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Flashback: Redskins' First Season In D.C.

Posted Feb 10, 2012

The 1937 season established Sammy Baugh and the Redskins as champions -- and the talk of Washington, D.C., Redskins historian Michael Richman writes.


It was a time when Redskins-mania consumed the nation’s capital.

Democrats and Republicans alike bled burgundy and gold, and the fight song, “Hail to the Redskins,” became embedded in the city’s culture.

Anyone unable to speak intelligently on a Monday morning about a Redskin game, as Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich put it, was an “unbearable dolt.”

The NFL was in its formative years, and the Redskins stood out as giants.

From 1937, their inaugural year in Washington, until 1945, they amassed a magnificent 70-27-5 record. The nine-season span featured five NFL championship game appearances and two league titles.

Think of a blockbuster hit.

The Redskins picked a sensational way to debut in Washington after playing five seasons in Boston. After going 8-3 in 1937 to win the NFL Eastern Division, they upended the Chicago Bears in the championship game, 28-21.

To this day, the Redskins are one of only two teams in NFL history to capture a championship in the first season after relocating to another city. The Chicago Staleys won the title in 1921 after moving from Decatur, Ill. (They became the Bears in 1922.)

If a football player lacked a thick skin, literally and figuratively, Chicago’s Wrigley Field wasn’t the place to be in the championship game on Dec. 12, 1937.

The Redskins and Bears pounded each other in 15-degree temperatures on a frozen field draped with ice and snow. Although both teams wore rubber-soled basketball sneakers to combat the slippery surface, the brutal ground conditions left one player after another cut, bloodied, dazed and staggering.

One such player was Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh, who could barely walk near game’s end.

Even so, the rookie was nothing but spectacular. He completed 17 of 34 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns -- unfathomable numbers in those days -- and carried Washington to victory.

A headline in the Washington Evening Star read: “Baugh’s Bewildering Passes Put Redskins Atop Pro Grid World.”

“I never saw so much blood after a ball game in my life,” Baugh said years later. “Every time you hit the frozen ground, you landed on little pebbles, [and] you’d get scraped, and you’d be bleeding. It was a terrible day to play.

"Your footwork was bad. You’d try to turn, and you’d slide and couldn’t keep your balance very well on that icy ground. It was the worst game I ever played in terms of the conditions. They were bad.”

Washington’s win was all the more amazing given that the Bears had steamrolled over their 1937 opponents to clinch the Western Division with two games left, while the Redskins once appeared close to falling out of contention for the Eastern Division title.

The Bears’ offense revolved around a grind-it-out, power running game led by 6-2, 238-pound ironman fullback Bronko Nagurski and halfback Jack Manders, the NFL’s leading scorer with 69 points. Washington’s offense, by contrast, relied on versatility, quickness and speed.

The lead changed hands four times in the championship.

The Redskins struck early when running back Cliff Battles scored on a 7-yard reverse. Chicago responded with two touchdowns later in the first period. Bob Masterson passed 53 yards to Edgar “Eggs” Manske to help set up Manders’ 10-yard scoring run.

After Baugh threw an interception, Masterson tossed a 38-yard scoring pass to Manders, and Chicago led, 14-7.

Early in the second quarter, Baugh banged a knee and left the game. But the score hadn’t changed when he returned just after halftime to enthusiastic cheers from the 3,000 Redskins fans who braved the frigid temperatures.

Baugh didn’t disappoint the Redskins’ faithful.

He began picking Chicago’s defense apart, completing 7 of 9 passes with three touchdowns in what Evening Star sportswriter Francis Stann called “probably the greatest 15 minutes of play in history.”

Baugh found help on the receiving end from Wayne Millner, who caught nine balls for 179 yards and two touchdowns on the day, then the finest single-game receiving performance in NFL postseason history. (Four Redskins who played that day -- Baugh, Millner, Battles and lineman Turk Edwards -- later entered the Hall of Fame.)

Millner’s first score came after Baugh, using the screen pass invented by Redskins coach Ray Flaherty, found his favorite receiver in the flat. Millner raced into the end zone to complete a 55-yard play. Riley Smith converted for a 14-14 game.

Chicago drove 72 yards to regain the lead, 21-14. But seconds later, an off-balance Baugh whipped a pass 20 yards downfield to Millner, who again outran defenders and scored on a 78-yard play.

Smith’s extra point tied the game at 21 and, after the Redskins’ defense held, Baugh and company took possession on their 20.

Washington soon faced a fourth-and-inches at midfield.

Smith, the quarterback, disdained a punt and sent fullback Don Irwin on a plunge. In a collision of gladiators, Irwin met Nagurski head on and made a first down by an inch.

Two plays later, Baugh hit Ed Justice on a 35-yard scoring pass, and Smith converted for a 28-21 Redskins lead.

The Bears panicked in the final quarter, discarding their pet running game and throwing pass after pass with little luck. Frustration fomented, and Chicago’s 6-3, 210-pound Dick Plasman swung at Baugh’s face on the sidelines.

A wild melee erupted near Washington’s bench, and several Redskins took shots at Plasman. One bloodied his mouth and nose with a direct punch. As the Bears raced across the field, police and fans rushed to the scene and a riot began growing.

Redskins owner George Preston Marshall even left the stands to trade shots with his nemesis, Bears owner-coach George Halas. The altercation soon dissipated, and officials restored order.

When play resumed, the Redskins continued withstanding Chicago’s aerial attack. Smith intercepted a pass with about a minute left to seal the win.

Stann of The Evening Star described the Redskins’ fortitude as the clock wound down: “Ahead for the second time, they doggedly held this lead; tackles stepped into the breeches left by two injured guards, bruised and battered. Baugh was gone at the end, so was Erny Pinckert; Wayne Millner and Charley Malone were staggering as the final whistle sounded. But it was a case of they shall not pass.”


Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. He also hosts “Burgundy & Gold Flashback,” which airs on Sundays from 9:30-10 a.m. on Sports Talk 570: Powered by ESPN. His web site is www.redskinshistorian.com and his email is mikerichman@redskinshistorian.com.