He took off in a heavy rain, executed a chandelle (steep climbing turn) and leveled off at 600 feet. After a quarter of a mile, the engine quit. The Spad, for all of its faults, had one redeeming feature when it was in trouble: It was easy to crash-land. Hobey himself had crash-landed in rugged terrain only a month before. But this time he did not try for the forced landing. Instead, he acted as if he were trying to bring the stalled plane back to the air base. He made a right turn and pushed the stick forward to regain flying speed. Another hundred feet of altitude and he might have been able to get the nose of the plane back up. But he didn't have that hundred feet. The plane crashed nose down only a few hundred yards from the hangar. His own men freed him from the wreckage, and he died in the ambulance a few minutes later.
Back home, Perry wrote in the Post: "It is with emotion too poignant for orderly thought or precise expression that I write of Hobey Baker, whose death last Saturday, through the falling of his airplane at Toul, has just been announced. I don't think anyone who knew Hobey Baker personally, or as an athlete, will have any feeling other than that he was qualified to stand aloof as the ultimate product of all that is worthy, not alone in American college athletics, but in American college life."
But there were other reports from France implying that Hobey's death was not entirely accidental. Those who knew him well were aware of his misgivings about returning to the humdrum workaday world. And though Hobey had no way of realizing this, the world he had known before the war, the world he had conquered with such style and grace, would for-evermore be changed. The slaughter in the trenches had created a new cynicism. Gallantry now seemed irrelevant, courage foolhardy. The gentleman was to be replaced by a new species of American: the go-getter. Hobey Baker and George Babbitt could scarcely be expected to coexist.
Better perhaps to die dramatically. After all, why had he taken that damaged plane up? And why had he not attempted a crash landing? "I talked to some of his surviving relatives," Davies says, "and they as much as said, 'If Hobey had not gone down in flames, what would have become of him?' " But Davies believes Hobey was too proud to take his own life.
Goodman's fictional Runcible gives Hobey a bitter epitaph: "Hobey Baker drew his only sustenance from the strength and beauty of his own body...the narcissist incarnate, driven finally by his own tragic excellence to wed his perishable body to an indifferent machine and a threadbare code. Finally, it made a fool of him. A gifted fool, even a fabulous fool, and a far better man than I; but a fool nonetheless. Hobey didn't commit suicide on the fields of France.... But his physical egotism conspired with his sense of duty to destroy him, so it amounted to the same thing. With his last gesture he had to do the right thing by his office, as well as beat the odds one more time; and so he died in that fractious little plane as hopelessly, needlessly, as Ahab had died lashed to his terrible whale."
Hobey has left his traces at Princeton. The great gray Gothic hockey rink there is the Hobart A.H. Baker Memorial Rink. Inside, he is depicted in his airman's tunic and Sam Browne belt. In the tap room of the Nassau Inn, where Hobey drank beer and sang Moonlight Bay with the gang, his photograph hangs between those of two other Princeton athletic giants, Bill Bradley, the basketball star of the 1960s who is now a U.S. senator, and Dick Kazmaier, the '51 Heisman Trophy winner. A painting of Hobey hangs in the living room of the Ivy Club, where both men and women now gather.
Of the 360 men in Hobey's class of 1914, only four are still living, and three are infirm. The one who definitely is not is C. Earl Moore, a retired investment officer in Rosemont, Pa. Moore is 97. He remembers Hobey well:
"Hobey Baker? Oh my, what a wonderful boy he was. Just wonderful. You know, I used to play hockey in prep school, but when I came to Princeton and saw Hobey and all those St. Paul's boys play, I realized I should give up that game. And what a football player he was. You never knew what he'd do next, and if it was third-and-long, you just knew he'd make it. He loved speed. That's why he became a flier in the war, you know.
"He spent so much time playing and practicing that we never saw him much on campus, but, well, he was just the star of our class, of the whole school. His circle of friends was not my circle of friends, but whenever I saw him, he always had a smile. I don't really know how to describe him. He was such an attractive man. He was so humble, he'd never talk about anything he ever did in sports. He was a gifted athlete if ever I've seen one, and a good student. He had such a fine disposition. Oh, I don't think there was anyone at Princeton who didn't wish he knew Hobey better. He was so many things to us. But above all, yes, above all, he was a gentleman."
Moore leans forward. His eyes are moist. "You know, Hobey's grave is only a few steps away from my family plot at the West Laurel Hill Cemetery. And whenever I go there to visit my family, I always make it a point to stop by Hobey's grave for a few minutes to pay my respects. At Christmas I'll place a wreath there, because there is never anything on that grave. No flowers, just leaves. It's a beautiful headstone, but it just gets no attention. Sometimes the leaves aren't even raked. Sad, real sad. And there's a poem there. I know the last few lines by heart.