Chicago. A dreary December afternoon so cold that anyone who dares to venture out runs the risk of frostbite, or worse. A punishing wind off frozen Lake Michigan only adds to the misery. The city is shut down, closed up, as Chicagoans seek warmth behind closed doors and boarded-up windows.
On the North Side, though, home to Wrigley Field, some 15,000 football fans have braved the dangerous conditions to watch a game, a National Football League championship game between the fearsome Chicago Bears and the upstart Washington Redskins. Swaddled in layered coats and mufflers, wearing gloves, hats pulled down over their ears, these fans are fanatics in every sense of the word. Some caught the elevated train and rode it through a desolate downtown, the train winding its way through the canyon of tall buildings blocking out a pallid sun. Others rode streetcars past mounds of snow shoved out of roadways. Still others maneuvered Model Ts, slowly and carefully, through the icy streets.
The locals have come to see their Bears, the "Monsters of the Midway," a team of hard-nosed, big-shouldered brawlers who not only defeat their opponents almost every Sunday but also punish them in the process. Chicagoans like to think that the Bears of George Halas and Bronko Nagurski and George Musso truly embody their big, tough, hog-butcher-to-the-world metropolis.
Several thousand fans are there from out of town. They boarded a special train in Washington's Union Station and headed west. Disembarking at Chicago's LaSalle Street Station, fortified against the cold by flasks of alcohol stashed away in their overcoats, they hailed cabs to take them to the tidy brick ballpark that baseball's Chicago Cubs have made famous. Their Redskins are completing their first season in Washington, but already the capital city has taken them to its heart.
Years later, the NFL championship game will be called the Super Bowl. Years later, millions of football fans around the world will gather in front of their televisions to witness the spectacle. Advertisers will pay millions for a few minutes of viewing-audience time. On this cold day in Chicago, fewer than 20,000 football fans, their very sanity in question, are on hand to witness one of the pivotal games in NFL history.
Shortly after noon, the two teams take the field for the kickoff, the Bears in their dark blue jerseys trimmed in orange, the Redskins wearing their trademark burgundy and gold. Both teams wear tennis shoes, hoping to get whatever purchase they can on the ice-encrusted field. Mist from their breathing is visible in the frigid air.
The tall, spindly-legged Texan who ambles onto the frozen turf of Wrigley Field on that dreary Sunday afternoon has played in miserable weather before. The pride of Sweetwater, Texas, he has known northers that barrel across the plains with little warning, straight from the Canadian Arctic. As a high school senior four years earlier, he played in a blizzard, with driving snow and sleet pelting players and fans alike. But he has never played in temperatures so frigid that it hurts to breathe, so cold that hands and fingers ache and barely move, so cold that it is actually dangerous to be outdoors. He has never played on turf so hard and brittle that it rips bare skin like a cheese grater whenever someone hits the ground.
Backed up against his own goal line the first time the Redskins get the ball, young Sam Baugh looks around the huddle, ten men snorting steam in the punishing cold. He glances over the helmeted heads of his teammates, sees the mob of blue-shirted Bears waiting impatiently at the line of scrimmage to tear him apart. Literally. That is their game plan—hurt him anyway they can, send him to the sidelines, knock him out of the game.
The Bears know he is special; so do his Redskin teammates. From the moment he rifled a bullet pass to a teammate in the team's first scrimmage—"Which eye, Coach?"—the Redskins knew they had something. And now, four months later, their confidence has been confirmed.
Although he is barely out of college, he has gained his teammates' respect during the long season, a season that has culminated in this moment, this championship game. They wait for his instructions. He glances over at Riley Smith, the Redskins' signal caller. (Sam is actually the tailback in the Redskins' single-wing formation.) Smith hears him out.
"Let's trick 'em," he suggests in his Texas drawl. "I'll drop into punt formation. But I won't punt." He glances at stellar running back Cliff Battles. "See that chunk of ice right over there?" he says, nodding toward a white spot on the yellowed grass. "Run straight to it, cut to the sideline and look for the ball."
The Redskins break their huddle and line up in punt formation. The Bears aren't surprised, since punting on first down is standard strategy when a team finds itself bottled up in its own end of the field. The Bears know that Sam is also one of the best punters in the game, possibly the best.
Smith calls the signals and Sam waits for the snap, his face beneath the leather helmet red and raw. His cold hands received the ball, but instead of stepping into it with his strong right leg, he wraps his long fingers around it, feeling for the laces as he rolls to the right behind the goal line and looks downfield for Battles. The Redskin running back, running as fast as he can on the frozen field, carefully sets his pivot foot and cuts in front of a Bear safety, Gene Ronzani. As Ronzani slips on the ice, the Redskin halfback gathers in the Baugh toss over his right shoulder and motors up the sideline for a forty-two-yard gain.
