"Greatest I ever saw"
Sam Baugh 1914-2008
by Rick Waters '95
Updated: Friday, June 25, 2010
Sam Baugh's popularity was so great that President E.M. Waits once facetiously quipped at a civic club luncheon in 1935 that he, "a mere college president," was unworthy of introducing "the great Baugh!"
His name was Sam, not Sammy. Not that he begrudged anybody for mistaking. “Wuddn’t their fault,” he’d say.
Like other fleet-footed athletes of his day, Samuel Adrian Baugh endured a colorful nickname or three, whether he liked it or not. For the record, Sam did not, and was particularly bothered when a new member of the press, usually from out of town, would ask for him incorrectly. He didn’t know them. They didn’t know him. And worse, few of them had even seen him play.
Star-Telegram beat writer Amos Melton ’27, a former Frog football player himself, did know Sam and his game, and was certain no one could fling the pigskin around like him. Sportswriters were always looking for alliterative nicknames in those days. It’s what passed for “good” writing. So, Melton — perhaps influenced by “Singin’ Sam the Barbasol Man,” radio’s Harry Frankel — labeled a strong-armed TCU sophomore bursting on the scene in the fall of 1934 as “Slingin’ Sammy.” It had a ring to it. And when other sportswriters coast to coast picked it up, it stuck.
Right up until December 17, 2008, the day Sam died. He was 94.
Heaven knows what the Lord’s calling him, but folks still call or drop by his ranch in West Texas even now to talk about “Sammy,” says son David.
When people would ask him to autograph a football or a photo, even decades after he retired, the version he would sign was the original. He obliged every request, until he could no longer hold a pen.
The difference might not seem like much, but “Sam” fit the man better than the other names he had. He was Buddy to childhood friends growing up outside of Temple, Texas, in the 1920s. Then there were those six weeks in the summer of 1941, when he answered to Tom King, star of the cowboy movie serial “King of the Texas Rangers.” Somewhere in between, he was the “Sweetwater Six-Shooter,” and of course, “Slingin’ Sammy.”
Sam didn’t care about any of those titles.
“Hell, no,” he’d tell a writer. “I wasn’t interested in anything but that ranch and those cows and horses. That’s all I cared about.”
He would, however, allow himself to be remembered as one of the sport’s best quarterbacks of all time — the signal-caller who made the passing game a viable, every-down concept in the college game for Leo “Dutch” Meyer and the TCU Horned Frogs, and later for 16 seasons with the Washington Redskins of the National Football League.
In three seasons with the Frogs, Baugh led TCU to a 29-7-2 record, victories in the Sugar and Cotton bowls, and a No. 1 spot in the 1935 Williamson national rankings. He twice led the nation in passing yards and touchdowns, amassing 3,384 yards and 39 touchdowns for his career.
He’d do the same in the pros as a six-time All-Pro and six-time passing champion. He retired as the all-time NFL leader in passing yards (21,886), touchdown passes (187), attempts (2,995), completions (1,693) and accuracy (56.5 percent) and twice guided the Redskins to the NFL title — as a rookie in 1937 and again in 1942. He remains one of only three men to win a college national championship and a title in the NFL.
His passing brilliance overshadows it, but Sam was probably prouder still to be regarded as one of the game’s greatest punters. He led the nation in 1935 as a Frog and still holds the NFL record for highest average in a career (45.1 yards) and best average (51.4 in 1940) in a single season.
In 1943, he led the league in passing, punting and interceptions, and in one game that season, he threw four touchdowns and also intercepted four passes — a record that almost certainly will never be equalled.
Quite simply, he was the best all-around player in an era when versatility was essential. Squads were limited to 30 players (just 23 in the pros) and there was no free substitution. If a player left the field for any reason, he could not return until the next quarter. First-teamers were on the field for the kickoff and rarely left. If somebody got hurt, they stayed in the game and suffered through it.
