Hobey Baker: American Legend

We recently chatted with author Emil Salvini about his attempt to write the most definitive biography of Hobey Baker to date. Baker is the namesake of the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to college hockey’s top player. A Princeton graduate of 1914, he is the only player in the football and hockey Hall of Fame.

Baker was legendary in his time, something that’s sometimes hard to fathom. The New York City elite would flock to see him play, dressed to the nines, like they would flock to the opera. He was considered the best American hockey player of the early part of the century, utilizing skating abilities that were years ahead of his time.

Salvini attempted to put Baker’s exploits in context of the times, and flesh out the story like no one else had before.

Q: What prompted you to want to write a book about Hobey Baker?

Salvini: I had heard about Hobey through the award, but did not know a heckuva lot about him. I wanted to find out more. … I’m a big pro hockey fan. I’ve been a season ticket holder for many years to the New Jersey Devils, so I did follow it a little bit.

I came across some articles, an old Sports Illustrated article, a couple of online stories … I thought this would make a wonderful book. I’d writen some history books. I discovered to my dismay that there was a book written in the ’60s about Hobey (by John Davies). I found a copy, read it, and realized there was more to the story. It was strictly biography, description of games. And it was written from the viewpoint of someone who was editor of Princeton Alumni Weekly at the time. I found in some of his records, there was a strong old-boy network that restricted him from expressing some theories.

I also discovered a letter that confirmed my theory. After I read his book, I felt he never set Hobey in the time period that would make a phenomenon like him possible. That made me decide there was an interesting story here. I wanted to talk about the origins of football and hockey. Ivy was so big at the time. … I found a letter (in his records at the Princeton archives) from his publisher. It said, and I’m paraphrasing, “You did a fine job but failed to set Hobey in the time that made him possible.” And that was was my goal, because I didn’t want to write the same book. And since he only lived for 26 years there wasn’t a lot of untold history.

Q: One interesting thing people don’t realize is how popular someone like him was at that time. But they remained amateurs, and someone like him had nothing to do after school.

A: Schools didn’t have rinks of their own, so they played in large cities. … So it made him a superstar in his era. He reminds me a lot of a hockey/football version of [legendary golfer] Bobby Jones. He was a true amateur.

A lot of people think that he was wealthy and he was not. His father had gone broke, and could not even send his second son to Princeton. So he was faced with a dilemma — how to make a living, how to travel in the same circles. It was a dilemma for him. He could trade off his name, if he sold stocks and bonds. … But there was a gentleman class of athletes that did strongly believe in not playing for money and never taking pay to play. And a lot of that class of people chose to enlist early [in the military, for World War I].

Q: That wouldn’t happen today.

A: That would make another great book. I was surprised that outside of the military academies, Princeton had the most amount of students that volunteered. It was considered a noble obligation. And interestingly, that type of person would not be considered politically correct — but did contribute quite a bit to the world as we know it today.

Q: How did you take into account how much of the old Hobey stories were apocryphal?

A: I tried to back up as much as I can, spending time at microfilm, finding out about games these people remember. Legends tend to grow, especially when many of the anecdotes were coming from Princeton alums. I tried to keep that separate from fact. For instance, there was a story on the Web, a good-sized article, that said there was a national day of mourning upon news of his death. I found absolutely no proof of that and couldn’t include it. I also read he had the crash on the same day [ex-fiance] Mimi Scott got married, which is great drama but didn’t happen — I found her wedding announcements and things. To me his story is enough the sense of a greek tragedy that you don’t need to embellish it.

If I couldn’t verify I left it out. I have two boxes of material in my basement that’s interesting reading, but I couldn’t verify.

Q: The question is, was he really that good? Obviously he was great in the time, but just as obviously, athletes are much better today. So it’s hard to say just how good he was.

A: I truly believe, I have read so many descriptions, not just from Princeton, but New York Times reporters, of his skating ability, that it had to be something. … And here’s something to take into consideration: Yes, by today’s standards, athletes are bigger, but look at the equipment he was using. His skates were the equivalent of goalie skates. And these were iron men — they never liked to go off the ice, because if you went off, you couldn’t come back that period.

So many people talk about how he could skate without looking down at the puck. Today that’s almost expected. He was doing it at a time when nobody was doing it. And with the equipment, maybe he figured — he never wore a helmet — he figured out how not to get his bell rung.

Q: The whole thing with him taking only one penalty in his career — it’s probably true, but so many things just make him so almost too good to be true.

A: I found enough material in the Princeton records and descirptions of him that I felt it was worth including. I was really careful of leaving things out — things that almost made him seem god-like. One story talked about the amount of balls he could juggle. If I couldn’t find a couple verifications, I left it out.

Q: I thought it was interesting that he wrote for the New York Times for a while after graduation.

A: Yes, about his motorcycle trip [in Europe] and things. He had that fame, and the newspaper name. He was befriended by [rich socialite] Percy Pine. I don’t think he fit in with that crowd, yet he was looking for things to do. In 1914, they hired him to be a sorta roving reporter. He traveled around Europe. He wrote two columns a week. He was pretty famous.

