Sometimes destiny arrives in the most unexpected places and to the most unlikely people.
After having a scholarship offer retracted because of an injury, Sammy Baugh met Texas Christian University coach Dutch Meyer.
Slingin Sammy Baugh, pro football Hall of Famer wearing a really cool #33 pic.twitter.com/WNyyR9NxAM
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) May 18, 2020
Meyer was impressed by Baugh’s athleticism, especially his right arm.
Using that arm, Meyer helped transform offensive football at the collegiate level.
During Baugh’s years at TCU, he became an All-American, a national champion, and a bowl game MVP.
He would then become a first-round NFL draft pick who would continue to use his arm to usher in a new era of pigskin strategy.
Baugh set over a dozen records at three different positions by the time he retired.
His legacy continues as one of the first pros to primarily use passing as the means to score points.
This is the story of “Slingin’” Sammy Baugh.
Samuel Adrian Baugh was born on March 17, 1914 in Temple, Texas.
Happy birthday to the legendary Slingin’ Sammy Baugh pic.twitter.com/RWH2cZJSA4
— Washington Commanders (@Commanders) March 17, 2022
He was raised on a farm outside of Temple and found ways to distract himself by the time he was in third grade.
“All I ever wanted to do (as a youngster) was play football, baseball and basketball,” Baugh said in 1978. “I played football ever since third grade.”
Life was great until the arrival of the Great Depression.
Baugh’s father was able to find work with the railroad then lost his job during a round of cutbacks.
Eventually, Baugh’s parents divorced, and after his junior year of high school in Temple, the family moved to Sweetwater, Texas.
During his lone season at Sweetwater High School, Baugh was the Mustangs’ quarterback and punter.
He would practice his passing accuracy by taking an old tire and tying a rope around one side of it and securing the other end to a tree branch.
Baugh would swing the tire and step back several yards.
He would then try to throw the pigskin through the tire as it moved back and forth like a pendulum.
The extra practice paid off as Baugh led Sweetwater High to an 8-1 record and a bi-district championship.
Not only was Baugh skilled on the gridiron, but he was probably more proficient on the baseball diamond.
More than anything, he wanted to become a professional baseball player.
However, that sport was about to lead him down a different path.
Washington State College (now Washington State University) had interest in Baugh as a baseball player and offered him a scholarship.
Nearly a month before he left for Washington, Baugh was playing in an informal baseball game and hurt his knee sliding into second base.
When word got back to Washington State, the school pulled his scholarship.
Once his injury healed, Baugh was playing in a sandlot game when Dutch Meyer happened by.
Meyer was a coach for the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs and liked the way Baugh threw the pigskin.
"We’ll fight ‘em until hell freezes over, then we’ll fight ‘em on the ice"
– Dutch Meyer pic.twitter.com/9KQeJdbODz
— Football Advantage (@AdvFootball) January 11, 2018
He approached Baugh after the game and learned about the failed scholarship opportunity.
Already thinking several steps ahead, Meyer promised Baugh that he could play football, baseball, and basketball at TCU.
In turn, Baugh enrolled at TCU and began a college career for the ages.
Baugh and Meyer Develop the Early Spread Offense
As Baugh entered TCU, football at the collegiate and pro levels were mostly the same.
Teams primarily ran the ball and only used the forward pass on rare occasions.
When the ball was run, the ball carrier frequently ran between the tackles.
Offensive and defensive formations were bunched together and utilized the middle part of the field.
When Meyer became the Horned Frog’s head coach in 1934, he decided to experiment with Baugh.
In Meyer’s mind, it made no sense to pound away with the run when he had an athlete with an arm.
Also, Meyer couldn’t understand why coaches kept plowing their runner into the maw of the defense.
With a little tinkering, Meyer spread his linemen a few feet from each other to create natural running lanes.
Given equal manpower and skill, the spread will win as quickly as any other form of attack. And, it is a lot of fun to play, watch, and coach. Leo (Dutch) Meyer, circa 1952 pic.twitter.com/9drUv5ElBK
— Manny Matsakis (@MannyMatsakis) November 27, 2021
He also placed the ends (receivers) and wingbacks a little further from the line of scrimmage than usual.
This formation was eventually termed the “Meyer Spread” and it became a deadly weapon.
