June 19, 2024

All-Time Great Athlete Hobey Baker is Subject of Three-Episode Podcast

THE SHORT LIFE OF A PRINCETON LEGEND: The three-episode podcast “Searching for Hobey Baker” explores previously unreported aspects of the famed athlete’s life, including his struggles as a queer man in the early 20th century.

By Anne Levin

It would be hard to find a hockey fan who isn’t familiar with legendary Princeton University alumnus Hobey Baker. The golden-haired athlete, who excelled at football as well as hockey before graduating in 1914, was a superstar of his time. Collegiate hockey’s most prestigious award bears his name, as does the University’s 2,092-seat ice rink.

Fellow Princetonian F. Scott Fitzgerald idolized Baker, writing him into his novel This Side of Paradise. Tragically, Baker died at the age of 26 after a plane he was piloting crashed mysteriously, just before he was to return home from Europe during World War I.

Theories about that crash are just one focus of “Searching for Hobey Baker,” a podcast released June 12 as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series. The three episodes, narrated by actor and Princeton graduate David Duchovny, also delve into the nature of Baker’s relationship with the extremely wealthy Percy Rivington Pyne II, son of financier and University benefactor Moses Taylor Pyne. Nine years Baker’s senior, Pyne II was obsessed with the athlete and invited him to live in his Gilded Age mansion.

“Searching for Hobey Baker” is the product of four years of research, much of it done at the University’s Mudd Manuscript Library. The series lists Princeton native and Princeton Day School graduate Timothy E. Smith as executive producer. Longtime resident Andrew Reynolds, who taught at the University in the School of Public and International Affairs, is listed as writer/producer.

The two met in Chapel Hill, N.C., during a time when Reynolds was working at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Smith was promoting a documentary there about voting rights.

“Tim had grown up here and had long been interested in the story of Baker,” Reynolds said. “He asked me to take a look at it when I started teaching at Princeton. One of the rumors around Baker at the time was about his sexual orientation. There had been murmurs. We thought, this could be a great story.”

Before World War II, there was a lot more tolerance for same-sex relationships, Reynolds said.

“People didn’t necessarily think of themselves as gay or straight. This was before the 1950s and ’60s, when there was great resentment against gay people. There was a space for masculine men being with masculine men. People weren’t necessarily in the closet. It was sort of a glass closet.”

Author John Davies’ 1966 book The Legend of Hobey Baker doesn’t address the question. “But there are so many strands of evidence,” said Reynolds. “He was clearly in a relationship with Percy. He had no interest in women.”

Getting Duchovny on board as narrator was easy. “I realized that he’d graduated from Princeton in 1982, so I emailed him on his website,” said Reynolds. “He got back to me immediately. We had a Zoom meeting and I told him the story. He loved it. The funny thing for me is that I’m a professor, and I didn’t understand the TV business. I just went directly to him, which apparently isn’t usually the way to go. And my naivete got the best result.”

Hobart Amory Hare “Hobey” Baker was born in 1892 to an old Main Line Philadelphia family. He was 11 when he and his brother were sent to St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., which was considered an ice hockey powerhouse. The podcast, in which Duchovny’s narration is interspersed with quotes from articles about Baker, details his penchant for skating on the pond at St. Paul’s — alone, in the dark — with a hockey stick, teaching himself to maneuver at high speeds without having to look down.

“He was a truly great athlete,” said Reynolds. “He was one of the greatest football players of his generation, and probably the greatest hockey player of his and subsequent generations — kind of like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady rolled into one. He was incredibly beautiful. People said he was an Adonis, and he never wore a helmet. He moved like a ballerina.”

Baker also had a reputation as an all-around, decent guy. “He was an incredibly kind person. There are stories of him reaching out to others, the fans and his friends,” said Reynolds. “The NHL (National Hockey League) claims he invented the handshake after the game. So he was not only beautiful and angelic looking, but incredibly good and kind, and a great athlete.”

Smith and Reynolds originally approached ESPN about doing Baker’s story as a documentary or television show. But the lack of visual material about him was a problem. “They turned us down at first, but came back and said they loved the story so much, let’s do it as a podcast,” Reynolds said. “They gave us a significant budget, so it is very highly produced, with great sound effects.”

The story doesn’t end there. Smith and Reynolds are currently in discussions with a major network about a television version of Baker’s story.

“It’s always been a dream,” Reynolds said. “You’ve got a very visual story, and also pathos and melodrama. Fingers crossed.”

“Searching for Hobey Baker” can be found wherever you get your podcasts.