May 07, 2015

Throwback Thursday - Hobey Baker

The College Football Hall of Fame has amongst its roster of players and coaches hundreds of members who served in the military. Some of these Hall of Famers also gave their lives. In every major US conflict since the Spanish American War, there has been a Hall of Fame member who died in military service.

One of those players was Princeton halfback Hobey Baker. Baker played for the Tigers from 1911-1913. Walter Camp named him a third-team All-America in both 1912 and 1913. He set numerous scoring records that remained on the Princeton books 60 years after the date he set them. As he was only 5’9 and weighed 161 pounds, his greatest attributes were speed and elusiveness. He used this ability in returning punts. Baker would act like a baseball outfielder in that he would lay back and then catch the punt on the dead run. He also excelled in kicking, and many consider him to be the near equal of Harvard’s Charlie Brickley in the forgotten art of drop-kicking.

But Baker was far more than an outstanding football player. He was perhaps one of the greatest hockey players ever produced in the United States. After graduating from Princeton he played on amateur teams that played and defeated professional squads. He is the only person to be both a member of the College Football and Hockey Halls of Fame. Today collegiate hockey honors its best player with the Hobey Baker Award, the Heisman Trophy of the sport.

On campus, he was thought to be the ideal sporting hero. He was considered extremely handsome (and playing without a helmet) he was easily recognizable with his wavy blond hair. His natural athletic abilities also included golf, baseball, tennis, swimming and even roller skating. But he was best known for his humble soft-spoken manner and being the gentleman-sportsman that was so greatly admired. He often declined interviews and when a marquee had a sign that said “Baker Plays Here Tonight” he asked the arena owner to take down the sign. Fellow Princeton student F. Scott Fitzgerald was so taken by Baker that several of his characters are based on the campus hero.

After graduation he went to work on Wall Street. Baker disliked the 9-5 grind of business and looked for outlets to ease his boredom. He developed an interest in aviation, learning to fly in 1916. When the nation entered World War I a year later, he became a member of the famed Lafayette Escadrille. In combat he had three kills and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He was also honored by General of US Armies John Pershing. The small planes of the time enabled Baker to have his plane act almost as an extension of himself, using the same skills that made him a great open-field runner. “You handle your machine instinctively just as you dodge instinctively when running the ball in an open field,” he wrote. He was promoted and given the command of his own squadron. There, he painted his planes in Princeton’s colors of black & orange.

When the war ended in 1918 he received his discharge orders. With his orders in pocket and preparing to leave France, he said he would take, “one last flight in the old Spad.” Such a statement was a violation of a flyers’ superstition. That a last flight would indeed be a last flight. Baker took out a plane that has just been repaired and needed testing. Despite numerous requests by the mechanic and crew that he refrain, he took the plane to the air. After a quarter-mile the engine failed and the plane crashed headfirst, killing him. Baker’s death has forever been surrounded with controversy. Was it simply a tragic accident, or did Baker take his own life knowing that he would have to return to the monotony of everyday life? Adding to the speculation are his own words upon leaving Princeton, “I realize that my life is finished. No matter how long I live, I will never equal the excitement of playing on the football fields.”

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