I like to think fans will come away with more knowledge of the sport [reading this book], but even young readers can learn a lot. Here’s a guy who flew with [ace pilot] Eddie Rickenbacker. He was a football star, a hockey star. He’s the only player in both Halls of Fame. He’s an overall interesting guy.

I incorporated World War I info, how we got into the war. Young people come away with a short history, a capsule of what went on in the era.

Q: There’s the interesting connection Woodrow Wilson, he was president, and was former president at Princeton when Hobey got there.

A: I wanted people to realize about Wilson being president, and the eating club information [Wilson tried to curtail or end Princeton’s elite eating club tradition. The book explains how this ties into the culture of the era]. And there’s the F. Scott Fitzgerald connection.

Q: Well, the big question is, in the book you use two endings. One, the conventional story of Hobey crashing because of a bad decision. The other, the one that’s talked about in the shadows and wasn’t discussed in the Davies book — that Hobey may have committed suicide. Talk about the idea of writing two endings.

A: I did it because I felt there was enough evidence in my research and there was enough anecdotal evidence that Davies was forced to ignore because of his position at the time. … The more I thought about the suicide version … he was trapped in a way. Look what his skills were. He was the fastest man on ice, but couldn’t do anything with it. The [new] Yale Bowl goes up. But outside of [club hockey at] St. Nick’s, he had no way of making a living. People described him as a caged tiger. … That’s why he got attracted to flying right away. A lot of the early fliers, you read diaries, that plane was so fragile it was almost an extension of your body. Hobey was perfect flyer because it was extension of your body.

The reason I didn’t say that Hobey killed himself was because there was also some evidence that maybe he didn’t. And because the plane was an extension of his body, because of hubris or whatever, maybe he thought he could make that turn. When the plane died, maybe he said, “I’m Hobey Baker, and I’m gonna land this thing.” So I couldn’t come to a conclusion. I thought it would be fair to state the facts. It was too easy for the old-boy network back then to say, “What a hero.” He took that plane up. Why? He had orders to go home.

I came up with notes of people that flew with him, saying “he knew better. I’ve seen him pancake the plane in, he knew how to survive.” Also in the Davies papers, he actually mentions in a letter to a friend that “I could not explore the suicide theory too far at the cost of enraging the old boy network.”

Q: The thing is, even those standing right there don’t know what really happened, so we’ll never know.

A: Since I wrote the book, a diary came to my attention. It happened the day I met you [at the 2005 Hobey Baker Award ceremony]. Someone asked me to sign a book for their professor because he had an interest in Hobey and had a relative that served with him. I signed the book and the next week I got an e-mail from the professor saying, “I have diary. My wife’s great uncle flew and was landing as Hobey took off.” The planes almost brushed each other. He sent me an Excel 256-page document. … So there’s somebody else who was right on the ground and saw it happen, and all he could report was the engine died. This fellow did not speculate.

Q: There’s so little material out there, do you feel like you broke any new ground?

A: To put both theories out there to the public, I think that was important. But … as you said, nobody knows except Hobey Baker what exactly happened. For all we know he cut the engine and said he was not going back [to the U.S.]. Nobody would know that either. There’s no way of determining. They called the planes flying egg crates. No one was going to do any forensics.

But I do give some facts of things in there, stories of people addicted to danger who couldn’t get that fix anymore. I mention a flyer who died and part of his obituary where someone wrote “couldn’t live in a hum-drum world.” So I think that’s what makes it interesting. Readers can form their own opinion. I’ve given people a chance to do that. I didn’t write about this from perspective of trying to hide anything.

Q: There’s been talk of someone writing a film about Hobey. The problem I’ve always come across in imagining that idea is, there is no conflict. Did Hobey ever do anything wrong, or have things go wrong? He was so good, that all there is to say is, “He’s great, and then he died.” Is there enough conflict there?

A: There’s anecdotal info that he was shy. And here’s the thing — the letters home from him to his father were almost childlike in saying that, “I’ll marry Mimi Scott and we’ll all be so happy together.” Which makes me believe he probably was that good. He had to be, to be that way on the ice, to have the temperament on the ice when being fouled. But when reading letters, he seemed like a very naive guy.

Conflict is very, very important for a successful film, I agree with you. I like to think there was a lot of tension of his life. I would only hope that if it does become a movie, the scriptwriters are the same quality as the actors and it stays within the parameters of the facts.

In the Bobby Jones, it was a lot like that. They were digging for conflicts. He had a temper, but he was a nice guy, won a grand slam, then retired. If it did lack one thing, it lacked conflict. But there are anecdotes [about Hobey] that some people at first disliked him, because they thought he was a snob. They later realized he was just painfully shy. Socially, he found it painful to associate, and I think it has a lot to do with the abandonment of his mother and being shipped off to the St. Paul’s School so young.