There was no such thing as a roughing the passer penalty, so opposing teams went after him, and the 6-foot-2, 180-pounder took a beating. But he played 60 minutes nearly every game. If he wasn’t passing, he was running or blocking on every play. On defense, he covered ends and made tackles. And he never wore a face mask. The helmets were flimsy, the shoulder pads thin, the fields muddy, the footballs wet, and when the ground was too frozen for cleats, he squeezed into rubber-soled basketball shoes.
For all this, Sam was selected as a charter member of both the college and professional football halls of fame. In 1994, the NFL named him to its 75th anniversary all-time team as quarterback and punter.
“I still think he’s the greatest quarterback who ever lived, college or pro,” says acclaimed sportswriter Dan Jenkins ’53.
His favorite coach agreed. “Sam was the greatest I ever saw,” Meyer boasted to the Star-Telegram long after Baugh had gone pro. “But as good as he was throwing the ball, he was an even better punter. There was no spot on a football field where he could not drop a punt if he wanted to. I don’t know how many balls I saw him put right on the sideline chalk — where there was no way you could run it back — or how many perfect ‘coffin corner’ kicks he made.”
Sam Baugh, the second of three children, was born in a farmhouse about six miles outside of Temple on March 17, 1914. The family was poor and had only a few dairy cows, but living in the country just doing chores and not worrying about much seemed a pleasant way to go through life. Woodrow Wilson was president, suffragists were marching on the Capitol for women’s rights and the world was about to be at war. But there was football and baseball to pass the time. Baseball was Sam’s favorite.
When he was 6, the Baughs moved into town when his father J.V. got a job with the Santa Fe Railroad. By the time high school approached, the farm boy was growing up past 6 feet tall and rail thin, but he showed signs of being a natural athlete at whatever sport was in season. During his first year at Temple High, Sam was a year-round star in football, basketball and baseball.
“All through junior high I played end, but when I got to high school, I wound up playing on about the sorriest team Temple ever had,” he once recalled. “We couldn’t beat anyone, and one day the coach, Bill Henderson, came over and said, ‘We can’t run on anybody and we can’t stop anybody. Maybe we can throw on ’em. I’m puttin’ you in at tailback.
“Didn’t make a damn bit of difference that I could tell. We just kept on losin’.”
By then, the grip of the Great Depression had reached central Texas and many folks were out of work, looking for work or changing jobs. J.V. lost his job in Temple, briefly found another one 80 miles southeast in Somerville, lost it, and finally settled 300 miles west in Sweetwater, toiling for the railroad that whole time. J.V. would eventually leave wife Katherine and the family for his own wandering urges.
But with his athletic prowess, Sam fit in fine. He automatically played tailback because that had been his position in Temple. Although he twice led Sweetwater to the state playoffs, he was considered better at baseball.
His arm strength was uncommon, enough so that he landed a spot at third base with a local town team composed of mostly older players. Sam was a decent batsman but truly excelled as a fielder, scooping up grounders and rocketing them over to first in a sidearm throwing motion — hence the slingin’ nickname. The team practiced several days a week and played teams that came traveling through town. In the spring of 1933, Coach Meyer and the TCU baseball team arrived to play a couple of games.
“It was the first time I ever saw Dutch,” Baugh said. “I had actually heard of TCU, but only because there was a teacher at Sweetwater who came from there.”
It would be Dutch’s first time to lay eyes on Baugh, too, although he had heard of his gridiron exploits. At the time, Meyer was the coach of the baseball and basketball teams and coach of the freshman football squad, and always on the lookout for good multisport athletes.
After two games, Meyer mostly figured he’d found a future Frog third baseman. But he promised Baugh that if he came to TCU, he’d make sure Sam got a football tryout with head coach Francis Schmidt.
Meyer was not the only coach to covet Sam.
Billy Disch at the University of Texas wanted him to play for the Longhorns. “Frankly, I was real interested,” Baugh told sportswriter Whit Canning in Best There Ever Was. “They had a lot of supporters around Sweetwater who had told me all about the place. So it was arranged for me to go down there and visit, and after seeing the campus and talking to people there, I had really just about made up my mind to go there.”
