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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Slingin' Sammy Baugh

by Clay Coppedge

If anyone ever asks you to name the greatest football player to ever come out of Texas, you will have a strong case if you go with Sammy Baugh. You will have the added satisfaction of being right.

"Slingin'" Sammy Baugh was a pioneer of today's National Football League (NFL) and the one who did the most to give us the game we know today. He played in the 1930s and 40s, a time when the forward pass was used either as a trick play or an act of desperation. Sammy Baugh not only made the forward pass a centerpiece of the game but he also made pro football popular in Texas at a time when college football ranked almost as a religion.

"Until Sam Baugh, pro football in Texas was a one-paragraph story on the third page of the Monday sports section," the late and lamented Texas sportswriter Dan Jenkins wrote of Baugh.

The greatest football player to ever come out of Texas was born in Temple in 1914, moved to Sweetwater when he was 16, and became a three-sport standout at Sweetwater High School, which also nurtured Clyde "Bulldog" Turner, another future NFL Hall-of-Famer. Baugh played baseball and football for TCU, where a Fort Worth sportswriter dubbed him "Slingin'' Sammy" in 1934 not because of the way he threw a football but because of the throws he made from third base. Baseball was actually his first choice, but it didn't work out so he turned to football.

Redskins' owner George Preston Marshall paid Baugh a team-high salary of $8,000 in 1937 and paraded him through Washington in a cowboy hat and boots under the mistaken belief that anybody from West Texas had to be a cowboy. When D.C. reporters asked him if he liked his boots, Baugh said they hurt his feet.

"Have you ever shot a buffalo?" another reporter asked.

"Naw, I just winged him."

Sammy Baugh changed the game of football forever in his rookie season when he led the Redskins to a 28-21 victory over the Chicago Bears in the NFL championship game at a frigid Wrigley Field. Baugh biographer Joe Holley points to that game as a turning point in the history of the NFL, though few people actually saw the game. The wind and 15-degree temperature kept most fans glued to their radios instead of frozen to their seats.

"On that championship Sunday, those hardy fans shivering in the stands at Wrigley Field witnessed a legend in the making, a star who, like Ruth or Jordan, transformed the way the game is played," Holley wrote.

On Washington's first play from scrimmage, Baugh lined his squad up in punt formation, a real puzzler for the Bears' defense. Then, to their utter astonishment, Slingin' Sammy threw a 47-yard pass to Cliff Battles. Baugh finished the game with touchdown passes of 35, 55 and 78 yards as part of a 335-yard passing performance, the most ever by a rookie quarterback in the playoffs until Russell Wilson eclipsed it in 2012. "He brought the game out of its rugby past," Holley wrote.

Now, here's the thing about Sammy Baugh that sets him apart from any other player you want to name as the GOAT. Baugh played on offense, defense, and special teams and was the best there was at all three phases of the game. He is the only player to have ever led the league in offensive, defensive and special teams' categories. He retired with 13 NFL records at three positions: quarterback, punter, and defense back. He once threw four touchdown passes and intercepted four passes in a single game.

Sammy Baugh was also the best punter in history and averaged 51.4 yards a kick in 1940, though, to be fair, a lot his punts were "quick kicks" in which there was no one back to field the punt. In the 1942 championship game, one such kick went for 83 yards. He also had 31 career interceptions on defense, including a record four in one game. They don't make 'em like that anymore.

Baugh retired from playing 1952 and coached off and on for a decade or so before settling down with his wife Edmonia on their 7,600-acre Double Mountain Ranch near Rotan. He didn't mind people dropping in to talk football, horses, golf, pinball or any other dadgum thing they wanted to talk about.

"From 1965 on, he remained a cigar smoking, tobacco chewing cowboy, an easy-going man who was almost comically profane whatever the topic," Holley wrote. --

Baugh died in 2008 at the age of 94 after decades as the cowboy that people assumed he was all along. Later in his life he said if he had to do it all over again he's just skip sports and go straight to ranching. Anybody who enjoys the game of football today can be grateful that he didn't.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" September 25, 2022 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • El Diablo gets his due 8-10-22
  • Those Desolate Icarians 7-8-22
  • Boy With X-Ray Eyes 6-8-22
  • Woody Guthrie and the End of the World 5-15-22
  • Last Town Crier 4-8-22

    more »

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