Hobey Baker: Hockey’s Most Famous “Flyer”

Hobey Baker HOF card 1985

  • Hobart Amory Hare “Hobey” Baker: January 15, 1892 in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, United States of America – December 21, 1918 Toul, France.

This one isn’t a tobacco card, but it is about someone I found while surfing down rabbit hole after rabbit hole on the internet.

With apologies to Bob (Bobby) Clarke, Dave The Hammer Shultz, and Kate Smith, the most famous hockey-playing flyer isn’t a Flyer from Philadelphia.

He’s a gentleman from the same State of Pennsylvania, U.S., but one who lived and died long before Philadelphia ever got a National Hockey League franchise… and I’m not even talking about the Flyers in 1967-68 to present, or the Quakers of 1930-31.

That card above comes from the 1985 Hockey Hall Of Fame series… I once showed Montreal Canadiens great Henri Richard his card from the set, asking him to sign it… and he said he had never seen it before. It’s not rare, but I just thought it an amusing story I could tell here.

Because I’m sure you have already read the headline and the birth date information, there’s no need for me to build up the introduction… let’s talk about Hobey Baker.

Considered to be one of the top American ice hockey players during the early part of the 20th century, Baker was also a very good American football player… and a heroic inspiration for one of America’s most beloved authors—F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote among many things The Great Gatsby.

Because I am a huge hockey fan, I certainly have heard of the Hobey Baker Award as an annual distinction given out to the best university hockey player in an American university (the hockey version of football’s Heisman Trophy)… and despite my love of hockey and its history, I admit to not knowing much about Baker, or his role in the early days of aviation.

Not considered a big man by today’s standards, Baker stood 5’-9” (1.75m) and 161 lbs (73 kg) soaking wet.

While his size would still be considered more than acceptable in the National Hockey League up until the mid-1970s, I have no idea how he survived playing football – even though it was more than 100 years ago.

Baker’s family was fairly rich and important within the Philadelphia area. His dad was wealthy upholsterer Alfred Thornton Baker (you can get rich doing that??!!), and his mom a socialite by the name Mary Augusta Pemberton. Oh… she probably had some money.

One of Baker’s ancestors was Francis Rawle, a Quaker who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1688 and became one of its wealthiest citizens. Quakers… and Philadelphia… that ties in nicely with the NHL team.

Baker was named after his uncle, Dr. Hobart Amory Hare, who was the obstetrician at his birth and president of the Jefferson Medical Hospital in Philadelphia. And yet, the folks could have just given Hobey the names Hobart Amory… but Hare, as well?

When Baker was 11, he and his 12-year-old brother Thornton, attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, U.S. of A.

It was at this school that Baker first saw and tried hockey. The coach there was
Malcolm Gordon, one of the first people to help develop hockey in the U.S.

Not hard to miss, Baker was applauded by Gordon and teammates for his lightning quick skating and ability to move with the puck – both of which he honed with extra skating on local frozen ponds late at night.

By the time he was 14, Baker was playing on the school’s varsity (essentially top high school team for older kids)… and his play helped St. Paul’s beat some of the best prep schools and universities in the United States.

Yes… universities.

The kid was on fire. Every sport he touched, he excelled in… whether it was the school’s annual cross-country race which he entered for a lark and ended up winning, playing his first ever round of golf on the school’s nine-hole cross and shooting a low 40s… by the time he was 15, Baker was NAMED the school’s best athlete – playing hockey, football, baseball, tennis, swimming, and track.

Because Baker’s dad lost a lot of money during the so-called Panic of 1907, only one of the Baker boys could be afforded the opportunity to go on to university in 1909.

Older brother Thornton (who could have gone in 1908) told his father that Hobey should be the one to go to university—a sacrifice worthy of a tear-jerker movie.

Still… Baker, an above-average student, stayed an extra year at St. Paul so that his dad could save up more money for his son’s university, graduating from high school in the summer of 1910.

Attending the New Jersey, U.S.-based ivy league Princeton University (I’m sure that Baker COULD have gone to a less prestigious and thus less expensive university… ), he joined the school’s hockey, football, and baseball teams in his freshman year.

The university’s rules stated that students could only play two varsity sports, so Baker played outfield for the freshman baseball team before he gave up that sport to focus on hockey and football.

Baker’s father was a halfback for the Princeton football team in the 1880s… and while I can’t say what Baker’s grandfather did, it is known that he attended Princeton as well. I guess that was why it was important for Baker to also attend.

While football helmets were beginning to come into vogue in the 1910s, it was still a macho sport where most did not use one… and Baker and his flowing blond locks were no exception earning him the moniker of the “the blond Adonis of the gridiron” by Philadelphia sportswriters. See photo below to see why.

Football:

Hobey_Baker_Princeton_Football

Hobey Baker on the Princeton football team.

