By Dr. Ken
As noted in the October 2007 HELMET NEWS, HELMET REFLECTIONS, former Green Bay Packer great Max McGee, passed away on October 20th. Unfortunately, the month of October was not yet completed when another pro football player and certainly one of my favorites, John Baker, also died. I believe that all of us are attracted to certain players who may not be as talented as others or perhaps never receive a great deal of public recognition, yet they give us pause as we consider their attributes that we respect. Playing for a sub-par team, sharing time with another outstanding player, or being overshadowed by others of the same era who were literally of Hall Of Fame caliber often obscures their true contributions and Baker was such a player.
He was one of the many Steelers that attracted my rapt attention despite playing for Steeler teams that were not very good. The reputation that the Steelers had in the late 1950's to the mid-1960's was one of extreme toughness and anyone who played them accepted the fact that they would be physically beat up and sore for a week afterward and often, it would cost that opponent a game the following week. Unfortunately, most opponents would enjoy the afterglow of victory immediately following a game against the lackluster Steelers as they placed what was an aging team on the field that was eventually followed by one that went through a succession of players at key positions. Bobby Layne late in his career, piloted the Steeler attack and he was a fiery and wonderful leader but clearly past his prime, one that had brought glory to the Detroit Lions. Tom "The Bomb" Tracy, and John Henry Johnson came to Pittsburgh from Detroit as Head Coach Buddy Parker more or less tried to reconstruct the championship team he had headed with the Lions. Johnson, under appreciated and very much in the shadow of Jim Brown and Jim Taylor, was a force even into his later seasons but never received the publicity he was due, as a Steeler. After Layne, the quarterback position in Pittsburgh suffered as he was followed by an aging Ed Brown, a raw Bill Nelson, unheralded George Izo and Kent Nix, and a past-his-prime Dick Shiner. Typically, the offense was rounded out by good but not great players like Earl Gros and Buzz Nutter. The Steeler defense always had a few excellent players, many big hitters, and even a Pro Football Hall Of Famer in tackle Ernie Stautner. Some, like Myron Pottios who hung around long enough to play with other teams eventually gained deserved recognition with those teams. Andy Russell stayed with the Steelers until the team became a force in the league. There were always fine players but there were never enough of them. Baker came to the Steelers prior to the 1963 season and was an immediate force. A star at Raleigh, North Carolina's Ligon High School, Baker arrived in Los Angeles as the Rams 1958 fifth round draft choice out of North Carolina Central. As a rangy 6'6", 279 pounds who was versatile enough to be an effective two-way tackle he was an immediate contributor, and he eventually settled in as a starting defensive end.
At Pittsburgh. Baker set the tone for the defensive line. Stautner was the obvious star, earning his consistent All Pro recognition and extremely deserving of his entry to the Pro Football Hall Of Fame. However "Big John's" first year with the Steelers was Stautner's swan song and Baker had the motor to keep linemates Ben McGee, Chuck Hinton, and before he became part of the first of the great Pittsburgh offensive lines, Ray Mansfield playing at full speed. Baker is best remembered for the savage and damaging hit he placed upon the Giant's Y.A. Tittle in the Steelers September 20, 1964 game against the Mara Men in Pittsburgh. The photo of Tittle, kneeling in confusion and obvious pain, blood streaming down his face, spoke volumes and ushered in his retirement at the conclusion of the season. The photo of Baker actually making the tremendous impact has rarely been seen but it demonstrates this marvelous athlete's ability to generate power and speed. Baker remained a consistent performer with the Steelers through the 1967 season and retired from pro ball as a two-time All Pro choice, after spending '68 with the Lions. His eleven pro seasons that followed a highly successful collegiate career was but the beginning of the volume of work he completed.


Baker embarked on a career of public service, following in the footsteps of his father. John Baker Senior, attended North Carolina A&T University and in 1942 became the first African-American police officer in the history of Raleigh, N.C. In a time of racial bigotry and segregation, Baker's appointment was groundbreaking for the South and he overcame prejudice and many public displays of hatred and resistance to his official position to earn numerous honors for changing the hiring practices and laws related to segregation in the Raleigh community. After decades of service, Mr. Baker received many honors from law enforcement organizations, the City Of Raleigh, and the State Of North Carolina. After his death in 1985, the Raleigh Police Department's training center was named in his honor. Utilizing his degree to the fullest, John Baker Jr. worked on the State Of North Carolina Parole Commission during pro football's off seasons and took a full-time position upon retirement from the game. Like his father who had broken ground in public service, John was the first African-American to serve on the Commission. Working as a youth counselor, he was in 1978, elected as the Sheriff of Wake County, the very first time since the era of Civil War Reconstruction that an African-American had won this elected position in the State Of North Carolina. John served in this office for twenty-four years, until 2002 and his contributions included the creation of the John H. Baker Jr. Charter School, the first educational program of its kind in the state that made provisions for the continuing education of incarcerated youth. Elected to the North Carolina Sports Hall Of Fame and the City Of Raleigh Hall Of Fame, his everlasting legacy that benefited so many within the State Of North Carolina is perhaps much more meaningful than election to any football related Hall Of Fame. On October 30, 2007, John Baker passed away.  http://www.helmethut.com/baker.html  to view his game helmet.