Bobby Layne gave up the diamond for the gridiron

Bobby Layne threw many touchdown passes in Briggs Stadium, but he could have been a pitcher in that ballpark had he made a different decision to pursue baseball.

Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne threw many touchdown passes at Briggs Stadium in Detroit for the Lions, but he could have been a pitcher in that ballpark had he made a different decision to pursue baseball.

As a quarterback, Bobby Layne could really wing it—a fact borne out by his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible.

But “Sweet Bobby,” a nickname given to him by some of his Detroit Lions teammates of the 1950s, could also “bring it” as a pitcher. In fact, the same rifling right arm that was responsible for what was then a record number of passing yards and touchdown passes when he left the National Football League in 1962 made him almost virtually untouchable as a collegiate pitcher.

It’s generally forgotten that Layne, who’d pitched his American Legion team to the Texas state title in 1943, entered the University of Texas the following year on a baseball scholarship. “When I went to Texas all I wanted to do at first was play baseball,” Layne once recalled. The game was his first love, more fun than either basketball or football, two other sports in which he had excelled at Highland Park High School in Dallas.

Layne was a four-year starter at the University of Texas. As a sophomore he threw two no-hitters and set a Southwest Conference strikeout record that stood 30 years. Overall he compiled a 39-7 record, which included a record 28-game winning streak in Southwest Conference play. One of his few losses was in a qualifying tournament at the end of the 1947 season to see which team would go on to the inaugural College World Series. Texas lost to California, with Jackie Jensen outpitching Layne. California then beat Yale for the championship.

As good as he was on the diamond, Layne was a much bigger star in football at Texas. He rewrote the Longhorns’ record book, was a consensus All-American, and led Texas to a Cotton Bowl victory in his final game.

Along the way, his zest for pitching faded, and he didn’t have the bat to be a position player. “I loved to hit,” he said, “but I was never too good at it. Before a game a bunch of pitchers would go out and lob the ball to each other and we’d knock the stuffings out of it and have a big time. Now that was a lot of fun.”

Thus, when the pros came calling upon Layne’s graduation in 1948, it wasn’t the major leagues. It was the NFL and its rival, the All-American Football Conference, who were after the 21-year-old’s services. He signed with the Chicago Bears, but there was still some unfinished business before reporting to camp later that summer.

Layne signed a contract to pitch for the Lubbock Hubbers, the defending champions of the West Texas-New Mexico League (Class C). “The only reason I did that,” he explained later, “was that some sportswriter said I couldn’t compete with the pros so that my record at Texas wasn’t that big a deal. So I just wanted to go out and show I could do it.”

Curiously, the Lubbock Hubbers had just ended their affiliation with the Detroit Tigers, though they continued to be managed by everyday second baseman Jackie Sullivan, whose sole major-league appearance had been a 1944 game with the Tigers.

Layne wasn’t nearly as overpowering in his only stint as a professional ballplayer, though he had his moments. One was a five-hit shutout of the Clovis Pioneers. Layne wound up with a 6-5 record in 12 games. In 84 innings he gave up 101 hits and 55 walks. All that traffic on the bases accounted for a 7.29 ERA.

By the time Layne left Lubbock for the Bears’ camp, he was learning to mix in a few change-ups and curves with his fastball. But he’d made up his mind to say goodbye to baseball. “I hated those all-night bus rides,” he said. “That just wasn’t the life for me.”

After spending his first NFL season as a backup, Layne was traded to the lowly New York Bulldogs, who in turn traded him to the Lions before the 1950 season. That’s where the legend of Bobby Layne the swashbuckling quarterback began.

Once, years later, Bobby took his wife Carol to Candlestick Park to watch the San Francisco Giants work out. Aware of how much her husband was enjoying himself, she asked him if he ever regretted not sticking with baseball.

Bobby took a long time replying. “Sometimes, Carol,” he said. “Sometimes.”