By Lane Mason
“It was almost like hush, hush, ‘ya know, no one was allowed to talk about it,” Ellen Baker said of her father-in-law and 1948 Winter Olympian hockey player, Bob Baker.
Robert Oscar Baker, best known as Bob, was a member of the American ice hockey team chosen to play in the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. He also spent the latter half of his life in Raleigh, North Carolina.
A Thief River Falls, Minnesota native, Bob grew up playing almost every sport, but hockey was always his favorite as well as the sport he excelled in most.
“Sports was a big deal for my dad. I was glad I was a girl, cause my brother had to go through everything,” daughter, Julie Patterson said.
Bob Baker played five years of varsity hockey for the Lincoln High School Prowlers in Thief River Falls, MN, where he also participated in football, basketball, baseball, and track. In 1945, Baker led the Prowlers hockey team to the finals of the first Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament, in which they lost by one goal, but he was selected as the tournament’s Outstanding Player and was named to the Minnesota All-State Hockey Team.
After high school, Bob served two years in the military before being asked to play on the AHA U.S. Olympic team in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
“Well, what he told me is, him and one of his buddies saw the tryouts somewhere and they went and he got picked. And when he went to the tryouts, he got picked and they went straight to New York. Never even went back home” son, Mark Baker said. “I’m sure he didn’t even know what they were trying out for.”
Playing for a team that was disqualified in the Olympics after a grand controversy over two United States hockey teams fighting to play in the 1948 Winter Olympics, Bob’s team would’ve placed fourth in the tournament with a record of 5-3-0.
Rocking number 14, Bob played in all 8 Olympic U.S. games, scored 7 goals and totaled 10 points.
“He is the ‘hockey player’ that all Thief River Falls players are compared to! He looked like Bobby Smith, played like Bobby Orr,” reads a quote from a 1998 Lincoln High Hall of Fame description of Bob Baker posted on the school wall.
Bob continued playing hockey for a decent amount of time when he returned from the army. After his Olympic appearance, Bob Baker returned to Thief River Falls and played two seasons with the Thief River Falls Thieves before moving on to Rochester to play with the Rochester Mustangs in 1951- the same year he married his first wife, Marlene.
When asked if Bob ever told her about hockey, Marlene said, “Oh my gosh, yeah. We lived that for a while. We lived hockey.”
Hockey faded for Bob Baker when he started working as a brick layer and playing in a senior league prior to accepting a job at IBM in Rochester, MN in 1957.
Things really changed when Bob transferred to Raleigh in 1965 with the IBM corporation.
The kid who wore referee Don King’s skates when his blade broke during the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament and still won the award for most outstanding player pretty much took hockey out of his life upon moving down south. Especially, the Olympics.
“I don’t think he realizes how big of a deal it was,” Ellen Baker said. “I used to be like ‘Bob, do you even understand? Like, you played in the Olympics back in ’48 right when there was all this political stuff going on, right after the war. I mean, you made history.’”
But Bob Baker was modest. Upon moving down south, hockey was no longer a big thing for him. Instead, he found new hobbies- he had a soft spot for the beach and shell-collecting, became an avid golfer, and turned into a huge NC State fan, even becoming a part of the Wolfpack Club.
In fact, since Bob no longer talked about hockey, his son Mark and wife Ellen even made him a sweatshirt that represented what they thought was a non-existent NC State hockey team.
Mark laughed when asked about it.
“Ha ha, that as a joke one time… to get dad to laugh a little bit.”
The only Thief River Falls native to have played on an Olympic team to this day, Bob Baker acted like his phenomenal hockey career was a casual thing.
Also friends and high school teammates with multi-millionaire Ralph Engelstad of Imperial Palace Casino-Hotels in Las Vegas, Baker took everything he did lightly… except for partying, that is.
But, he did tell his son’s wife, Ellen, one thing before he passed in February 2012.
“He said, ‘you know, I’ve got a lot of regrets as far as raising my children. Like, I wish I had been closer to my daughters and I wish Mark and I had been closer when he was young.’ Bob liked to party a lot. Back in the ‘70s, that’s what he did. He played golf, he drank, he went to the beach, but he said the one thing that he didn’t regret is that he had a good time,” Ellen Baker said.
Like the Olympic thing, when they went over there… all those guys, they had a great time together. They were away from home, they were in a different country. He would’ve never gotten to do that if he hadn’t of gone.”
It’s unsure if Bob Baker was actually modest, seeing that all his former teammates have since passed and it’s hard to reach out to his former IBM coworkers, but Raleigh seemed to change Bob Baker. It seemed to leave his incredible past behind.
“I mean, he didn’t talk a lot about a whole lot unless you asked him. He wasn’t one of those people that was constantly talking about himself. You had to dig. But once you got him started, you couldn’t get him to stop,” Ellen Baker said.
Like it was great. Cause he’d be reminiscing then. ‘Ya know, he wasn’t bragging. He just liked to reminisce.”
Bob Baker’s family spoke of how they weren’t necessarily as interested in his hockey career as they should’ve been- exactly how he made it out to be.
However, Bob’s daughter Julie did recall her father mentioning his parents watching him play hockey.
“My grandmother would go to the hockey games; I never remember my grandmother cussing, ever. Ever. But apparently, she would cuss at the hockey games and she actually threw a coke bottle at the referee and got banned from (one of) the hockey games,” Julie Patterson said.
Bob Baker spent 30 years in Raleigh working for IBM in production control, which was a shockingly similar path of several other former Rochester Mustang hockey players and 1948 Olympic hockey players. Though, it’s hard now that the majority of the people- if not all- have since passed and are not around to share the stories of his bygone Olympic hockey days.
However, how Bob’s family described him, it wouldn’t have been missed. He was ‘just having fun.’
Bob Baker was born on December 21, 1926 and died February 9, 2012.
And as today marks the day following the Stanley Cup Finals in which the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to lift the cup with a game six victory, it’s time to remember those who were forgotten- those like Bob Baker whose story never was fully told. A Stanley Cup is a great achievement, but the Olympics are on an entirely different spectrum. A spectrum Bob Baker didn’t understand. Or, possibly, chose to dismiss.