Although professional football has been intensively souped up since his time, Slingin' Sammy Baugh's name still appears in the record book in more than a dozen places. Starting in 1937, he lasted 16 years (only one less than Lou Groza, who owed some of his record longevity to being a placekicking specialist) and is held by many to have been the finest passer of his or any other time. In one season (1945) he completed 70.3% of his passes. In addition, his leg was as potent as his arm; he holds almost every punting record in the book. But above all, he gave to pro football a radical concept that he had learned from his college coach at Texas Christian, Dutch Meyer—namely, that the forward pass could be more than just a surprise weapon or a desperation tactic. Sammy Baugh made the pass a routine scrimmage play.
On a vast plain in West Texas, an hour north of Sweetwater, Baugh lives at the foot of Double Mountain, which in the dusk of late winter wears a grayish cast, rising out of the flatland like two great mounds orphaned from an alien topography. The ranch house, comfortable but inexpensively furnished, belies Bough's substantial holdings, for he now runs his cattle on 25,000 acres. He came to the door wearing blue jeans and a Western-style shirt of country-store quality. There was a Gary Cooper flavor to his appearance. Six feet two and rawboned, he was a leathery man with hips that were remarkably lean. At 55 he weighed only 170 pounds—at least five pounds under his football weight. His hands were immense and obviously powerful. But incongruously—and perhaps this was partly because he wore bedroom slippers—he walked with the sort of swishing gait associated with chorus boys. In the mind's eye, one again could see him dropping back to pass, his legs jiggling comically as though controlled by marionette strings. Baugh seated himself on the living-room sofa and placed a large mug on the coffee table in front of him, from time to time raising the mug to his face and shooting a squirt of tobacco into it. His language was direct, yet somehow not the least harsh or bellicose. On the contrary, he seemed a gentle man, almost diffident, and he spoke in a barely audible voice, although now and then, when a thought struck him funny, his voice would rise, his face would fold into a hundred merry wrinkles and his mouth would be parted by an almost toothless guffaw.
The thing that hurt when I first came into pro football in 1937, and it hurt all the boys that threw the ball, was that the rules didn't give any protection to passers. Those linemen could hit the passer until the whistle blew. If you completed a pass out there and somebody's running 50 yards with the ball, well, that bunch could still hit you. In other words, a passer had to learn to throw and move. You would never see him just throw and stand there looking. You had to throw and start protecting yourself, because those linemen were going to lay you flatter than the ground every time.
If you were a good ballplayer—a passer or whatever—they tried to hurt you and get you out of there. I believe they did that more so than today. We had only 22 or 23 men on a squad, and your ballplayers were playing both ways—offense and defense—so if you lost two good ones, you were dead. Well, every now and then they'd run what they called a "bootsie" play, and everybody'd hit one man and just try to tear him to pieces. The object was to get him out of there. I don't mean they ran this kind of play very often, but if they came up against a guy that was giving them a lot of trouble, along would come the bootsie.
Like I said, the passers never could relax after they threw the ball. Nowadays, if a guy is not already in the act of hitting you when that ball goes in the air, he's not allowed to hit you. But back there when I started in pro ball, it was just like a boxing match—you were dodging and ducking and hitting. "Put that passer on the ground," was a cardinal rule all through the league.
My first year with the Redskins, George Marshall told me, "If we don't get some kind of a rule in, all the passers are gonna get killed." The first game of my second year, I went down under a pile and got a shoulder knocked out—a separation. I guess it was my third year, 1939, that we finally got the rule protecting the passer.
Another thing that helped men like me was the T formation. I had played seven years of tailback in the single wing and it about killed me; blocking on the end, carrying the ball a few times, stuff like that. I weighed only 175 or maybe 178. After every game my shoulder would ache. Still, when Mr. Marshall decided to go to the T formation in 1944, I didn't like it at all. Marshall brought in Clark Shaughnessy to teach us the T, and that year we were the most uncomfortable ball club you ever saw. The blocking was all different. In the single wing you had a lot of double-teaming and stuff like that, but in the T you had single blocking—man-on-man blocking. And taking that ball from center, handing it to somebody, faking it some—that was very uncomfortable for me. Shaughnessy had been with the Bears, and he told me that when he started teaching the T to Sid Luckman, Sid actually cried over the thing. It was hard for him, but he developed into a real good T quarterback. So Shaughnessy told me, "Don't worry about it—it'll come to you gradually and you'll love it under there." Sure enough, after about half the season was gone I wouldn't have gone back to the single wing for anything.
Pro football was changing by then. Back in the '30s it was more of a defensive game. In other words, when you picked your starters, they usually had to be good on defense first. Take the New York Giants. They had such a good defensive ball club that they wouldn't mind punting to you on third down from practically anywhere. They'd kick the ball to you 'cause they didn't think you were ever going to move it.
Not that I disapproved of kicking. When I was a boy in Sweetwater, I used to practice more kicking than I did throwing, really. Punting was a very important thing then. But we kicked different than they do now. We were taught to kick out of bounds all the time. If you didn't the safety man would run the ball back down your throat. The reason was your offensive line couldn't cover a punt like it does today. We had that short punt formation where you kicked from only nine yards back, so your boys didn't release till they heard the thud of the ball. Today, with the deep punt formation, the center throws the ball back and everybody hits and goes. Well, in the summertime I used to go up on the football field by myself and kick for hours. I'd kick at those sidelines and then run down and get the ball and kick it back. And especially after I got to TCU. I got where I could kick the ball out of bounds inside the five- or the 10-yard line pretty good.
I had played baseball all my life, and that's what I wanted to be in the beginning—a professional baseball player. A fellow I played semipro ball with was going to get me a baseball scholarship to Washington State University, but I hurt my knee about a month afore I was supposed to go. I was sliding into second base and caught a spike and tore up the cartilage. Well, if it'd happened today they'd operate, but back in those days they didn't know much about knees. The doctor told me to use a mudpack. I put a mudpack with vinegar on my knee. But I couldn't straighten it out, and the scholarship to Washington State fell through.