Two Big Surprises: Longshot Makes It, a Sureshot Doesn’t : TERRY BAKER : He Seemed to Have It All and the Rams Went for It

Times Staff Writer

The Rams had the first choice in the 1963 National Football League draft, and it’s good to remember that had they used it to select anyone but Terry Baker they would have been vilified as fools.

The Oregon State quarterback was at the top of everyone’s draft list. It was the Rams’ lot, thanks to their 1-12-1 record in ‘62, to be first in line to take him and, as a consequence, suffer the second-guessers forevermore.

No quarterback had ever come out of college with better credentials than Terry Wayne Baker. A rival coach said: “He is the greatest college quarterback I’ve ever seen play.”


Baker swept the college football awards--Heisman, Maxwell and Pop Warner trophies--and was a unanimous All-American. In three seasons he passed and ran for 4,979 yards, at the time the second-highest total ever.

He led Oregon State to victory in the Liberty Bowl, scoring the game’s only touchdown on a 99-yard run, then, as a point guard averaging 17 points, led the Beaver basketball team as far as the NCAA semifinals. He carried a B-plus average in engineering.

The Rams signed him to an annual salary of $25,000 and gave him a $15,000 bonus.

“I thought I was wealthy,” Baker said.

Not only that, but before reporting to the Rams’ training camp, he led the College All-Stars to a 20-17 upset of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers--the last time the collegians beat the defending NFL champions before the series ended 13 years later.

The man was a giant killer. Terry Baker had everything. Almost.

Harland Svare was the Rams’ coach when Baker arrived, having succeeded the late Bob Waterfield in mid-season of ’62. Svare, now successfully selling real estate at Rancho Santa Fe, recalled that summer over the phone.

“Don Heinrich was my backfield coach,” Svare said. “When Terry came to camp two weeks late after the All-Star game, he was very impressive, barking out signals, whipping around and handing the ball off.

“Then we got (into) pass warm-ups, when most quarterbacks lob the ball. They don’t throw hard until they get into skeleton or seven-on-seven (drills), so he hadn’t thrown the ball hard.


“But after he’d been in camp a couple of weeks and the other guys had been throwing pretty hard, we started regular passing practice. He dropped back to throw and he’s still lobbing the ball around.

“I called Heinrich over and said, ‘Don, go tell Terry to put something on the ball.’

“He trots over and I see ‘em whispering to each other, then he trots back to me and says, ‘He is.’ ”

At that moment, Svare began to realize that Terry Baker had everything except an NFL arm. Somehow, that singular shortcoming had escaped everybody.

“Scouting in those days wasn’t nearly as thorough as it is today,” Svare said. “We had never seen him drop back and throw a straight pass from the pocket.

“He was playing for Tommy Prothro up at Oregon State. He threw rolling out all the time--to the left, which was very unusual, but he was left-handed. He was all right, as long as he was rolling out, and that’s why it was never picked up.

“He was a great athlete and a tremendous person. He had great command out there. He was a tremendous field general and very intelligent. He did everything he was supposed to do, except he didn’t have an arm.”


It didn’t matter much at Oregon State because Baker was seldom asked to throw deep.

“Prothro had him doing those little short rollouts, which were very big in those days,” Svare said. “It was hard to find quarterbacks throwing from the pocket, so it wasn’t a terrible thing to overlook.”

Baker’s long passes, lacking velocity, would die in the air and drift to earth like wounded sparrows--easy marks for interceptions. The critics were not kind. Even some Ram supporters had to laugh to keep from crying.

“I hate to laugh about it because he wasn’t a laughable guy,” Svare said. “He went on to be a very successful man. He was not a fool. Just the opposite. Had he been able to throw the ball, he would have been one of the great quarterbacks of all time.”

Still, Svare hoped to disguise Baker’s anemic arm and let his other abilities compensate. He tried to slip him past Detroit in the first league game, at home in the Coliseum.

In retrospect, Baker views the opponent and the site with irony.

“I got thrown--literally and figuratively--to the Lions,” Baker said by phone from his law office in Portland.

At the time the Lions had the best defensive backfield in football. Dick (Night Train) Lane and Yale Lary were headed for the Hall of Fame. Dick LeBeau would be All-Pro. They ate Baker alive. He threw three interceptions in the first half and LeBeau returned one 70 yards for a touchdown.


Svare could have started either of two more experienced quarterbacks that day--Roman Gabriel, a first-round pick in ‘62, or the well worn Zeke Bratkowski.

