St. Paul's had by this time become both home and family for him. In 1907, his parents divorced, virtually abandoning Hobey and Thornton to school and relatives. The boys' father also suffered severe financial reverses in the economic crisis of '07. In his reduced circumstances, he could send only one of his sons on to college, and Thornton, keenly aware of Hobey's exceptional gifts, gallantly stepped aside, a beau geste Hobey never forgot. But there wasn't even enough money for one Baker to attend college in 1909, so Hobey stayed at St. Paul's an extra year. In the fall of '10, he began his fabulous career at Princeton.
He saw the school much as Fitzgerald's Amory Blaine would see it: "From the first he loved Princeton—its lazy beauty, its half-grasped significance, the wild moonlight revel of the rushes, the handsome, prosperous big-game crowds, and under it all the air of struggle that pervaded his class...that breathless social system, that worship, seldom named, never really admitted of the bogey 'Big Man.' "
In no time Hobey became that Big Man on campus. As a member of the freshman football team, he beat Yale 6-0 by faking a drop-kick field goal and speeding to the game's only touchdown. He was an outfielder on the freshman baseball team and, of course, a wonder in hockey. But the Princeton rules of the day let him play only two varsity sports, so he chose football and hockey, which bore only superficial resemblance to their present incarnations.
Football had changed from the legalized warfare of its pioneer days to a somewhat more civilized activity because, in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt had advised college officials either to make it safer or to discontinue it. New rules were therefore conceived and gradually introduced. The lethal flying wedge was outlawed, and seven offensive players were required to be on the line of scrimmage at all times. The forward pass was also permitted, but because of the plumpness of the ball, it was seldom attempted. And after 1912 a first down could be made by advancing 10 yards in four plays (instead of the original three). The result of these changes was a much more defensive style of play than in the flying-wedge days and an emphasis on the kicking game. The prevailing strategy was simply to kick and wait for the breaks. A team might punt 40 or more times a game, frequently on first down, hoping for a fumble or a misplay. The dropkick field goal was scored far more often than the touchdown.
In this system the two most important players on the team were a sure-handed safetyman and an accurate dropkicker. Hobey was both. As a safety, he often gained more yardage returning punts during a game than both teams did on offense, and as a kicker, he was nearly the equal of his contemporary at Harvard, the great Charley Brickley. Hobey had a unique method of fielding punts: He would first size up the flight of the ball and then step back far enough so that he could catch it on the dead run. It was a tactic that repeatedly broke him free for long gains. Against Yale in 1912, he had a sensational runback of 88 yards.
Most players at that time wore at least rudimentary helmets, but not Hobey, who considered headgear too confining. Although there was no contesting the genuineness of his modesty, there was a streak of narcissism in him, and it may be assumed he was not uncomfortable being known as "the blond Adonis of the gridiron." His golden hair became his ensign. When joyful spectators cried out, "Here he comes!" there could be no doubting the object of their excitement. And they could count on Hobey to deliver the goods. In his first year on the varsity, Princeton won the Big Three championship (defeating Harvard and Yale) and was, according to football historian Parke Davis, the top team in the country. The Tigers were 20-3-4 in Hobey's three varsity seasons.
Hockey was a seven-man game in Hobey's day. There was no forward passing, and substitutions generally occurred only after injuries. The key offensive player was the rover, Hobey's position. "His characteristic play...was to take a rebound or steal the puck at his own end, and while forwards scrambled to get into position, he would circle the goal—sometimes twice—to pick up momentum and then take off at high speed," writes Davies. "One of the odd things about playing against Baker...was that because of his looping, curving pattern of maneuver, on one of these solo dashes a defenseman might get two or even three cracks at him."
Hockey was nearly as rich a showcase for Hobey's talents as football, because, lacking a rink of its own, Princeton played many of its games in big-city arenas, notably the St. Nicholas in Manhattan, where the socially-prominent debouched in evening finery from limousines and carriages as if attending a cotillion. Lawrence Perry, a sportswriter for the New York Post, described a typical scene: "A line of limousines would stretch from Columbus Avenue to Central Park West on 66th Street. A most fashionable audience would be inside, drawn solely by Baker's appearance. Men and women went hysterical when Baker flashed down the ice on one of his brilliant runs with the puck. I have never heard such spontaneous cheering for an athlete as greeted him a hundred times a night and never expect to again." Hobey was a marked man in every game he played, but legend has it that he never retaliated for the rough stuff inflicted upon him.
Princeton's official record during Hobey's three varsity years was 27-7. And yet his greatest collegiate game was probably a loss, to Harvard in January 1914. The game lasted 73 minutes (including 10 minutes of overtime and 23 minutes of sudden death) before Princeton succumbed 2-1 on a goal scored by Leverett Saltonstall, later the governor of and a U.S. senator from Massachusetts. In the overtime Harvard substituted freely for players collapsing from exhaustion, but Hobey played the entire 73 minutes and was skating as fiercely at the finish as he had at the start.
At Princeton, Hobey majored in the department of history, politics and economics, and his grades were solidly in the second group, the equivalent of a B average. In the classroom he was known more for diligence than for brilliance. He enjoyed having a drink and a song or two with the gang down at the Nassau Inn, but a couple of beers was pretty much his limit. Hobey could become giddy after a single beer, and on occasions when he took in too much champagne, he became dangerously adventurous. After one too many at a party in New York, he briefly crawled out onto a narrow window ledge on a high floor of the Plaza Hotel.