  • November 18, 1911 – Baker had 13 punt returns (for 63 yards), a total that is still a Princeton record;
  • 1911 season, Baker scored 92 points, a school record that lasted until 1974 – which will tell you that Princeton wasn’t giving out scholarships to draw out the best football players;
  • 1913, he was named captain of the team in his senior year;
  • Three-year football career total of 180 points scored – a school record until 1964.
  • Caught over 900 punts in his career;
  • Averaged 300 yards per season just via punt returns.

Still, he earned five letters for varsity football… which I admit I have no idea how that is done if he’s only in school for three years.

While football is cool, hockey is cooler, with Baker making his mark on ice.

Because Princeton University in New Jersey didn’t have its own hockey rink, the team played its home games at the St. Nicholas Arena in New York City – one of those few places to make artificial ice at that time.

Hockey:

hobey-baker-hockey-1911-1912

Hobey Baker on the 1911-12 Princeton ice hockey team.

During a game on January 24, 1914 against Harvard University Crimson (of Cambridge, Massachusetts) at the Boston Arena, one of his linemates was hurt and the other suspended. Because the replacements weren’t able to keep up, Baker was called offside time after time again… which… as a hockey fan means not only that Baker was too fast a skater for his line mates, but also he wasn’t quick enough to adjust to the speed of his new line mates. I will state that this was an era when most players did play the entire game of 60 minutes.

Now, unlike football, the hockey keeping statistics were less than stellar. Analytics? Screw that.

Much-later-Baker-biographer Emil Salvini estimates Baker scored 120 goals and 100 assists over his three year collegiate career that also earned him three more varsity letters for a total of eight – the most one could earn at Princeton at the time.

Salvini, based on talking with people and looking at newspaper reports estimates that Baker averaged three goals and three assists a game throughout the hockey career at Princeton.

Okay… school’s over… and Baker graduated from Princeton in early 1914 with majors in history, politics, and economics. Three majors in three years? I know that schools in the US are different from their counterparts in Canada, but no way can that happen nowadays. Double-major sure… but that takes a lot of studying… with Baker having to travel all over the place for hockey and football games, let along HOME hockey games in New York, when the hell did he have time for a triple major?

Well… maybe there was simply less history to study back then… some 100 years less history to study, in fact.

Now What?
Like many people who graduate from university nowadays with anything less than a specialization in a field (like medical school, engineering or business school) or earn a PhD, what the heck do you do with your piece of paper? If you are like me, you go back to school – to college and get a real education.

Maybe because he was Princeton’s most famous athlete, or maybe he was simply a good writer, but Baker toured Europe as a celebrity correspondent for The New York Times, where he wrote about events like the Henley Royal Regatta.

Celebrity correspondent… that’s all you need to know.

Returning home after his tour of Europe, his Princeton buddies helped Baker find a job with Wall Street insurance firm Johnson & Higgins.

Another Princeton graduate gave him a job at J.P. Morgan Bank where on the two-year trainee program he earned $20 a week.

Needless to say, it should be of no surprise to anyone that he soon befriended rich New York socialite Percy R. Pyne II, who had also attended St. Paul’s and Princeton.

Pyne was 10-years older than Baker, but they were friends, with Pyne letting Baker stay at his place.

I’m guessing that was also because of Baker’s Princeton Tigers fame, but who knows?

Pyne introduced him in 1918 to socialite Jeanne Marie Scott known as Mimi (not Shawna? You have to think Ferris Beuller’s Day Off here). Mimi and Baker were briefly engaged.

At the J.P. Morgan Bank, other executives would bring their rich clients to Baker’s office just so they could see the famous athlete… events that embarrassed Baker to no end.

Work a bore, Baker joined various sports teams and activities, with Pyne introducing him to auto racing and polo—both sports that Baker mastered.

Baker then joined the St. Nicholas Club team to play amateur hockey in New York.

How famous was Baker? The marquee banner out front of the arena was often lit up to read: “Hobey Baker Plays Tonight“.

And while that might seem like it was cool, Baker would ask the arena managers to take down such signage.

Baker was named to the post-season all-star team in both years he played for St. Nicholas and was recognized as one of the best players in the American Amateur Hockey League.

How good a player was he? Hobey Baker caught the eye of the Montreal Canadiens of the National Hockey Association, the forerunner of the National Hockey League.

They offered him a three year deal for $20,000, but he turned them down citing that social conventions prohibited a person of his standing from playing sports for money.

Baker grew tired of hockey, playing his final game on March 24, 1917… citing that the growing professionalism of the sport went against his belief that sports should be played for the love of the game.

So… which is it? Sports should never be played for money, or a person of his standing shouldn’t play sports for money? There’s a bit of a snob in there… and it does rear its head later on in this story.

