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Speed made Princeton grad America's best

GRAHAM BRINK
Published May 27, 2004

Hobey Baker roamed the ice for Princeton like a bird of prey - agile and ready to strike.

His shock of blond hair made him easy to spot. His speed made it impossible to look away.

In the days before forward passes, he'd circle his goal once, sometimes twice, to build momentum then launch his way down the ice on one of those rushes that bring spectators involuntarily to their feet.

He was the first great American hockey player. And even in defeat, the 5-foot-9 Baker was the show.

"Baker's work again stood out above the other skaters," gushed the New York Times after a 4-2 loss to Ottawa University in 1914. "He was all over the ice, sweeping down the rink in serpentine whirls of speed. Baker (skimmed) toward the enemy's net at a clip which left the other skaters far in the rear."

A young Baker honed his skills late into the night, skating on the frozen ponds around Concord, N.H. He later attended the elite St. Paul's School, leading the hockey team against adult clubs and college teams, including the powerhouse Ivy League schools.

Humble and sportsmanlike - he took only one penalty in his college career - Baker constantly tried to deflect the attention, turning the spotlight on his teammates and coaches.

Baker excelled on the gridiron, as well, leading Princeton to a 20-3-4 record in his three seasons and setting the season scoring record, which stood until 1974. He was the first athlete inducted into both the hockey and college football halls of fame. And the annual award for the top NCAA player is named for him.

Fellow Princeton grad F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalized him in his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Author George Frazier wrote that the mere mention of the name Hobey Baker evoked images of "the gallantry of a world long since gone."

"There are those who wrote during Baker's era, just before the Great War, that he was the greatest athlete who ever lived," wrote Baker chronicler Bill Esposito. "You can argue with that, but not too loudly."

After Princeton, Baker went to work for J.P. Morgan on Wall Street, a job his friends said left him restless. His hockey legend grew with St. Nick's, an amateur club in New York. Posters and the marquee sometimes blared "Hobey Baker Plays Tonight."

With World War I raging, Baker joined the civilian aviation corps and what later became the 103rd Aero Squadron. Baker's squad arrived in France near the end of the war, though he still shot down three enemy planes. He later was promoted to captain.

In December 1918, the war had ended and Baker had his orders to return home. But he insisted on taking a repaired Spad for one last spin over the French town of Toul. The engine cut out at about 600 feet.

Instead of executing a controlled crash landing, Baker appeared to try to make it back to the base. Some observers later implied Baker had suicide on his mind; the mundane realities of civilian life too much for such a shining star.

The plane hit the ground nose first within a few hundred yards of the hangar.

The greatest American hockey player was dead at the age of 26.

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