Slingin' Sammy last link to long-ago pro football era

Sammy Baugh, dropping back to pass against the Bears in 1942, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. He played for the Redskins from 1937 to 1952. AP Photo

He belonged to a world that vanished. A faster, more complex and less personal world replaced the one he knew. It left him linked to a time so distant that his deeds appear carved on a cave wall alongside pictures of prehistoric bison.

He played college football when our president answered to initials and pro football rosters were composed of 23 players. George Allen, a Pro Football Hall of Fame coach, was among a number of experts who ranked him as the NFL's all-time No. 1 quarterback. Baugh did things no quarterback, or anyone else, will ever duplicate: leading the league in passing, punting and interceptions as a 60-minute man.

He was the last living member of the 17 original Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees from the class of 1963. Now there are none. Slingin' Sammy Baugh died Wednesday at age 94 in Fisher County Hospital in Rotan, Texas.

At 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, Baugh played his last NFL game in 1952 for the Washington Redskins and spanned the evolution from single wing to T-formation. He later coached at Hardin-Simmons, Tulsa and Oklahoma State, as well as serving as the head coach of the New York Titans (now the Jets) and the Houston Oilers. His last NFL job was as a backfield aide to former teammate Harry Gilmer in Detroit (1966).

Other than driving to a golf course in nearby Sweetwater, Baugh rarely strayed from his Rotan ranch in western Texas for the next 40-odd years. He never could be lured back to Washington for post-career recognition, or even to Dallas for induction into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame.

"I've got a rule that includes not going anywhere that I can't get back from by sundown," Baugh said when he was 85. "I go to the golf course and back home. That's my travel. As long as I do that, I feel good, I eat good and sleep good at night. I sure don't go to any big city.

"I don't fly. I don't drive at night. And I sure don't miss it a lot."

All-American at TCU

Apply a time frame to Baugh's life and it seems attached to the fifth day of Creation. The year was 1937. The war to end all wars had been fought, although it turned out to be just a prelude to World War II. FDR was president.

Baugh was a two-time All-American college senior at TCU en route to becoming the do-it-all quarterback-punter-safety for the Redskins into the 1950s. In Washington, he would rescue a financially strapped franchise, lead the Redskins to two NFL championships and lose three others -- one by a tiny margin (15-14) and another titanic (73-0).

The summer before joining the Redskins in 1937, Baugh tried his hand at pro baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals as a third-base prospect. That was where he emerged as Slingin' Sam, nicknamed for his rocket throwing arm. However, a futile duel with curveballs made Baugh reconsider a pro football offer from Redskins owner George Preston Marshall.

Baugh's entry into the NFL jumps ahead of his story line. There are early blanks to fill in. One such is when and how he began to play quarterback (actually tailback in the pre-T-formation era).

"I grew up in Temple, [Texas,] where my dad worked for the Santa Fe railroad. All through junior high, I played end, but when I got to high school, I wound up playing on about the sorriest team Temple ever had," went Baugh's drawling recall.

"We couldn't beat anyone, and one day the coach, Bill Henderson, came over and said, 'We can't run on anybody and we can't stop anybody. Maybe we can throw on 'em. I'm puttin' you in at tailback.

"Didn't make a damn bit of difference that I could tell. We just kept on losin'."

When the family moved to Sweetwater, Baugh automatically played tailback because that had been his position in Temple. Although he twice led Sweetwater to the state playoffs, Baugh was considered better at baseball. In fact, he was recruited primarily to play baseball at TCU, with permission to dabble in football.

Dutch Meyer became TCU's football coach in Baugh's sophomore season and installed a pass-happy offense. If not the founder, Meyer was at least a pioneer in developing ball control through passing. Baugh made him sound like the original Bill Walsh by citing Meyer's three-S aerial philosophy: short, safe, sure.

"I didn't learn anything about the passing game in the NFL that I didn't know from Dutch," Baugh reminisced. "We had a better passing game at TCU than in the pros. I loved Dutch, and I owe him a lot."

In three seasons (1934-36), Baugh led TCU to a 29-7-2 record, victories in the Sugar and Cotton bowls, and a No. 1 spot in the 1935 Williamson national rankings. He passed for 3,384 yards and 39 touchdowns. More national exposure followed when exalted sportswriter Grantland Rice traveled from New York to Texas to write of Baugh's exploits.

Graduation meant Baugh had to decide between holding a Depression era job with a lumber company or accepting a pro football bid from Marshall. His memory offered insight into the salary structure of the 1930s.

"I think he was offering something like $5,000, and it was worth considering," Baugh recalled. "But I already had a job, and jobs were very important at the time. I didn't know who the damn teams were 'cause I'd never paid much attention to the pros. I didn't care much about playing up there.