“(Svare) never said who was starting until immediately before the game,” Baker said. “We got murdered. I don’t think I was anywhere near prepared for that, a guy that’s been with the club three weeks.”

Svare then experimented with a system of rotating quarterbacks, but within a few weeks Gabriel was established as the starter and Baker as--what?

After the season the Rams put Baker on a special training program to strengthen his arm.

“But it never changed,” Svare said. “We tried to find a place for him. We tried him at halfback, trying to save him. He just wasn’t strong enough. He tried. He really tried.”

For a brief time Svare tried running an “outpost” formation, with Baker set far to one side of the field as a pass receiver. He had modest success as a receiver and some as a running back, but everyone knew the truth.

Jack Teele, later to become a Ram and San Diego Charger executive, was the Rams’ public relations man at the time.


Baker’s problem, Teele said, was in being unfortunately miscast as “a non-specialist at the start of the era of specialists in football.”

Baker agreed.

“There’s a lot of truth in that,” he said. “I came out of a special situation at Oregon State where you did everything: Run and pass and punt, which might be good to build a college team around at that time. I don’t even know if you could do that anymore. But certainly, in a pro quarterback, they wanted someone who’s primarily a passer.

“Actually, it’s shifted from what it was when I went into the pro game then to where they now like to have quarterbacks who are pretty good athletes and mobile. Some of those quarterbacks are awfully quick--but still they have awfully good arms, too.”

The folks back home were the last to concede Baker’s weakness--if they ever have. In that rookie summer, the Rams were scheduled to play the Dallas Cowboys in a practice game at Portland in Multnomah Stadium, a rickety, poorly lighted facility where the stands were so close to the field that the fans could shake hands with the players.

It rained, but that wasn’t the worst part. Svare will never forget it. Teele was in Portland early to help with publicity.

Svare said: “He called me and said, ‘They want to know how much he’s gonna play. They really want to see Terry play.’ I said, ‘Jack, we’re gonna start him,’ and I think I said, ‘But we aren’t gonna play him over a quarter.’ By this time we knew about his arm.


“So Jack went in and told the promoter, ‘Yeah, Terry’s gonna start, but . . . ‘ By that time the guy’s off and running. The promoter made it sound like Terry’s gonna play the whole evening.

“I pulled him after the first quarter, just like I said I would and, God, all hell broke loose. They started to throw stuff at me. I’d never been in anything like that. And as it built to a crescendo, some stands across the field collapsed. People were running all over the place, trying to get at me--vicious, mad, drunk.

“They were really after me. It was kind of scary. I’d been in riots in Yankee Stadium, and this was starting to approach that. Complete chaos.

“They ended the game early and the police escorted me out of there. Now we’re in this 130-year-old locker room with no place to hold a press conference. People were outside the door shouting, ‘Kill the SOB! Get a rope and hang him!’ I see people shaking their fists.

“The next day some guy writes, ‘This coach is a very dull interview.’ What the hell did they expect?”

Said Baker: “Some people still talk about that (outburst).”

Baker and Svare were together for three full seasons before Svare was fired by the late Dan Reeves with a record of 14-31-3 and Baker was released by Svare’s successor, George Allen, in the summer of ’66. Svare later coached the Chargers to a 7-17-2 record through parts of three seasons, then went into the real estate business, where he has done much better.


“I really like Harland,” Baker said. “He’s an unusual guy. Things didn’t work out football-wise, for me or Harland, but otherwise a lot of good things came out of it . . . some of the friends I made and going to law school.”

Baker attended law classes at USC at night during the season and full-time in the off-season. After leaving the Rams he had a good year playing quarterback for the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football League until that situation went sour.

“I had an old nagging injury I picked up when I was playing halfback,” Baker said. “I kept pulling the same muscle in the groin.

“Then I couldn’t come to terms on a contract. They wanted me up there when the season started, and I was taking the bar exam here in Oregon and missed some exhibition games. They got aggravated and we couldn’t come to an agreement, so that was the end of it.

“It was kind of miserable in some respects but, in general, I look back on that experience of playing pro football as fun. I’m glad I did it.”

Baker said his arm problem didn’t completely surprise him.

“I had some worries about it, because you throw so much more there and it really started getting sore. I was just a chronic sore-armer.


“If my arm would have been stronger, I think I would have had a real good pro career.”

But the lack of an NFL arm didn’t ruin his life. He is one of 40 lawyers with an old-line firm, specializing in corporate law and still living in the town where he grew up.

“Seems like never a week goes by without somebody wanting me to autograph a picture or something,” Baker said. “I’m still at the top of the trivia list.”