It isn't easy to set down Hobey Baker on paper. You get the idea that people just won't believe what you write about him, he was that good. It is as though he were created by an author of romantic, rather than realistic, attitudes. And indeed he did inspire his Princeton classmate, F. Scott Fitzgerald, to bring forward Allenby, the football captain of "This Side of Paradise," for many the greatest novel of America's post-World War I period.
There are those wrote during Baker's era, just before the Great War, that he was the greatest athlete who ever lived. You can argue with that, but not too loudly because old-timers who saw him play hockey and football at Princeton will shout you down.
Certainly he was the greatest Princeton player of that time, with a ton of talent and a carload of charisma. Jeffrey Hart penned that Baker was "probably the most charismatic athlete of all time."
Consider: he captained Princeton's hockey and football teams ... he is a charter member of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame and one of a handful of Americans to be inducted into Canada's Hockey Hall of Fame ... he is a member of Princeton's Hall of Fame, both football and hockey, and each year the best hockey player in the country receives the Hobey Baker Memorial Award.
Baker was a player who continually brought a crowd to its feet, whether he caught the puck on the end of his stick, or picked an enemy punt out of the air. He was not, it was written, a showman, but he did everything with a sense of showmanship because it was natural to him.
And, when the skates and sticks and football pads were put away, Hobey Baker proved that his athletic skill could be carried further. He enlisted as a pilot in World War I and was part of the federal Lafayette Escadrille in France, flying with Rickenbacker and flying against Von Richtofen and Goering. He shot down three German planes in dogfights so gloriously depicted in the movies "Hells Angels" and "Dawn Patrol," and having survived the war, looked forward to the world remaining for him to conquer. Just before he was to leave France to return for a hero's welcome, he was killed while testing a repaired aircraft. He was only 26.
George Frazier, the Harvard man who wrote so well of so many things in his Boston-based column, had this to say about Hobey Baker years later: "The fateful fact that he perished in the special splendor of his youth of course has something to do with the legend that he has become. It always does, whether in the case of a poet named Thomas Chatterton, a songwriter named Brooks Bowman, a cartoonist named Sam Corbean, a cornetist named Bix Beiderbecke, or an athlete named Hobey Baker. And yet it is also a fact that the good, far too frequently, die young and that whom the gods love, they often destroy." Frazier continued to say that everything, in Baker's case, seems to have conspired to insure immortality.
Hobart Amory Hare Baker was born in Philadelphia in 1892 and with his brother, Thorton, attended the prestigious St. Paul's School, where, it is written, he was "industrious rather than brilliant" in his classwork. As for athletics, it was further written that he was "phenomenal." In the 1909-10 season, his senior year, the St. Paul's team defeated Princeton, the Tigers' only loss that year. He would later lead Princeton to a pair of hockey championships as well as stunning the opposition on the football field. After his junior collegiate season in 1913 he was proclaimed "The Wonder Player of Hockey."
On the football field, he drop-kicked a pair of field goals in 1912 to give Old Nassau a 6-6 tie with Yale and the next year he drop-kicked a 43-yard field goal to again tie the Elis, 3-3. His scoring marks at Princeton stood for almost half a century.
He didn't wear any headgear, either on the gridiron or on the ice, and with a shock of blond hair topping his strong frame, he was the only player out there, someone said, for the crowd to look at. As George Frazier noted, "It is part of the legend, and not the least true, that he was as handsome an undergraduate as his college ever had."
Baker's ability, as great as it was, was topped by his sportsmanship and he is perhaps known for this more than his playing skills. He was only penalized once in his college career - he was called for slashing against Harvard in 1913 - and was counted on always to visit the opposition's locker room after a game. Opponents as well as teammates loved him and his tremendous celebrity never occurred to them. It certainly was not a part of Baker's attitude and he remained inaffected when crowds shouted "here he comes," as he entered the football field or hockey arena.
Baker took part in what has often been described as one of the most exciting games in hockey history, in January of 1914 against Harvard. It was 1-1 after regulation and the teams battled through a pair of ten minute overtimes. Then they entered a sudden death struggle with the sellout crowd going bananas. Twenty-three minutes into the sudden death Harvard broke out with a lanky reserve player slicing in to score the winning goal. Years later that Harvard man would play some hockey with his grandchildren and would still use the same stick that brought the Cantabs that prized victory...Leverette Saltonstall's career included the governorship of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and a long spell in the United States Senate but he was always eager to tell you "how we beat Hobey Baker and Princeton," his craggy face, once described as "the New England states put together," lighting up in smile of fond memory.
Speaking of sticks, they compete at St. Paul's School for an award known simply as "Hobey's Stick," and the Hobey Baker Memorial Award trophy is annually given for prowess in hockey, "college hockey's Heisman Trophy." At Princeton, the ice arena is named for him.
There was no professional hockey back then before World War I, or at least, no organized sports as it is today, and Baker began working at the Morgan Bank on Wall Street. He joined the Saint Nicholas Skating Club hockey team and mark this, the Saint Nick's squad was an amateur group which players had to pay to join. They played all over with the big posters heralding "Baker Plays Here Tonight" and the crowd jammed arenas to see this wonderman. Newspaper began to feature stories on him and while he cooperated with the press he never went overboard. The Saint Nick's team once defeated the Montreal Stars to take the Ross Cup, a vintage hockey prize, and the Montreal press reported, "Uncle Sam has the check to develop a first class hockey player who was not born in Montreal. Baker cooked our goose so artistically that we enjoyed it."
He must have been something out there on the ice, or on the 40-yard line, his blond hair shinning in the light of the sun. He was typical of the heroes of that Horatio Alger period, young men strong of heart, sound of limb, confident but not cocky in the knowledge that they could do whatever job was given them and do it with joy, with elan, with a zest for competition. Indeed, one is reminded of Lester Chadwick, writer of the fabled "Baseball Joe Matson" stories, who described his hero a "a glorious representative of young American manhood." And, Burt L. Standish, who gave us the Frank Meriwell sags, might have seen Baker in action with that constant smile. Like Baker, Meriwell was always at his best when he smiled at the foe.
Baker's era of our nation's history will never be seen again. It was a time of confidence, of almost arrogance, of determination, all wrapped up in one of John Philip Sousa's marches. It was written of Baker that after his college days he showed "an unmistakable restless" and that when he did get to France in the war he was "as adventurous a pilot as he had been an athlete," seeing comparisons in aerial combat and sports. He was, it wa written, "exhilarated with this war," He flew a plane painted orange and black, Princeton's colors, and during his stay he became engaged to Mimi Scott, described as "a Newport beauty." Faded photographs of that era show as a storybook couple, she in her uniform, he in his flyer's suit, as pure Fitzgerald as ever lived.
A national day of mourning marked his passing. America, and American sport, will never see his like again, for the Hobey Bakers are with us but a brief span and perhaps that is how it should be. We can treasure their memory more and try to emulate them, for it is a rare gift that we have them with us.