"I asked Dutch about it, and he said, 'Well, if they'll pay that, why not ask for $8,000?'

"So I did, and they accepted. To me, that looked like a million bucks."

Baugh learned it looked like even more to his teammates.

"After I'd been on the team awhile, I discovered we had three All-Pros making $2,700 a year each. And there were a lot of guys making $150-$200 a game.

"It scared the livin' hell out of me because I thought someone would find out how much I was making. It really gave me a strange feeling to know I was so overpaid when we had guys doing their job as well as I did and making less than $200 a game.

"We won the [NFL] championship that year, and Cliff Battles led the league in rushing. The next year, he asked for a $250 raise up to $3,000 a year, and Marshall wouldn't give it to him, so he quit.

"If I'd known what they were doing, I would have given him the $250 myself because after that first year, I was making $12,000."

And after Baugh's rookie season, Marshall reported a $20,000 profit, compared with an $80,000 loss the previous year. "He took the Redskins out of the red and put them in the black," Marshall gloated.

Thus began an unprecedented career that left Baugh's name still liberally sprinkled among NFL records. He won the most passing titles (6), punting crowns (4) -- setting the highest-ever season average (51.4) -- and tied for the most interceptions (4) in a single game. If the NFL had a Triple Crown, Baugh retired it in 1943 when he led the league in passing, punting and interceptions. (He also led Washington to the 1943 NFL Championship Game, where it lost to Chicago 41-21.)

The game back then bore little resemblance to the modern era version. There were no dome stadiums. No artificial turf. No television. There was barely radio.

The 1940 NFL title game was carried on network radio to 120 stations over the Mutual Broadcasting System, which paid $2,500 for the rights. Red Barber supplied play-by-play and analysis and probably also read the commercials.

Barber's task was to describe Chicago's 73-0 destruction of the Redskins, an outcome that helped popularize the T-formation with a man in motion. The result further astonished because Washington had beaten Chicago 7-3 three weeks earlier. Puffed by that victory, Marshall kept insulting the Bears, calling them "crybabies," and Baugh felt those taunts tipped the emotional scales for the rematch.

"Every time he opened his mouth, they got madder and madder and our morale got lower and lower," Baugh said. "He basically destroyed his own team, but George was kind of like that. I never knew anyone who liked him much."

The Redskins had a chance to score early, but receiver Charlie Malone dropped Baugh's pass in the end zone. Asked afterward whether the game would have been different if Malone had caught the touchdown, Baugh replied:

"Yep, it might have been 73-7."

The Redskins lost the 1945 title to Cleveland thanks to a weird rule that has since been amended. Cleveland was awarded a safety when Baugh's pass from the end zone hit the goalpost. (The goalposts were on the goal line in those days.) The Redskins lost by those two points, 15-14.

"Everyone expected Sam to punt because we were backed up to the goal line," said Wayne Miller, the intended receiver. "There was no one within a mile of me when I broke into the clear. But as Baugh threw the ball, the wind shifted and blew the ball into the goalpost. Instead of being ahead 7-0 on a 105-yard play, we were behind 2-0."

16 seasons with the Redskins

Baugh played on and on -- eventually wearing out 100 jerseys and 60 pairs of shoes -- leading the NFL in completed passes five times. Yet he never changed shoulder pads. Their tattered remnants were called Blue Jays, and they shrank to no bigger than a corn plaster.

Late in his career, someone asked Baugh whether the coming season would be his last.

"I dunno. I haven't tried it. Maybe last year was," he shrugged.

The Redskins held a Baugh Day in Washington in 1947. Fans donated a station wagon that some felt might be needed to carry him off the field. Washington had lost five in a row and faced the Western Conference champion-to-be Chicago Cardinals on muddy footing.

Baugh responded with what he considered his greatest performance -- 25 completions for 355 yards and six touchdowns -- in a 45-21 victory: "I guess it was because it was my day and I did pretty good."

Baugh lasted 16 seasons with the Redskins. He retired in 1952 after throwing 187 touchdown passes with a bloated football of the period near the shape of a watermelon. It was estimated that Baugh earned $300,000 in his NFL career.

He explained how he spent it, saying, "Half went to taxes. The other half went to Texas."

Baugh once reminisced about career highlights. Instead of winning championships and individual titles, he chose an action no longer available to modern quarterbacks.

"I called plays in college and all the time in pro ball," he pointed out. "The quarterback did in those days. We didn't get much help from the sideline. When someone asks me what's the best thing I got out of football, the most satisfying was beating the defense. I enjoyed that part of it."

Thus we close a visit to the long life and long-ago times of Slingin' Sammy Baugh. He was the last of a vanished tribe.

Frank Luksa is a freelance writer based in Plano, Texas. He was a longtime sports columnist for The Dallas Times Herald and Dallas Morning News.