A Conversation with David Baker, the President/Executive Director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame

david-baker-pro-football-hall-of-fame

Before David Baker was named President and Executive Director for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in early 2014, he certainly had a very interesting background in sports.

The 6’9” Baker was a power forward and captain of the basketball team at the University of California at Irvine from 1971–75. After his college career was over, Baker also played two seasons of professional basketball in Europe.

In terms of professional sports and having a leadership role, Baker was first an owner for the Anaheim Piranhas of the Arena Football League in 1995. But Baker soon had an even bigger job in the AFL, as he was named Commissioner of the league in 1996 and remained in that position through the 2008 season.

Under Baker’s watch, the AFL experienced unprecedented growth in attendance, TV ratings, revenue, corporate sponsorships, merchandise sales, and profitability.

I was able to witness the love for the AFL in person a few times, as the Tampa Bay Storm won two of it’s five overall AFL titles during that time. The Storm’s current team president is former Tampa Bay Buccaneer great Derrick Brooks, who also was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.

Excelling in the world of sports runs in the Baker family, as son Sam was a former three-time All-American left tackle at USC and played six years with the Atlanta Falcons from 2008-14.

Sam was the 21st pick in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Dirty Birds. I was writing for Packer Report at that time and I did an interview and story about Sam before the draft, as the Packers were reportedly interested in perhaps selecting Baker at pick No. 30 in the first round.

Another son Ben, who was also an offensive lineman, played his college football at Duke and is now a Senior Manager of Broadcasting at NASCAR in Charlotte.

Baker and his wife Colleen, also have two other children, daughter Leyla and another son named Michael Ray.

When he wasn’t directly involved in sports, Baker has had an extensive and successful background as a business professional.

After obtaining a Juris Doctorate degree from Pepperdine University School of Law, Baker became an attorney in California, as he specialized in corporate mergers, acquisitions and real estate law.

If that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Baker also served as a City Councilman and Mayor of Irvine, California from 1984-88.

Starting in 2010, Baker also became a Partner in Union Village, LLC, the largest healthcare project in the United States. Union Village is located in Henderson, Nevada and became the first Integrated Health Village in the world.

It was in during his time at Union Village, when Baker was approached about becoming the President and Executive Director for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“The Hall did a national search,” Baker told me. “A guy named Jed Hughes called me. Jed was the head of the sports division at Korn Ferry. Jed used to be a coach for a long, long time with the Steelers, UCLA and other places. Anyway, Jed called and asked if I would be interested in applying for the job and I told Jed that I love the Hall, that I knew my predecessor (Steve Perry) well and I thought it would be great, but that I was really involved in this thing at Union Village and I told him that I just couldn’t do it.

“Jed told me that he would send me the job description via email anyway and if I changed my mind to call him. At that end of the day, I’m cleaning out my email and I was in Atlanta at the time, and I forwarded the job description note to my wife Colleen, with a another little note saying you’ll never guess what happened today.

“Colleen called me about 15 minutes later and told me that we were going to do this thing with the Hall. And I told her that I had already told them no. Colleen said that I should call them back. I countered by saying that we were involved in this big project at Union Village. Colleen then said it was time to pass the baton there.

“I also told her how cold it was in Ohio and then asked why she wanted to do this so bad. And Colleen said, ‘Have you read this thing?’ And quite honestly I hadn’t. And Colleen said that I have to read it because this job is about what you believe.

“You know, my mom and dad could not read or write. And if it wasn’t for sports, and in my case it was basketball, but I always loved football the most, but sports provided me an education and sports introduced me to people who I never would have met otherwise. And it took me to places I never would have gone to.

“But more importantly, it taught me things about lessons in life. Not only did those lessons help me succeed, but even more importantly when I was knocked on my tail in life by mistakes of my own choosing, it helped me survive and get up again.

“For me now at the Hall of Fame, I call it the church of football. It may not be any particular doctrine of a church, but the things that the game teaches, like perseverance, commitment, sacrifice,  teamwork, love, loyalty and discipline, are all things that are taught every Sunday at some church.”

While Baker was heading the AFL as Commissioner, he  got to know his counterpart in the NFL, Paul Tagliabue. During that association, Tagliabue introduced Baker to his right-hand guy, a fellow by the name of Roger Goodell.

That relationship became quite strong over the years.

“Roger and I had dinner once a month for ten years before he became Commissioner of the NFL,” Baker said.

In the three-plus years that Baker has been the head of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he has been involved in some very emotional moments when he has told a nominee for induction that they had indeed been selected to enshrinement in the Hall.

