Lifetime of writing about sports leads Baker to state Hall of Fame

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 26, 2004

[3/26/04]It should come as no surprise to those familiar with Lee Baker that Willie Nelson’s traveling classic “On the Road Again” was his favorite song.

For it was on the road where Baker spent the better part of his life, traveling to see sporting events from youth baseball tournaments, to the New Orleans Saints, to the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

“If there was a Lee Baker museum, it would have sports, newspapers and Volkswagens,” said Philadelphia Daily News reporter Bernie Fernandez, the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America and a co-worker of Baker’s for 10 years from 1973-83.

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It was where he traveled more than 1 million miles that has become legendary around Mississippi’s journalism community.

“He loved the road, just loved it,” said Lucinda Baker, Lee’s widow who will be accepting for her late husband when he is posthumously inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in a banquet April 2 at the Vicksburg Convention Center.

“The road was his favorite place to be because there was always something new over each hill.”

And over each new hill was Lee Baker sitting in the driver’s seat of one of a small caravan of Volkswagens. He wore through four of them, Lucinda said with a chuckle, “but they are still living.”

Lee’s son, John, has bits and pieces from each of the cars and is in the midst of restoring the first, a black 1964 Beetle. The only one still actively on the road is a 1974 rabbit with more than 250,000 miles.

“I went a few places with him in those old Volkswagens,” said Gene Wiggins, who began his writing career in 1965 under Baker’s tutelage. “We were never sure if that thing would go, but he would get it fired up somehow.”

More than the travel, though, is what he did at the end of those trips that mattered most to athletes around the state.

Baker wrote sports for the Jackson Daily News and The Clarion-Ledger for 50 years, starting with a junior high game in 1948. He died of a heart attack on April 22, 2003 at age 78.

Wiggins, now the graduate director for the school of mass communications and journalism at the University of Southern Mississippi, said Baker was one of a kind.

“Lee was the best teacher I have ever had,” Wiggins said. “Every day after things were done, he’d sit with me and go over everything. Things I did well, and things I didn’t.”

Lucinda, who had been married to Baker for 16 years before his death, said his writing career began much earlier than that.

“He published a weekly newspaper in high school called The Nosy News,'” said Lucinda, who grew up in Roxana, Ill., the same town as Baker.

Although the two grew up in the same town and their families knew each other very well, they did not get married until many years later. Lee was 19 years older than Lucinda.

The Nosy News, long since out of publication, has a permanent home with Lucinda alongside boxes and boxes of old newspapers, notes, press releases and any other sports-related materials he had collected.

“Oh, he was a pack rat,” Lucinda said. “You have to understand that newspaper people love the printed word.”

The couple built a storage shed outside of their home to keep many of the boxes, but soon it started to wear because of the weight and volume of Lee’s collection.

When it got to be just too much, Lucinda begged him to make some sense of order. He got through many of the boxes before his death.

They are now waist-high throughout his home office.

Fifty years is plenty of time to collect memories, especially when so many of those events were covered by Baker.

In his retirement column, Baker said he estimated that he covered more than 10,000 basketball games and 2,000 football games.

He gave credence to less popular sports, and was the first in Mississippi to cover historically black colleges. Routinely, he would be the lone white face at a basketball game at Alcorn, or Jackson State during the segregated 1950s and 60s.

“Lee knew they deserved coverage,” Wiggins said. “There were a lot of good sports that the white citizens of this state didn’t know about.”

In 1967, he became the first New Orleans Saints beat writer from a paper in Jackson.

Baker received his degree in English from Millsaps College in 1983 31 years after the freshman class he joined reached graduation. He would work a semester, then go to college for a semester because there were no writing scholarships available at that time.

Baker was hired by the Daily News in 1955, and became sports editor three years later.

Many of the writers he worked with went on to major metropolitan newspapers.

“There is a Lee Baker alumni club around the country of former writers who worked for Lee,” Fernandez said. “Some stayed in Mississippi and some went to bigger markets. All owe a debt to him.”

Lucinda Baker said she doesn’t know how many people will be attending the event. Family and friends and “a lot of newspaper people” will be there, she said.

Baker will be the sixth sports media member inducted into the Hall, along with former coworkers Jimmie McDowell and Carl Walters Sr., Ace Cleveland, Bob Hartley and Jack Cristil.

Fitting he should join such a group. Newspapers were Baker’s love.

“He had a very unique writing style,” Fernandez said. “It was like his own DNA, a fingerprint. Someone could put 100 stories in front of me and ask me which one Lee wrote, and I could tell them.

“He left his fingerprint all over Mississippi sports.”

In his retirement column in July 1998, he wrote, in part, that, “Sports writing, that was it, and the crazies were everywhere coaching, coaching, coaching. They were absolutely delightful people, perhaps the only group getting more criticism than sports writers, thereby providing additional bonding.

“So, in final farewell, thank you Mississippi for putting up with me for so long.

“The pleasure for me has been total.”