Yet Sam still yearned to play football, so he asked Disch about going out for the team in the fall. Disch put his foot down. “He told me that if I came to Texas, it would have to be for baseball only.”
Sam would have to think it over. UT looked awful big to a country boy. “I took a walk around the campus, and I wandered over to the stadium where the football team was practicing. They had a lot of well-known players and were expected to have a real good team. So I sat down in the stands to watch for awhile. Sitting there watching them, I realized how much I was going to miss football.”
Before he left Austin, he called Dutch and announced he was coming to TCU. Then he told Disch, who understood and even loaned him the money to get to Fort Worth. The Longhorns have regretted it ever since.
The TCU years
For the first few weeks, neither Dutch Meyer nor Francis Schmidt knew what they had in Baugh. They knew he could play baseball and could count on him to be a pretty good punter, but by the middle of the semester, they realized that the best passing arm in the school belonged to a freshman who had been mostly a blocking back in high school.
Sure, Baugh had a powerful arm, but it was large hands that could grip the football in an unconventional way — thumb resting on the laces — giving him a flat, accurate downfield spiral. It helped that college football shrank the ball by about an inch before his sophomore season.
He could chuck it, too. From his years throwing across the diamond, he had developed an uncanny ability to change the angle of his delivery — straight overhead, sidearm or anything in between — and could move backward, forward, left or right, lean off-balance, jump, and still twirl the ball with pinpoint accuracy.
Baugh spent many an afternoon throwing footballs and baseballs through a tire swing on the farm, a practice which he once shrugged off: “Hell, every high school kid did that. There were a lot of old, flat tires in the Depression.”
A few years later that passing precision would impress his first pro coach, Ray Flaherty. When Baugh reported to the team, the story goes, the coach handed him a ball and said, “They tell me you’re quite a passer.”
“I can throw a little,” Baugh said.
“Let’s see how good,” Flaherty said. “Hit that receiver running down the field in the eye.”
“Which eye?” Baugh drawled.
While much of Sam’s success should be credited to the abilities God gave him, there may be no more serendipitous intersection of player and coach than Sam and Dutch. TCU, the Redskins and really the sport itself, were forever the beneficiaries. The two turned passing into the major part of the Frog offense and ultimately revolutionized the game. While the rest of the world ran the ball to set up the pass, the Frogs did exactly the opposite out of Meyer’s never-before-seen formations — the Triple Wing and the Spread.
“Most teams — even in the pros — would try to pound at you with the running game and then, in desperation, throw on third down and long,” Baugh once explained. “Even then, they would try to throw it as far as they could and hope the fastest guy could run under it or nobody could get to it. It was a safe play.
“Dutch taught us the short passing game, and it was a radical thing for the day and time. We would just move the ball right down the field, hitting short passes — with little risk for interception — and nobody could figure out how to stop it.
“Early on, he told me, ‘You can throw from our one-yard line if you see an opening, and I’ll never question you.’ In a lot of ways, he was years ahead of his time. I watch games on TV today and I see ’em doing things they think are new concepts. And they’re doing the same damn thing as Dutch was doing in the ’30s.”
Start of a golden age
The Frogs were coming off a 10-1-1 season in 1933, and with a new coach and a new system, not much was expected of the Frogs in 1934.
Baugh’s first varsity game was a road game the third Saturday in September against the Daniel Baker Hillbillies, a major-college team in Brownwood. In what would be a pattern for the season, Sam didn’t even start. That honor went to senior quarterback Joe Coleman ’35, who’d play for a while, often most of the game, before Dutch inserted Baugh to give the team a spark.
Baugh, though, would be credited with proving the Meyer system could work, throwing three touchdowns and sprinting in for another in a 33-7 victory. The next day, the Star-Telegram declared: “Sam Baugh Lives Up to Expectations and Leads Frogs to Win over Billies.”