As President and Executive Director for the Hall, one of Baker’s duties is to inform a nominee whether he was inducted or not.

In Baker’s first year at the Hall, he had such a moment after first informing both Michael Strahan and Derrick Brooks that they inducted into the Hall.

“The third guy was Ray Guy,” Baker said. “Ray had been eligible 29 years and had been a finalist nine times and had not been called yet. When I got a hold of Guy, I said, ‘Ray, this is Dave Baker, President of the Hall.’ Ray said, ‘Yes Sir,’ in that southern drawl he has.

“So I tell him, ‘Ray, it is my great pleasure…’ I got that far and I could hear him drop to the ground with the phone rattling around. I could hear his wife asking him if he was okay. I thought I killed my first Hall of Famer!

ray-guy

“Ray took about two minutes to get up and when he got back on the phone he said, ‘I don’t think I understood it until now how big a thing this is for me.’

Baker also talked about what recently occurred last month when he informed Jerry Jones that he was inducted.

“I’ve known Jerry for a couple of decades,” Baker said. “He was one of the owners in the Arena Football League. Jerry is probably the P.T. Barnum of our time. Jerry had 20 of his family waiting with him to find out if he was inducted. And when I knocked on his door, they were screaming and yelling and every single one of them were crying.”

But the induction announcement which touched Baker the most was when Kurt Warner made it into the Hall last month.

“It is a special moment for each one of them who get inducted,” Baker said. “But for me, it was a little more special with Kurt Warner. I had seen him grow up. I had seen him rise (in the AFL). I saw him overcome the donut in his NFL career when he was with the Giants before he went to Arizona.

“I just have the greatest respect for him. More as a human being. Far more than a football player. We share some spiritual values together. But what was real interesting about that was two years ago when Kurt was eligible for the Hall for the first time, I wanted to make sure that I was the one who call him, as we also call the guys who don’t make it.

“I told Kurt that it didn’t happen that year and that I hoped I could call him next year with better news. And Kurt says, ‘Commish, that’s okay. Don’t worry about it. But you have to tell me, did my friend Orlando [Pace] make it?’ Well Pace didn’t make it that year and Kurt was more upset about that than about the fact that he didn’t get in.

“That speaks to the kind of man he is. The next year Kurt did not make it again, but Orlando Pace did get in. But when I knocked on the door this last time, not only Kurt was there, but Brenda and their eight kids were there as well. It was just a great moment when I was able to let him know that he was in.

“To me, Kurt Warner is not only the kind of football player, but the kind of man who belongs in the Hall of Fame. When I’m introduced at places, sometimes I’m introduced as the President of the NFL Hall of Fame. But it’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That includes the Arena Football League and NFL Europe. Kurt won championships in the AFL and NFL Europe, plus in the NFL. The only thing Kurt doesn’t have is a Canadian Football League title. I’m just so proud of him.”

Last year, Baker was able to knock on the door of Brett Favre after he was inducted. Some people may not recall this, but Favre and Warner were teammates for a brief period in training camp with the Packers in 1994. The undrafted rookie was released in camp, as the Packers had a pretty good stable of quarterbacks at the time, which included Favre, Ty Detmer and Mark Brunell.

After Warner was released by the Packers, he went to the AFL, NFL Europe and then the NFL again. We all know what happened after that.

favre-and-warner

Baker had an interesting conversation with Favre, as he told him that he was inducted.

“A year ago, I knocked on the door of Brett Favre,” Baker said. “That particular day we deliberated for about 10 hours, but it took 10 seconds to select Brett Favre. So when I knock on Brett’s door and saw him, I first made a joke. I said, ‘Brett, it’s my great pleasure to tell you, provided you don’t retire, that you will be going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the 303 greatest players, coaches and contributors to ever play this game.’

“Brett heard the first part, but when I got to the second part about being among the 303 greatest players ever, Brett put his hands in his pockets and hung his head humbly like a kid. Because he knew how big this was.”

Big indeed. As Baker explained to me, there are several hundred million men who have played the game of football in some fashion. Of that group, only 2.2 million played college football. And when you take it to the professional level, there are only 27,000 who been be paid to play, coach or officiate in the National Football League.

So to be among the 300-plus players, coaches and contributors in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is truly an outstanding honor.

As I heard these great stories from Baker, I kept thinking about Jerry Kramer. Why? Because he has all the attributes as a player and also as a man to be among the greats in Canton.

