Courtesy of Princeton Athletics
Bala Cynwyd’s Hobey Baker remains one of America’s most enduring—and tragic—sports figures in our region.
When Princeton University’s hockey team dons their black-and-orange sweaters before a practice or a home game, they sit beneath a mural that reads, “Make Hobey Proud.” The phrase appears in numerous spots at the school’s nearly century-old hockey arena, the Hobey Baker Memorial Rink. In the realm of hockey, Baker was the sport’s first American star. He was just as gifted on the football field, earning all-American honors on Princeton’s great teams of the early 1910s. Baker is, in fact, the only person who’s been inducted into both the Hockey Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.
Strikingly handsome, intelligent and suave, Baker was a big man on a college campus full of big men. Fellow Princeton undergraduate F. Scott Fitzgerald so admired Baker’s prowess and presence that he modeled Amory Blaine, the protagonist of This Side of Paradise, after Baker. In military service, Baker proved as skilled and gallant as he did in civilian life, earning plaudits both at home and in the skies over France.
Hobart Amory Hare Baker was born on Jan. 15, 1892, into one of the Main Line’s most prestigious families. His father, A. Thornton “Bobby” Baker, had been a standout football player at Princeton and made a fortune in the upholstery business. His mother, May Augusta Pemberton, also came from Philadelphia society. Her family’s roots in the city dated to the 17th century, when the Pembertons ventured to North America with William Penn in 1682. May’s ancestor Israel Pemberton helped found the Philadelphia Hospital. Her uncle, Gen. John Pemberton, commanded the Confederate forces during the Vicksburg campaign, and her sister married Dr. Amory Hare, the lead physician at Jefferson Medical Hospital. He later delivered Hobey and served as his partial namesake.
Hobey split his childhood between a home in Wissahickon and one on St. Asaphs Road in Bala Cynwyd. Despite the family’s status, the Baker home proved to be an unhappy one, as the parents feuded continuously. Eventually, they were divorced. Young Hobey and older brother Thornton took solace in sports, learning to skate on Wissahickon Creek. For both, adolescence was spent at boarding school.
At age 12, Hobey enrolled at the prestigious St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, long a favorite of Philadelphia’s elite. In the fall, he dominated the football gridiron. In the winter, he developed quickly into the best hockey player in school history. In the spring, he brought his skills to the baseball diamond. “My grandmother and grandfather spoke about Hobey to some degree,” says Christo Moore, an accomplished filmmaker who served as first assistant director on the award-winning HBO series Succession.
Moore is also the second great-grandnephew of Baker. He maintains close ties with the Hobey Baker Memorial Award Foundation and has represented the family at events held to honor Baker. “I think I was one of the more curious about him because I was very engaged in sports as a young man,” says Moore. “I played hockey for many years and then got deeply involved with ski racing, where I raced all over the world for a few years.”
Baker was a third-generation Princeton Tiger. His father, Bobby, had been a football star at Princeton back in the 1880s. His son did not disappoint, excelling at halfback for all three years of his varsity career. Baker was also the country’s most feared punt returner, often springing long runs and putting the Tigers in excellent field position. He later added kicking field goals to his repertoire. In his three years on the Princeton varsity, the Tigers lost just three games.
Baker proved even more dominant as a hockey player. At the time, the Tigers didn’t have an on-campus venue for hockey, so they played in Manhattan. Baker almost singlehandedly transformed Princeton into the country’s top collegiate program—and the Tigers hockey team into a gate attraction in New York City. Back when seven skaters rather than six graced the ice for each team, Baker played the position of “rover,” trolling the ice from end to end and essentially quarterbacking his Princeton team on offense and defense. He was among the country’s leading scorers each year, piling up dozens of goals while chalking up even more assists before that statistic was even officially registered.
