Hobey Baker award to be presented in namesake's hometown

Hobart Amory Hare "Hobey" Baker. (January 15, 1892 - December 21, 1918.) Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
Hobart Amory Hare "Hobey" Baker. (January 15, 1892 - December 21, 1918.) Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
Posted: April 07, 2014

This Friday, when the Hobey Baker Award is presented to 2014's top NCAA hockey player, the ceremony at the Loews Hotel in Center City should be more poignant than usual.

For a first time, it will happen in the hometown and final resting place of the award's namesake, an early 20th-century hero whose astonishing legend spanned sports, war, and literature.

Hobart Amory Hare Baker was a flesh-and-blood Philadelphia Main Liner whose accomplishments were as fantastic as any in fiction.

"Had Hobey Baker not existed," reads the jacket of Emil Salvini's biography, Hobey Baker, American Legend, "some clever wordsmith would have been compelled to create him."

Blond, handsome, muscular, wealthy, brave, honorable, generous, Baker was so gifted athletically that he is in both the Hockey and College Football Halls of Fame.

A Princeton classmate, F. Scott Fitzgerald, borrowed Baker's gilded persona for This Side of Paradise, the novel whose main character, Amory Blaine, bears Baker's middle name.

Born in Bryn Mawr in 1892, Baker was a descendant of Francis Rawle, a Quaker who came to Philadelphia in 1686 and built both a civic reputation and a fortune.

Industrialist Alfred Baker and socialite wife Mary named their second child after an uncle, Hobart Amory Hare, the president of Jefferson Medical Hospital.

Hockey was almost nonexistent here then, and Baker discovered it at 11 while at St. Paul's, the elite New Hampshire prep school.

At Princeton, and on gridirons up and down the East Coast, Baker became the original Saturday's Hero.

The football and hockey captain, had school regulations allowed it, might have been the star of three or four teams. According to a 1991 Sports Illustrated profile, "there was no sport Hobey couldn't master. He was a brilliant broken-field runner and kicker, as well as a fine outfielder. He was an accomplished gymnast, swimmer, and diver. He could juggle five balls. He could walk up flights of stairs on his hands. He was a fast sprinter, but he also excelled at cross-country."

Despite the brutal nature of the sport that nearly led to its prohibition, Baker spurned a helmet while playing football. He led the Tigers to the 1911 national championship. A year later he scored a school-record 92 points.

Sportswriters, enraptured by this young Philadelphian who seemed almost too perfect, labeled him "the blond Adonis of the gridiron."

Andrew Turnbull, a Fitzgerald biographer, noted that at Princeton, football players were demigods. "Baker loomed so high in the heavens that he was scarcely visible," Turnbull wrote.

Hockey, though not widely played collegiately, was unusually popular at Princeton. Occasionally, in part because of Baker's growing renown, some Tigers games were played at Manhattan's St. Nicholas Arena.

"Limousines would stretch from Columbus Avenue to Central Park West on 66th Street," read a New York Post sportswriter's recollection of a Princeton hockey game. "Men and women went hysterical when Baker flashed down the ice on one of his brilliant runs with the puck. I have never heard such spontaneous cheering for an athlete as greeted him a hundred times a night and never expect to again."

Baker's "brilliant runs" helped Princeton go 27-7 in his time there. The school scoring records he established endured for more than half a century.

More significantly in terms of the wholesome legend he was creating, Baker, despite being the chief target of every opponent, was whistled for just two penalties in three varsity hockey seasons. Win or lose, following each game, he visited the other team's locker room and shook hands with every player.

The storybook existence continued after graduation when he took a job on Wall Street with J.P. Morgan & Co.

Professional sports were a dirty business in the early 1900s, and proper Main Line gentlemen like Baker rarely considered them. But hockey legend Lester Patrick, who competed against him, once said that if Baker had played professionally in Canada - the NHL didn't debut until 1917 - he would have been a superstar.

Baker didn't forego sports entirely while on Wall Street. He played polo and raced automobiles. He also learned to fly an airplane, and when America entered World War I in 1917, he enlisted as one of the nation's first fighter pilots.

As a squadron leader with the famed Lafayette Escadrille, Baker was credited with shooting down at least three enemy planes and was awarded France's highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre.

Then on Dec. 21, 1918, hours before he was scheduled to catch a train in Paris for a holiday return to Philadelphia, Baker test-piloted a Spad aircraft.

In the rainy skies over Toul, the plane went into a tailspin and crashed. He died in the ambulance.

News of his death generated front-page headlines in the United States. He was buried in muddy French soil as platoon mates fired three volleys into the gray skies and a tearful bugler played Taps.

Three years later, his then-divorced mother had her son's body returned to Philadelphia and interred permanently in West Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Today, Baker's gravestone, surprisingly modest given his reputation and accomplishments, rests largely unnoticed among larger monuments that loom like lonely specters above the Schuylkill.

Inscribed upon it is a poem by an anonymous author, words that capture Baker's spirit as well as any from the adoring sportswriters who chronicled his exploits.

"You seemed winged, even as a lad,

"With that swift look of those who know the sky

"It was no blundering fate that stooped and bade

"You break your wings, and fall to earth and die,

"I think some day you may have flown too high,

"So that immortals saw you and were glad,

"Watching the beauty of your spirit's flame,

"Until they loved and called you, and you came."


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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