Imagine if Robert Griffin III said during his dazzling 2012 rookie season as Washington Redskins quarterback he was going to pursue a second career as a shortstop in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 2013.
Sammy Baugh, who awed the nation by making the passing attack an integral part of professional football during his rookie season in 1937, played shortstop in the Cardinals’ minor-league system in 1938.
Though he gave up the pursuit of a baseball career after one season and never played in a major-league game for the Cardinals, Baugh intrigued St. Louis general manager Branch Rickey, who was obsessed with the notion of transforming a high-caliber football player into a major-league baseball standout.
Rickey was convinced Baugh was the ideal prospect for such an experiment.
At Texas Christian University, Baugh was a two-time all-America quarterback and a hard-hitting third baseman. It was because of his throws from third base that a Texas sportswriter dubbed him “Slingin’ ” Sammy Baugh, a nickname that lasted throughout his NFL career.
Though selected by the Redskins in the first round of the 1937 NFL draft, Baugh signed with the Cardinals after leaving Texas Christian that spring, with the intention of beginning a professional baseball career in 1938.
During his rookie season with the 1937 Redskins, Baugh established an NFL record for completions (81) and led all quarterbacks in passing yards (1,127). In the NFL championship game against the Bears, Baugh passed for 335 yards, including touchdown tosses of 55, 78 and 33 yards, in the Redskins’ 28-21 victory.
Baugh’s passing increased the popularity of the NFL and was the catalyst for making the aerial attack a permanent part of offensive game plans. Bears coach George Halas called the rookie the greatest passer he’d ever seen.
Though he had developed into the starting quarterback for the 1937 NFL champions, Baugh was committed to reporting to the baseball Cardinals for spring training in 1938.
In its Nov. 18, 1937, edition, The Sporting News published a report from Sid Keener, sports editor of the St. Louis Star-Times, explaining why Rickey was so high on Baugh’s baseball potential. Wrote Keener:
The Cardinals executive is positively a crank on the subject. He cannot understand why a triple threat footballer _ a gridder who has mastered the art of passing, kicking and carrying the ball _ is unable to show equal ability on the baseball diamond. He does not subscribe to the general belief that the two sports are wide apart in athletic technique.
When Rickey received notice of Baugh’s baseball promise some time ago, the Cardinals official was in high glee. ‘Sign Baugh,’ was the message Rickey flashed to his staff of scouts and secret agents. Ray Dean, a baseball promoter of wide experience, made the successful snatch. Baugh accepted the club’s terms and will receive a thorough training under the direction of (Cardinals manager) Frankie Frisch next spring.
Rickey is determined to score on his hobby … Rickey is almost a fanatic on the subject. He believes Baugh will come through for him.
Baugh reported early to the Cardinals’ spring training camp. He soon impressed Frisch with his fielding and throwing. He also displayed raw power in batting practice. Frisch indicated he would open the regular season with Baugh as the starting third baseman.
Wrote Jeff Moshier of The Evening Independent: Frankie is convinced that Slingin’ Sammy is a ballplayer, destined to be one of the stars of the pastime.
“When Baugh came to camp, he was a better ballplayer than I was when I joined the Giants from Fordham,” Frisch said.
Henry McLemore of the British United Press wrote: When the National League season opens three weeks from now, Baugh will be at third for the Cardinals. That’s not a guess on my part either. That comes straight from Frankie Frisch … and is seconded by (outfielder) Joe Medwick.
“He’s a cinch to get the job,” Frisch said. “He can’t miss. And I’m just as surprised as you are. When he came to camp, I thought he was just a football player who could do us good only as a publicity gag.”
Said Medwick: “You can’t get one (ground ball) by him, even with a .44. And what an arm. No wonder he can whip that football around.”
As spring training progressed, Frisch had a change of heart. The 1938 Cardinals opened the season with Pepper Martin at third and Don Gutteridge at shortstop.
When camp broke, Baugh, 24, was sent to Columbus of the American Association.
Wrote the Associated Press: Baugh showed much promise with the Cardinals this spring and at one time appeared to have the inside track on the third base job. Frankie Frisch … has requested that Baugh be used at shortstop by Columbus.
In 16 games at shortstop for Columbus manager Burt Shotton, Baugh batted .220 and committed six errors (.928 fielding percentage). In mid-May, Columbus returned Baugh to the Cardinals.
The Cardinals sent him to Rochester of the International League. It was there that the standout quarterback met a standout shortstop, Marty Marion.
Marion, who would receive the 1944 National League Most Valuable Player Award and would start at shortstop on four Cardinals pennant winners, played 108 games at shortstop for manager Ray Blades at Rochester. He hit .249 with 15 doubles and had a fielding percentage of .967 (14 errors).
Baugh got into 30 games at shortstop for Rochester. He hit .183 and committed five errors (.943 fielding percentage).
Convinced he never would supplant Marion and that his future was with football, Baugh returned fulltime to the Redskins for the 1938 NFL season. He went on to lead the NFL in passing six times. In a 1947 game against the Chicago Cardinals, Baugh threw six touchdown passes.
In 1963, Baugh was inducted as a member of the inaugural class to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio _ a mere 120 miles from where he made his professional baseball debut with the Columbus Red Birds 25 years earlier.
Previously: How Marty Marion won MVP Award by one point