April 10, 2009

Hobey Baker

I have always wanted to write a biography on Hobey Baker, the iconic American hockey player, Hockey and Football Hall of Famer and World War I hero. But I always had trouble finding sources that wrote about Hobey Baker the man, not Hobey Baker the legend.

Until now.

In the fall of 2008 Jack Falla's book Open Ice included a masterful chapter called Searching For Hobey Baker. My search was over, for Falla had written the perfect ode.

Falla paints a picture of an American hero blessed with movie star good looks, a socialite upbringing, and an athletic prowess bar none. But he is also exposed as a tragic figure with flaws. The love of his life leaves him, he enlists in the war where Falla proclaims him as the last casualty of World War I.

Inspired by an old Boston Herald column, Falla always wanted to learn more about Hobey Baker, the man whose name now adorns the trophy for the best hockey player in American collegiate sports.

Falla travelled to St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. It is here that Hobey Baker learned to play hockey. He excelled at every sport he tried, especially football, but he loved hockey. He would skate endlessly. He even skated in the darkness of the night. Legend has it this is how he learned to handle the puck without looking down at it. That would serve Baker as his biggest advantage, as it was a true rarity back in those days.

Thanks to Baker his high school teams routinely beat collegiate teams. With his speed and grace he was already being dubbed as the best player in America. That title was his without dispute when he enrolled at Princeton. Princeton did not have their own rink, so games were played in New York city, drawing the attention of large crowds and newspaper men. Baker's spectacular feats both on the football field and on the ice were already becoming legendary.

So legendary that many felt, including none other than Lester Patrick, that he was as good as the best professionals of the day. The Montreal Canadiens believed so too, and offered him the significant sum of $20,000 over three years to turn professional. Baker, always prim and proper as per his socialite upbringing, thought it "unseemly" to play for money.

Instead he stayed in New York playing some amateur hockey while working heartlessly as a bond salesman. In the summers he found a new passion - flying airplanes.

When the First World War broke out Baker volunteered as a fighter pilot in the American forces. Even here he was a legend, shooting down three, maybe four enemy planes despite entering combat late in the war. Earlier on he was one of the armed forces' head flight instructors.

As the war draws to a close Falla paints Baker as a tragic figure. He is dubbed the last casualty of World War I. The war is over and the Americans are preparing to go home. Baker decided to take one last flight, despite urges from everyone else not too. Instead of taking his usual plane, painted in Princeton orange and black, he takes a recently repaired plane to needlessly test it.

The plane crashes and Baker dies in the care of attendants on the ground. But Falla interestingly hints that maybe Baker's final flight was actually a suicide. As Falla writes: "He didn't fly far. Or maybe he flew forever."

Baker was supposedly distraught after the love of his life broke up with him. In a weird sense of irony, when New York newspapers carried news of Baker's death, the also carried the announcement of Baker's former fiancee's engagement to another elite socialite.

It would have been interesting to see Baker's impact on the history of hockey had he come back from the war alive. By the 1920s professional sports had a better acceptance in society and a golden age of American sports. Had Baker come back, a national hero not only of the sporting world but now of the war, and returned to the ice and cement his status as America's greatest hockey player, could have hockey in America taken off far sooner than it did?

1 comment:

Hogie said...

Thank you for another great post! I had always wanted to know more about Baker.