-yard average) and interceptions (11). His finest day was when he threw four touchdown passes and intercepted four passes in a 42-20 victory over Detroit. However, in losing 41-21 to the Bears in the title game, Baugh suffered a concussion early tackling Sid Luckman and had to leave.
Before the 1945 season, the Redskins switched from the double wing to the T, a formation that fit Baugh to a T. He completed 128-of-182 passes for a 70.33 success rate, which was an NFL record then and remains the second best (to Ken Anderson, 70.55 in 1982) today in NFL history. He threw 11 TD passes and only four interceptions. The Redskins again won the East but lost 15-14 in the championship game to the Cleveland Rams in subzero weather. Two of the points came on a safety when a Baugh pass from the end zone hit the goal post (the goal posts were on the goal line then).
On Nov. 23, 1947, the Touchdown Club of Washington honored Baugh with a "day," something not common in football, and gave him a handsome station wagon. The quarterback was nervous before the game because the fans were doing something for him and he didn't want to let them down. He didn't. He threw for six touchdowns in a 45-21 rout of the powerful Chicago Cardinals, who would go on to win the NFL title that season. While the Redskins finished 4-8, Baugh had career highs in completions (210), attempts (354), yards (2,938) and TD passes (25), leading the league in all four categories.
Baugh played for five more years -- leading the league in completion percentage for the sixth and seventh times in 1948 and 1949 -- before retiring after the 1952 season. Three years later he was named coach of Hardin-Simmons, compiling a 23-28 record in five seasons. Then he became the first coach of the New York Titans (now the Jets) in the fledgling American Football League in 1960 and 1961, going 7-7 each season. In 1964, he coached the Houston Oilers in the AFL to a 4-10 mark.
Baugh was among the 17 charter members to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. He also was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. Retired and still living in Texas, Baugh continues to be involved playing a sport. Only now it's golf. Naturally, he's a low handicapper.
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