Dick Heller: For Baugh, one heck of a ride

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The death of legendary Washington Redskinsquarterback Sammy Baugh on Wednesday produced a flood of tributes featuring the word “great.” Yet very little was said of Slingin’ Sam’s great sense of timing.

This was best evidenced Nov. 23, 1947, before a sellout crowd of 35,362 at the District’s old Griffith Stadium. After his team and fans gave him a new station wagon on “Sammy Baugh Day,” he gave them six touchdown passes and a monumental upset as a mediocre Redskins team clobbered the NFL champions-to-be Chicago Cardinals 45-21.

The Cardinals, with a 7-1 record and the league’s best defense, were 14-point favorites when they trotted onto the field after the pregame ceremonies. But the Redskins scored the first two touchdowns and were never in danger as Baugh completed 25 of 33 passes for 355 yards. His six TD tosses matched his personal high against Brooklyn in 1943 and were one shy of the NFL mark held by his longtime archrival, Sid Luckman of the Chicago Bears.

Usually a taciturn Texan, Baugh let his emotions show as he addressed the crowd before the game, saying: “I think you’re the greatest bunch of fans any player ever had the opportunity to play before. I thank you.”

When the $3,000 Packard station wagon was presented, Sam let out what was described as “an amazed whistle.” It was painted burgundy and had “Slingin’ Sam - the Redskin Man” lettered on the side in gold (the team’s colors, of course).

The day was not a total success, however. About seven hours after the 2 p.m. kickoff, Baugh was involved in an accident that wrecked the station wagon. More about that in a bit.

As far as old-timers are concerned, no passer ever threw a football better than Samuel Adrian Baugh - not Johnny Unitas, not Sonny Jurgensen, not Dan Marino, not Peyton Manning.

When Baugh retired, he held most NFL passing records, all of them set in an era when teams threw far less frequently. Example: In leading the Redskins to the NFL title in 1937 - the first NFL season for both him and the city - single-wing tailback Baugh fired away just 171 times and completed 47 percent for seven touchdowns.

Although the 1947 season was his best and busiest (210-for-354, 2,938 yards, 25 touchdowns), he still averaged just 29.5 attempts. In those days, quarterbacks didn’t have four and five possible receivers on every play.

Baugh’s big day was about the only bright spot in a dismal 4-8 season for the Redskins, by far their worst since deserting Boston for the nation’s capital. In its first nine seasons (1937-45), Washington won two NFL and five Eastern Division titles. But in 1946, the Redskins skidded to 5-5-1, and 1947 was even worse. They had lost five straight for a 2-6 record when the suddenly competitive Cardinals came to town with their famed “Dream Backfield” of future Hall of Famer Charlie Trippi, Elmer Angsman, Pat Harder and Paul Christman.

Although nobody knew it, the Redskins were starting a long descent accelerated by owner George Preston Marshall’s refusal to employ black players in the 1950s because his team’s TV network blanketed the entire South. From 1946 until 1971, the playoffs were only a rumor for Washington fans until first George Allen and then Joe Gibbs coached the Redskins back to respectability and then some.

And even on Baugh’s greatest of days, the joy was not total. Returning from a quickie postgame trip to Philadelphia, he swerved to avoid an oncoming car and crashed into a culvert on what was called Washington-Baltimore Boulevard - aka U.S. Route 1 - near the District line.

Sammy told police he was “only slightly shaken up” despite a bump on his head and would be able to play the following Sunday against the Boston Yanks. But the station wagon was a goner, with the rear right door torn off and the front right door badly dented.

“I saw the car before it ever got to me,” Baugh said. “It was coming across the middle of the road. I moved over to the right a little bit, but he kept coming toward me, so I had to do something. I thought he was going to hit me head-on. I slid into the gravel and into a concrete bridge.”

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