This story originally aired on Dec. 16, 2018. This week it appears again as part of our “Sticky Wickets” episode.
Twenty-three years ago, sports writer Dan Daly flew to Dallas and started driving west on Highway 20 toward a part of Texas called the Big Empty.
He was searching for 81-year-old Sammy Baugh.
It had been decades since Baugh retired from the NFL as the all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns — and he hadn’t been seen outside of Texas in years.
“I’ve got my directions scribbled down on a sheet of paper,” Daly recalls. “And I’m praying to god they’re right. Because some of them sound really, really bizarre, like, ‘Take a left at State Route 580,’ and I’m thinking, ‘What if there’s no sign? What if I just drive forever and end up in Nebraska or something?’ “
Eventually, Daly turned down a dirt driveway. All around him, it was flat as far as the eye could see. The driveway led to a little white house.
“I was surprised how small a place it was,” Daly says. “I knocked on the door. No one came to the door. So I go around to the other side of the house to see if there’s a window I could look in to see if there’s anybody there. And I see this glow behind the drapes. It’s clear that somebody’s watching television. So I knock on the window, and the drapes spread, and there’s this big guy.”
It was Sammy Baugh. He came to the door.
And for the next five hours, the two men talked. Daly recorded the conversation.
Until Daly shared his mini cassettes with me last year, no one else had ever heard the recording.
For most of the five hours, Baugh laughs and tells stories about his time in the NFL — occasionally pausing to comment on the college football game on the TV, and more than occasionally pausing to spit:
“He had this gigantic plastic cup with a handle on it — the kind that you get if you’re buying, like, a Double Gulp,” Daly recalls. “And he used it as a spittoon because he was a tobacco chewer. And every minute or so he’d lean over and grab the handle and spit into the cup.”
And then there was Baugh’s language — profane, but not unfriendly.
“He didn’t have that social filter that many of us have,” Daly says. “It tells you that he probably wasn’t used to being interviewed all that much. That was part of what was going through my mind — just how isolated he was.”
Sammy Baugh — the greatest quarterback of his generation; the guy who helped make the NFL the forward pass-obsessed league that it is today — had become a reclusive cowboy.
From Third Baseman To NFL Prospect
Baugh grew up in a small Texas town. He was far more interested in playing sports than riding horses. He didn’t have anything to do with ranching.
Baugh was a decent high school football player, but his No. 1 sport was baseball. He played third base and had a great arm.
In 1933, Baugh joined the baseball and football teams at Texas Christian University. He expected to play third base and punt for the football team. He’d always been good at that.
Most college teams from the East and Midwest were still avoiding the forward pass, but Dutch Meyer — the football and baseball coach at TCU — loved it.
“Hell, we could throw the ball any time we wanted to,” Baugh told Daly. “And Dutch told us, ‘If you’ve got a reason for doing it, I’ll never second guess you.’ “
Soon Meyer figured out that his third baseman with the strong arm would actually make a darn good passer.