Morris “Red” Badgro, the man who scored the first touchdown in an NFL Championship Game, played in the major leagues and semi-pro basketball, and was once considered the greatest athlete the Northwest has produced, had been forgotten. Not anymore.
In 1933, his signing with the Seattle Indians baseball team was the banner headline in The Seattle Times.
In 1981, his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame merited two lines.
Morris “Red” Badgro, the man who scored the first touchdown in an NFL Championship Game, played in the major leagues and semi-pro basketball, and was once considered the greatest athlete the Northwest has produced, had been forgotten.
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And still is.
But that wouldn’t have bothered Badgro, who grew up in Orillia, a former town located near where the Southcenter mall is now located, and who spent the last six decades of his life in Kent.
“He hated publicity,” said his great nephew, Morris Westlund, who lives in Lake Oswego, Ore., and was named after Badgro. “That Hall of Fame speech just about killed him.”
That was Red Badgro. When Westlund was a kid, he never knew about the athletic exploits of his great uncle, who died in 1998 at 95. He was just Uncle Badge, who loved tending to his garden at his home in Kent.
“I never could get Red to keep a scrapbook,” said Red’s wife, Dorothea, to The Seattle Times in 1978. The couple was married for 63 years before his beloved “Dode” died in 1993.
It would have been a very thick book.
On Aug. 4, a new class will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When Badgro went in, it was the biggest honor of his life. If only he hadn’t had to give a speech.
Mel Hein, the legendary WSU Cougar and fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer, introduced Badgro at the induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio, in 1981. He knew his friend’s angst.
“Now we will have Red Badgro, if he doesn’t faint before he gets up here,” Hein said.
Somehow, Badgro got through that moment just fine, and at age 78 he was, and still is, the oldest person ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But if that defining moment is all you know about Red Badgro, then you really don’t know him at all.
It is time to meet a forgotten star.
• • •
If the cows weren’t milked and the chickens weren’t fed out the valley way, blame it on Mrs. Badgro’s boy Morris. Morris, or Red as the boys around the orchard called him, stepped up to the platter yesterday afternoon at the Civic Stadium, rapped a double to left field and broke up the ball game. — The Daily Seattle Times in 1933, after Badgro’s double in the bottom of the ninth inning gave the Seattle Indians a victory.
It seems fitting that a man whose accomplishments have been forgotten was born in a town that no longer exists.
He was born in 1903 in Orillia, growing up there on his family farm. Located between Kent, Tukwila and Renton, it once had a schoolhouse and a post office. Now, the only reminder is Orillia Road, and you can get there off exit 152 on Interstate 5.
He became known as Red because of the color of his hair, and he became known around the area for his athletic prowess, his strength boosted by his childhood chores.
“Red built his body and his strength working on his family’s farm,” Hein said during Badgro’s induction. “He did a man’s work when he was a very young boy. Fishing and hunting were his hobbies. He helped build up his speed and endurance by running up the state of Washington. … You know they have plenty of mountains there.”
Badgro, who was 6 feet and 191 pounds, was a basketball and baseball star in high school, but according to Hein, Badgro played in only three football games because the team had to be disbanded due to a lack of players.
“When he graduated from high school, he wanted to go to college, but no scholarships were offered,” Hein said in Canton in 1981. “So he worked for a year for the Ford Motor Co. in Seattle.”
What Badgro needed was a big break, and he got one while in a basketball league during the year he worked for Ford. A scout from USC happened to watch him play, and the scout told the coach the Trojans needed to offer this kid a scholarship.
Badgro, however, was not content playing just basketball. He watched the first day of freshman football practice, and as Hein put it, “he cornered the freshman football coach and asked if he could have a uniform to try out.”
“The coach said, ‘Well who are you, how many games have you played, and where are you from?’ ” Hein said. “Red said I went to Kent, and played three football games. The coach said, ‘Well, I hate to disappoint you, but we have 120 all-city, all-county and all-state football players trying to make this freshman team.’ ”
But Badgro was persistent. He talked the coach into giving him a uniform. By the fourth game, he was a starting end on the freshman team and by the time he left USC, he was an All-American.