Although the Bears hold shortly afterward, the pass from the end zone delivers a message: the Redskins' brilliant young passer isn't going to allow the elements to dictate strategy. Neither the weather nor the fearsome Bears can scare him.
Sammy happens to be just about the most valuable football player of all time, according to most pro coaches I've talked to.
—Sportswriter Grantland Rice, 1942
I still think he was the greatest quarterback who ever lived, college or pro.
—Sportswriter Dan Jenkins, 2006
In two hours, Sammy Baugh gave me the finishing touches for Augustus McCrae [in Lonesome Dove], and he didn't even know it.
—Actor Robert Duvall, 2006
Sam was his name. Sam Baugh. Not Sammy and certainly not Slingin' Sammy. It isn't that he spurned the inspired appellation—coined by the longtime Fort Worth Star-Telegram sportswriter Amos Melton—but "Sam Baugh," a good, simple, common name, reflected how he saw himself. To his friends, to his family, to himself, he was just plain "Sam." (That was also how he signed his autographs; "Slingin' Sammy Baugh" took too long.)
He was a man easy to like. Throughout his life—in college, as a big-time pro football player, as a West Texas rancher—people gravitated to him.
Recalling Sam Baugh years later, a fellow TCU student named Ed Prichard told the sportswriter Whit Canning: "He was our idol—our hero—but we were never in awe of him, because he was also our good friend. He got along with people very well—with everybody—and on the field he was a good leader."
Joe Tereshinksi, an end on Washington Redskin teams of the late 1940s, echoed that assessment. "He was our leader," Tereshinski told me in 2008. "We all looked up to Sam."
"I loved Sam Baugh, not because he was a superstar, but because he was a super person," Bob O'Day told me one hot July afternoon as we sat in his living room in Snyder, Texas. O'Day, the retired golf coach at Western Texas College in Snyder, was Sam's regular golfing partner for nearly twenty years. Tears welled up and his voice grew husky when he recalled his old friend.
O'Day told me one Sam Baugh story after another, including stories about his friend's salty language. Sam was one of the most gloriously profane men who ever lived. He couldn't utter a sentence—whatever the time, whatever the circumstance—without punctuating it with a cuss word or two, or three. He was never obscene, never malicious, his niece Ellen Stevenson was quick to remind me. "That's just Sam," Stevenson said, a phrase I heard time after time from friends and family.
He was a masterly storyteller, and when he got wound up, his hands were in perpetual motion, sometimes slapping his thigh for emphasis, and he would laugh now and then at the freshness of his memories. He always had a chaw of tobacco in his cheek (Red Man, not Skoal, even though his old friend Walt Garrison once sent him a case of Skoal).
Sam's son David recalled a summer Sunday morning years ago when Sam accompanied his wife, Edmonia, and the five Baugh kids to services at the First United Methodist Church in Rotan, Texas, the town nearest the Baugh family ranch. As the service droned on toward the end, Sam's mind began to drift to thoughts of horses and calves and the roping scheduled for after lunch. He felt a sharp poke in the ribs from Edmonia (Sam called her "Mona").
"The preacher just asked you to give the benediction," she whispered.
Sam stared down the row at the five younger Baughs, all leaning forward, all staring at him—and all wondering not only whether he was awake but also whether he could go to the Lord in prayer without uttering a cuss word. As David recalled, his dad, as usual, came through in the clutch.
"That's just Sam," Bob O'Day said, laughing, as he recounted the same story. O'Day, a deeply religious man and a member of the Gideon Society (the people who supply Bibles to hotel rooms) was willing to give his friend a pass when it came to taking the name of the Lord in vain. "His assets certainly outweighed his liabilities," O'Day said, his mind drifting to the happy times they spent together for nearly thirty years.
I saw Sam Baugh twice, the first time when I was a kid. On a Saturday morning in the mid-1950s, Dad woke my two younger brothers and me earlier than usual. Mom fixed us breakfast, and we drove to Holt's Sporting Goods across Fifth Street from the courthouse in downtown Waco. Holt's was where we bought our baseball gloves and bats every spring, our football equipment in the fall. All three of us were too young to play on school teams, but like most Texas youngsters, we played in the backyard every afternoon and during recess at school, so we had to have equipment. We enjoyed our trips to Holt's, enjoyed pawing over the brightly colored jerseys hanging on racks, enjoyed breathing in the new-leather smell of baseball gloves, footballs, basketballs.