The next week, the Frogs would defeat North Texas State, 27-0, in what was reported as “the largest crowd ever to witness a TCU home opener” — 5,000 fans. The Slingin’ Sam phenomenon was catching on, and by the end of the following season, TCU would be forced to add seats to its 5-year-old Amon Carter stadium to accommodate a crowd of nearly 40,000.
They wouldn’t all be victories, however.
Baugh’s first South-west Conference game was a humbling affair. Proving to be a selfless team captain, Coleman started again and built a 10-0 lead, before yielding to Sam sometime late in the first half.
Senior tackle Judy Truelson ’35 recalled what ensued: “The first thing he tried to do was catch a punt on our 1-yard line. He fumbled it, and Arkansas recovered and got an easy score to make it 10-7. Then early in the second half, we got backed up to about the 5-yard line and Sam tried to throw, and they intercepted and ran it in to make it 14-10. Finally, he got us backed up again deep in our territory and they intercepted another pass and went in to make it 21-10.”
So much for short, safe and sure.
But the coaches and his teammates saw something that day, Truelson said.
“It never shook him at all. He never lost confidence and took us on a couple of drives late in the game, although we didn’t score. It was a costly defeat, but I am sure the coaches saw something in him they liked. And I think that ability was part of what always made him such a good leader.”
That first season would be solid but unspectacular for Meyer’s men, just 8-4 on the year. But they scored big upsets over Rice and Santa Clara toward season’s end and produced TCU’s first consensus All-American in center Darrell Lester ’36. Meyer also saw how Baugh’s punting could be used as a strategic weapon. Best of all, the team’s top players — Baugh, Lester, halfback Jimmy Lawrence ’36 and fullback Tillie Manton ’37 — would be returning in 1935. It was the foundation for the school’s first national championship.
Off the field, Baugh courted his shy Sweetwater sweetheart, Edmonia Smith ’38, the daughter of a Methodist minister, and worked campus jobs doing yard work and sweeping floors in the music room to supplement his scholarship. “It didn’t bother me,” he once said. “I was just glad to be there.”
Even with a $414 annual stipend — regulated by Southwest Conference rule — and the side jobs, he still had to sign a note with university business manager L.C. (Pete) Wright ’10 for the unpaid balance. So did most students at TCU and athletes in the conference. Baugh would later come back and pay his school bills after signing his first contract with the Redskins.
But what Baugh did for TCU was immeasurably greater than anything he owed. The school was much smaller then, fewer than 700 students, many from West Texas like Baugh, but it was nearly bankrupt like the rest of the country during the Depression. In fact, Wright would make occasional trips downtown to borrow money from wealthy oilmen to keep the school afloat. And yet the 1935 team from a tiny school far from the center of media attention produced national headlines from East Coast reporters and ultimately a national championship. It would launch a golden age the rest of the decade: three bowl championships, two national titles, two all-time best teams, five All-Americans and a Heisman Trophy for Baugh’s successor, Davey O’Brien ’39.
Life as a pro
The summer after graduation, Baugh played in the College Football All-Star Game and sparked his fellow collegians to a 6-0 victory over the NFL champion Green Bay Packers. He also flirted with the idea of becoming a pro baseball player, mostly because he liked it and thought he could play it longer.
So he got a job with a lumber company and played semi-pro baseball for the Pampa Roadrunners during the spring and summer. That’s when he was spotted by former St. Louis Cardinals great Rogers Hornsby, who was scouting for the team. He helped Baugh sign a Class AAA contract for the next season.
But also in 1937, pro football came calling. The Redskins brokered a deal with the Pittsburgh franchise, which had the top pick in the NFL draft, to select Baugh in the top spot. Redskins owner George Marshall, who had just moved the franchise from Boston to Washington, extended an offer to Baugh, which he did not initially accept.
“I think he offered something like $5,000, and it was worth considering,” Baugh said. “But I already had a job — and jobs were very important at that time. I didn’t know who the damn teams were ’cause I never paid any attention to the pros.”
