Princeton's greatest athletic hero
Hobart A.H. Baker, arguably Princeton’s greatest athletic hero and the man for whom Baker Rink and the Hobey Baker Memorial Award are named, was born in Wissahickon, Pa., in 1892.
It was at Princeton that Baker distinguished himself as one of the greatest college hockey players of all time, dominating every game he played in and frustrating all who tried to contain him. His skating and stick handling skills were unmatched. He thrilled spectators with his ability to weave his way through the opposing team, change his pace and direction, and send the puck speeding into the net.
Hockey was a seven-man game in Hobey’s day. There was no forward passing, and substitutions generally occurred only after injuries. The key offensive player was the rover, Hobey’s position. “His characteristic play...was to take a rebound or steal the puck at his own end, and while forwards scrambled to get into position, he would circle the goal—sometimes twice—to pick up momentum and then take off at high speed,” wrote Baker’s biographer John Davies. “One of the odd things about playing against Baker...was that because of his looping, curving pattern of maneuver, on one of these solo dashes a defenseman might get two or even three cracks at him.”
Princeton’s official record during Hobey’s three varsity years was 27-7. He led them to two Intercollegiate League Championships in 1912 and 1914. And yet his greatest collegiate game was probably a loss, to Harvard in January 1914. The game lasted 73 minutes (including 10 minutes of overtime and 23 minutes of sudden death) before Princeton succumbed by a score of 2-1. In the overtime, Harvard substituted freely for players collapsing from exhaustion, but Hobey played the entire 73 minutes and was skating as fiercely at the finish as he had at the start.
Baker became equally well known for his sportsmanship and sense of fair play. He was a marked man in every game he played, but legend has it that he never retaliated for the rough stuff inflicted upon him. After every game an often-exhausted Baker would visit the opposing team’s locker room and thank the players for a good game. He was only penalized twice in his career, with both fouls reportedly undeserved, and when he was, there was no one more disappointed than Baker. The mere suggestion that he violated a rule of the game or a rule of sportsmanship nearly drove him to tears. Arthur Mizener said, “With almost incredible skill and grace, his perfect manners,
When he later played with the St. Nicholas Skating Club, a New York amateur team, the Madison Square Garden marquee would read, “Baker Plays Here Tonight,” until Hobey himself ordered it stopped after four games. Legendary New York Rangers coach Lester Patrick once remarked that Baker was the only American at the time who could have been a professional hockey star in Canada.
Also a standout in football, Baker spent three years on the varsity squad at Princeton from 1911-13, during which time the Tigers amassed a 20-3-4 record. The 1911 Princeton squad went undefeated and claimed the national championship. In those days, the two most important players on the team were a sure-handed safety and an accurate drop kicker. Hobey was both. As a safety, he often gained more yardage returning punts during a game than both teams did on offense. Hobey had unique method of fielding punts: He would first size up the flight of the ball and then step back far enough so he could catch it on the dead run. It was a tactic that repeatedly broke him free for long gains.
A hero in life, so too was Baker a hero in death. A captain and commander of the 141st Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Forces, Baker shot down three German planes and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for exceptional valor under fire. He died in Toul, France, shortly after the end of World War I.
Typical of Baker, he was testing a newly repaired plane, one with orange and black markings no less, so that no one under his command would have to face the risk. The plane lost power and went down just a short distance from the hangar. In fact, Baker had been given demobilization orders an hour before testing the plane, and he was scheduled to leave Paris by train that night.
One of Baker’s fellow officers said after his death, “As a man, Captain Baker was a striking example of the finest America can produce. He was a thorough gentleman and a true friend on whom one could always rely. He was entirely unselfish and was always thinking of others rather than of himself. In spite of all of the well-deserved praise heaped upon him for his success in athletics and in the service, he was totally unspoiled by it. He was modest almost to a fault.” Arthur Mizener echoed those sentiments when he said, “With almost incredible skill and grace, his perfect manners, his dedicated seriousness, Hobey Baker was a nearly faultless realization of the ideal of his age.
For all his accomplishments, Baker was inducted as a charter member of both the Hockey Hall of Fame and the United Stated Hockey Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1975. The Hobey Baker Memorial Award, named in his honor, is presented to the outstanding men’s college hockey player by the Decathlon Athletic Club of Bloomington, MN. It is the premier individual award in college hockey and has been awarded annually since 1981. He was also posthumously awarded the Lester Patrick Award in 1987 for his contributions to hockey in the United States.