He’s 64-years-young and 31 years removed from his last NFL game, but Al “Bubba” Baker has finally received some very long overdue acclaim.
Upon Pro Football Reference’s recent reveal of sack statistics prior to the 1982 season, Baker’s name sits unofficially atop the single-season list with 23 sacks during an all-time sensational rookie showing in 1978.
And the former Lions standout who menaced and mauled opposing quarterbacks was brought to tears when he received word that he was finally being recognized for his astounding accomplishments all these years later.
“For some reason, and I’m not kidding you, without any prompting, tears just started running down my eyes,” Baker told Dan Hanzus, Gregg Rosenthal and Patrick Claybon on the latest Around The NFL podcast. “And my wife was inside, I opened up the patio doors. And my wife, first thing she said was, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said, nothing’s wrong and I said come look at this. And, you know, we hugged and then I lost about an hour and a half, two hours. My daughter called. It was really emotional for my family. I guess at 6-foot-8, 290 pounds, that doesn’t sound really tough, but, we were all crying.
“You know somebody tells you you’re a sack leader and what do you do, you start crying. And I guess it’s because none of us really sat around like some players and, ‘We want this and we want that.’ We hadn’t thought about it for at least, for at least, I’m not kidding you, 20 years.”
But plenty are thinking about it now.
"That was a problem for me, the way that went down. It's tainted." @pfref has a new (unofficial) single-season sack leader ahead of Michael Strahan. It's now Al Baker with 23. We had Al "Bubba" Baker himself on to discuss. @AlBubbaBaker60 pic.twitter.com/OC0kGZaFZq
Pro Football Reference’s deep mathematical dive has uncovered unofficial sack totals for myriad pass-rushing pillars such as Deacon Jones, Alan Pages, Jack Youngblood and on and on.
Brown’s 23 sacks, which as aforementioned unbelievably came during his rookie campaign of 1978 when he collected AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, would put him — unofficially — half a sack ahead of Michael Strahan’s 2001 standard of 22.5. Though Strahan’s 22.5 sacks have always been recognized officially — and still are — as the top single-season mark in NFL history, it’s often been accompanied by controversy as the record-breaker came on a play in which many feel then-Packers quarterback Brett Favre gifted him the top spot.
Baker was one of the many.
“The conversations that I would have was when people would come up to me and they would say, they’d talk to me about Michael Strahan’s 22nd and a half sack. That was a problem for me, the way that went down. That was a problem,” said Baker, who’s been a success in his post-playing days as a restaurant owner in Ohio. “Cause Michael had a great year. To see that, it had nothing to do with my 23, it just had to do with, well, why does he need to do that? Now it’s tainted, in my opinion, and that bothered me.”
Sacks were not counted as an official statistic in the NFL prior to the 1982 season. So Strahan’s record-breaking performance passed up former Jets star Mark Gastineau’s 22-sack 1984 showing, much to the dismay of Gastineau. But now there’s an unofficial argument with statistics to support it that Baker was one better than Gastineau and half a sack ahead of Strahan all along.
Meditating on his patio when he found out about Pro Football Reference’s arduous research leading to his all-time acknowledgement, Baker’s moment of Zen suddenly transformed into a lifetime’s worth of emotion. In his career, overlooked and understated no longer, Baker now unofficially has 131 career sacks in 13 seasons with the Lions, Cardinals, Browns and Vikings organizations to go with an official Defensive Rookie of the Year nod, three Pro Bowls and an All-Pro selection.
Perhaps Pro Football Reference’s hard work will rekindle Baker’s Hall of Fame argument. Perhaps it won’t. But as the offseason days burn away ahead of the 2021 NFL season, Baker’s spectacular 1978 season has been realized for just how truly special it was.
“You say to yourself, move on. And that’s what I did, I just went on with my life,” Baker said.
For so very long, recognition eluded Baker as quarterbacks most often could not. Now he’s got it all these autumns later.
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