- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sammy Baugh, the greatest player in Washington Redskins history and one of the National Football League’s earliest superstars, died Wednesday night. He was 94.

Mr. Baugh died at Fisher County Hospital in Rotan, Texas, after struggling with Alzheimer’s and dementia for several years, his son David Baugh told the Associated Press. He said his father had been ill recently with kidney problems, low blood pressure and double pneumonia.

“It wasn’t the same Sam we all knew,” David Baugh told AP. “He just finally wore out.”

Redskins owner Dan Snyder said: “Sammy Baugh embodied all we aspire to at the Washington Redskins. He was a competitor in everything he did and a winner. He was one of the greatest to ever play the game of football and one of the greatest the Redskins ever had. My thoughts and prayers are with his family tonight.”

Mr. Baugh, a superb passer who played for the Redskins from 1937 to 1952 and helped revolutionize the quarterback position, shared a distinction as the greatest professional athlete in D.C. history with Walter Johnson, a Hall of Fame pitcher for the original Senators.

After retiring as a player, Mr. Baugh visited the District only occasionally, preferring to stay on his 7,600-acre ranch in Rotan, about 95 miles south of Lubbock.

“Most of the people I knew in Washington are probably dead,” Mr. Baugh told biographer Dennis Tuttle some years ago.

During his Redskins career, Mr. Baugh was widely known as “Slingin’ Sam,” but the nickname actually came from his baseball skills. He was a hard-throwing infielder at Texas Christian University and in the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system, and at one time, Mr. Baugh said, “Everybody thought I was better at baseball than football.”

Mr. Baugh was the last surviving member of the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and he was also a charter member of the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind. Before being drafted by the Redskins in 1937, he led TCU to a share of the national title in 1935, a record of 29-7-3 over three seasons and victories in the Sugar and Cotton bowls.

In college as well as his first seven seasons with the Redskins, Mr. Baugh was a tailback in the old single-wing offensive formation, as well as playing defensive back and punting in those days of limited substitutions.

When the Redskins changed in 1944 to the T formation now used by virtually all teams, Mr. Baugh switched to quarterback, where he continued to set the standard for today’s passers. The move eased the wear and tear on Mr. Baugh, who never wore a face mask, and contributed to his lasting 16 seasons in the NFL, then a record. His No. 33 uniform was the first retired by the team.

The Redskins, then playing in Boston, won the NFL’s Eastern Division title in 1936 but lost the league championship game. After drafting Mr. Baugh, Redskins owner George Preston Marshall paid the rookie $8,000 — then the league’s top salary — during the team’s first season in the District.

At an early practice session in the summer of 1937, coach Ray Flaherty ordered receiver Wayne Millner to go far downfield and instructed Mr. Baugh to “hit him in the eye” with a pass.

According to legend, Mr. Baugh replied, “Which eye, coach?”

That story might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Although the NFL then used a chunky ball that was difficult to throw accurately, Mr. Baugh completed a league-record 81 passes for 1,127 yards in 11 regular-season games while leading the Redskins to the Eastern title and a 28-21 victory over the powerhouse Chicago Bears in the NFL championship game.

Mr. Baugh, an immediate hero to D.C. sports fans, led the Redskins to further Eastern championships in 1940, 1942, 1943 and 1945 and another NFL title in 1942.

The most famous — and disastrous — game in Redskins history, however, was one they lost: an almost surrealistic 73-0 rout by the Bears in the 1940 NFL championship game at the District’s Griffith Stadium. Afterward, a reporter asked Mr. Baugh whether the outcome might have been different if end Charley Malone hadn’t dropped an apparent touchdown pass in the first quarter.

“Sure,” Mr. Baugh replied. “It would have been 73-7.”

Sixty years after that game, in an interview on the District’s WJLA-TV (Channel 7), Mr. Baugh suggested some of his teammates had conspired to lose that game to spite owner Marshall, who had said publicly the Bears were overrated. Several other surviving players from that game quickly disavowed Mr. Baugh’s remarks.

Although his passing arm was his principal claim to fame, Mr. Baugh also was a marvelous defensive back and punter. In one memorable game in 1943, he threw four touchdown passes and also intercepted four passes. That season he pulled off his own, exclusive version of a Triple Crown, leading the NFL in passing (23 touchdowns), interceptions (11) and punting.

Mr. Baugh’s feats as a punter seem unbelievable today. Standing several yards behind center in the single wing — somewhat like quarterbacks in today’s shotgun formation — he once quick-kicked a ball that traveled 85 yards. His single-season punting average of 51.4 yards in 1940 and his career average of 45.1 yards stand as NFL records.

“It’s pretty safe that all the things he did will never be done again,” said Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who became friendly with Mr. Baugh in recent years.

In the years following World War II, the Redskins were chronic losers partly because Mr. Marshall refused to sign black players, but Mr. Baugh continued as a dangerous passer until the end of his career. In 1947, given a station wagon by adoring fans on “Sammy Baugh Day” at Griffith Stadium, he threw six touchdown passes in a 45-21 upset of the eventual NFL champion Chicago Cardinals. And in 1952, he began his final season by completing his first 11 passes in a 23-7 victory against the Cardinals.

After retiring as a player, Mr. Baugh coached with varied success for six seasons (1954-59) at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and for three seasons (1960-62) with the New York Titans (now the Jets) and the Houston Texans of the old American Football League. But his real love was the ranch where he and his wife, Edmonia, raised four boys and a daughter. Mrs. Baugh died in 1990 after 52 years of marriage.

Mr. Baugh re-emerged into public view in 1996 when he was featured on a TNT special, “75 Seasons: The Story of the NFL.” During the telecast, he appeared to set another NFL record, this one for salty language — undoubtedly shocking many of his old fans in the District and elsewhere.

In recent years, Mr. Baugh revealed himself as a big NFL fan who watched several games every weekend.

“I’d love to be a quarterback in this day and time,” he said. “They’ve got bigger boys, and they’ve also got those speed merchants we didn’t have.”

During his pro career, Mr. Baugh completed 1,693 of 2,995 passes (56.5 percent) for 21,886 yards. He still holds the Redskins record for career touchdown passes (187), and his 31 interceptions are third on the team list. His 70.3 completion percentage in 1945 stood as an NFL record for 37 years, and his 109.9 quarterback rating that season remains one of the highest in NFL history.

In a strange twist, one of his passes in 1945 cost the Redskins a championship. In the first quarter on a frigid day on the shores of Lake Erie, Mr. Baugh’s throw from the end zone struck the goal post — then on the goal line — for an automatic safety, which ultimately gave the Cleveland Rams a 15-14 victory for the league title. The rule was changed after the season.

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