In an era before football specialization, Sam Baker was a specialist.
In 1956, Les Richter was a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams, Lou Groza a Pro Bowl offensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns and George Blanda a quarterback with the Chicago Bears. They also handled the placekicking chores for their respective teams.
That was in an era of 33-player rosters when NFL teams could not and would not devote a spot to any such kicking “specialists.” So position players needed to double up on their workload. But the Washington Redskins did devote a roster spot to Sam Baker to handle both their punting and kicking chores.
Baker was a pioneer – a player whose foot made him as valuable to his NFL team as any ability to run block, catch or tackle. He spent 14 seasons handling the placekicking and punting chores for four NFL teams, scoring 977 points and averaging 42.6 yards per punt.
But the role Baker, Ben Agajanian, Tommy Davis and Danny Villanueva played at the front end of kicking specialization has been lost in the pages of history. Canton has not shown any love for the original “specialists.”
Baker was a fullback in college who left Oregon State as the school’s all-time leading rusher. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1952 as a future, then the Washington Redskins traded for his rights when he finally became eligible to play in 1953. Baker spent his rookie season as a backup, rushing 17 times and scoring his first NFL a touchdown on a 32-yard against Baltimore. He also filled in as the team’s punter for four games when quarterback Eddie LeBaron was out with an injury.
But Baker spent the 1954 and 1955 seasons in the military, then returned to the Redskins for the 1956 season. An automobile accident during training camp ended the career of Vic Janowicz, who was Washington’s starting halfback and placekicker. So Baker inherited his kicking chores. Then another early season injury to LeBaron put the punting chores in the hands of Baker as well.
Baker led the NFL with 17 field goals in 1956 and led the league in scoring with 77 points in 1957. He then led the NFL in punting with a 45.4-yard average in 1958. He followed that up with a career-best 45.5-yard average in 1959.
Baker was traded to the Browns in 1960 to replace the retiring Groza. He spent two seasons in Cleveland and two more with the expansion Dallas Cowboys before being traded to Philadelphia in 1964. He led the NFL in conversion kicks with both Cleveland (44 in 1960) and Dallas (50 in 1962). He also set a franchise record for the Cowboys with his 45.4-yard punting average in 1962 – a record that would stand for 44 years.
Even into the 1960s, NFL teams were reluctant to carry kicking specialists on their rosters. Hall of Famers Paul Hornung, Jerry Kramer, Yale Lary and Jackie Smith were all handling either placekicking or punting chores, as were Pro Bowlers Gary Collins, Boyd Dowler, Pat Studstill and Wayne Walker.
But as the roster size increased in the 1960s, more and more kicking specialists started turning up. Jim Bakken, Fred Cox and Bruce Gossett joined Baker and Davis as placekickers and Bobby Joe Green, David Lee, Billy Lothridge, and Bobby Walden joined them as punters. Then came the wave of soccer-style kickers – Pete Gogolak, Jan Stenerud and Garo Yepremian – and these specialists were no longer viewed as luxuries, but rather as necessities.
And the pioneers were forgotten.
Sam Baker went to four Pro Bowls. That’s one more than Adam Vinatieri, the NFL’s second all-time leading scorer. Baker was held in high regard during his era. He deserves to be more than just a footnote in the NFL history book.