Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve Its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere
Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
Throughout the years, pro football has become one of the most marketable sports in the world. Advertising and promotions are a large source of revenue for the National Football League and its 32 clubs. That being said, it makes perfect sense that when a franchise wants to honor a great longtime player or coach for their services, that a local company steps up and sponsors the celebration.
Commonplace in the 1940s, ‘50s and early ‘60s was for local auto dealers to provide cars to star players. The football greats would be showered with a variety of gifts as well as have their pictures splashed across the game’s program cover. For three Hall of Famers – Sammy Baugh, Jack Butler and Alphonse “Tuffy” Leemans – being honored with their own special day had both memorable highlights and a few subsequent low points to follow.
“Sammy Baugh Day” occurred on November 23, 1947 when the Washington Touchdown Club honored the legendary quarterback with a brand new 1948 Packard station wagon during a ceremony before the Washington Redskins game against the Chicago Cardinals at Griffith Stadium. "Slingin’ Sammy accepted the $3,000 gift and then proceeded to put on a performance that justified the pre-game tribute. He completed 25 of 33 passes for 355 yards, tossed a record-tying six touchdown passes and led his team to a commanding 45-21 victory during that unforgettable day.
Four days later, Baugh was driving his shiny new vehicle home from a celebrity appearance in Philadelphia. Baugh crashed into a culvert near College Park, Maryland when he tried to avoid a car that had swerved into his lane. Baugh was shaken up and suffered a cut on his forehead and knee, but was otherwise uninjured and didn’t miss any action on the football field. His car didn’t fare as well when it suffered significant damages to both passenger side doors and the rear fender that required several hundred dollars in repairs.
Although Baugh wrecked the automobile he was given, he at least got to drive away in his gift. The same wasn’t true for Butler during his final season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Class of 2012 Hall of Fame great was honored with a “Jack Butler Day” by a local promoter during a game against the New York Giants on October 25, 1959 at Forbes Field. Butler was presented with a car at halftime but since he had a second half to play, the promoter took the keys and the car back for safe keeping.
Coming out of the locker room the Steelers trailed 14-10, but surged to within one point on a third quarter field goal by Hall of Famer Bobby Layne. The game, however, was put on ice by another Hall of Famer when Giants’ linebacker Sam Huff recovered a Pittsburgh fumble in the fourth quarter and returned it for the game-winning score. As if losing wasn’t bad enough for Butler, imagine his shock when after the game he learned that there were no keys or car waiting for him to drive home. The car presentation at halftime had been all for show and he never saw the car again.
For Leemans things had started well on “Tuffy Leemans Day.” A crowd of 55,051 showed up to honor the halfback/fullback at the Polo Grounds in New York as his Giants took on the crosstown rival Brooklyn Dodgers on December 7, 1941. The Giants’ star was presented with a $1,500 defense bond, a silver tray and a watch during a 10-minute presentation before kickoff. “Tuffy” then delivered a sincere speech in which he thanked all the fans in attendance, everyone who presented him with gifts, and praised his teammates and all associated with the Giants organization.
The celebration ended and things went downhill once the game began. The Dodgers handed the Giants a one-sided 21-7 defeat and Leemans only managed to gain a meager 18 yards rushing. To taint “Tuffy Leemans Day” further it was noticeable throughout the game that the stadium’s public address announcer was continually paging military personnel to contact their offices. Immediately following the game there was a mad scramble to get all men from the Army and Navy out of the stadium and report to their stations. It was at that point that everyone at the venue was made aware that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States was under attack. Unfortunately for Leemans his “day” wasn’t only ruined on the field but is forever marred by being associated with one of the darkest days in U.S. history.