When it comes to the history of sports, many fans consider themselves to be “experts.”
They will spew out the statistics that made Cy Young a Hall of Famer, or talk about the Montreal Canadiens winning 24 Stanley Cup championships. Hell, they may even talk of the glory days when boxing was actually culturally relevant.
Television networks also jump on this opportunity to wax poetic about history, while at the same time adding new wrinkles that make it the next big thing. For instance, ESPN recently aired a special called “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” complete with a colorized restoration of the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium.
With all of this study of the history of the games we love and even of those we don’t, the sports world lost a true titan yesterday that helped set his sport onto the path that would take it from a back alley, ruleless mess to what it is today: the undisputed Kingpin of American sport. Sadly, too many people who consider themselves “students” of the game of football have never heard of him.
Sammy Baugh played quarterback at a time when the position wasn’t what it is today. Today, a quarterback is judged on his ability to improvise, move quickly on his feet, and throw the ball extraordinary distances and with extraordinary accuracy. If you go down a list of the top five quarterback of today, they would universally be the ones that throw the ball the best.
Mr. Baugh didn’t fit the typical mold of today’s prototype quarterback by any means.
In college, he played three sports (football, baseball, and basketball), and played them all well. He received a professional contract to play baseball from the St. Louis Cardinals, and he played third base and shortstop in their minor league system. That didn’t work out, however, and he went to his second sporting option: football.
He was no slouch on the gridiron. Surpassing his talent on the diamond, Baugh was a two-time All-American at TCU, throwing 39 touchdowns in his three seasons. He also led the school to victories in the Sugar and Cotton Bowls during his career.
His skill was on full display in a College All-Star Game, as he led the squad to a 6-0 victory…over the Green Bay Packers. This would be unheard of in today’s sports environment, so you can imagine what a big accomplishment that truly was.
After he washed out in professional baseball, he was drafted by the Washington Redskins with the sixth overall pick in the 1937 Draft. The team was looking to make a splash after moving to the nation’s capital from Boston, and they made Baugh their highest paid player.
In his rookie season, he played three positions: quarterback, defensive back, and punter. In an era of specialization where a player playing wide receiver and cornerback in the same game is extremely uncommon, to imagine a professional quarterback playing two other positions is inconceivable.
He also played all three positions well. He set an NFL record in his rookie campaign by completing 91 passes and throwing for 1,127 yards. He also led the team to the NFL title game against the Chicago Bears, where they won the title with a 28-21 victory. He also passed for 335 yards in the contest.
He also selected to the All-Pro team that year, the first of nine selections to the team.
In his fourth season, he led the ‘Skins to the title game again, but this time they were thrashed by the Bears 73-0, a record-setting beatdown that still stands to this day. He led the team to another NFL title in 1942, beating the Bears 14-6. He also booted a punt of 85 yards in that contest, which is quite a kick if you are as big a fan of punters, as I am.
In 1943, Baugh made a couple of huge splashes. First, he led the league in passing, punting, and interceptions. Also, in a single game, he had four touchdown passes, and also had four interceptions on defense.
He also set the record in 1945 for completion percentage (a mark since passed by Ken Anderson).
In all, he set 13 NFL records, including three that still stand. He is tied with Steve Young for most seasons leading the league in passing (six), the most seasons leading the league in lowest interception percentage (five), and also the single-season record for punting average (51.4 yards).
He was the first player to intercept four passes in a game. The Redskins also retired his number 33, which is the only number that has been officially retired by the franchise, according to his Wikipedia entry.
The magnitude of his accomplishments in this league is extraordinary. The fact that a good percentage of football fans have never heard of him is a crying shame that we all should work to fix.
Sammy was a truly gifted athlete in an era full of gifted athletes. He played football at the same time Joe Dimaggio was tearing up MLB pitching, and he also played in an era when football had the backseat in the car of American sports, with baseball driving and hockey riding shotgun in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and New York.
This contributed to his low-key status among the greats of the game then, and it still does to this day.
There are far too many fans who only look at the history of the league since the merger of the NFL and AFL. This is something that we as fans should abhor, and it’s unfortunate that it takes the death of a legend for people to fully comprehend his legacy and impact.
It’s high time that we give Baugh the respect that he deserves, and put him in that class of all-time players in this league. His name should be mentioned among those of Marino, Elway, and Unitas, and he also could be listed as one of the greatest punters in the history of the NFL.
Calls for recognition aside, I also hope that you all will look at the career of Sammy Baugh, and come away with the same sense of awe and reverence that I had. I hope that you will come away with the sense that the game you love today was so profoundly influenced by this man back in the early days of the sport.
Thank you Sammy for all you did, and may your legacy live on.