Early heroes in sports are most certainly intriguing not only because of the distinctive stories their lives tell, but because of the fun they provide for us by providing us with the goal of tracing their steps and discovering precisely what impact they made, what they did to invent parts of the game, and how that influenced the stars of future generations. This one is a story of both innovation in sports and myth-like heroics – and maybe one you’ve heard a bit about before.
Hobart Amory Hare Baker was born in a small but culturally significant community area in Southeastern Pennsylvania on January 15th, 1892; the second son to a well-liked upholsterer named Alfred Thornton Baker and a socialite by the name of Mary Augusta Pemberton. The story of his sporting career begins in 1903, the year in which he was sent to St. Paul’s School in Concord, NH. It was there Hobey was introduced to the world’s greatest game.
The sport of hockey had been introduced to SPS by Canadian migrants, but a teacher and athletic instructor by the name of Malcolm Gordon was the first person to formalize the game not only for the school, but for the entire United States. He wrote the first American set of rules and was the first talent recruiter in the States. Gordon knew skill when he saw it. Some sport historians have described Baker as Bobby Orr’s prototype, skating with awe-inspiring speed and agility, an attribute many of his classmates acknowledged. Working many nights on his stickhandling on the frozen ponds of New Hampshire paid off, as at age 14, Baker was named to the varsity team of St. Paul’s School. His impact was known immediately, as the team quickly defeated quite a few of the nation’s top prep schools and universities. Naturally, his athletic prowess couldn’t be limited to just one sport. In this timeframe, Hobey proved to be a very adept swimmer, runner (having entered St. Paul’s cross-country race just on a whim and winning handily), golfer, and participant in an innumerable amount of other sports; resulting in him receiving athlete of the year in nearly every possible category. It’s no surprise most of his classmates’ only memories of their time in school consisted solely of his athletic achievements.
Hobey enrolled at Princeton in 1910. Ever the workhorse, he joined three varsity teams, but eventually dropped baseball to focus on football and hockey. On the gridiron in his sophmore year, Baker had an incredible season that would give Jerry Rice an ear-to-ear grin, putting up 92 individual points (a school record that stood for 64 years) and leading the Tigers to a national championship. The Tigers also had great success on the ice in ’11-’12, going 8-2 in a 10 game schedule. Overall, Baker’s college athletic achievements include earning 8 varsity letters (5 for football, 3 for hockey), scoring an estimated 220 points over 3 seasons at an average of 6 points per game on the ice (these stats were not officially kept, this is an estimate made by biographers), and guiding the hockey team to an overall record of 20-7. Perhaps his biggest accolade, however, was earning the admiration of classmate F. Scott Fitzgerald, inspiring the character Allenby of This Side of Paradise. How about that?
In the summer after graduating from Princeton, Baker became a celebrity correspondent in Europe for the New York Times. Following this, he took up a few jobs at various banks and financial firms before settling down at J.P. Morgan. In turn, he moved into a very luxurious house on Madison Ave; thus transforming Hobey Baker, the young athletic phenom into Hobart Baker, early 20th century aristocrat. His amateur athletic career continued regardless, as he joined the St. Nicholas hockey club shortly after moving to NYC. He became such a star performer and attraction that Montreal (then of the National Hockey Association) offered him a lucrative professional contract, but a person of his social status playing pro sports would be a severe breaking of taboo, so Baker declined.
Baker’s final hockey game took place on March 24th, 1917, in a match-up between two amateur All-Star teams from Philadelphia (led by Baker) and Pittsburgh in the Steel City’s Winter Garden venue at Exposition Hall (the exoskeleton of the NHL’s Battle of Pennsylvania!) Baker scored all of Philly’s goals in a 3-2 overtime win whilst playing halfheartedly. It was clear to many that his disinterest in the sport had come about and that they were witnessing the end of his career. Physical demands were certainly a factor, but most importantly the well of fun had run dry due to the growing unappealing professionalism in the sport.
A desire to venture into new territory in life led Baker to join the civilian aviation corps in 1916. He found a renewed sense of purpose flying, getting the same joy from it that he did from athletics; albeit with more serious cause for dedication. This reached its peak upon the United States’ entry into the Great War. He was among the first group of American personnel to travel to Europe for missions, crossing the Atlantic on August 23rd, 1917. Upon his arrival in France, he was instructed to gain formalized European training. One long and tedious process later, he was certified for air combat on the front in January of 1918 and promoted to liutenant two months later. His heroism grew in his time in battle, earning 3 confirmed kills and one other downed enemy plane. However, all great things come at a price.
Much to his discontent, on December 21st, 1918, Baker (who had become engaged to his sweetheart from New York while she was stationed as a nurse in Paris and found great joy in flying) received orders to return to the United States. He decided to take one last joy in flying overseas and led an unauthorized flight at his squadron’s airfield in Toul despite the heavy rain. Every decision in life causes us to take a different turn at the fork in the road. Unfortunately, this was the wrong one…
“Instead of running straight away to land he started to turn back toward the field. The wing slipped, the machine crashed and he was killed.”
—Eyewitness account of Baker’s death by Cpt. Edwin H. Cooper, 26th Division Photographic Officer, United States Signal Corps
There was debate in the aftermath about the accidental nature of Baker’s death despite newspaper reports of engine failure. His closest associates knew that abandoning his fiance’ was a next to impossible emotional choice and that he had no desirable career path in America. He could easily have gotten a pro sports contract, but his upbringing forbade this, leaving him stuck in the less lucrative and unenjoyable world of financing. Returning to the U.S. would lead him to a catch twenty two of a life, a fate worse than his untimely death. I don’t know about the readers, but I find that saddening.
Humanity’s goal is not to live eternally, but to make an impression that does. Accolades and recognition continued to make their way to Baker posthumously, coming in the form of a citation for exceptional bravery in regards to his first mission issued in March of 1919 by General John Pershing. His legacy proved to be much more durable than just that, as the NHL and USA Hockey’s Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to the sport in the U.S was given honorifically to him in 1987. How’s that for a lasting impression?
But no distinction is more well known than the NCAA’s Hobey Baker Award. Instituted in 1981 and first awarded to University of Minnesota’s Neal Broten (yes, one of the participants in the Miracle on Ice), this acknowledgement of the best U.S. college hockey player represents pure athletic dedication and talent better than any other award in the entire world of sports. It embodies the same integrity with which Baker played both the game of life and the sport of hockey. As long as the NCAA exists, his impact will always be profound. We live and we die, but infinity sees to it that our work is never done.
“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” – Benjamin Franklin