Meyer used the formation and also sprinkled in a healthy amount of passes for Baugh to surprise defenses.
The result of the changes caught opponents off-guard and the Horned Frogs became a team to be reckoned with.
Baugh Becomes an All-American
In 1934, the Horned Frogs went 8-4 and then 12-1 in 1935.
By then, Baugh was running the Meyer Spread like he’d been playing in the offense his entire life.
He ran, passed, and punted the ball while leading TCU to victories over programs such as Texas, Texas A&M, and Arkansas during the ‘35 season.
The Horned Frogs lost to SMU near the end of the year but took their 11-1 record into the Sugar Bowl against LSU.
Playing in less-than-ideal conditions, the two teams slugged it out all afternoon until the final gun sounded and TCU came away with an ugly 3-2 victory.
The win gave the Horned Frogs the national championship.
In 1936, Baugh and the Horned Frogs lost two games and tied twice on the way to an 8-2-2 regular season.
In the final game of the year, TCU beat Santa Clara University, which was the nation’s only undefeated team.
Then, in the first ever Cotton Bowl Classic, Baugh was named one of the game’s three MVPs after dispatching Marquette University 16-6.
— Vintage LSU Football (@vintagelsuftb) September 1, 2014
After the season, Baugh placed fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting and was named a consensus All-American.
In three seasons as a starter, Baugh passed for a total of 3,320 yards and 40 touchdowns, numbers unheard of then.
He would later have his uniform number 45 retired by TCU.
Baugh Tries to Play Pro Baseball
While he was setting records for TCU on the football field, Baugh continued to play baseball, his first love.
As a third baseman, Baugh took to slinging the baseball with speed and accuracy.
A local sportswriter saw him throw the ball during a game and gave Baugh the nickname “Slingin’” Sammy Baugh.
After graduating from TCU, Baugh signed a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals and was sent to their minor league affiliate in Columbus, Ohio.
He was moved to shortstop and then moved to Rochester, New York, one of the Cardinals’ top farm clubs.
During his time with the Red Wings, Baugh had a couple issues that made him believe he was better suited to football.
NFL HOF player Sammy Baugh as a baseball player in the St Louis Cardinals organization, 1938. 130 PAs and hit .200 pic.twitter.com/39rCr9BOfR
— Baseball (@baseballminutia) June 3, 2018
One problem was that he was stuck behind Marty Marion, Rochester’s starting shortstop.
“The other was I couldn’t hit that curve very well,” Baugh said. “So I left in August to play football, and after that I stuck with football.”
Baugh Wins a Championship with Washington
With the sixth overall selection in the first round of the 1937 NFL Draft, Baugh was picked by the Washington Redskins.
The organization moved from Boston to Washington that same year and made a splash by signing Baugh to a record one-year, $8,000 contract.
The deal made Baugh the highest-paid player on the team.
Baugh would come to regret his contract.
“I didn’t know how much pro players were making, but I thought they were making pretty good money,” said Baugh years later. “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!”
Baugh was the Redskins’ starting quarterback in the single-wing formation in 1937 and also played defensive back and punter.
During his first practice, head coach Ray Flaherty challenged Baugh.
“Let’s see you hit that receiver in the eye.” Baugh looked at Wayne Millner, who was running a buttonhook pattern, and asked, “Which eye?”
Baugh had no trouble hitting anything that season as he attempted 171 passes and completed 81 for 1,127 yards, eight touchdowns, and 14 interceptions.
He set several records that year (including leading the league in passing yards) and led Washington to an 8-3 record and a 28-21 victory over the Chicago Bears in the NFL Championship Game.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) December 12, 2014
Baugh tossed three touchdowns and 335 yards during the game.
The yardage remained the most yards thrown in a playoff game until Seattle’s Russell Wilson broke the record in 2012.
Baugh was named a first-team All-Pro after the year.
With the victory, he became the first quarterback to lead both his college and professional teams to a championship.
Baugh Takes the NFL by Storm
For the next several years, Baugh used the Redskins’ single wing to perfection.
He played all over the field on his way to four straight Pro Bowls between 1938 and 1941.
Baugh also led the league in nearly every statistical category during that period.
