Reginald Leslie 'Snowy' Baker
- 45Wallaby Number
Really was there anything Reginald 'Snowy' Baker didn't do? Without doubt he was Australia's greatest all-round sportsman, excelling in 26 sports. This included representing Australia at international level in seven; boxing, swimming, diving, rugby union, fencing, water polo and polo, while also being widely regarded as one of the world's greatest horsemen. Brought up in the then-tough Surry Hills/Darlinghurst area of Sydney a self-confident, ego-driven athlete who earned his nickname through the light colour of his sun-bleached hair, quickly realised that excelling in sport was a way to be known not just in Australia, but around the world. He first earned a name for himself by being at the forefront of several critical Australian sporting movements. Along with Freddie Lane, the Cavill brothers, Cecil Healy, Alick Wickham, Fanny Durack and Annette Kellerman, Baker helped to push local swimming to another level through the development of a new stroke - the Australian crawl.
At the start of the twentieth century he was a well known figure around the swimming baths dotted along Sydney Harbour displaying his exceptional high-diving feats as part of the 'Snowy Baker's Seagulls' entertainment troupe. By 1904, Baker was adjudged Australia's best rugby halfback, playing two Tests against the visiting Great Britain team where he earned praise for his willingness to get his 'head kicked off' by diving at the feet of the visiting forwards. Snowy would later say that rugby union was his strongest sporting love, cultivated by playing for numerous Sydney clubs, including Eastern Suburbs. His disregard for his personal safety could have had a lot to do with his flitting between football matches and boxing sessions, and the long hours he spent in the gymnasium getting himself ready for amateur pugilistic titles.
Guided by such important early Australian boxing names as Larry Foley and Peter Jackson, Baker was not just able to defend himself, but basically knock down anyone who stumbled his way - to the extent that for several years he was the main attraction at Australian amateur boxing titles, where he excelled in the middleweight division. Not surprisingly, overseas glory beckoned, with an invitation to box in the 1907 England amateur championship. Illness precluded him from appearing at those titles. Instead, he made his mark at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, and again displaying his versatility by competing in three different sports. Baker swam in the Australian 4 x 200m freestyle relay team, alongside Frank Beaurepaire , finishing well behind England, Hungary and the United States. In the springboard diving competition, Baker was knocked out during the heats. Out of the pool, of course Baker's togs disappeared and on went his gloves, as he prepared for his main Olympic venture - the middleweight boxing title.
He successfully negotiated his way to the final against one of England's most admired athletes - John William Henry Tyler Douglas. While a formidable fighter. Douglas was more famous for his exploits on the cricket field, captaining the Essex county team for many years before skippering England. This final earned recognition as one of the greatest boxing duels in Olympic history. Although the bout was given to Douglas, not everyone present was convinced that he was the winner - something they made perfectly clear by booing Douglas as he received his gold medal. There was even talk of a conspiracy, including talk that Douglas's father was the referee. This is however completely untrue. Although Douglas senior did present the medals, the referee was Eugene Corr. Although Baker missed out on the Olympic gold, on his return to Australia he soon embarked on a flourishing, if somewhat controversial, business career. An opportunist and often ruthless entrepreneur, Baker became a famous boxing promoter, for several years turning Australia into the fight capital of the world, and was heavily involved in the rise of the country's best known fighter - Les Darcy. He brashly renamed the Sydney Stadium at Rushcutters Bay to Snowy Baker Stadium.
After World War I Baker's life took another drastic turn, where he was of the true pioneers of the Australian film industry, including the 'Man from Kangaroo'. Hollywood beckoned. In the early 1920's, he linked with the Los Angeles Athletic club, teaching members various sporting activities, as well as being involved with movie stunt work that saw him become close friends with, among others, Charlie Chaplin. He then took charge of the famous Riviera Country Club's equestrian centre, where he was the ultimate host to countless Hollywood stars. Apart from teaching Rudolph Valentino how to fence and kiss, Baker instructed Elizabeth Taylor how to ride for National Velvet – acting as her stunt double in several scenes - played polo with Walt Disney and Clark Gable, and even protected a philandering Spencer Tracy from Tracy's wife. Baker died in his Los Angeles apartment in 1953, aged 69. Reginald Leslie (Snowy) Baker (1884-1953), sportsman and showman, was born on 8 February 1884 at Surry Hills, Sydney, son of George Baker, an Irish-born Sydney Municipal Council clerk, and his wife Elizabeth Jane, nee Robertson. Very blond, he was called 'Snowy' from childhood; he was educated at Crown Street Public School and, reputedly, learned horsemanship at dawn workouts on Randwick Racecourse, in 1897-99 he won a series of swimming championships for his school, swam and played water polo for the East Sydney Swimming Club, and in 1901 finished second to R.Cavill in the State half-mile championship. He did not, as it was later claimed ,study engineering at the University of Sydney or win several 'blues'; he may have worked for the Colonial Sugar Refining Co as an engineering draftsman.