No one did. And besides that, he didn’t care much about playing up north.
“I asked Dutch about it, and he said, ‘Well, if they’ll pay that, why not ask for $8,000?’
“So I did, and they accepted. To me, it looked like a million bucks.”
In a way, it was.
“After I had been on the team awhile, I discovered that we had three All-Pros making about $2,700 a year each,” Baugh said. “And there were lots of other guys making $150 to $200 a game.
“It scared the livin’ hell out of me, because I thought someone might find out how much I was making. It really gave me a strange feeling to know I was overpaid when we had guys doing their jobs as well as I, making less than $200 a game.
“We won the NFL championship that year and Cliff Battles led the league in rushing. The next year, he asked for a $250 raise up to $3,000 a year, and Marshall wouldn’t give it to him, so he quit.”
“If I had known what they were doing, I would have given him the $250 myself, because after that first year, I was making $12,000.”
There was no doubt about Baugh’s worth to the team. After his rookie season when the Redskins won the championship, Marshall reported a $20,000 profit, compared with an $80,000 loss the previous year. “He took the Redskins out of the red and put them in the black,” Marshall gloated.
Marshall relentlessly marketed Baugh as Slingin’ Sam, a real, live Texas cowboy. Never mind that the young man, for much of his life, had rarely been on a horse. Marshall outfitted him with boots and a Stetson and flew him into Washington to meet the press.
A reporter asked him about the boots. “They hurt my feet,” Baugh complained.
“Son, is it true that you once killed a buffalo?” another reporter asked.
“Naw, I just winged him,” Baugh replied.
Marshall was as volatile as he was flamboyant, but Baugh just rolled with it. “I always got along with him pretty well,” Baugh said, “but he was always doing crazy things, and most of the guys didn’t like him worth a damn. I think while I was there he fired three coaches in the middle of the season.”
After his rookie season with Washington, Baugh went back to the Cardinals and split the spring and summer between Columbus and Rochester, failing to hit better than .220. His struggles hitting curveballs were well known, but Baugh once joked, “I thought it was more trouble with the change-up.” That batting average, and the impending presence of a rising star shortstop named Marty Marion, convinced him football was a better route to buying the ranch he’d always wanted.
Sam played an NFL record 16 seasons. Near the end of his career, the Redskins held a Baugh Day in Washington. Fans donated a station wagon that some felt might be needed to carry him off the field. Washington had lost five in a row and faced the champion-to-be Chicago Cardinals on muddy footing.
Baugh responded with what he considered his greatest performance — 25 completions for 355 yards and six touchdowns — in a 45-21 victory.
He retired in 1952 after throwing 187 touchdown passes with the bloated football of the period, near the shape of a watermelon. It’s been estimated that Baugh earned $300,000 in his NFL career.
How’d he spend it? “Half went to taxes. The other half went to Texas.”
His long-sought ranch
In 1941, Sam did manage to buy that ranch, calling it Bar Lazy S. “I think he liked to think it stood for ‘Bar Lazy Asses,’ his son jokes now. Owning his own spread was Sam’s dream, and this particular plat inspired him. He would retreat off-season to the rugged rolling landscape in the shadow of Double Mountain, the area’s only discernable landmark, which sits at edge of Stonewall and Fisher counties, about 80 miles northwest of Abilene. He paid $200 an acre, and the old ranch house, which sits three-quarters of mile from the nearest paved road, had no electricity at first, and no running water. The most popular man in Washington and his bride took baths in a horse trough.
The ground is rocky and hard-packed, filigreed by canyons, ravines and dry washes. Stubbled grass and mottes of dry mesquite are the only vegetation. Baugh loved it. The hard work outdoors, the peace and quiet, even the extremes of West Texas weather — he found it all deeply satisfying.
The Baughs would have four boys and a girl. Edmonia stayed home to run the ranch, with help from her mother and mother-in-law.
