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Inside the undiscovered queer life of U.S. hockey’s first superstar, Hobey Baker

Searching for Hobey Baker podcast art
Courtesy ESPN

The executive producer of a new ESPN podcast about Baker talks to The Advocate about this remarkable athlete, and how the NHL may want his story to go away.

Hockey fans surely recognize the name Hobey Baker. He’s the namesake of collegiate hockey’s most prestigious award. However, the true story of this legendary athlete remains mostly unknown — but now, revelations might begin to unravel the mystery of the hockey star.

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Baker had an astonishing career soon after the turn of the 20th century. He was the country's top collegiate hockey and football player, who went on to serve in World War I as an accomplished fighter pilot. He tragically crashed his plane in Europe in 1918. And while it appeared to be an accident, there has been speculation — rumors perhaps — that he ended his life because he was gay.

ESPN’s 30 for 30 Podcasts recently dropped a new three-episode series, "Searching for Hobey Baker," which delves into Baker's mysterious life. The podcast is narrated by actor David Duchovny.

There is no doubt that Baker was America’s first hockey star. He was also brilliant. He attended Princeton University, where he was not only the big man on campus, but also arguably its best-looking and most charming.

It is there that the podcast starts, drawing from personal letters and source materials from Princeton University's Mudd Library, along with original research.

The Advocate reached out to the podcast’s executive producer Andy Reynolds. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

ADVOCATE: Who started this journey?

Andy Reynolds: My co-writer (and co-executive producer) Tim Smith, grew up in Princeton and had long been intrigued by Hobey’s story and the folklore around him. I joined Princeton as a Professor of Politics and Public Policy in 2020.

On my arrival at Princeton, Tim asked whether I might collaborate with him on trying to tell Hobey’s story theatrically. There were rumors about Hobey’s sexual orientation, and Tim asked me to investigate and contextualize that part of Hobey’s life, since I focus on LGBTQ representation in the public eye.

We joined with sports producer Ross Greenburg and spent four years researching every aspect of Hobey’s brief life. Unearthing many new layers.

ADV: Why tell his story now?

AR: It is important to bring historical truth to light, at any point in time. Same-sex-loving people have long been erased from history, especially sports. Since the National Hockey League’s founding in 1917 there have been over 10,000 active players but not a single one has been out as gay or bisexual.

In North America surveys show that half of LGBTQ athletes have been personally targeted through verbal slurs and threats, bullying and/or physical assault. Eighty-one percent of all gay men are completely or partially in the closet while playing youth sport because they fear discrimination from players and officials. We hope Hobey’s story validates and reassures young queer kids who feel that the sport they love, doesn’t love them back.

ADV: Hobey lived so long ago, over 100 years. That said, based on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest, how certain are you that Hobey was gay?

AR: We have unearthed a treasure trove of stories that shed light on Hobey as a man. As our experts say in the podcast, if this ‘evidence’ was applied to a cis-man and cis-woman we’d have no hesitation in calling them a romantic couple. To not acknowledge his reality would be a double standard.

ADV: Interestingly, you made the choice to call him queer, where, for example, you call Percy Rivington Pyne II or Cole Porter gay. Why call Hobey queer?

AR: We use these terms somewhat interchangeably as is the growing norm. Hobey was same-sex loving: Was he gay or bisexual? I lean towards him being gay as there is no evidence of him being attracted to, or with, women. But regardless he was clearly same-sex loving.

ADV: Any evidence that his teammates knew and were supportive of his sexuality?

AR: There were reminiscences from his teammates in the 1960s (for the John Davies biography) that angrily dismissed the suggestion that Hobey and Percy were in a relationship. Indeed, without being directly asked, they proactively sought to quash the rumors. For what we know of the time, Percy and Hobey were in something of a ‘glass closet.’

ADV: Can you explain how popular and how talented Hobey was? Maybe comparing him to a modern day athlete so that we can get a sense of how impactful he was?

AR: At the height of his fame Hobey was perhaps the most famous athlete in America. He had the dominant skills of a Michael Jordan, the celebrity of a Tom Brady, and the patriotic war hero aura of a Pat Tillman. He was the king of the Ivy league when the Ivy league was the most popular league in America.

ADV: You spent four years researching this which seems so very thorough. Can you provide some background about the research you undertook?

AR: We interviewed scores of experts for the podcast and ended up using over a dozen on tape. We presented our materials to half a dozen LGBTQ scholars to assess what we had. We accessed hundreds of letters and other materials in the Hobey Baker archives at Princeton University. We uncovered new materials and spoke at length with descendants of those connected to Hobey’s life. We discovered new information in books, papers and letters written by those who knew Hobey.

ADV: This might sound shallow, but can you address the research you uncovered about how attractive and charming he was?

AR: Let me provide you with some quotes from those who knew him wrote:

“I could still visualize that amazing Greek God physique, the finest I believe I have ever seen. It was difficult to take my eyes off that wonderful, beautiful body.”

Henry Beyer letter to John Davies, 1960

“I worshipped him from afar. Seeing him in action on the ice was more beautiful than watching the movements of any ballerina.”

Donald B. Watt 10-21-63 letter to John Davies.

“A fine likeness of ‘Hobey’ hangs in my apartment. I see it every day and never fail to feel an inspiration from its return glance. He was an Adonis, a perfect specimen without blemish.”

Grant Peacock 9-25-59 letter to Henry Baker

“He had that faculty that when you were with him you just tingled all over.”

John Underhill – a camper in 1913 at Camp Awosting NY – Hobey was a councilor. Hobey invited Underhill to a Princeton football game that Fall. Letter to Henry Baker.

“I have seldom seen a more charming, handsome and attractive boy.”

William Long to John Davies 9-12-63.

“I remember him of outstanding appearance, fine looking in the strongest sense; not only handsome but showing intelligence, sensitiveness, responsiveness, friendliness.”

Harold Dean to Henry Baker, 1-5-60

“More graceful than any dancer, like a bird soaring. His coordination was a gift from heaven, very beautiful.”

Holbrook Cushing letter to John Davies 1960

ADV: Why hasn't this story been told before? Books about him and history about him don't say anything substantive about his sexuality? Online, there's only a reference to his relationship with a diplomat while in Paris.

AR: I believe historians and sports fans chose to overlook what was in plain sight. There is evidence that Hobey’s relationship with Percy was covered-up after his death (letters disappeared, etc). Revisionist history, driven by homophobia, hid Hobey’s truth away for a century.

ADV: Finally, do you think the NCAA (and even NHL) will give Hobey's sexuality more credence — especially around the award for best player.

AR: Sadly not. We are already seeing the NHL turning a blind eye to his story. Searching for Hobey Baker could be a moment to transform hockey to make it much more inclusive and safe for LGBTQ+ players. So far, the NHL seems to just want the story to go away.

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John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.