On this morning, though, we weren't going to Holt's to buy. We were going to pay homage, although Kenny and Steve and I didn't know that was what we were doing. In the football section, toward the back of the store, surrounded by brand-new jerseys, helmets, and shoulder pads, we were ushered into the presence of a tall dark-haired man in a tan sport coat and slacks who, as I remember, was standing around talking football with some of the Holt's salesmen.
"Boys, meet Slingin' Sammy Baugh," Dad said, giving us a gentle shove forward.
What Sammy Baugh was doing in Waco on that Saturday morning, I don't know, although I suspect his Hardin-Simmons University Cowboys—he was head coach—were playing the Baylor Bears at Baylor Stadium that night, and he had dropped by Holt's for a personal appearance. Maybe Dad had read about his being there in the Waco Times-Herald.
His lean face crinkling into a smile, the tall man leaned down and shook our hands and signed an autograph for us. Unlike the treasured Mickey Mantle autograph we got in Dallas a few years later, we promptly lost Sammy Baugh's.
Although we were big sports fans, we had no idea who he was. We didn't know that he had been the quarterback of the Washington Redskins for sixteen seasons, that he was arguably the greatest passer ever to play the game.
Soon, though, as I got a little older and started going to high school football games, I began hearing the name. I began to understand who Sammy Baugh was and what he stood for.
What Babe Ruth's home runs did for Major League Baseball in the 1920s, Sam Baugh's passing did for the National Football League a decade or so later. "Ruth was more Bunyanesque," the sportswriter Tom Boswell once wrote, "more outside the parameters of previous imagination. But Baugh wasn't too far behind."
Like Ruth, he remained, for decades, the epitome of excellence for his particular sport. It is 1955, say, and a kid on the playground rears back and heaves a long pass downfield. Regardless of whether he completes it, his teammates chide his audacity. "Hey, who do you think you are, Sammy Baugh?" they'll say.
Sportswriters every fall assess the latest crop of Texas schoolboy passers, and the standard they used for decades was Sammy Baugh—Slingin' Sammy Baugh. For years, he remained an icon, to be gradually superseded in the fans' imaginations only when a young Johnny Unitas led the Baltimore Colts to victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 championship game in what would come to be called "the greatest game ever played." Or maybe when, nearly a decade later, a brash young quarterback named "Broadway" Joe Namath led his New York Jets to an improbable Super Bowl victory over the Colts.
The name and the memories began to fade, of course, as the years went by, as the game evolved, as new faces captured public attention, and as television magnified their fame in ways Sammy himself could never have imagined when he was playing. But Sammy's accomplishments on the football field didn't fade. They remain as astounding today as they were three-quarters of a century ago when he was a tall, gangly quarterback with a whiplike arm and a limber right leg that could kick a ball a mile.
In his sixteen seasons in the NFL—a long career by pro football standards—Sammy led the Washington Redskins to five title games and two NFL championships. He led the league in passing six times, in punting four times, and in interceptions once. (From his defensive safety position, he was the intercepter, not the interceptee.) His career punting average was more than 45 yards, but from 1940 through 1942, it was close to 50 yards (49.5). Before Sam, only one man had passed for 1,000 yards in a season. In 1947, Sam completed 210 passes for 2,938 yards—both marks that simply obliterated old records. Like Ruth, who changed the very perception of the game of baseball and how it was played, Sam transformed the notion of offense and how much yardage could be gained through the air.
In a game against the Detroit Lions in 1943, he threw four touchdown passes—and caught four interceptions. (That was the year he led the league in interceptions, with eleven.) During several seasons early in his career, he played every minute of every game.
"He really had a rifle for an arm," the sportswriter Dan Jenkins told me in 2006. "He could throw sidearm and underhanded along with it. He was tough and wiry, probably the greatest punter who ever lived as well. Plus, he liked to jaw around and kid with the zebras [referees], even in college, and certainly he was a leader."
Before Sam, professional football was at the periphery of American sports. With a limited fan base drawn exclusively from the Northeast and upper Midwest, and with few economically viable franchises, the pros were overshadowed by the Saturday-afternoon heroics of college teams. Football fans wanted to read about Harvard-Yale, Army-Navy, Notre Dame—or, in the Southwest, SMU-TCU—not the Boston Redskins or the Portsmouth Spartans. The former collegians who continued to play the game at the professional level didn't make enough money to make football their full-time job.
Sam was the bridge between the leather-helmet era and the modern. Not only was he professional football's most popular player, but he also was a superb athlete who revolutionized how the game was played.
