State Your Case: Spec Sanders and his forgotten greatness
Three Hall of Famers helped the 1947 New York Yankees win the World Series.
You can make a strong argument that the 1947 Yankees deserve another Hall of Famer. Except that this Yankee wasn’t a teammate of Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto. He shared their stadium and team nickname but not their sport. Yet Orban “Spec” Sanders was every bit as dominant in football in 1947 as the American League MVP DiMaggio was in baseball.
Spec Sanders was the Deion Sanders of his era…except that Spec was even more versatile than Deion. Spec did it all on the football field for the New York Yankees of the All-American Football Conference. He led the league in rushing (1,477 yards), rushing touchdowns (18), all-purpose yards (2,193) and touchdowns (19) in 1947. He passed for 1,442 yards and 14 more scores and returned both punts and kickoffs for the Yankees. He intercepted three passes on defense, helping New York reach the AAFC title game with an 11-2-1 record.
Did I mention Sanders also handed the punting chores?
Sanders was a one-man meteor shower on football who deserves far greater scrutiny for his Hall of Fame talents than he has thus far received.
Sanders was the sixth overall pick of the 1942 NFL draft by the Washington Redskins – the first-ever first-round draft choice from the University of Texas -- but went off to fight in World War II and didn’t return until peace was achieved. That was 1946, the year the AAFC formed. Sanders signed with the Yankees but would play only three seasons with them.
But what a three-year showcase of his talents that was.
Sanders led the AAFC in rushing each of his first two seasons, helping the Yankees reach the championship game both years against the Cleveland Browns. In the 1946 season, he rushed for six touchdowns and caught passes for three more. He also returned a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown against Los Angeles, ran a punt back 76 yards for a score against Buffalo and took an interception 50 yards for yet another TD against Miami.
Sanders was voted first-team all-pro each of his first two seasons. But all those touches on offense, defense and special teams caught up with Sanders in his third season when he suffered a knee injury. With Sanders limited to only nine games, Hall of Famer Marion Motley captured his first AAFC rushing crown.
At the age of 29, Sanders’ body started breaking down. So he retired after three seasons. Even though the AAFC would play one more year before a partial absorption by the NFL, Sanders still finished first in AAFC history in rushing touchdowns and second in rushing yards.
The NFL added the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers from the AAFC in 1950. After the Yankees folded, the NFL’s Brooklyn franchise moved from the Polo Grounds to Yankee Stadium and changed its name to “Yanks.” Coach Red Strader talked Sanders into returning to the sport but Spec insisted on one condition – that he only play defense.
That season, his finale in football, Sanders led the NFL with 13 interceptions and went to the Pro Bowl. Only one player in pro football history has intercepted more passes in a single season than Sanders – Hall of Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane. Sanders also had his best season as a punter in his only NFL season, kicking 71 times for a 42.3-yard average.
All of which left the Hall of Fame to judge Sanders’ worthiness of a bust based on just four seasons. But his window of greatness matched that of 2017 Hall of Fame enshrine Terrell Davis. Another Hall of Famer, Doak Walker, played five seasons, and Gale Sayers also enjoyed just a five-year window of greatness. So what’s the cut-off? Should Sanders be penalized for sacrificing the first four years of an NFL career – very prime football-playing years – to serve his country and fight in World War II?
Regardless of length of career, greatness is easily identifiable in players. And it is identifiable in Sanders. Offense, defense, special teams – Spec Sanders was special.
His 18 rushing touchdowns in 1947 stood up as the pro football record for 14 years before Hall of Famer Jim Taylor scored 19 for the 1962 Green Bay Packers. His 1,477 rushing yards stood up as the pro football record for 10 years before Hall of Famer Jim Brown rushed for 1,527 in 1958. His 250 rushing yards in a single game against the Chicago Rockets in 1947 stood up as a pro football record for 28 years before Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson rushed for 273 yards on Thanksgiving in 1976 against the Detroit Lions.
Sanders played 52 games over four seasons. He scored 40 touchdowns and threw for 23 more in his three seasons of offense. He scored 10 touchdowns of 50 yards or more and threw 12 TD passes of 30 yards or more. The average length of his rushing touchdowns was 16.5 yards and the average length of his TD passes was 27.9 yards.
Sanders averaged 5.4 yards per career carry, 27.4 yards on his 44 career kickoff returns and 15.3 yards on his 42 career punt returns. He also averaged 40.9 yards in his 192 career punts and intercepted 19 career passes.
His career should not be forgotten. But at this point, only the Hall of Fame can resurrect it.