Eddie LeBaron is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever wear the burgundy and gold. He threw for 8,068 yards and made the Pro Bowl three times in seven seasons as a Redskin in the 1950s.
His feats were all the more amazing because he accomplished them playing with a frame of 5-7, 165 pounds, diminutive even for that day. His array of nicknames included the “Little General,” the “Little Magician,” the “Little Baron” and simply “Li’l Eddie.”
Along the way, LeBaron had a major hand in the greatest upset in Redskins history, a 27-24 win over the Baltimore Colts at D.C.’s Griffith Stadium on Nov. 8, 1959. LeBaron completed 16 of 32 passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns, kept the offense moving when the Colts managed to even the score and made up for a rushing game that produced only 54 yards.
Why was the victory so monumental?
The 2-4 Redskins, having dropped three straight games, were playing the 4-2 Baltimore Colts, the defending NFL champions and 10-point favorites. The Redskins had no future Hall of Fame inductees to six for the Colts, most notably quarterback Johnny Unitas, who had thrown for touchdowns in a record 31 straight games, a mark that would reach 47 when it ended in 1960. Johnny U had also passed for 17 scores in six games that season, a record pace at the time.
Before a near-sellout crowd of 33,000 at Griffith, Baltimore took a 3-0 lead in the first period. But LeBaron, who had thrown only two touchdowns up to that game, connected with Joe Walton on a 19-yard scoring pass for a 7-3 game. A field goal by Sam “Sugarfoot” Baker put the Redskins up by a touchdown in the third period, but Unitas threw a scoring pass to Jim Mutscheller to tie the game.
The score remained 10-10 until the teams exploded for 31 points in the fourth quarter. LeBaron’s 17-yard scoring throw to Bill Anderson, another Unitas touchdown pass to Mutscheller, and Ed Sutton’s 22-yard option toss to Walton following a nifty fake by LeBaron left the Redskins leading, 24-17.
Baltimore tied the game on Lenny Moore’s option pass to Jerry Richardson and forced the Redskins to punt with time running out. But Unitas, the man credited for inventing the two-minute drill, threw a pass that safety Dick James deflected and defensive end Tom Braatz intercepted and returned to the Colts’ 38. With 12 seconds left, Baker kicked a 46-yard field goal that sent the fans into delirium as they celebrated the seismic upset.
As soon as the game ended, an ecstatic LeBaron ran across the field toward the dugout. But a fan running full speed and not looking where he was going collided with the Redskins’ leader and briefly knocked him out.
Vice President Richard Nixon, a diehard Redskin fan who attended the game, bolted to the Redskins’ locker room to congratulate the players, owner George Preston Marshall and another Nixon, Redskins coach Mike Nixon.
“I have never seen a game to surpass this one,” the vice president said. One newspaper headline read, “Redskins’ Victory Tremendous; Performance One of Best Ever.”
“I remember the game pretty well,” LeBaron, one of the 80 Greatest Redskins, said in a recent interview. “It was in the old stadium. I got a nice letter the next day from Vice President Nixon about the fact that we did so good. We should have played like that most of the rest of the season, but we didn’t.”
The Redskins came up way short of their performance against the Colts. They lost their last five games and finished 3-9 for the third time in the 1950s with a team that may have been the worst of the three. The 1959 squad scored the fewest points in the NFL, 185, and allowed a league-high 350. The Colts, meanwhile, won their second straight NFL championship. But at least for one day, LeBaron helped the Redskins gain some dignity.
LeBaron retired after the 1959 season. But the expansion Dallas Cowboys coaxed him out of retirement and made a trade with the Redskins to acquire his rights. He made the Pro Bowl once as a Cowboy. Overall, he threw for 13,399 yards and 104 touchdowns in his 11-year career.
Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. He also hosts a TV show called “Burgundy & Gold Magazine.” His web site is www.redskinshistorian.com and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.