Playing football didn’t stop him from also being an all-coast basketball player and captain of the team, and he was a star outfielder on the baseball team. He lettered in all three sports each of his four years at USC.
During the summers, Badgro worked as an extra in movies, and according to reports, he would often do this with a USC football teammate of his named Marion Morrison, who later became much better known by his screen name, John Wayne.
But despite the great career at USC, to become an eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer Badgro would need some good fortune. Let him tell you the story, which he told during his induction ceremony:
“Well, we all know you have to have a lucky break somewhere along in your life, and I think this was one of mine. Just as I was going back to school in my senior year in 1927, I was entering my fraternity house and out rushed Roy Baker, who had played with Red Grange and C.C. Piles, New York Giants the year before.
“He stopped me and said by chance, ‘Red, do you want to play pro football? Well, I kind of hesitated and said, ‘Sure, I will take a shot at it.’ … Now just think, if I would have been one minute later and had not have met Baker coming out of the fraternity house, I would have never played pro football and missed being here today, the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my life.”
• • •
“I received $150 a game. Now I thought that was great. I see a lot of people smiling here, but that was a lot of money – I was glad to get it and I’m telling you it was a really great feeling because … if any of you remember the big Depression, we could buy a hot dog for five cents and a hamburger for 10 cents. I paid three dollars for a hamburger yesterday.” — Badgro, speaking about his pro football salary during his 1981 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Badgro played with Grange on the New York Yankees football team in 1927, but the team disbanded after one game in 1928.
That gave Badgro a chance to focus on baseball, and by 1929, he was in the major leagues with the St. Louis Browns, playing the sport that he later said was his true love.
In two seasons with the Browns, he hit .257 with 30 doubles and two home runs in 422 at-bats.
During the 1930 baseball season, when Badgro was demoted to the minor league, football legend Steve Owens persuaded him to join the New York Giants in the NFL. He became one of the best players in the early NFL, when players played both offense and defense.
Grange once told the New York Times that Badgro, a big-play receiver, was “one of the best half-dozen ends I ever saw.”
Badgro was an all-pro for four seasons during an era in which teams threw much less. In 1934, he led the NFL with 16 receptions, for 206 yards.
But during the first NFL title game in 1933, Badgro had his most notable achievement and one of his greatest disappointments.
Badgro and his Giants were playing the Chicago Bears, led by Grange, Badgro’s former teammate.
Did you know?
• Red Badgro is one of three players born in Washington in the Pro Football Hall of Fame along with John Elway (Port Angeles) and Ray Flaherty (Spokane).
• Badgro is one of seven members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to also play in the major leagues.
• Was an extra in movies while going to USC, and was sometimes joined by teammate Marion Morrison, who is better known as John Wayne.
• Scored the first touchdown in an NFL Championship Game.
• Lettered in football, basketball and baseball for four years at USC after not getting offered a scholarship out of high school.
• He was 78 when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the oldest person to be inducted.
Chicago took a 6-0 lead on a pair of field goals, but the Giants responded when Badgro caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from Harry Newman to not only give his team a 7-6 lead but also make him the answer to the trivia question, “Who scored the first touchdown in an NFL championship game?”
Later, he had a chance to score the winning touchdown.
It was the last play of the game and Chicago was ahead 23-21. Badgro caught a pass with only Grange between himself and the goal line. One option was to lateral to a teammate, but he never got the chance.
“Grange’s arms were around the ball,” Badgro told a researcher from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994, “and I couldn’t get rid of it. If I get by him, we win the game. I wish I had the ball again.”
Badgro played football through the 1936 season, but for him, one sport was never enough.
He played baseball for Wichita in the Texas League in 1931 and 1932 before joining the Seattle Indians in 1933. He played with the Indians for about half the season before he was released in a cost-cutting move.
