- The Washington Times - Monday, December 17, 2001

The NFL's fifth annual championship game wasn't supposed to be all that close on Sunday, Dec. 12, 1937, at Chicago's icy Wrigley Field.
True, the Washington Redskins had gone 8-3 their first season in the nation's capital, winning the Eastern Division title a week earlier with a 49-14 drubbing of the New York Giants. But the Chicago Bears aka the "Monsters of the Midway" were 9-1-1, had a slew of superstars and were playing at home in their kind of weather.
The Redskins, though, had a not-so-secret weapon in "Slingin'" Sammy Baugh, the heralded All-American passer from TCU who had dazzled the pro league in his rookie season. And on this first of the Redskins' greatest days, Baugh was worth every penny of the almost unprecedented $8,000 salary he was earning for the season.
As Chicago defenders skidded around the icy field despite wearing sneakers, Baugh completed 17 of 34 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns as the similarly shod Redskins won 28-21. It was a superb game in which the lead changed hands four times, but only 15,878 spectators saw it. There was no television then, and the meager crowd included about 3,000 presumably well-lubricated fans from Washington.
No wonder a lot of Bears partisans opted to stay home by their radios. The temperature at game time was 15 degrees, with a wind-chill factor of minus-6. Even for hardy Chicagoans, the elements were a bit much.
"It was colder than hell, the coldest weather I ever played in," Baugh told his biographer, Dennis Tuttle. "The field was a solid sheet of ice. During the warmups, we couldn't even stand up. So [coach] Ray Flaherty decided to make us wear the sneakers. It may have seemed dumb, but it wasn't as dumb as trying to walk on cleats.
"That made a big difference, because our linemen were pushing their lineman around like they were on roller skates [somewhat inexplicably considering that the teams were wearing identical footgear]. The sneakers really helped our passing attack. [Former Notre Dame All-American end] Wayne Millner was used to cold weather and bad fields, so I looked for him a lot."
And found him. The Bears were leading 14-7 in the third quarter when Baugh hit Millner with a short pass on the Redskins' 47-yard line, and Wayne took it the rest of the way on a play that covered 55 yards. In the fourth period, with the Bears leading again 21-14, Baugh-to-Millner worked for 78 yards and a TD. But Baugh, playing tailback in the single wing formation, had started his aerial assault long before that.
"On our first play from scrimmage, Sammy showed what Eastern writers meant when they said he was opening up the game," Millner told author Bob Curran. "We were on our 9-yard line, and Sam dropped back to punt. Instead, he faked a punt and tossed a pass to [running back] Cliff Battles, who took it and gained 42 yards. We went in for the first score, with Cliff going seven yards on a reverse."
Despite his stats, it was a rough day for Baugh, who would play for the Redskins until 1952 before retiring to the life of a rancher in Texas and today is, at 87, the only surviving member of the '37 Redskins.
He had to contend all day with Bronko Nagurski, the Bears' legendarily tough fullback and linebacker, whose only mission on defense was to shadow Baugh and knock him out of the game if possible. He succeeded temporarily when the Redskins' star was shaken up and missed most of the second quarter. Baugh also sustained a badly gashed throwing hand when he was stepped on in a pileup. No problem. Sam simply wrapped a towel around the wound on the sideline and resumed pitching.
"I was running for my life the whole damn day," Baugh said. "I'd be 20 or 30 yards behind the line, and Bronko would still be chasing me [in those days defensive players could hit passers until the play was blown dead]. He hit me so hard one time, I thought I'd break in two. He knocked me on my [posterior], looked at me and said, 'Hell of a way to make a living, Sammy.'"
In the second half, Chicago end Dick Plasman took offense (pun intended) at something Baugh had done while playing defense and threw a punch. As Shirley Povich related the incident in The Washington Post, "Coach Flaherty was the first to rush to the battle scene. He tackled Plasman high around the mouth with a set of knuckles and put an end to the battle."
With the score still tied 21-21 in the fourth quarter, Baugh passed the Redskins right down the field. The game-winner was a 35-yarder to Ed Justice, and the Redskins faithful proceeded to go appropriately bonkers.
After the game, Nagurski "unhesitatingly pronounced Baugh as the difference between the winning and losing teams," according to Francis Stann in the Washington Evening Star. And, said Flaherty, "this has been the happiest football season of my life."
The Redskins and their new Washington faithful were smart to enjoy success while they could. After failing to reach the championship game in 1938 and '39. the Redskins did so against the vengeful Bears in '40 and wished they hadn't. The final score, as still described in the Redskins' press guide: "73-to-ohh!"
In 1937, though, everything came up roses for the Redskins. Of course, that was a long time ago. How long? Well, each player received a championship game payoff of exactly $234.26.

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