There is the Australian Racing Hall of Fame, the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame, the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame, and many others, even a V8 Supercar Hall of Fame, for which cars of four, six, 10 and 12 cylinders are not eligible…
It is getting to the point where it may be necessary to create a Hall of Fame for the Halls of Fame.
Then, there is the athlete who does not fit neatly into any of the specialised halls of fame, one whose exploits would require the creation of additional halls for boxing, rugby union (rugby league has been done), diving, swimming and polo.
The simple solution was to include this individual under the broad umbrella of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, and this is where we find our subject for today’s examination, Reginald ‘Snowy’ Baker. He was inducted into the SAHOF in 1985, just a bit over 100 years after his birth, 8 February 1884 in Surry Hills, NSW, within walking distance of the Sydney CBD.
Baker was also good at many other athletic endeavours, such as swimming, rowing, and competitive horseback riding. The list could go on, but the point is that Snowy Baker embraced a philosophy of life passed on to him from his father that emphasized variety and good health as two of the chief laws of a productive existence. When the SAHOF refers to him as one of the most versatile of all Australian sportsmen, they may have been engaging in the national trait of understatement.
At one time or another, he was taking part at the state or national level of 29 different sports, in five of which he possessed skills so adequate as to qualify him for international competitions.
He rose to prominence at an early age by playing rugby union for a team representing Sydney’s eastern suburbs, on a state team for NSW and another for the country of Australia. He was just 16 in 1900 when he was halfback for NSW and 17 when he earned his Australian cap the following year for his efforts against England. He and his mates from the Easts’ side resurrected, in 1904, overhead passing, in matches against the British Lions.
He was in London once again for the 1908 Olympic Games, taking part in diving, swimming, where he and another Hall of Famer, Frank Beaurepaire, were half of Australia’s 4 x 200 freestyle (can we still call it the Australian Crawl, or might we offend someone?) team that managed a fourth place finish.
Snowy then moved on to boxing, which if we were compelled to name the one sport that seemed to hold the most interest for him and definitely had the biggest impact on his future, boxing would be our selection. Along with establishing a standard never equaled by being the only Australian to compete in three sports in one Games, he won the silver medal in the middleweight boxing competition, losing to of all people, a cricket player.
There may have been some truth to media reports that the gold medal winner’s father was both the President (undisputed) of the Amateur Boxing Association and referee (unverified) of the match that resulted in the awarding of the gold medal to his son. It was Baker’s claim that this was the case, but other sources dispute this assertion. An ad hoc rematch in a London club following the Olympics saw Baker knocking out his cricket-playing protagonist in a bare-knuckle affair.
Baker was the middleweight boxing champion in NSW when he was only 17. It is one thing to make a strong showing on the rugby field, but young boxers are often just punching bags for older, stronger and more experienced boxers. He built on that by becoming champion on the entire country in two weight classes, middleweight and heavyweight, the following year.
Reginald Baker used his various skills to do something seldom possible for athletes of that era: make a living from athletics. He toured Europe, competing and demonstrating in many of his familiar sports, and threw wrestling into the mix as well.
Back down under, he simultaneously held seven different boxing crowns, including the lightweight division, so it is only possible to imagine (and that only at quite a stretch) someone capable of making weight as a lightweight being able to not only hold his own, but also prevail against much heavier opponents.
Five years after the 1908 Olympics, Snowy Baker, right around the age of 30, was forced to retire from competition as the result of injuries sustained in an auto crash. He and his brothers started a business as boxing promoters. He played key roles in launching the careers of many boxers, including the immortal Les Darcy.
His association with Darcy was to create a dark cloud of sorts around Baker, because it was widely held that a dispute with Darcy led to Darcy sailing off to America, where he died from an infection brought on by a botched dental procedure.
Reginald Baker fell from grace in the eyes of the Australian public and like Darcy, left for America in 1920, even though he had experienced redemption by becoming a silent film actor. He published a magazine and was a leading actor in Australia, starring in swashbuckling roles where he was able to take advantage of his athleticism. He also gave instruction to Hollywood Stars in horse riding, fencing and swimming, lending authenticity to some of the greatest stars of the time, including Douglas Fairbanks, Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley Temple, Greta Garbo and Rudolph Valentino.
He was tapped to design the equestrian course in California, a course that would later be used in the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games.
Snowy Baker spent the remainder of his life in California, dying in Los Angeles in 1953 at the age of 69.
It is hard to imagine one athlete being able to compete proficiently in so many different sports. When you look at today’s athletes, where specialization is the name of the game, the very idea of a swimmer competing as a boxer seems nearly ludicrous. Old photographs of Snowy Baker, however, provide some insight. He looked as though he were sculpted from marble, and from a physique perspective, somewhat resembled Michelangelo’s David, if David had worked out religiously and embraced Baker’s philosophy of diversity.