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Hobey Baker, early American hockey star, has Pittsburgh ties

| Monday, Dec. 27, 2010

Hobey Baker, the nation's first hockey superstar, flashed through Pittsburgh like a rare meteor on the eve of America's entry into World War I.

But hockey-mad Pittsburgh could not have known its only chance to see Baker on March 24, 1917, would be in his final game, an exhibition at the Winter Garden, a rink inside Exposition Hall along the Allegheny River where Point State Park now is located. Baker died in France soon after the end of the war.

So Saturday's NHL Winter Classic — destined to become part of the city's hockey lore -- could have competition as the most historic game ever played along the Three Rivers.

"He was an exceptional athlete whose skating skill separated him from other elite players at that time, and in Pittsburgh for one night he found fans who really could appreciate what they were seeing," said Bob Grove, studio host of Penguins Radio Network.

Baker scored a hat trick in the game history all but forgot.

"I never knew about this game," said Emil R. Salvini, author of "Hobey Baker: American Legend," a biography released in 2005. "It was the end of an era and his final game before leaving for Europe and never returning."

Baker, an All-America football and hockey player at Princeton University, joined the military weeks after the Pittsburgh game. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

"Here he is playing hockey and reading about people dying in Europe," Salvini said. "He was faced with the reality of where he was going to go with his life."

Described as an action junkie by Salvini, Baker joined the Air Service and "was among the first American aviators to be sent abroad," according to Princeton's library archives.

By August, the Army lieutenant was in Europe. By December, he was flying for the famed French Lafayette Escadrille, and eventually he shot down three enemy planes.

After the war ended Nov. 11, 1918, Baker ignored his squad's urging not to tempt fate. He returned to the air on a test flight Dec. 21, 1918, and crashed near Toul, France. His orders to return home were found in his pocket.

Historians and biographers long believed Baker's last game was played in New York on Feb. 22, 1917, with the St. Nicholas Skating Club.

Historians contacted by the Tribune-Review said they never heard about the Pittsburgh game played a month later.

"I think it's a bit of lost history," said George Fosty, founder and president of the Society of North American Hockey Historians and Researchers. "The significance is with Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh hockey legacy. No one remembers Pittsburgh was a great center of early American hockey."

The first inter-city professional hockey league started in Pittsburgh in 1902, said Ernie Fitzsimmons of New Brunswick, Canada, a member of the Society for International Hockey Research.

By 1917, the city's earliest professional teams and their many Canadian players were gone for nearly a decade. The glory days of the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets' championships were seven years away.

Baker's appearance pitted an amateur all-star team from Philadelphia against "a picked team of crack players" from Pittsburgh's amateur leagues, reported the Pittsburg Dispatch, which did not use an "h" in referring to the city.

Fans snapped up tickets for 1,000 reserved seats, sold for 50 to 75 cents apiece, The Pittsburgh Press reported.

"They were starved for anything of a spectacular nature, and this fit into the category of a sensational game," Fitzsimmons said.

Promoters advertised Baker as "America's Greatest Hockey Star," and the crowd did not have to wait long for him to shine.

"He skated right through the entire Pittsburg team, eluding the forwards, defense and finally pushing the puck past goaltender Jack Chislett," the Dispatch reported.

Pittsburgh tied the game 1-1 just before the whistle blew at the end of the first 20 minutes, and took the lead early in the next frame.

"And then Hobey broke loose again for a counter that tied the score after several previous attempts had failed," the Dispatch reported.

Neither team scored during two 5-minute overtime periods, so the game went to sudden death — where Baker put a shot past Chislett for his third goal in a 3-2 win.

"The significance, if this was his last game, is that it ended an era of hockey, when sportsmanship and play for pure love of the game turned into professionalism," Salvini said.

For Baker, a suburban Philadelphia "blue blood" by birth, playing professional hockey was not an option. He turned down professional contracts from teams in New York and Canada. People from his social class played sports for love, not money.

"His pedigree was simply not one that let him think about being a professional," said Stephen Hardy, a hockey historian and professor at the University of New Hampshire. "Times have changed."