Good Morning Redskins nation we have 33 Sammy Baugh Days until the 2016 Redskins season Opener pic.twitter.com/p1wQS9t0r5
— AlanBal (@Alan_Bal21) August 10, 2016
In 1940, Washington returned to the NFL title game after a 9-2 season but were crushed by the Chicago Bears 73-0.
During the contest, Baugh threw a pass in the end zone that was dropped by his receiver.
He was asked after the game if the dropped ball would have made any difference in the outcome.
“Yeah. I suppose it would have made it 73-7,” Baugh deadpanned.
That year, Baugh led the league in 10 statistical categories including passing yards (1,367), touchdown passes (12), passer rating (85.6), and completion percentage (62.7).
1940 was also the first of six consecutive seasons where Baugh led the NFL in punting average.
Additionally, Baugh’s 51.4 punting average in 1940 remains an NFL record.
Sammy Baugh retired with a 45.1 yard average…in 1940 he averaged 51.4 on 35 punts. In his career he had punts of 85, 81, 76, 75 and 74 yards. At the same time that he was the best punter in the league, he was often the best DB and QB as well. pic.twitter.com/eswHjrYBHj
— Eddie Wood (@TXewood) July 14, 2020
He was named a first-team All-Pro for the second time at the season’s conclusion.
After a 6-5 record in 1941, the Redskins tore through the opposition in 1942 with a 10-1 record.
In a repeat of two years earlier, Washington played the Bears in the NFL Championship Game.
Fortunately, Baugh tossed a touchdown pass that was completed and the Redskins escaped with a 14-6 victory.
Along with his second world title, Baugh was a first-team All-Pro for the third time, led the league in completion percentage (58.7), and was voted to the Pro Bowl for the fifth consecutive year.
A year after Washington won their second championship in six seasons, the team went 6-3-1 but still finished first in the Eastern Division.
Baugh was the difference maker, almost single-handedly winning games by himself.
In a remarkable feat of athleticism and stamina, Baugh led the NFL in pass completions (55.6), punting (45.9-yard average), and interceptions (11).
During a game against the Detroit Lions, Baugh threw four touchdown passes and also intercepted four passes.
— Ken Crippen (@KenCrippen) November 14, 2015
He also had an 81-yard punt during the game, the longest in the NFL that year.
His 23 touchdown passes in ‘43 was second in the league, but the third-highest in NFL history at that point.
Against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Baugh passed for 376 yards and six touchdowns, both single-game records.
Baugh’s performance in 1943 wasn’t just remarkable because of his talent (of which he had plenty), but the fact the team sizes were reduced that year due to the war effort.
The United States was neck deep in WWII and organizations around the country had to find a way to reduce costs.
NFL teams were already filled with two-way players, but in 1943, team rosters were reduced from 33 to 28 meaning that injuries could cost teams dearly.
After losing their final three games of the season, Washington blanked the New York Giants 28-0 in the Divisional round.
Then their nemesis, Chicago, upended the Redskins’ season with a humiliating 41-21 defeat in the NFL Championship Game.
Baugh was named a first-team All-Pro for the fourth time after the season.
Another Championship Run Falls Short
In 1944, Washington went 6-3-1 again but this time finished third in the Eastern Division, meaning they did not qualify for the playoffs.
As the team prepared for the 1945 season, the Redskins coaching staff decided to switch to the T formation.
The emphasis on the quarterback passing instead of running the ball was music to Baugh’s ears.
“I wouldn’t have lasted more than another year with the battering I took in the single wing. The T formation must have added eight years to my career. I should have paid the Redskins to play the T formation instead of them paying me,” Baugh reminisced in 1978.
The new formation meant that Baugh wouldn’t have to sacrifice his body running into the teeth of the defense as much as he used to
It also meant that he wouldn’t have to block opponents larger than himself.
“I had to block in the single wing and when I went up against those big linemen (at 175-180 pounds) my shoulders would shake afterward,” Baugh added.
Washington took an 8-2 record with them into the 1945 NFL Championship Game against the Cleveland Rams.
Baugh helped propel their season while leading the NFL in five categories including a career-best 109.9 passer rating and completion percentage (54%).
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) March 17, 2016
During the championship game, Baugh threw a pass from his own end zone that accidentally hit the goal posts stationed on the goal line.
