Hobey Baker, American Legend



On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918, the signing of the armistice signaled the end of the Great War that had convulsed Europe for over five years and claimed the lives of ten million soldiers. Spontaneous celebrations broke out around the globe as the news spread that the horrific carnage had ended. A Detroit shopkeeper, upon hearing the news, hung a sign in his store window that read, “Closed – Too Happy to Work,” and joined the joyous pandemonium taking place in the street.

A little more than a month after the armistice, on a damp, chilly December morning, Captain Hobart A. H. Baker’s brief life came to an end, when the fighter plane he was flying solo crashed in the French countryside. Hobey, as he was known to his fans and friends, had been one of America’s most famous amateur athletes, a genuine superstar in an era when the Eastern establishment Ivy-colleges ruled the national sports scene.

The story of his tragic and pointless death produced worldwide headlines as the press reported, “Hobey Baker Killed in Europe during Last Flight.” It was the type of story the public devoured: “The Prince of Princeton dead at age twenty-six.” Baker’s orders to return home were found in his jacket pocket as his broken body was dragged from the crumbled plane. Fighter pilots, especially the ones that had survived the war, learned early on not to tempt fate, and reports indicate that Hobey’s men had pleaded with him not to take that unnecessary flight. No one knew for sure why he did, and it remains a mystery today. Opinions differed, but the most popular theory suggested that, before shipping out, the diligent officer felt duty-bound to test a recently repaired airplane and the accident was caused by engine failure. Others suggested a darker motive.

A French newspaper speculated that suicide was a possibility, citing Hobey’s recent breakup with his fiancée, a Manhattan debutante, who had broken his heart when she abruptly ended their engagement and accepted another marriage proposal. A close source hinted that with his athletic career behind him and the war over, the dashing athlete and warrior of the sky had nothing else to live for. Naturally, his family, friends and the “old grads” from Princeton felt it was an accident, plain and simple, and that anything else was blasphemy.

Baker was often described by his contemporaries as a blond Adonis. To look at his photograph is to understand these recollections and why F. Scott Fitzgerald, an impressionable Princeton freshman during Hobey’s senior year, would later pattern his Allenby character in This Side of Paradise after Baker. Describing a parade of “white-shirted, white-trousered” upperclassmen marching up University Place singing Princeton’s “Going Back to Nassau Hall,” Fitzgerald wrote, “There at the head of the white platoon marched Allenby, the football captain, slim and defiant, as if aware that this year the hopes of the college rested on him, that his hundred-and-sixty pounds were expected to dodge to victory through the heavy blue and crimson lines.”

Andrew Turnbull, a Fitzgerald biographer, would later write of Baker’s era. “Varsity football players were looked upon as demi-gods, and Hobey Baker, captain of football and star of hockey--someone like Baker loomed so high in the heavens that he was scarcely visible.”

Hobey Baker’s accomplishments were impressive: he died a decorated World War One hero and is the only athlete enshrined in both the Hockey Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame. He is also the only amateur in both the Canadian and Hockey halls of fame and was an All-American twice in football and three times in hockey at Princeton. He was a superb athlete, a “natural” that routinely brought thousands to their feet, as he effortlessly flew down the ice or football field. A classmate that watched Hobey play hockey in 1914 recalled almost fifty years later that he had never seen a human being move so fast under his own power. Hobey Baker was one of those rarities who played for the pure love of the game.

In an era when the gentleman athlete defined sports and collegiate athletics were viewed as modern chivalry, Baker was the ideal of his age, an Ivy-League prince. He played by “the code” of fairness and would have abhorred today’s win-at-all-cost philosophy in sports. Hobey shunned publicity and was universally respected for his sportsmanship, modesty, and civility on and off the playing field. It is said that winners like Hobey Baker never knew they were in a race; they just loved to run.

The inscription on his tombstone reads:

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 the immortals saw you and were glad,
Watching the beauty of your spirits flame,
Until they loved and called you, and you came.

Had Hobey Baker not existed, some clever wordsmith would have been compelled to create him. Baker was the stuff of legends. There were his brilliant feats of athleticism on the ice and gridiron, his daring deeds flying with the celebrated Lafayette Flying Corps during World War One, and his mysterious, tragic death at such a young age. It was evident early in his life that the gods so loved Hobey that they endowed him with abilities that could thrill and astonish his fellow mortals, and in the end, like the mythical Icarus, he flew too close to the sun and fell from the sky, giving birth to his legend.