A preface is called for here: no disrespect whatsoever is intended toward Hobey Baker, the man or his legacy. In no way is any belittlement meant toward what Baker has meant to hockey in the United States. But sentiment should not get in the way of objective analysis. No one is above the truth.
Besides being an outstanding football player and superb all-round athlete, Hobart Amory Hare Baker (1892-1918) is considered the United States first great hockey player. He played four years for Princeton, winning a national championship in 1912, and was noted for his outstanding sense of sportsmanship. After graduating, he played two seasons for the St. Nicholas Hockey Club in the New York-based American Amateur Hockey League (AAHL), which operated from 1897 to 1917. Baker served with distinction in World War I, but tragically died in an accident before he was able to return home.
Hobey Baker was one the 12 original Hockey Hall of Fame inductees in 1945, along with such other immortals as Howie Morenz, Russell Bowie, Frank McGee and Dan Bain. This means that he was considered more worthy of enshrinement than either Joe Malone or Newsy Lalonde, for example, who both had to wait until 1950. He must have been one hell of a hockey player to deserve this honor. Indeed, in 1913 the Boston Journal wrote that Baker was without doubt the greatest amateur hockey player ever developed in this country or in Canada (emphasis added). This is high praise, given that Russell Bowie was never a professional, and at the time would probably have been considered Canadas greatest hockey product. Is there any objective evidence of this greatness, or is it more that he never played against a high level of competition, and shone against lesser talents?
When the Boston Journal wrote the above, Baker had only played college hockey. The Ivy League certainly wasnt a high level of competition, objectively speaking (and his numbers arent available anyway). But Baker did play two years in the AAHL, scoring 26 goals in 15 league games as the St. Nicks rover. Though largely composed of American ex-college players, the league did attract the odd Canadian player as well, and this fact does give us a point of reference for the relative quality of the league compared to Canadian hockey.
Bob Wall and Bill Dobby were two of these Canadians, teammates on the Montreal Crystals and Shamrocks squads in the mid-1890s, playing in the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC), the premier hockey league at the time. Both went to New York and began playing in the AAHL for the 1897-98 season, the second of that leagues existence. Seven years later, another ex-Shamrock called Riley Casselman made the trip south. Tom Atty Howard was probably the best Canadian player to play in the AAHL in these early years, however he was a Manitoba man, and we havent established a point of reference between Manitoba hockey and the main eastern leagues, so well stick with our ex-Shamrocks for now.
Wall, Dobby and Casselman were far from star players in Canada, but in New York they were dominant. Bob Wall scored nine goals in 19 games in the AHAC (0.47 goals per game), but 61 goals in 41 games (1.49 goals per game) in the AAHL from 1898 to 1902. Bill Dobby scored 11 goals in 15 Canadian league games (0.73 goals per game), but 134 goals in 72 AAHL games from 1898 to 1906 (1.86 goals per game). Riley Casselman was unable to crack a senior roster full-time in Canada, playing only five games in the Canadian Amateur Hockey League (the successor to the AHAC) over three seasons, scoring but one goal (0.20 goals per game). From 1905 to 1911 in the AAHL, he scored 74 times in 40 games (1.85 goals per game). Although the quality of the AAHL was not hopelessly low, its clear it was a low-quality league at the time, perhaps equivalent to the ECHL in today's hockey environment.
But how about a couple of players you might have actually heard of? In 1909, brothers Odie and Sprague Cleghorn, who would both go on to star in the NHA and NHL, played with the AAHLs New York Wanderers. 18-year-old Odie led the circuit with 16 goals in eight games, while 19-year-old Sprague managed seven scores in the same number of matches. Back in Canada the following season, both Cleghorns debuted in the NHA, which was then Canadas best league. Odie scored 20 times in 16 games, while Sprague (a defenseman) recorded five goals in 12 games. So on a per game basis we have:
AAHL NHA NHA/AAHL
Odie 2.00 1.25 .63
Sprague 0.88 0.42 .48
However, this is a bit misleading since the two leagues had very different scoring environments. In 1909-10, the average AAHL game featured 3.75 goals per game, while the average NHA game in 1910-11 had 5.12 goals per game. If we convert the NHA numbers to a 3.75 goals-per-game average, we have:
AAHL NHA NHA/AAHL
Odie 2.00 0.92 .46
Sprague 0.88 0.31 .35
So when they moved from the AAHL to the NHA, Odies goal production dropped by 54% and Spragues dropped 65%. This implies a league equivalency for the AAHL of about .40 compared to the NHA. As a frame of reference, this is somewhat lower than the current AHL when compared to the current NHL. Hobey Baker was playing in a league that offered essentially minor league hockey.
In this context of minor league hockey, Baker did lead his team in goals scored in 1914-15, with 17 goals in eight matches, numbers nearly identical to Odie Cleghorns season five years before. In his second AAHL season, Baker didnt produce nearly as well, falling behind teammate Russell Ellis in scoring. Moreover, Baker was a college graduate when he entered the AAHL. His Odie Cleghorn-like numbers were recorded at 23 years of age, five years older than Cleghorn had been. Indeed, Cleghorn was born less than four months before Baker. The difference between 18-year-old and 23-year-old hockeyists is substantial, then as it is now. An 18-year-old leading the AHL in scoring would be noteworthy, a 23-year-old doing the same would not. In the past 30 AHL seasons, for example, eight players have won a scoring title in their age-23 seasons or younger: Mark Lofthouse, Ross Yates, Stephan Lebeau, Paul Ysebeart, Kevin Todd, Brad Smyth, Domenic Pittis and Jason Spezza. However, the youngest of these is Lebeau, who was 20 years old when he scored 134 points in 1988-89. Besides that, this list is hardly a parade of the greatest players of their times. Being a minor league scoring champion at 23 years old is simply not remarkable.
Odie Cleghorn is not in the Hall of Fame (though his brother is), and thats probably the right decision. Odie was an excellent player, but not one of the very very best of his day. Hobey Baker is also in the Hall of Fame, and has been called one of the greatest players of his day. This opinion is not supported by objective evidence. His selection to the Hall in its first year of existence seems to have been based on sentiment and subjective opinion, which itself was based on Baker never having played against the highest level of competition. The early Hall of Fame selections were heavily influenced by tragic deaths. Scotty Davidson and George Richardson were both inducted in 1950; they had also both died in WWI after hockey careers far too short to really merit consideration for such an honor.
Hod Stuart, who died in a diving accident in 1907, at least had a significant hockey career to that point, and might well have been elected into the Hall at some point since he was known as a great player. However, like Baker, he was one of the original 12 honorees, and the only apparent reason for that is the circumstances of his death. Hobey Baker, like Hod Stuart and Scotty Davidson and George Richardson, found his way into the Hall of Fame through his untimely death more than his hockey career. In the brief time he played senior hockey, he performed well but was against quite a low level of competition. Hobey Baker never proved himself against the game's best, and any opinion that he was among the best of his day is based purely on supposition.