Hobey Baker

• Born Jan. 15, 1892, as Hobart Amory Hare Baker and raised in Bala Cynwyd, a Philadelphia suburb.

• Baker played at St. Paul's School, a New Hampshire prep school, under Malcolm Gordon, the "father of American hockey."

• At Princeton University, Baker won national championships in football (1911) and hockey (1912, 1914).

• In his three-year college football career, Baker returned more than 900 punts and averaged more than 300 yards per game in punt returns. The school-record 92 points he scored in 1912 stood until 1974.

• In his three-year hockey career at Princeton, Baker scored more than 120 goals and recorded more than 100 assists, averaging about three of each per game.

• "This Side of Paradise," the debut novel by Princeton classmate F. Scott Fitzgerald, used Baker's middle name for protagonist Amory Blaine and based the character Allenby on Baker.

• Baker is the only person elected to both the College Football Hall of Fame and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

• Baker was the only American inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame's 1945 inaugural class, which included Art Ross, Georges Vezina and Lord Frederick Stanley.

• The Hobey Baker Award, introduced in 1980, is collegiate hockey's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

Sources: Princeton University; New York Times; Sports Illustrated; "Hobey Baker: American Legend," by Emil R. Salvini, 2005; Tribune-Review research

Newspaper account

The Pittsburg Dispatch, Sunday, March 25, 1917


'Baker Scores Three Of Visitors' Points; Local's Defense Strong'

'Ex-Princeton Star Puts Up Sensational Game, but Has Anything but Easy Time Winning'

"The ex-Princeton luminary and foremost hockey player ever developed in this country had six assistants with him that made up the Philadelphia aggregation, but Hobey stood out so prominently with his spurts up the ice as well as defensive tactics that he was the most conspicuous player on the ice. He scored all three goals for his team. But in spite of Baker's prowess, the Quaker City puck chasers had anything but an easy time of it with the local seven. It took two extra periods of five minutes each and then a sudden death period to decide the contest.

"It was an interesting game, thrilling from beginning to end, and thoroughly enjoyed by the large crowd that packed the Point arena to see the game — and principally Baker.

"Shortly after the start of the contest, after several fruitless efforts following sensational dashes up the ice, Baker scored the first goal of the contest. He skated right through the entire Pittsburg team, eluding the forwards, defense, and finally pushing the puck past Goaltender Jack Chislett, who it might be mentioned here, was one of the stars of the game. It was these dashes up the ice on the part of the fleet hockeyite that finally won for the Philadelphians. So frequently did Baker take the puck up the ice that every time he got near it the call was heard, "Here he comes."

"Although countless shots that looked like sure goals were sent toward the two nets, both by the locals and the visitors, only one other score was registered in the first half, that being made by Marsh Herron of the local aggregation just before the whistle blew. When the two teams took the ice at the start of the second contest, the Pittsburgers outplayed the Philadelphians, Jack Barbour, right wing for the locals, registering a second goal and putting his team in the lead for a 2-to-1 count. The puck see-sawed up and down the ice, the locals bounding no less than 12 shots off of Ford's stick in the visitors' cage for near scores. And then Hobey broke loose again for a counter that tied the score after several previous attempts had failed. The whistle soon sounded the end of the game at two all. Two extra periods of five minutes each were then decided upon, but neither side was able to corral a point. A sudden-death period was then arranged that spelled defeat for the Young Men's Business Club. After unsuccessful efforts on the parts of the locals to cage a goal in this extra session, Baker broke loose again, taking the puck up the ice from behind his own goal and pushing one past Chislett that the latter thought he had stopped. While Baker played practically the whole game for his outfit, he had some able assistance from Hill, Ellis and his brother, Tom Baker. For the locals, Mosey Herron, Jack Barbour, Loeffler and Jack Chislett starred. As far as team work and the rudiments of the game are concerned, the locals clearly outplayed the visitors, the individual work of Baker, coupled with some clever goal tending on the part of Ford, winning for the Easterners. The opinion was generally expressed that had the Pittsburg aggregation possessed a star of the near caliber of Baker, they would have been easy winners."

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