Princeton won the American Collegiate Ice Hockey Championship in 1912 and 1914. In Baker’s three seasons, the team lost just five games. “The things that stood out to me about Hobey were that he only had two penalty minutes in his whole career,” says Jim Martin, a Hobey Baker Foundation board member. “He’s also the first one we know of that went into the opposing team’s locker room after a game to shake hands, win or lose.”
For all of his athletic success, Baker was no giant. Sinewy, fast and powerful, he stood just 5-foot-9 and weighed 160 pounds. Upon graduation in 1914, he took a job on Wall Street but soon lost interest in the world of stocks and securities. In his free time, he trained as a pilot on Long Island and continued to play hockey, joining an amateur club team. The Montreal Canadiens, who would become the National Hockey League’s best franchise, were impressed enough with Baker’s skills to offer him a contract. He turned them down, preferring to maintain his amateur status.
Baker soon returned to the Main Line and starred for Philadelphia-based clubs. He moved in with his brother’s young family, settling into a stone house his sibling had constructed at 348 Llandrillo Drive in Bala Cynwyd. But his return was short-lived. He wanted to make use of his skills as a pilot in Europe.
In early 1917, Baker enlisted in the famed Lafayette Escadrille, a unit in the French Air Force made up of mostly American volunteers. When the United States entered World War I, he and the other members of the special unit were transferred to the 103rd Aero Squadron in the American Expeditionary Force.
Baker became one of the most accomplished flying aces of World War I, winning numerous dogfights and earning a special commendation from U.S. Gen. John Pershing and the Croix de Guerre from France. By the war’s end, he’d been promoted to captain and oversaw dozens of pilots and nearly 200 servicemen as part of the 141st Aero Squadron.
The Montreal Canadiens, who would become the National Hockey League’s best franchise, were impressed enough with Baker’s skills to offer him a contract. He turned them down, preferring to maintain his amateur status.
Several weeks after the Armistice that brought World War I to an end, Baker received his orders to return home. Before boarding a Paris-bound train at his air base in Toul, he took to the skies one final time to test out a plane that had just been repaired. Soon after takeoff, the engine failed and Baker fell to his death on Dec. 21, 1918, less than a month shy of his 27th birthday.
Baker was first buried in Toul, but his family decided to bring him back home to Bala Cynwyd. His body was returned to the United States in 1921, and he was buried at West Laurel Hill Cemetery. For more than a century now, people have been leaving hockey pucks by his graveside.
In 1981, a foundation based in Bloomington, Minnesota, began honoring the country’s best college hockey player with the Hobey Baker Memorial Award. First presented by the Decathlon Athletic Club and now presented by the Minneapolis-based Hobey Baker Memorial Award Foundation, it’s been given annually to America’s outstanding collegiate player for each of the past 41 seasons. To hoist the esteemed trophy, a player must also display the sense of sportsmanship, character and commitment to scholarship embodied by Baker.
In 2003, the foundation also created the Hobey Baker High School Character Award to honor prep-school players who display similar virtues. “The Hobey Baker is like the Heisman Trophy, but it’s for character,” says Martin, who’s been a board member for more than 20 years. “Hobey played in an era when hockey was fairly young and the rules weren’t quite what they are now. He took quite a beating because he was so good. I’ve read articles where he got hacked and slashed—and they weren’t wearing helmets back then. At the end of the game, he’d go shake hands, win or lose.”
In 2018, administrators at West Laurel Hill Cemetery organized a memorial at Baker’s gravesite to honor the 100th anniversary of his death. Family members, officials from the foundation, and an ROTC color guard from Princeton attended the ceremony. “It was my first time at the gravesite,” Moore recalls. “My daughter was there, and she put a puck on the gravesite. It was very moving. I think we all felt that presence—being there.”
Clayton Trutor teaches history at Norwich University in Vermont. His latest book, Boston Ball: Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, Gary Williams, and Basketball’s Forgotten Cradle of Coaches (University of Nebraska Press, 376 pages) is due out this month. Visit @claytontrutor.