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Hobey has a walk-on part in Geoffrey Wolff's 1990 novel, The Final Club, which chillingly describes the Princeton practice called Bicker, in which the eating clubs tap new members. One of Wolff's characters, Booth Tarkington Griggs, tells Ivy Club friends about his dead father: "You know his name was Hobart? Called after Hobey Baker, a first cousin.... Lafayette Escadrille in Double-you-Double-you-One, fiery plunge to chilly Styx in same; he also did a star turn in this place. Hockey. Ditto Daddy. Ivy. Ditto. So I'm a legacy. Here and at Ivy."
George Frazier, the brilliant Boston essayist, wrote in 1962 of Hobey and Princeton: "...he haunts a whole school, and from generation unto generation. You say, 'Hobey Baker,' and all of a sudden you see the gallantry of a world long since gone—a world of all the sad young men, a world in which handsome young officers spent their leaves tea-dancing at the Plaza to the strains of the season; a world in which poets sang of their rendezvous with death when spring came round with rusting shade and apple blossoms filled the air."
But Hobey's influence extended far beyond the printed page. Through his spartan example, he imposed a code of behavior on athletes, particularly college athletes, that was accepted, if not faithfully observed, for the better part of four decades. It is now, alas, as forgotten as the dropkick. In the Hobey code, for example, a star player must be modest in victory, generous in defeat. He credits his triumphs to teamwork, accepts only faint praise for himself. He is clean-cut in dress and manner. He plays by the rules. He never boasts, for boasting is the worst form of muckery. And above all, he is cool and implacable, incapable of conspicuous public demonstration. No room there for the Ickey Shuffle.
The Hobey code—unspoken, for to speak of it would be another form of muckery—was far-reaching in its time. Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio observed it. So did Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Nile Kinnick, the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner, who also died young, embodied it. Roger Staubach adhered to it. And so, for all his flair, did Julius Erving.
But, as Tunis correctly observed, there "never was anybody like Baker," and considering the opposite road most contemporary athletes seem to be following, there never will be again. Hobey was the gentleman-sportsman, the gifted amateur in the English tradition he so admired. And as another Fitzgerald biographer, Arthur Mizener, has written, "With his almost incredible skill and grace, his perfect manners, his dedicated seriousness, Hobey Baker was the nearly faultless realization of the ideal of his age." And yet, there was always the dark side: the realization that this was a flame burning too brightly to burn long. Hobey Baker had a fault: he was mortal, and he refused to accept the condition.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
Hobey Baker was born on Jan. 15, 1892, the second son of Alfred Thornton Baker, a socially prominent Philadelphian whose money came from the upholstery business, and Mary Augusta Pemberton, a Philadelphia society belle. Hobey was named after his maternal uncle, Dr. Hobart Amory Hare, the presiding obstetrician at his birth and, at that time, president of the Jefferson Medical Hospital. Hobey's father was a popular man about town, a member of all the right clubs: the Racquet, the Rittenhouse, the University and, most exclusive of all, the Fish House, founded in 1732 and limited in membership to 30 Philadelphia gentlemen. The senior Baker-Bobby to his friends—had been a halfback at Princeton in the 1880s, and his father had also been a son of Old Nassau.
In 1903, when Hobey was 11, he and his brother, Thornton, one year older, were sent to St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H.; founded in 1855, St. Paul's was among the oldest of the elite East Coast prep schools and was the-model for such successors as St. Mark's and St. George's. "What is the spirit of St. Paul's?" Arthur Stanwood Pier asked in St. Paul's School, 1855-1934, the history he wrote in 1934. "In the accepted meaning, the boy who has school spirit, the right attitude, is one who conforms cheerfully to regulations and customs...is energetic and enthusiastic in club athletics, is pleasant and friendly with masters and never two-faced with boys, and is quite uncritical in his outlook."
St. Paul's in Hobey's time was also the cradle of the newly popular sport of ice hockey, which had been brought south from Canada a few years earlier. The St. Paul's coach, Malcolm Kenneth Gordon, whom some have called the father of American hockey, learned early on that in Hobey he had a phenomenal player. Hobey had astonishing speed on the ice and the grace of a figure skater. He also worked hard at the game, skating on frozen ponds in the dead of night to practice carrying the puck without looking at it. He made the St. Paul's varsity at age 14 and was soon leading it to upset wins over the best amateur teams—college and club—in the East. In the 1909-10 season, when Princeton went 7-3 against college teams, it lost 4-0 to Hobey and St. Paul's. The season before, St. Paul's had defeated Harvard 5-3 with Hobey time and again stealing the puck from the Crimson captain, Clarence Pell. In his 1966 biography, The Legend of Hobey Baker, Davies, a former professor of history at Princeton, quotes one of Hobey's St. Paul's teammates: "[Hobey] flew over the surface like a bird.... I had seen pros play in Pittsburgh where I had first played hockey, but I had never seen such speed nor such grace."
He was beyond question the best hockey player in the history of St. Paul's. He may still be. But there was no sport Hobey could not master. He was already a brilliant broken-field runner and kicker, as well as a fine outfielder. He was an accomplished gymnast, swimmer and diver. He could juggle five balls. He could walk up flights of stairs on his hands. He was a fast sprinter, but he also excelled at cross-country running. He put on roller skates for the first time and within five minutes was doing stunts on one foot. One St. Paul's master told Davies, "[Hobey] had perfect control of himself and could bring every muscle of his body to bear at one time." He was also the most popular boy in school, a member of the elite Bogi society. He was, in fact, already a legend.