Before Sam Baugh, football closely resembled rugby, with tightly packed linemen trying to open holes for ball carriers running primarily between tacklers on a tighter field without hash marks. Confident enough to throw the ball from any spot on the field, on any down, Sam wrenched football free from its sclerotic past and made it a hell of a lot more fun to watch.
By the thousands, football fans in the nation's capital, in New York, in Chicago, wherever the pros played the game, saw what the tall slender Texan could do with a football—on offense and on defense, with his arm and his leg—and they decided they liked what they saw. They liked the way the rawboned young athlete from the wide-open spaces of West Texas opened up the playing field and made the forward pass a strategic weapon, not a desperation heave. They liked his gambler's instincts. They thrilled in delicious anticipation of multiple possibilities when the ball was in his hands.
The TCU all-American, a product of Sweetwater, Texas, changed the game almost instantaneously, beginning with his rookie season in 1937, when the twenty-two-year-old Texan took the Redskins to the NFL title, beating the Chicago Bears, the Monsters of the Midway, on their home field.
If football fans around the country weren't aware of Slingin' Sammy Baugh before, they were that day. On the first play of the game, he dared to throw from his own end zone to all-pro halfback Cliff Battles for forty-two yards. Down 21–14 in the fourth quarter, he looked one way and threw the other to his end, Wayne Millner, for seventy-seven yards and a score, then got the winning touchdown on a thirty-five-yarder to Ed Justice. Earlier in the half, he threw a fifty-five-yard touchdown to Millner. All this on his one healthy leg; the other had been almost broken in two by ruthless, rampaging Bears.
In 1937, when Sam Baugh entered the league as a rookie, a 47.4 percent completion percentage was good for tops in the league. He was that 47.4 percent passer, incidentally. And indeed, for nine of his sixteen seasons, he was the most accurate passer in the NFL; in two other seasons he was second. In 1945, he completed more than 70 percent of his passes, then a first for the NFL. His feat went unmatched for some thirty-seven years until Ken Anderson of the Cincinnati Bengals finally broke Sam's record in 1982.
He also led the league in punting for four straight years, and in another championship game against the Bears, he got off a punt that traveled eighty-five yards. In 1940, he averaged an NFL record 51.4 yards on his punts and was the master of the third-down quick kick, a tactical tool no longer used.
Sam still holds or is tied for six Redskin records: most touchdown passes in a career, 187; best punting average in a career, 45.1 yards; most passing yards in a game, 446; most touchdown passes in a game, 6; best punting average in a season, 51.4 yards; and most passes intercepted in a game, 4.
In a game against the New York Giants in 1943, he threw two touchdown passes, ran seventy-one yards with an intercepted pass, batted down two Giants passes in the end zone, and made seven tackles. A pretty good afternoon's work.
Almost from the day he entered the National Football League, the big number 33 on Sam's back was the biggest gate attraction in professional football. He made quarterback the glamour position, which means that Unitas, Namath, Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb, the Manning brothers, and all the other football field generals since Sam are in his debt (as are the fans, of course). During the 1940s, he was on a par in the public mind with Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, Bill Tilden, and Joe Louis.
The longtime political columnist David Broder, my esteemed colleague at the Washington Post, recalled a midwestern senator of another era who, some time in his third term, was heard to ask a colleague, "Who is this man Sammy Baugh that people keep talking about?" The story got around town and eventually back to the unnamed senator's home state, and in Broder's words, "the fellow was deservedly defeated the next time he was up for reelection."
Through it all, Sam Baugh kept a steady head on his shoulders, kept his accomplishments in perspective. Beyond the gridiron exploits as a Hall of Fame quarterback, all-pro safety, and record-setting punter, beyond the glamour that came with being the biggest name in the game, he fashioned another life, one he found even more satisfying than his football career. Like a movie cowboy riding off into the sunset, he decided to chuck it all in the early 1960s. Retiring as a player and coach, he left behind the gridiron glory, a possible movie career, and the money. He never looked back.
Nearly thirty years after the Redskin impresario George Preston Marshall sold Washington fans on the notion that the tall, lean Texan was a rootin'-tootin' cowboy—never mind that he had grown up in town, gone to college in Fort Worth, and was more preppy than pastoral—he became a genuine Texas cowboy. For nearly fifty years, until his body wore out, he lived in far West Texas on his Double Mountain Ranch near Rotan. On a flat sea of scrub brush beneath two great rock peaks, where the only hardy vegetation are mesquite trees and prickly pear, he raised his cattle and horses, made himself a champion roper, and reveled in the wide-open spaces.
