March 17, 2004 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Review: 'Golden - The Hobey Baker Story'

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Hobey Baker lived so long ago (1892-1918), in a time when broadcast media did not exist, and before film was popularized, that we know very little about him beyond some faded photographs and romanticized writings.

Even the sports pages in those days were written in sentimental, flowery language, without the use of first-person quotations. And sports figures in those days — even ones that could demand enormous followings like Hobey Baker — were not the subject of scholarly works. It's hard to get a true picture.

As a result, those who have read about Hobey Baker's life won't get much new out of New Hampshire Public Television's production of "Golden: The Hobey Baker Story" (debuts Wednesday, March 17 at 7:30 p.m. on NHPTV). NHPTV only had so much material to draw from.

Nevertheless, it is a valuable work, to finally have, in "Biography" form, a visual history of Hobey Baker. Paul Lally produced, directed, wrote and narrated the show. He spent six months researching and conducting interviews and came away with a first-rate product. That it gets over-flowery at times can be forgiven considering that all the primary sources of information about Baker are filled with a romanticized image of the perfect golden boy next door.

For those who only know that Hobey Baker is the man college hockey's most famous award is named after, it's hard to imagine that Baker was once a living legend. At a time when hockey was not exactly a popular sport in the United States, Baker drew huge crowds in the thousands to see him play in cities like New York and Boston. He was one of the most well-known sports figures of his time, rivaling the likes of Jim Thorpe and Ty Cobb.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Baker was the best hockey player of the time. He was also one of the best collegiate football players, and his other feats of athleticism at the Concord, N.H., prep school St. Paul's and then at [nl]Princeton are the stuff of legend. But just how good, that's difficult to say, as "Golden" acknowledges.

He died in a plane crash in France at the end of World War I in 1918, at age 26. Had he lived another 40-50 years, we may have gotten some recorded first-hand conversations with the man. Instead, we were left with romanticized descriptions. And then, for decades, the world forgot who Hobey Baker was.

Other than a 1966 book (The Legend of Hobey Baker, by [nl]Princeton historian John Davies), Baker, once a top New York City social attraction, became essentially unknown to the world. This changed somewhat in 1981, with the naming of the Hobey Baker Memorial Award by the Decathlon Club of Minnesota, to be awarded to each season's top college hockey player.

"Golden" does its best to work with the material it has. There are photos, newspaper oldarticles from the era, interviews with historians. There are also interviews with the likes of former Harvard player and coach Bill Cleary, one of the top American players of his era, though all he can do is speculate on what it must have been like for Baker, since he's obviously not a historian and obviously never saw him or met him.

The most interesting interview is with Hobey Baker II, the nephew of Baker and the only living person with memories of him. Now in his 90s, Baker II tells of his own father's (Baker's brother) reverence for the family's golden child.

We do learn a smattering of nuggets, most of which were already known but are nevertheless not as well-documented as other information. For example, his mother was put in an asylum in order to cope with issues surrounding her failing marriage, and Hobey was not permitted to see her. And Hobey was sent from his Philadelphia home to St. Paul's at a young age, in order to get away from the scandal that was divorce at the time. He spent most of seven years there before heading to [nl]Princeton.

Hobey's specific on-field accomplishments in hockey and football are bypassed in favor of a broader image of the student-athlete, his legendary sportsmanship, his hours of hard work on the frozen pond, playing in the dark to hone his stickhandling skills. These stories have been passed down through the generations, in those rare books and news oldarticles. They have become the gospel.

Clearly, however, despite the romanticized portrait, there was an actual reverence for Baker in his day. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel This Side of Paradise features a character modeled after Baker, and is portrayed glowingly. Fitzgerald was at [nl]Princeton with Baker.

The second half of the piece begins to dwell on the question marks in Hobey's life. "Could he say goodbye to athletics?" is the common question, as he graduates from Princeton and enters the world of Wall Street. Hobey got to continue playing hockey for St. Nick's a powerful amateur club in New York City, but is quoted as saying "It's not the same." St. Nick's games drew massive crowds for the era, and were as popular as a night at the opera for New York socialites. But the promoters of the event were trying to make a buck off Hobey's name, and Hobey didn't like it. It's a well-known part of the legend that signs such as "Hobey Plays Here Tonight" were used to promote his games, as if that was all that was necessary to draw crowds. But "Golden" mentions a new tidbit, that Hobey refused to play unless those signs were removed.

Finally, Hobey finds renewed inspiration in World War I as a pilot in the fledgling U.S. Air Service. This is where historian Charles Wooley comes in (author of "Echoes of Eagles: A Son's Search for His Father and the Legacy of America's First Fighter Pilots"). He chronicles Hobey's days in the service, from his waiting endlessly in France, until finally being ordered to the front, flying for a French squadron.

In rarely noted letters to home, we get a glimpse inside Hobey's thinking at this time. His love of flying, his concern about what would replace this kind of "high" when he returned, and his thoughts on the danger of flying above the clouds. "This would be a good way to die. Quick, sure and certain." We hear about his engagement to old friend Mimi Scott, and then later, about how Scott met another man in France and married him instead. "Don't let's say anything more about it," he writes his father.

It is here, and throughout the latter part of the show, that the alternative speculation over the circumstances of Hobey's death is consistently hinted at. But "Golden" shies away from uttering the word "suicide," although for decades there has been rampant speculation along those lines by historians.

Did Hobey, who grew up with his mom in an asylum, whose social life was in turmoil, and who had nothing to look forward to upon returning home but a soulless office on Wall Street, decide to take his own life? Could it be that a man who knew so much grace, beauty and talent, could not bear to come back to a drab world without his old excitement, and without much true love? Wooley will only say that it's "strange" that Hobey, a great pilot, decided to take "one more flight" at the end of the war, and that he made amateurish maneuvers after the plane was experiencing trouble.

It's likely we will never know for sure, and "Golden" doesn't pretend to know. But it's all part of the romance of the story.

Perhaps one day, we will make some great discovery that will provide more insight into the life of this fascinating figure. There is more there that is screaming to be told. Until then, the hockey world is left with our romanticized view of the man whose name is always on our minds, and to whom we pay homage to every April.

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