He played Rugby Union for Eastern Suburbs and represented New South Wales at halfback against both Queensland and the touring Great Britain side in 1904. A 'rare tackler.....and as hard a player for his weight as has been seen in the game', he played for Australia in the first Test. As an oarsman, he rowed for the Mercantile Rowing Club in championship maiden and junior fours and eights in 1905-06; he was also a capable cricketer. Baker served as a trooper with the New South Wales Lancers from about 1902, gaining the rank of sergeant and excelling in a variety of military sports; over the years he won many prizes in such activities as fencing (with the sword and bayonet), wrestling on horseback and tent-pegging. A fair shot, he was 'a decidedly handy man in the event of a foe descending on our peaceful shores'.
In 1902 he took up boxing; for many years he weighed 11st 7 lb (73kg). In 1905 he became New South Wales amateur middleweight champion and next year retained his title, won the same belt in Victoria, and became the heavyweight champion of both States. In December 1906, farewelled by 1000 people in Sydney including a boatload of twenty young ladies who pursued him to the Heads, Baker left for England to compete in the Amateur Boxing Association's championships, but contracted enteric fever and pneumonia. However, he boxed in the 1908 Olympic tournament held in London in October, three months after the games proper.
As a middleweight he won three fights in one day, two of them by knockouts, to reach the final which he lost narrowly on points to J.W.H.T.Douglas. He visited Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and Europe and performed at both exhibition and competition level, mainly in aquatic sports. He was welcomed as a distinguished athlete at gentlemen's sporting clubs wherever he went. Returning to a considerable welcome in Sydney in December 1908, Baker began to capitalize on his athletic and boxing fame and opened a physical culture establishment, with mail-order courses, in Castlereagh Street. On 31 March 1909 at St Marks Anglican Church , Darling Point, he married 37-year-old Ethel Rose Mackay, daughter of a squatter and widow of Augustus Daniel Kearney, a Victorian physician and notable tennis player.
A journalist of skill, Baker contributed to the Sydney Evening Newsin 1908-10, published a book, General Physical Culture (Melbourne 1910), and in 1912 began Snowy Baker's Magazine, a penny monthly that attained a circulation of over 3000 in its two years of existence. Meanwhile he had become involved in H.D.McIntosh's Stadiums boxing organisation, mainly as a referee, at times controversial, Baker wore green trousers and a felt hat, later evening dress. In December 1912 he arranged the purchase of the Rushcutters Bay Stadium for 30,000 Pounds and soon, with John Wren, had Baker's Stadiums in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane, and was following McIntosh's policy of bringing international boxers to Australia. In July 1914 the stadium staged its first Les Darcy fight and Baker soon controlled the Maitland boxer's engagements.
He was annoyed when Darcy left Australia secretly in October 1916, and had to face accusations thereafter that he had been largely responsible for the boycotting and even the death of Darcy in the United States of America in May 1917. Baker always denied the charges and seems conclusively to have disproved them face-to-face with a Maitland committee of inquiry in October. He tried three times to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force, but was prevented by a spinal injury, instead he devoted himself to fundraising concerts. Boxing declined in popularity and he put on shows and film-nights at the stadium. Baker moved into the film business in 1918, and played a secret agent in The Enemy Within and a station hand in The Lure of the Bush. In 1919 he was a co-producer with E.J,Carroll and starred as a boxing parson in The Man from Kangaroo, as a bushranger in The Shadow of Lightning Ridge, and as a jackeroo in The Jackeroo of Coolabong (1920). All his roles featured his horsemanship , with his famous grey, Boomerang.
In August 1920 Baker left for the United States of America to further his film career, but although he did appear in some movies, succeeded rather as a coach and instructor in athletic feats and as a businessman. In 1933 he became a director and major operating partner of the Riviera Country Club, near Santa Monica, California, and spent an active life largely as a riding instructor to Hollywood stars and as a polo player. In the early 1930's he had contributed a column to the Sydney Referee. He re-visited Australia briefly in 1925, 1932 and 1952. Survived by his wife and a step-daughter, Baker died of cerebrovascular disease on 2 December 1953 at Los Angeles, and was cremated .
His estate in New South Wales was valued for probate at 39,111 pounds. His stature as an athlete depends largely upon the enormous range rather than the outstanding excellence of his activities; it was as an entrepreneur-showman, publicist and businessman that he seems in retrospect to have been most important. His brothers Frank, who joined the film industry in Los Angeles in the 1920s, and Ernest were water polo players, Frederick was an amateur welterweight champion of Australia, and refereed for Stadiums Ltd. His other brother William Harold Baker (1887-1962), also played Rugby for Australia and was also prominent in swimming, boxing and wrestling.