Friday, January 02, 2009

The Babe Ruth of Football

Sammy Baugh died a couple of weeks ago. If he'd have been a baseball player, Sports Illustrated would have commemorated his passing by putting his photo on their cover, as they did for Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. Instead, SI's first issue after Baugh's death had a dog on the cover, and his passing garnered just a single paragraph thrown into a year end listing of other sports figures who had died during the year.

Fortunately, the legendary quarterback wasn't completely forgotten. Some well-written tributes appeared in newspapers across the country, and hopefully you got a chance to read some of them. Several writers made interesting observations about why Baugh and other great football players from before 1950 had faded from the collective consciousness, while that era's great baseball players... like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio... remained in the spotlight for decades after their playing careers ended.

It's not just that pro football was less popular in the forties. In Baugh's case, he never made an effort to remain on the stage. John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reflected on his 1998 visit to Baugh's at his home in Rotan, Texas, where the quarterback had lived since 1941. He noted one reason why the all-time great quarterback had fallen out of the limelight.
"No matter how hard the Hall of Fame tried to get him to return to Canton or how many award banquets he was invited to, Baugh never went anywhere unless he could return home and sleep in his bed every night."

Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post laments the fact that Baugh's name was largely forgotten in the discussion of "Greatest Quarterback Ever." The main reason, Wilbon argued, was that he outlived most of the folks who'd seen him play.
"You have to be approaching 70 years old to have seen him play for the Washington Redskins, and it almost had to be in person. "

Baugh was one of the inaugural members of the pro football Hall of Fame, and he was one of those rare players who could have qualified for the honor on three different grounds. First, he was a great all-around player In addition to being a great passer, Baugh was one of the best defensive backs of his era, and he still holds the record for highest punting average in a season.

Second, he changed the way the game was played. His willingness and ability to throw the ball invented the modern passing game and redefined the quarterback position. He was the first to make the forward pass an effective weapon and regular part of the arsenal rather than just a tool of desperation to employ when all other options had failed.

But what's often overlooked is the impact he had on establishing the Redskins as a powerhouse franchise. As Matthew DiBiase points out at his blog:

Baugh’s presence on the Washington Redskins made the nation’s capitol into the pro football capitol of America. In 1937 Redskins owner George Preston Marshall moved the team from Boston to Washington and desperately needed a big star who could draw big crowds to watch his team. Sammy Baugh was that star and when he won the NFL championship in his rookie season (only one of two NFL quarterbacks ever to do that if I’m not mistaken—the other was Bob Waterfield in 1945 with the Cleveland Rams). Baugh made the Washington Redskins a viable NFL franchise.

Baugh would lead the Redskins to five title games in his first nine seasons, including NFL Championships in 1937 and 1942.

He should be rememberd as one of just a handful of guys in sports who weren't merely great athletes but helped to change the style of play and raise the stature of their entire sport. For that reason, he stands alongside transformative figures like Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali. He deserved better than a throwaway paragraph in Sports Illustrated.


Baugh was the last surviving member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's inaugural , and his death leaves just one other living Hall of Famer who played during the thirties -- Ace Parker. In fact, there are only nine surviving HOFers who played during the 40s. Here's a list, courtesy of a great website called "Oldest Living NFL Players"

Oldest living Hall of Famers
Name                   Debut/Team           Birth Date
Clarence 'Ace' Parker 1937 Brk. Dodgers 05/17/12
George McAfee 1940 Chicago Bears 03/13/18
Steve Van Buren 1944 Phil. Eagles 12/28/20
Bill Dudley 1942 Pitt. Steelers 12/24/21
Charley Trippi 1947 Chi. Cardinals 12/14/22
Dante Lavelli 1946 Clev. Browns 02/23/23
Pete Pihos 1947 Phil. Eagles 10/22/23
Chuck Bednarik 1949 Phil. Eagles 05/01/25
Y.A. Tittle 1948 Balt. Colts 10/24/26
George Blanda 1949 Chicago Bears 09/17/27

There are another handful of players born in the 1920s who didn't get to the NFL until the 1950s (in some cases because of military service).

Name Debut/Team Birth Date
Art Donovan 1950 Balt. Colts 06/05/25
Andy Robustelli 1951 L.A. Rams 12/06/25
Gino Marchetti 1952 Dallas Texans 01/02/27
Joe Perry 1950 S.F. 49ers 01/22/27
Lou Creekmur 1950 Detroit Lions 01/22/27
Bud Grant 1951 Phil. Eagles 05/20/27
Hugh McElhenny 1952 S.F. 49ers 12/31/28
John Henry Johnson 1954 S.F. 49ers 11/24/29

The calendar keeps marching on. I wrote about the dillema this poses in my book and in a blog posting on AAFC oral histories. The players from the 1920s and 1930s are mostly gone, and the number of pro football players from the 1940s and 1950s who are still around is diminishing every week.