Thank God It’s War
Okay, I don’t think Baker ever uttered a line similar to the sub-hed above, but I’m sure it was something in the back of his mind.

In 1916 Baker joined a civilian aviation corps led by New York City attorney Phillip A. Carroll that was located on Governors Island, off the coast of Manhattan in New York.

It was a privately-funded program designed to train civilians to help them pass the Reserve Military Aviator flying test and receive commissions in the Signal Officers Reserve Corps.

Flying, though more serious in nature, was just as much fun for Baker as sports had been in his youth.

On November 18, 1916… just before the annual Yale-Princeton football game, Baker in a Curtiss Jenny (JN-4) aeroplane that was piloted by fellow Governors Island student Cord Meyer (of Yale), joined a squadron of New York National Guard Jennies led by Captain Raynal Bolling.

This squadron flew towards Princeton’s Palmer Stadium and performed several aerial maneuvers for the crowd.

When Baker and Meyer landed the plane on the field, and Baker first out onto the ground, he became the first person to reach a football game by air. It’s not an earth-shattering record, but for 1916 this was pretty darn cool.

Despite what the average Joe might believe, the U.S. did not enter the Great War (now known as WWI) until April 6, 1917. For the record, WWI began officially on July 28, 1914.

It ended on November 11, 1918, meaning America was only officially involved in WWI for about one and a half years. But, just like WWII, when the the Americans finally entered the war, they kicked butt. Major butt.

So… when the U.S. joined the battles of WWI, Baker finally found his purpose in life—no, not killing, rather the freedom of flying and not having to do a 9-to-5 job. It also allowed him to make real use of his pilot’s training, so there was that, too.

Among the first Americans to join the war, he arrived in Europe in the summer of 1917… and like everyone who volunteered to join the war, Baker was in a rush to get to the frontlines.

The French, however, said that even though ‘we know you have your American flying skills, you need to be French-certified’… and yeah, the American Wright Brothers may have been the first to fly an aeroplane, but it was the French who took things to a new level.

Of course… how quickly one passed was determined by how quickly the would-be pilots learned the French language… because that was how the instruction was being taught. Sacre Bleu!

Oh those wacky French… even though Baker did all of his courses quickly enough, there weren’t enough actual qualified pilot instructors, so Baker (and others) were sent to a training school in England for more training… and then were sent back to France to teach the new American pilot wanna-be’s what they had learned in England.

Now that’s a flying circus.

Baker didn’t want to teach – he wanted to do… and do it on the frontlines. Then again, there was also a shortage of aircraft on the frontlines, so Baker really was stuck in Paris.

This bummed out Baker to no ends.

While it afforded him time to visit his girlfriend Mimi who had volunteered as a nurse, and was working in a nearby hospital, it really drove home the point that he was bored, bored, bored.

In April of 1916, Baker was assigned to the 103rd Aero Squadron, formed from the former members of the Lafayette Escadrille and Lafayette Flying Corps.

As part of the Squadron, Baker helped to bring down an enemy plane for the first time in his career on May 21, 1918….

BUT… thanks to the complicated means of scoring confirmed kills, Baker received zero credit.

In a letter home describing the aerial battle, Baker wrote that it was the “biggest thrill I ever had in my life”, comparing it to the same thrill he used to get from playing sports.

Throughout the spring of 1918, Baker led planes over the frontlines and saw his girlfriend Mimi Scott when off… but came to the realization that he and she couldn’t work out because of their financial disparity. Snob. Come on… it’s not like she went to Yale. Sorry Yale… this is a story about Princeton.

Baker had his first confirmed kill on May 21, 1918, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal from France.

I looked it up… lots of people rec’d this WWI-only medal… some 2,065,0000, so it’s a big deal, but… well, you know what I mean.

(Per Wikipedia) the Croix de Guerre medal of 1914-1918 was attributed to:

  • French and allied soldiers individually cited for a wartime act of gallantry;
  • Civilians and militarized personnel individually cited for a wartime act of gallantry;
  • Automatically to soldiers and civilians not specifically cited for a Croix de Guerre but awarded the Légion d’honneur or Médaille militaire for the highest acts of wartime valor and gazetted in the Official Journal of the French Republic;
  • Collectively, to army units, ships or air squadrons;
  • To cities and villages, martyrs of war, destroyed, ravaged or bombed by the enemy (2952 towns received the Croix de Guerre 1914-1918, in this case, always awarded with palm).

During the summer, Baker was transferred to the 13th Aero Squadron after its commander, Captain Charles Biddle, requested that he join the squadron as a flight commander.

Though reluctant to leave the 103rd, Baker felt that Biddle would not have requested him without confidence in his abilities.

On July 20, the 13th Squadron recorded its first confirmed kill during a flight led by Baker when he and two other men shot down a German plane.