The ball bounced off the post and landed in the end zone.
NFL rules stated that this occurrence would automatically be called a safety and the Rams were suddenly leading 2-0.
Regrettably for Baugh, the safety would prove to be the winning margin for Cleveland as they eked out a 15-14 win.
The Lean Years
Instead of continuing to build their franchise into a contender, the Redskins organization fell off the face of a proverbial cliff.
After their near championship miss in 1945, Washington wouldn’t make the playoffs again until 1971.
Not even Slingin’ Sammy could save the team during the lean years.
However, he did produce some memorable seasons despite the losing records.
NFL Classic presents the one they call Slinging Sammy, Washington Redskins Quarterback #33 Sammy Baugh pic.twitter.com/ctXoZ7WyKB
— NFL Classic (@NFLclassic) August 5, 2016
In 1947 and 1948, he was once again the statistical leader in several NFL passing categories.
As Washington put together an 11-13 combined record, Baugh passed for a career-high 2,938 yards and 25 touchdowns in ‘47 and 2,599 yards and a career-high 23 interceptions in 1948.
The 1949 season witnessed Baugh lead the NFL in completion percentage for the third consecutive year while the Redskins floundered to 4-7-1.
Final Years and Retirement
Baugh would play three more years with Washington and his production declined each season as the Redskins never won more than five games.
After the 1952 season, he retired.
During his career, Baugh had totals of 21,866 passing yards, 187 touchdowns, and 203 interceptions.
He also set 13 NFL records in three positions, quarterback, punter, and defensive back.
Two of his records as quarterback still rank high in NFL history: most seasons leading the league in passing (six, tied with Steve Young) and most seasons leading the league with the lowest interception percentage (five).
Baugh was also a two-time NFL champion, four-time first-team All-Pro, four-time second-team All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler, four-time NFL passing yards leader, two-time NFL passing touchdowns leader, three-time league passer rating leader, eight-time NFL completion percentage leader, five-time league punting average leader, and NFL punting yards and made interceptions leader in 1943.
He has since been named one of the 80 Greatest Redskins and been selected for the NFL’s 1940s All-Decade Team, NFL 75th Anniversary and 100th Anniversary teams.
Sammy Baugh is one of 10 QBs selected to the #NFL100 All-Time Team!
🏛 2x NFL Champion
🏛 3x First-Team All-Pro
🏛 6x Pro Bowler
🏛 T-Most defensive INTs in a single game in NFL history (4)
🏛 Led NFL in completions, punt yards and defensive INTs in 1943 pic.twitter.com/43UhJqLQjT
— NFL (@NFL) December 28, 2019
Baugh’s number 33 has been retired by Washington and he is also a member of the organization’s Ring of Fame.
Active in Retirement
While still playing with the Redskins, Baugh began acting and appeared in television shows such as King of the Texas Rangers.
Robert Duvall modeled the mannerisms & voice of Gus McCrae after Sammy Baugh, the hall-of-fame quarterback from Temple, Texas. Said Duvall, "About a month before we started filming, I looked up a classmate, a rancher near Rotan, & he took me to see Sammy Baugh. I thought, 'Wow.' pic.twitter.com/rZ2uCEBcBI
— Traces of Texas (@TracesofTexas) December 25, 2020
He also coached The Catholic University of America football team when he wasn’t playing for Washington.
After retiring from the league, Baugh became the head football coach at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.
In five years as coach, the Cowboys were 23-28.
Baugh would leave Hardin-Simmons after the 1959 season and become the first head coach of the New York Titans (which later became the Jets) in 1960 and 1961.
He also coached at the University of Tulsa in 1963 and the Houston Oilers in 1964.
In 1963, Baugh was one of 17 charter members elected into the new Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Baugh eventually left football behind and moved with his wife, Edmonia, and five children to a ranch in Texas.
On December 17, 2008, Baugh passed away at an assisted living facility in Rotan, Texas.
He was 94 years old.
“Sammy Baugh embodied all we aspire to at the Washington Redskins. He was a competitor in everything he did and a winner. He was one of the greatest to ever play the game of football, and one of the greatest the Redskins ever had,” said Redskins owner Daniel Snyder after Baugh’s death.