During the winters, he played basketball for the Telephone Company in Seattle’s Commercial League.
“He once told me he went from one sport to the next to put food on the table,” Westlund, his great nephew, said. “It was not to buy that next Rolls Royce, but to pay the rent.”
But if baseball was his first love, football was where Badgro had his most success. Wellington Mara, owner of the New York Giants from 1959 until his death in 2005, was a young man when Badgro was playing, helping his father, Tim, who owned the team.
Mara said this to the New York Times about Badgro: “Red Badgro was a rugged, fierce competitor, and a 190-pound defensive end was pretty big in those days. He was a very mild-mannered guy, but murder on the field. He was a clean player. You had to be because there were only three or four officials and the other guy could get back at you without the officials catching on.
“In those days, players had to supply their own shoes, just as in baseball then. He didn’t have money to buy extra football shoes, so he worked out in baseball spikes. Everyone gave him a lot of room so he wouldn’t step on their toes. When we had a scrimmage, he had to change his shoes.’’
• • •
“When that was all over the greatest thing to me was to graduate from college. I went back to USC and got my degree and started coaching.” — Badgro at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony, on life after his playing days.
In 1938, Badgro became football coach for a year at Ventura Junior College in Southern California before going to Columbia University in New York to coach the ends. He returned to Seattle in the summers, playing in the Commercial Basketball League and working at a betting window at Longacres in Renton.
In 1946, he got a job coaching ends (offense and defense) at the University of Washington, keeping his job through three coaches, and then also becoming the baseball coach after the 1953 season. But in January 1954, before coaching a single UW baseball game, Badgro resigned his football and baseball positions to become an inspector with the Department of Agriculture.
Living out of the spotlight for his final four-plus decades, except for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and having played long before the TV era – much less the internet age – Badgro’s great accomplishments have largely been lost.
He became just “Uncle Badge” and not an athletic star. He and Dode never had children, but were extremely close to their niece Dorothy and her children, including Morris.
“My real grandfather died when I was like 2,” Morris Westlund said. “And (Badgro) and his wife were technically my godparents, or grandfather and grandmother, and I saw them a lot. My mom and dad used to drop me off at their house, in diapers, and they would watch me for like a month or so while Mom and Dad went up to the San Juan Islands because my Dad used to own Decatur Island up there.”
Westlund said Red and Dode spent about 40 Christmases with his family. He now wishes he’d had more appreciation then for what his great uncle accomplished.
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“I was more into baseball, and we’d throw a ball back and forth,” Westlund said. “He gave me an old football, which I didn’t appreciate at all. I lost it over the years. It was a crying shame. I look back on it, that I didn’t know what a gem … you never know what you have around you until they’re not there anymore.”
Badgro certainly was not going to boast about his accomplishments, being much too reserved and shy. But when Hein started publicly lobbying in the late 1970s to get his buddy into the Hall of Fame, the secret was out.
But after getting the biggest honor of his life in 1981 with his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction, he went back to his quiet life with his wife, enjoying fishing, hunting and tending to his garden.
Dode died at 89 in 1993.
“She was his life; everything in the world was around Dode,” Westlund said. “When she passed on, as it happens with a lot of people, he didn’t last that long afterwards.”
Five years later, while living by himself, Badgro fell and hit his head and could not get up for several hours. Westlund heard about it, drove to Kent and took Badgro to the hospital. A few hours later, with Westlund at his side, Badgro died.
“He lived a full life,” Westlund said. “He had all his marbles until he died.”
Dode and Red are together forever, buried next to each other at Hillcrest Burial Park in Kent. On their combined grave marker, under the name Morris “Red” Badgro it reads: “National Football League Hall of Fame 1981; Washington Sports Hall of Fame 1967.”
Why those accomplishments somehow faded over the years is worthy of discussion.
Not that Red would have been involved in one. He was much too busy with his garden and just being Uncle Badge.
He wouldn’t even keep a scrapbook.
That was Red.