In August, Baker and another pilot were promoted and given command of their own squadron – Baker was given charge of the 141st Aero Squadron, composed of 26 pilots and 180 enlisted men stationed behind the frontline, where they had to wait for equipment to arrive before leaving for the front.

Various delays in the arrival of planes and equipment meant that Baker’s squadron was unable to participate in the final major offensives of the war.

Perhaps bored, in September, Baker became engaged to Scott, asking his buddy Pyne to sell a bond to pay for an engagement ring.

Being the famous Hobey Baker, news of his engagement to Scott was all over the newspapers back home in the U.S.

In early October of 1918, Baker was promoted again and given the rank of captain.

The long-awaited aeroplanes and sundry equipment arrived.

Forever a Princeton Tiger, Baker had his aeroplane painted in the school’s orange and black colors, and even made a tiger the mascot of the 141 Squadron.

He got two more kills on October 28 and November 5, 1918 – for a total of three… so he wasn’t an ace, as one needs five confirmed kills. However, at the time of his death, the media claimed he was a WWI ace.

By the time WWI ended on November 11, 1918, Baker had already broken off his engagement with Scott, and had begun a relationship with Philander Cabler who was working as a diplomat in Paris. It may have been romantic, but no one seems to believe it was serious.

With the excitement of the war over and no fiance, he did not want to have to back to America and find work and do the 9-5.

Scheduled to return to the U.S. in December, Baker tried a last-ditch effort to stay in France, but was refused.

Time to go home, Hobey…

Someone Fire That Mechanic
On December 21, 1918, the order to return home came in… but he decided to take one last flight at his squadron’s field in Toul, France.

He was about to take his own plane – but a mechanic brought one he had just repaired, saying it needed a test flight.

Baker gladly volunteered, much to the consternation of his fellow pilots who didn’t want him to take the unnecessary risk.

But – until he walked away from the field, he was still their commanding officer and got into the aircraft.

There was a heavy rain at that time, but Baker took off anyway… rising up to 600 feet before leveling off.

A mere 1/4 mile into the flight, the motor cut out.

While these old planes weren’t cut out for gliding, it was possible to crash land the sucker… in fact, Baker had done it once before and just broke a few ribs.

Just not this time.

A few hundred yards from the airfield, the plane nosedived into the ground.

Horrified grounds crew got him out of the aircraft quickly and into a nearby ambulance… but he died en route to the hospital, his orders to return home inside his coat’s pocket.

Hobey Baker crashed plane.jpg

Eyewitness report:

“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 via:
George, Albert E.; Cooper, Edwin H. (1920), Pictorial History of the 26th Division United States Army, Boston: Ball Publishing

Baker was buried in a small military cemetery near Toul; in 1921, his mother had his remains moved to her family plot in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

one_baker06

Hobey Baker’s tombstone. Image from www.hhof.com.

The inscription on Baker’s tombstone (difficult to read on this image), states:
You who 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 spirits flame,

Until they loved and called you, and you came.

I’m not one to start rumors, but Baker’s death and his desire NOT to return home to face the boring world of 9-5… and I know you are wondering it too… but could it be possible he killed himself?

Could he have shut off his engine and purposely plummeted nose first into the ground?

The eyewitness seems confused that Baker wouldn’t have tried to land immediately, and the feeling I got from his words, was that it wasn’t a smart thing to try and turn a dead-engine aircraft around to try and make the airfield.

Did he really want to try and crashland as close to the field as possible or did he want to die on his airfield?

It seems possible that Baker might have thought such thoughts – given what we know about how the “thrill” was gone from excelling at athletics and from hunting down enemy aircraft.

He wasn’t cut out for a desk job… he needed excitement. He sure as heck wasn’t interested in having a family, 2.5 kids and a house with a picket fence…

Could he handle never having excitement?

IF it was a suicide run, did he plan it? No… I don’t think that was Baker… then again, I’m sure his family and friends would have said the same about suicide.

But I don’t think anyone really knew him and just how much he dreaded being “normal”.

Would I like to have the excitement of my life from 20 years ago? You bet I would. Good times… Who wouldn’t?

Anyhow… there is no evidence Baker wanted to die or that he did made it happen…

There’s also the fact that the great Hobey Baker had a reputation – even in death. I could see how a report of suicide would destroy his fans…

I’ll just leave it there. Like the report says… engine failure, plane went down, Baker died.

At the least, he died doing what he enjoyed doing.

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About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. Along with writing for a monthly industrial magazine, he also writes comic books and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. Along with the daily Japan - It's A Wonderful Rife blog, when he feels the hate, will also write another blog entitled: You Know What I Hate? He also works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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One Response to Hobey Baker: Hockey’s Most Famous “Flyer”

  1. Pingback: Bessie Coleman – First Black Female Licensed Pilot | Pioneers Of Aviation

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