DICK HELLER: No substitute for Slingin’ Sam

Question of the Day

Should Congress make English the official language of the U.S.?

View results

Back in 1949, when our family first became affluent enough to spend a whopping $39.60 for a pair of Redskins season tickets at Griffith Stadium, we always looked for one guy in a burgundy and gold uniform when we reached our seats.

The Man, literally, was Sammy Baugh, the well-aged quarterback who had been terrorizing enemy secondaries for more than a decade. Sam was 35 then and on the downside of what would be a record-setting 16-year career. But every time he cranked his arm you paid strict attention because a gorgeous, spiraling touchdown pass might be forthcoming.

For reasons known only to a succession of brainless coaches, No. 33 wasn’t always the regular quarterback then. The all-white Redskins were pathetic, and I guess the idea was to groom Harry Gilmer or Eddie LeBaron as a replacement for Slingin’ Sam. Baugh threw only 255 times in 1949, 60 fewer than the previous season, though he led the NFL in passing for the fifth time.

Truth be told, there could be no replacement for Baugh, who died Wednesday at 94 in Rotan, Texas. Not until 1964, when Sonny Jurgensen began flinging on their behalf, did the Redskins have a passer of equal talent. Of course, Jurgy couldn’t punt or play defense the way Sammy used to, meaning superbly. That should give you an idea of just how much of a superstar Baugh was before that overused word was ever coined.

In 1952, his final season, Baugh mostly sat and watched as LeBaron led the Redskins through a typically grim 4-8 season. Yet in the opening game, Sammy went in, as well as out, with a bang by completing his first 11 passes against the Chicago Cardinals. When he announced his retirement three months later, his departure caused considerably more of a local stir than that of President Harry S. Truman a month or so afterward.

Unfortunately, many fans remember Baugh, if at all, only as a grizzled, sour ancient who cussed his way through a mid-‘90s TNT special hailing the NFL’s 75 greatest players. Too bad, because that wasn’t really the latter-day Baugh at all, according to his biographer, Dennis Tuttle, who made 13 trips to Sammy’s ranch in western Texas.

“In 32 years as a sportswriter, I’ve never met anybody who matched him as a man,” said Tuttle, a former editor at The Washington Times and now a freelance writer. “Sam always cussed and chewed tobacco - he was a mirror image of most football players in his day. And he was so modest he never understood his fame or [took advantage] of it.

“Sometimes he would say something really funny with his dry Texas wit, and he wouldn’t realize it until people started laughing. Sure he was a great football player - but he also was a great rancher and great cutup who enjoyed a typical rollicking Texas lifestyle. Once, he told me, ‘I wouldn’t change a single day of my life,’ and he meant it.”

Yet times do change and people, too. Half a century after he left the Redskins, Baugh refused to live in the past the way many seniors do.

“Once we were looking through a folder of old pictures, some taken when he was in his mid-20s,” recalled Tuttle, who jokingly greeted the aging football player as “the legendary Sammy Baugh” whenever they met. “Sam stared at one for a long time and then murmured, ‘It almost seems like someone in a different life,’ like he didn’t recognize himself.”

So it is left for other old-timers to recognize Sammy Baugh and remember the passel of NFL records he set while driving the Redskins to five Eastern Division titles and two NFL championships his first nine years in Washington.

Over more than a century of professional sports combat hereabouts, Baugh’s only rival for the title of Washington’s greatest athlete ever is Walter Johnson, whose blistering fastball produced 417 victories over 21 seasons for the Senators and who died in 1946. Now Sammy is gone, too, and it is very proper for us to mourn.

Keep slingin’, Sam, and on your new celestial field of play, may you never again throw an incomplete pass.

Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus