When Ernestine Baker got a look at her fourth child, James Albert London Baker, she thought something had gone wrong.
"He was so strange-looking I was afraid to bring him home," she says. "His head was too large. His mouth was out to his ears. He looked like, well, did you ever see a catfish when you first pull him out of the water, how angry he is, with his mouth out to here? That was Albert. He was nicknamed Catfish Mouth."
As Al Baker got older his contours changed, and so did his nickname.
"They started to call him Fat Albert," his mother says. "Then his brothers nicknamed him Bubba. As he grew up, his mouth began to get smaller, his behind bigger."
He was a fat kid in Newark, where it doesn't pay to be a big target. He went out for football and basketball, to lose weight. He climbed the athletic ladder, from Weequahic High School to Colorado State to the Detroit Lions and now the St. Louis Cardinals. At 28 he is one of the NFL's finest pass-rushing defensive ends, with seven seasons and three Pro Bowls behind him, and a rare sacks-to-games-played ratio of 99 to 98, but Al (Bubba) Baker's place in football history will be secure in the same way that Bobby Layne's is. Stories, tales, one-liners, zingers are his trademark, a never-ending pipeline from brain to mouth.
"You will never doze off in a team meeting," says defensive tackle Stafford Mays, "if you're anywhere near Bubba."
It is August 1983. The Cards are playing the Vikings in an exhibition game in London. Their bus is bringing them back from a practice session in Wembley Stadium, and in the very rear, Bubba Baker is conducting a one-man Cook's tour. Has he ever been in London? Well, no, but that doesn't seem to matter much.
"See those buildings," he says. "That's where they filmed The Hunchback of Notre Dame. You can see him jumping from building to building.
"Those guys," he says, pointing to a couple of men fishing in a canal, "they're after the Loch Ness Monster." The neighborhood turns gray, dingy.
"Right now we're passing a ghetto, but it's a white ghetto," Baker notes.