Sam, meanwhile lived in a Washington hotel for six months of the year and returned to Texas when the season was over. “He told me one time that if he had it all to do over again, he wouldn’t be a big athlete,” his son David says. “He’d be a rancher, a roper, a cowman.”
“The reason I played football was to pay off this ranch,” Baugh told writer Skip Hollandsworth ’79, then of the Dallas Times-Herald. “And now I’m through with it and that’s it.”
Baugh didn’t leave football behind when he retired after the 1952 season, but he made sure it was on his terms. “I didn’t want to go anywhere I couldn’t be back home by sundown,” he famously said. So he coached quarterbacks at Hardin-Simmons University for a few years, commuting from his ranch nearly 100 miles away. After a couple of seasons he became the head coach, relishing the mental side of the game — devising game plans and teaching young men what Dutch had taught him.
He held that post for five seasons, going 23-28, before being lured back into pro football in 1960 as coach of the New York Titans of the upstart American Football League.
With the Titans struggling financially, Baugh skipped to the Houston Oilers in 1962 as an assistant coach. After a few brief stints at Oklahoma State and with Detroit, Baugh retired to the Double Mountain ranch for good.
For the old quarterback, that was enough football for a lifetime. From 1965 on, he remained a cigar-smoking, tobacco-chewing cowboy, an easygoing man who was almost comically profane, whatever the topic.
“There are a lot of old football heroes,” he told Hollandsworth. “Who needs to be a g--damn football hero? Listen to me a minute. I’ve been happier the last damn 10 years than I ever have been in my life.”
David Baugh recalls a time in the late 1980s when actor Robert Duvall stayed at the ranch for a few days, preparing for his role as Augustus McCrae in the TV miniseries “Lonesome Dove.” Duvall listened to Baugh’s stories, played golf with him and slapped down dominoes at a table in the old ranch house.
“In two hours, Sammy Baugh gave me the finishing touches for Augustus McCrae, and he didn’t even know it,” Duvall told the Star-Telegram.
Baugh had his own Hollywood sojourn as well. In 1941 he made between $4,000 and $6,000 over six weeks for starring in a 12-part serial as a dark-haired Texas Ranger named Tom King. Called “King of the Texas Rangers,” the episodes ran in theaters as Saturday-morning matinees.
For years, Baugh had only seen three segments, but a daughter-in-law remedied that when she presented him the entire package as a Christmas present in the 1980s.
Baugh was grateful.
“I never knew what the thing was about until I saw it,” he said.
The serial, which co-starred Duncan Renaldo, later to become the Cisco Kid, was not filmed in story order. Baugh, frustrated by the jumping around, gave up studying the script and just repeated lines fed to him before each shot. “They took care of me. It was kind of like a little family,” Baugh said.
* * *
Sam’s final days were spent with what he cared about: loved ones and golf. His favorite pastime, though, might have been avoiding cities. He disliked the commotion and bustle of the metropolis, and it was a task to lure him into one. Just ask the Redskins, who wanted to honor Baugh by retiring his jersey. He refused, despite the offer of first-class accommodations and the use of a private jet. They retired it without him. TCU retired his No.45 in 1995.
On rare occasions away from the ranch, such as a ceremony honoring him and other sports greats, he wasn’t comfortable, often uttering his go-to line, “I feel like a bastard at a family reunion.”
But that was Baugh.
Edmonia died in 1990, after 52 years of marriage. Age and a broken hip robbed Sam of his remaining mobility after that, and Alzheimer’s ravaged his agile mind. His final years were spent in a nursing home in Rotan.
These days, the Double Mountain ranch is in the hands of son David. Now 65, David retired eight years ago from coaching high school football. Baugh’s ranch is still a cow-calf operation, on about 7,600 acres.
“He was a remarkable man,” David says, rumbling in his pickup over baked landscape. “He could do so many things well that other people probably couldn’t do. He was a unique football player, and he may have been the best one to ever play the game. He was a good cowboy, a good rancher, a good businessman. Pretty much, he lived his life the way he wanted to.”