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A Flame that Burned Too Brightly
Ron Fimrite
March 18, 1991
Hobey Baker, the golden boy of American sport before World War I, found little worth living for beyond the playing fields of Princeton
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March 18, 1991

A Flame That Burned Too Brightly

Hobey Baker, the golden boy of American sport before World War I, found little worth living for beyond the playing fields of Princeton

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He lived with six other St. Paul's classmates, at 82 Nassau Street, above what was then Renwick's restaurant, and took his meals at the Ivy, the oldest (1879) and most revered of 16 eating clubs then at Princeton. Ivy was "detached and breathlessly aristocratic," Fitzgerald wrote, but Hobey was no snob. One classmate, J. Henry O'Neil, timorous in Hobey's presence but eager to have his parents meet the great athlete, called out to him as he sped by on his bicycle. "He skidded his bicycle to a stop, put it down on the grass and came trotting back to us, saying, 'Gee, I was afraid you weren't going to stop me,' " O'Neil wrote to Davies.

At his graduation in 1914, Hobey was named "the man who has done most for Princeton," among sundry other honors, including those of best football player and best hockey player. But Princeton may have done too much for Hobey. Like Fitzgerald's Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Hobey had become "one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savors of anticlimax." Hobey said as much to a friend, James M. Beck. "In reminiscing about college days," Beck wrote Davies, "[Hobey] suddenly became very serious and said, I realize that my life is finished. No matter how long I live, I will never equal the excitement of playing on the football fields.' "

Hobey eventually did what was expected of a gentleman of his class: He joined the firm of J.P. Morgan on Wall Street. But the job bored him almost beyond endurance. "Think of all the things I could do today if I didn't have to go to work," he lamented to a friend. He relieved his boredom by playing hockey for St. Nick's, an amateur team made up primarily of Big Three graduates that he transformed, in the newspapers' term, into Baker & Co. He cringed at marquees that announced HOBEY BAKER PLAYS TONIGHT and did his best to discourage excessive publicity. "I'd rather you wrote nothing, sir," he told one inquiring newspaperman. But since St. Nick's often played professional teams from Canada—and usually won—Hobey's fame soon spread across the border. Lester Patrick, who played for the Montreal Wanderers in 1905 and '06, when they won the Stanley Cup, and managed the New York Rangers two decades later, said Hobey was the only amateur he ever saw who could have played professional hockey and been a star in his first game. Harry Hyland, who played for the Wanderers in Hobey's time, said, "Baker stands out so far above your other American players as to make comparisons ridiculous."

Hobey also palled around New York with the enormously rich playboy Percy Pyne, a St. Paul's and Princeton man 10 years his senior. Pyne loaned Hobey his valet so that after a hockey game at St. Nick's, Hobey might change quickly into evening clothes for the night's revels. Under Pyne's influence, Hobey took up polo and auto racing and excelled in both sports. And through Pyne he met the glamorous New York society girl Jeanne Marie (Mimi) Scott, to whom he would be briefly, and with much publicity, engaged.

In his restlessness Hobey developed another, this time all-consuming, passion. In 1916 he became interested in flying and joined Gen. Leonard Wood's civilian aviation corps, taking lessons in the late afternoon on Governor's Island after working a full day on Wall Street. On one occasion he buzzed a Yale-Princeton football game, flying low over a cheering crowd that quickly recognized the blond head in the cockpit. The war in Europe was in its third year when Hobey became a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in May 1917. On Aug. 23, nearly five months after the U.S. declared war on Germany, he went to France, and by December he was training in aerial gunnery at Issoudun. He was accepted into the fabled Lafayette Escadrille, which became the 103rd Aero Squadron.

In flying, Hobey found the perfect outlet for his adventurous spirit. And for his athleticism. Piloting planes so light they were little more than extensions of his body, he could maneuver much as he had while returning punts or racing across the ice. The connection with sport was hardly lost on him. "You handle your machine instinctively just as you dodge instinctively when running with the ball in an open field," he wrote home from France.

Combat pilots on both sides observed the code by which Hobey lived. They were chevaliers of the skies fighting one-on-one battles to the death, honoring the fallen foe with cognac toasts after the battle. Hobey arrived at the front too late for the air wars of Bloody April (1917), when some 180 British planes went down in flames. A pilot had to look hard for a dogfight by the time Hobey's group was ready for action. Altogether, Hobey had three kills, two short of the number needed to become an official ace, but he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre after his first kill and cited by the American Expeditionary Force commander, Gen. John Pershing, for "distinguished service and exceptional gallantry." In August 1918, he was promoted to captain and put in command of a new squadron, the 141st. At home, the newspapers declared him a war hero.

Hobey's air war, dangerous though it may have been, had little to do with the horror in the trenches below. In Goodman's Hurrah for the Next Man Who Dies, the protagonist, Jeb Runcible, is shot down and forced to make his way back to the airfield through no-man's-land. "Oh, God," he cries out from the fields of slaughter. "Oh, God, you dirty mucker!" Runcible returns to the base to find Hobey and the other pilots celebrating the day's dogfighting at the bar. "Do you understand this, Hobey?" he snarls. "That's not the bloody— —Yale game out there."

The real-life Hobey may have been unclear on this point too. To him the war was a game, and when it ended in November 1918, he felt a sense of loss and disappointment, for he had not had his fill of it. And once more he was confronted with the galling prospect of getting on with the rest of his life. By now he was convinced that he was totally unsuited for so-called adult occupations. He was a sportsman, not a businessman. Nearly 27, he considered himself without prospects.

In December he received his orders to go home. But to what? On the 21st, the day he was scheduled to leave on the night train for Paris, he told his incredulous comrades that he would take "one last flight in the old Spad." This violated both tradition and superstition. "One last flight," in pilot's lore, was feared to be just that. But Hobey was the commanding officer, and though his subordinates protested vigorously, he would not be dissuaded. As he reached the hangar and before he could call for his own Spad No. 2, a mechanic informed him that No. 7, a plane whose carburetor had failed in flight a few days earlier, was ready for testing. As squadron commander, Hobey decided it was his duty to take the plane up for a checkout flight. "I'll take No. 7," he said. His last symbolic gesture would now be made in a borrowed and possibly defective plane. He had placed himself in double jeopardy.

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