That was where I found him, a half century or so after that long-ago Saturday morning when he signed an autograph for my brothers and me in Waco. As a staff writer for the Post, I was writing "Redskins Journal," a weekly column during football season that took me to varied Washington-area venues during Redskin games—a bar, a restaurant, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a firehouse. I watched the game with fans and wrote their particular stories.
One cold Sunday morning, I was wandering around the vast parking lot of FedEx Field, the Redskins' home stadium, where two hours before game time, thousands of fans were tailgating, sitting in lawn chairs or on pickup tailgates, barbecuing ribs or charcoaling burgers and maybe tossing back a brew or two, or three. Youngsters were flinging footballs back and forth between lines of parked cars until it was time to troop into the stadium and cheer for the burgundy and gold.
Notebook and pen at the ready, my "Redskins Journal" question for the day was what Washington player of yore would fans love to see still with the team. Many of the answers were predictable—Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen was still immensely popular, as were Hall of Fame wide receiver Charley Taylor and defensive back Darrell Green. I was astounded, though, at how often a fan would answer with the name of a player who hadn't taken the field in more than half a century—Slingin' Sammy Baugh.
The older ones, invariably, had a story to tell about being in the stands when he intercepted four passes or got off a mind-boggling punt. One tailgater, seventy-seven-year-old Ray Augsterfer, wore a throwback leather helmet in homage to his favorite player. Augsterfer, who lived in nearby Annapolis, had been a thirteen-year-old in the stands for Baugh's very first Redskin game in 1937, and he was there in '41 for his record-setting eighty-five-yard punt.
"He was so much fun to watch," Jeanne McNeill told me that day. The smartly dressed woman sitting on a lawn chair and nursing a gin and tonic with friends was eighty-six, a retired U.S. Postal Service executive. She had been a regular at Redskin home games since 1947, when the team played in Griffith Stadium, the old Washington Senators baseball park. "He could do everything—run, pass, kick," McNeill told me. "And he was a good guy too."
McNeill and Augsterfer and the other fans who recalled Sam that morning would have seconded the view of the legendary Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, who wrote in 1994 in response to an official announcement from the NFL that Sammy Baugh was one of four quarterbacks being acclaimed as the league's all-time, all-stars at that position: "No disrespect here to Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Otto Graham, who were bracketed with him in gross oversight of Baugh's patently superior credentials. They too were great quarterbacks, deserving of loud cheers. They evoked memories of Samuel Baugh, but not the reality of him. Simply put, they lacked his measure in so many skills."
But what had become of him? Was he still alive? None of the fans I talked to knew, and neither did any of the Post sportswriters. I persuaded my editors that we ought to find out, so one weekend in January, I flew back to Texas from my home in Washington, rented a car in Austin, and, with my brother Ken along for the ride, made the 300-mile drive to Sam's Double Mountain Ranch.
We filled up with gas in Abilene and then headed toward Rotan, eighty miles northwest. Not far from the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River, flat pastureland began to rumple up. The rocky, hard-packed ground was filigreed by canyons, ravines, and dry washes. Stubbled grass and motts of dry mesquite were almost the only vegetation.
Sam's West Texas wasn't much to look at—at first glance, anyway—but like the coyotes, deer, jackrabbits, and wild turkeys that populate the vast area, the old football star took to it. For more than six decades, it had been home. The daily routines of the ranch, hard work outdoors, peace and quiet, even the extremes of West Texas weather—he found all of it deeply satisfying.
The ranch was still there, but Sam wasn't. His son David told us he had been moved to Jayton, thirty miles away. In a nursing home in the dusty little ranching town, where there seemed to be as many tumbleweeds as people, Kenny and I wandered into a simple room decorated with a child's drawing of a football player in the burgundy and gold uniform of the Washington Redskins.
Lying on his back, half-asleep on a single bed, was a gaunt gray-haired man who had been a resident for the past five years, since Alzheimer's disease had begun to erase the memories of nearly a century. Sam Baugh had no idea who we were, of course, but this time Kenny and I were certainly aware of who he was.
And people still remembered. He still got requests for autographs, still got cards and letters, including one from a Nebraska businessman, who dropped Sam a line not long after Kenny and I visited.
"Dear Sammy," he wrote.
When Dudley DeGroot was coaching the Redskins more than 60 years ago, I was sort of an assistant water boy for two Redskins games. This came about because my older sister was dating Dudley, Jr. and I made such a pest of myself that they decided to buy me off by letting me sit on the Redskins' bench. Then my sister broke up with Dudley and my career ended.
But I still remember the thrills of watching you play, not just for the passing but also for the punting and defensive interceptions.
Calling himself "a huge fan in Omaha" and wishing Sam the best, the letter writer signed his name: "Warren E. Buffett."