The second incarnation of the now world-famous Madison Square Garden stood at Madison Avenue and 26th Street in The Big Apple back then, but there was no such thing as either the New York Rangers nor the National Hockey League during the time of contemporary American ice hockey superstar and U.S. Air Force fighter pilot HOBEY BAKER.
As acclaimed Canadian author Michael McKinley points out in his outstanding historical work, “Putting A Roof On Winter”, no less of a figure than would-be literary giant F. Scott Fitzgerald was just one of numerous underclassmen at Princeton University who had idolized the handsome, two-sport star of the Tigers.
And then the mortal man, even if the quintessential larger than life character, was, nonetheless, ultimately consumed by the current events that are now collectively known as the First World War.
HOBART AMORY HARE BAKER was born to an aristocratic and wealthy family with direct lineage to a prominent early 18th century Quaker in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd eight years before the onset of the 20th century. In 1910, the young lad who went by the name, “Hobey”, crossed the Pennsylvania state line and enrolled at prestigous Ivy League school Princeton University in neighboring New Jersey. A talented three-sport athlete, actually, Baker soon had to drop baseball entirely because Princeton had a strict school rule prohibiting active participation in more than two varsity sports in one year at that time.
Nevertheless, Baker rose to prominence in the maximum number allowed and is said by his contemporaries to have been among the greatest American athletes of that era.
Hobey Baker’s star burned brightest in ice hockey, though, to be certain. When the official Hockey Hall Of Fame now located in Toronto, Canada, inducted its first-ever class in 1945, the former Princeton Tiger just happened to be the only one of the nine inaugural members hailing from the United States of America. This despite the fact that the American standout never played even so much as one game professionally in his life, although Baker did draw high praise in matches involving full-fledged hired guns.
“Baker stands out so far above your other American players as to make comparisons ridiculous,” contemporary Canadian star goal-scorer Harry Hyland of the professional National Hockey Association’s Montreal Wanderers, the Stanley Cup winner in 1910, once remarked to the press.
(photo taken September 11, 1913 / G.G. Bain Collection) — Away from the ice, HOBEY BAKER was also an established star in football and, as a sophomore in 1911, certainly helped Princeton University to an undefeated season (eight wins, two ties) that was later recognized in the mid-1930s by the Helms Athletic Foundation as worthy of a mythical national championship retroactively … Although touchdowns only counted five points during the 1911 campaign, the 92 points scored by Baker in his sophomore season established a Princeton University record that stood for the next 63 years … Baker still holds the Princeton University record for most punt returns in one game, having fielded 13 kicks and gained 63 yards in the process as a sophomore against Yale University on November 18, 1911 — exactly seven years to the day before the Armistice Agreement was effected to end the First World War.
The incomparable HOBEY BAKER (seated second from right) spearheaded the powerful ice hockey team of Princeton University to the existing intercollegiate national championship titles in both 1912 and 1914. Although seven players, and not six, were permitted on the ice at one time in this era, the skillful Baker, who thought nothing of spending the entire contest on the ice, was still able to skate right through entire teams with what appeared to be effortless ease. It was reported author Emil R. Salvini in his book, “Hobey Baker : An American Legend”, that the superstar from the suburbs of Philly was estimated to have averaged three goals and three assists per contest while playing college hockey for the Princeton Tigers although actual statistics were not kept.
Upon graduation from college, Hobey Baker soon went to work for J.P. Morgan Bank and hooked on with Amateur American Hockey League’s fashionable St. Nicholas club of New York City, in part because every the very best Canadian players at that time just did not make a whole lot of money skating for any professional team. St. Nicholas actually had the financial backing of some of the most well-to-do men in all of America including Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and John Jacob Astor and contested its home matches at the historic St. Nicholas Arena, which was only the second-ever rink in all of the United States to host a mechanically-frozen ice surface … Baker was chosen to the AAHL First All-Star Team in each of his two seasons spent skating with St. Nicholas, who claimed the circuit’s championship title in 1915. During this same time period, the Montreal Canadiens of the professional National Hockey Association offered the American superstar a reported $ 20,000 as part of a three-year contract. But, mostly because of the player’s socio-economic status, Baker just did not believe that “gentlemen” signed contracts to play pro sports — a belief then held by many others, as well.
The ambitious as well as restless Hobey Baker joined General Leonard Wood’s civil aviation corps training on Governor’s Island in Manhattan and was among the first Americans to leave for Europe a year later in August of 1917. There in France, the one-time two-sport star was promoted to lieutenant of the United States Air Force and finally sent to the Western Front as part of the 103rd Aero Squadron in April of 1918. In the roughly eight months before the conclusion of the First World War, the fighter pilot Baker was officially credited with three kills during his time flying combat missions.
Only a few hours after receiving the orders to return to the United States, Lieutenant Hobey Baker took off in a plane that had just had maintenance work done for a test flight on December 21, 1918. Unfortunately, the 26-year-old former ice hockey hero would not land safely nor be able to enjoy the approaching Christmas holiday, either. This because Hobey Baker’s plane tragically crashed in Toul, France. (photo: www.hobeybaker.net)
Although originally interred in a military cemetery near Touls in France, today, HOBEY BAKER rests in peace at the West Laurel Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
Of course, Baker merely serves a a symbol today for ALL of those brave men and women together throughout history — whether ever an ice hockey superstar or otherwise — who went ahead and made that ultimate sacrifice in the military service of the United States of America.