The passing of football great Slingin’ Sammy Baugh just before Christmas saddened Washington Redskins fans and those old-schoolers who love the leather-helmet football era. But the legendary Slinger’s death at age 94 also left fans with yet another empty hook to hang their collecting hats.
In recent years, we’ve seen all-time greats Ted Williams, Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham and George Mikan pass along, causing pause and reflection into our sports history consciousness. Baugh’s impact and importance to football history as the first great forward passer is undisputed. But in his latter years, even as he was incapacitated, he was at the peak of his modern collectibility.
“With Redskins fans, there’s no more revered player than Sammy Baugh,” says renowned Redskins collector Samu Qureshi of Washington, D.C. “He’s on a level all by himself, which is why his No. 33 is still the only one the team has ever retired. But in the past 10-15 years, there has been a greater interest in him and his materials. The reason is because of awareness. For the longest time he was out of the spotlight.”
In 1994, the NFL celebrated its 75th anniversary by naming Baugh, Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana as the quarterbacks on the all-time team. A documentary captured Baugh in a rollicking, hilarious segment shown on TBS that immediately catapulted him back into the limelight almost 30 years since he retired from coaching to his remote ranch in West Texas.
Collectors followed as 100-250 pieces of mail each week began to arrive at his sprawling ranch near Rotan. The mass climbed so high up one wall that it was generally a six-month wait to get items returned.
“Sometimes the damn stuff comes in here and it’s piled halfway up to the ceiling,” he said in 2000. “I don’t understand it, don’t understand it one damn bit. Anyone who’d ever remember me playing is dead. But I get all these nice letters and cards from people, wanting an autograph or a photo or to tell a story, and I figure they might not all be dead after all.”
Baugh revolutionized football at TCU in the mid-1930s, operating a precursor form of the West Coast offense by moving the ball through the air instead of the three-yards-and-cloud-of-dust running attack that was predominantly used at the time. Before Baugh, teams rarely passed more than eight times a game. But when TCU won a national championship in 1935, the modern passing era was born.
In 1937, Baugh went to the Washington Redskins and won the NFL championship with his passing. He became an immediate national celebrity and face of the struggling pro league. He would retire in 1952 as the league’s all-time passing and punting leader and owner of another championship in 1942. He was the last living member of the charter class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Donruss sat with him a couple of times for signings in the late-1990s that would supply the hobby to this day. There have been more than three dozen Baugh autograph and memorabilia cards since 2004. Two years ago the company acquired an extremely rare Baugh game-used jersey from the 1940s and turned swatches into memorabilia cards.
“We’ve included him in a lot of our programs, to the point that a lot of (young) people are now familiar with him,” said Scott Prusha, marketing director at Donruss.
Added Tuff Stuff‘s Sports Collectors Monthly’s football price guide editor Joe Clemens: “If you are a fan of vintage football and Redskins football, you can pick up one of Baugh’s autograph cards like the 2004 Donruss Classic Signature (No. 142) for $40. That’s a bargain for a guy who is one of the all-time great quarterbacks.”
The current Baugh card market has helped drive his autograph market. Baugh signed often before his health deteriorated in 2003. He signed almost anything fans, dealers and collectors put in front of him. A large find of his canceled checks has created a glut of cut sigs and cut autograph cards.
“It’s interesting how in 2000 you could hardly find anything of Baugh’s on eBay or at auctions, but now there’s no shortage of items,” Qureshi said. “His popularity seems to have grown the more the years went by.”