Baker visits Lions Club, remembers gridiron days
LEWISTOWN – Ralph Baker played football in a different time.
This was evident Wednesday when the Lewistown native spoke to the Chief Logan Lions Club at the Moose Family Center about his days playing high school, collegiate and professional football. Baker – who claims local fame as a participant in the very first Super Bowl – talked about how he starred at Lewistown High School from 1957-59, Penn State from 1961-63 and in the American Football League and National Football League from 1964-75.
During his playing days Baker was spry enough to angle for a big contract, even back in 1964.
When Baker was drafted in 1964, he was drafted into both the NFL (Pittsburgh Steelers in the 3rd round) and AFL (New York Jets in the 6th round).
He met with the Steelers at their game with the New York Giants, where he was questioned by their general manager and coach and offered a contract for $11,000 a year coupled with a $5,000 signing bonus.
Baker said he didn’t know how, but he got out of that hotel room without signing a contract. He had played inside linebacker at Penn State, so he wanted to do the same in the NFL.
The Steelers had a quality middle linebacker, so he wanted to sign with the Jets.
Baker called the Jets, and asked for just a little bit more money and the chance to play middle linebacker. The Jets responded with $12,000 per year contract and a $7,500 signing bonus.
Baker signed a started his NFL career.
Two days later, Coach Weeb Ewbank called him and said, “Guess what, you’re playing outside linebacker.”
The Jets traded for an experienced middle linebacker so Baker was back to square one.
The setback was rather minor for Baker.
He started at outside linebacker as a rookie and never missed a start in his 11-year career.
The highlight of that career was playing in the first game officially called the “Super Bowl” with the great Joe Namath in 1969.
Baker told the story of how Namath’s guarantee was made.
Unlike today, the Super Bowl didn’t come with the same fanfare as it does today.
Namath went out to dinner and there were a few Baltimore Colts at the same place. That’s where he made the guarantee that the Jets would win.
Was Namath really as cocky as it’s been thought?
“He was a pretty good guy,” Baker said. “His problem was getting to practice on time. Once he got there, he worked as hard as anyone.”
Baker’s collegiate career was rather impressive as well.
When he played, there was a separate team for freshman, who weren’t permitted to play varsity.
Baker was one of two Penn State players who didn’t redshirt as a sophomore; the other was College Football and NFL Hall-of-Famer Dave Robinson.
One of his biggest collegiate accomplishments was his election to team captain for the 1963 season.
He told a story of how unlike these days, bowl games weren’t just week long parties in great cities. The Penn State players were taken to a military base to practice during the week, making it was more of a business trip for Baker and his teammates.
Penn State (7-2) came into the final game of the season; a traditional matchup against Pitt (8-1).
Penn State lost 22-21 when its kicker missed a 30-yard field goal. Pitt finished the season at 9-1, and No. 4 in the country, and elected not to go to a bowl game.
Penn State finished at 7-3 and was offered a spot in the Blue Bonnet Bowl. At a time when the players voted on going to bowl games, Penn State turned down the opportunity as well, since it would have included the same business-like trip to the military base.
The following season, Penn State was offered the same chance again, and voted it down again.
“That was the end of the players voting on bowls,” Baker said.
Baker talked about the major difference between the NFL we see today, including the prices for tickets, salaries and the way things worked back then.
One of the biggest differences was the ongoing concussion issue in the NFL.
“It’s a serious matter,” Baker said. “I think everyone has gotten at least dinged a few times. All they did in the old days was wave a finger in front of your eyes. If you could follow it and tell who was playing, they would send you back in the game.
“I think it’s great that they are taking it more seriously.”
The Chief Logan Lions were happy to have Baker at their meeting.
“Ralph is a hometown product,” Chief Logan Lions president Roger Wagner said. “The members remember his athletic prowess both in high school and for the NFL.”
The Lions are a community organization that provides $5,000 of support per year for the Beacon Lodge Camp and are involved with food pantries and dog rescue.
“This is my community,” Baker said. “It’s nice to participate in the organization and give back in the community.”