It’s arguably the greatest rookie performance of all time. Trailing 14-7 coming out of halftime, Washington’s rookie quarterback took the field ready to let loose. They called him Slingin’ Sammy Baugh as early as his days as a college baseball player, but on the football field it fit his unorthodox throwing motion — like a boy skipping rocks across a pond. Baugh’s second-half performance against Chicago in the 1937 NFL championship game came about as easy as that.
First, he hit Wayne Millner for 55 yards; Chicago answered to retake the lead. In the fourth, Baugh found Millner again, this time for 78 yards, and later delivered the game-winner — a 35-yard score — to second-year end Ed Justice. In all, Baugh completed 17 of 34 passes for 352 yards, a playoff record that stands today for rookie passers.
George Preston Marshall had moved the Redskins from Boston prior to that season and had made the TCU standout the sixth pick in the draft. Baugh repaid his new boss with the ultimate prize — the first of Washington’s five league titles. It made Baugh well worth the record deal Marshall had given him in the offseason.
Baugh recalled his rookie negotiations in a 1969 issue of Sports Illustrated:
I didn't know how much pro players were making, but I thought they were making pretty good money. So I asked Mr. Marshall for $8,000, and I finally got it. Later I felt like a robber when I found out what Cliff Battles and some of those other good players were making. I'll tell you what the highest-priced boy in Washington was getting the year before — not half as much as $8,000! Three of them — Cliff Battles, Turk Edwards and Wayne Millner — got peanuts, and all of 'em in the Hall of Fame now. If I had known what they were getting I'd have never asked for $8,000.
Marshall told Baugh to greet the media in cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat when he stepped off the plane. “Not only is he the best passer ever,” Marshall told reporters, “but he’s a rootin’, tootin’ Texas Cowboy as well.”
Baugh had made himself a passing prodigy by throwing countless footballs through a tire hanging from a tree; his backyard tales later became legendary. At TCU, his teammates bragged him up to opponents. “Gentlemen, Mr. Baugh is going to pass again,” center Ki Aldrich once told the linemen across from him. “I don’t know just where it’ll go, but it’ll be good.” Baugh sent the next ball 25 yards downfield, on target. Another often-told tale: During his first practice with the Redskins, head coach Ray Flaherty had Millner run a button hook, then told Baugh to hit the receiver “in the eye.” Baugh’s response: “Which eye?”
Three-quarters of a century later, who can say what is fact and what is fiction? Who cares? The fact that such stories have carried on is proof of how marvelous Baugh must have been to watch.
In his first NFL start, he completed 11-of-16 passes for 116 yards against a Giants team that would post a 6-3-2 record that season. In all, Baugh completed an NFL-record 81 passes in 1937, and his 1,127 yards were second most all time to Arnie Herber’s record of 1,239, which he had set the year before. No other passer came within 300 yards of Baugh in his first season.
After the title-game win over Chicago, Baugh traveled to spring training to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals. He had been signed by the great Rogers Hornsby out of college, and had considered skipping the NFL altogether before Marshall talked him out of it. Marshall made a pitch: Play football now and try baseball after the 1937 season. Baugh hadn’t forgotten his first love, but learned in spring training he couldn’t hit the curveball. Marshall convinced Baugh his best days were on the gridiron, and over his 16 NFL seasons Baugh changed the way teams used the forward pass. Baugh completed passes farther downfield than most, and with much better accuracy than his peers (he led the league in completion percentage in nine of 16 seasons).
But if today’s generation of football fan can’t recognize Baugh’s greatness from an era before 4,000-yard passers were common, perhaps this will help: Of the 17 men inducted into the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, only Baugh and George Halas were unanimous picks.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mikebeacom.