In 1969, the Pro Football Hall of Fame named their NFL 50th anniversary team. The first team consisted of Jim Thorpe, Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Cal Hubbard, Don Hutson, John Mackey, Jerry Kramer, Chuck Bednarik, Gino Marchetti, Leo Nomellini, Ray Nitschke, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Emlen Tunnell and Lou Groza.

Every one of the members on that legendary team are enshrined as players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. All except one. That would be Jerry Kramer.

Kramer was also named to the NFL All-Decade team for the 1960s. Looking back on the players who were named First-Team All-Decade through the year 2000, there were 145 players who were given that designation.

And up until now, 133 of those players have been inducted into the hallowed halls in Canton. Kramer is among the 12 who haven’t as of yet.

The fact that Kramer was not only a First-Team All-Decade player, plus was the lone guard on the NFL 50th anniversary team, make his omission from the Pro Football Hall of Fame truly puzzling.

Kramer was a five-time AP (First-Team) All-Pro and also named as an AP (Second-Team) All-Pro once, plus was also named to three Pro Bowls for the Packers. No. 64 would have had even more honors if not for injuries and illness. Kramer missed half of the 1961 season due to a broken ankle and almost all of the 1964 season due to an intestinal ailment which took nine operations to resolve.

Kramer was an integral part of a great Green Bay team coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi. Those teams won five NFL championships in seven years, including the first two Super Bowls.

In addition to that, the Packers became the only team in the modern NFL to win three straight NFL titles, when Green Bay won it all in 1965, 1966 and 1967.

No. 64 played a key role in a number of those championship contests.

In the 1962 NFL Championship Game versus the New York Giants at very cold and windy Yankee Stadium, Kramer doubled as a right guard and as placekicker. Kramer booted three field goals on a very difficult day to kick, as  some wind gusts were over 40 mph during the contest.

Kramer scored 10 points in the 16-7 victory for the Packers, plus helped lead the way for fullback Jimmy Taylor to gain 85 yards rushing and also score the lone Green Bay touchdown. As a team, the Packers gained 148 yards rushing that day.

Kramer earned a game-ball for his efforts that day in the Bronx.

In the 1965 NFL Championship Game versus the Cleveland Browns at snowy and muddy Lambeau Field, Kramer and his teammates on the offensive line had a sensational day.

Taylor and halfback Paul Hornung led a rushing attack that gained 204 yards, as the Pack won 23-12. The power sweep was especially effective, as Kramer and fellow guard Fuzzy Thurston kept opening big holes for the backs as the Packers gained big chunks of yardage past the line of scrimmage.

Hornung scored the last touchdown of the game on one of those power sweeps. Kramer pulled left and first blocked the middle linebacker and then a cornerback, as the “Golden Boy” made his way into the end zone.

Then came the 1967 NFL Championship Game (better known as the “Ice Bowl”) versus the Cowboys at frigid Lambeau Field. In that legendary contest, Kramer made the most famous block in the history of the NFL.

The playing surface that day was truly a frozen tundra, as the game-time temperature was 13 below zero.

In the closing moments of the game, down by a score of 17-14,  the Packers had to drive 68 yards down the frozen field to either tie or win the game.

It all came down to 13 seconds to go with no timeouts at the 1-yard line of the Cowboys. The Packers could have kicked a field goal at that point to tie the game at 17-17.

But coach Lombardi decided to go for the win. If the Packers run the ball and are stopped short of the end zone, the game is over.

Starr called a 31-wedge play in the huddle, which calls for the fullback to get the ball. However, Starr decided to keep the ball after conferring with Lombardi on the sideline about the play.

jerry-leading-bart-in-the-ice-bowl

Starr thought it would be better to try to get into the end zone himself due to the slippery and icy conditions near the goal line. He followed Kramer’s classic block on Jethro Pugh and found a hole behind No. 64 to score the winning touchdown.

When one looks back on the consistent success of those great Green Bay teams under Lombardi, there are two points which certainly have to be made.

The power sweep was obviously the signature play for the Packers under Lombardi. Plus, Starr’s quarterback sneak with just seconds remaining in the “Ice Bowl”, had to be the signature moment of the Lombardi legacy.

Kramer played a prominent role in both of those instances.

Even with all that, Kramer has still not yet been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Between 1974 and 1987, Kramer was a finalist for induction into Canton nine times. Nine times! That in itself tells you that Kramer was a tremendous player.

But as all this was going on, a lot of Kramer’s teammates with the Packers were getting inducted. This included players like Taylor, Starr, Hornung, Forrest Gregg, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis and Jim Ringo.

But Kramer’s name was never called for induction. In 1989, another former teammate was inducted. Safety Willie Wood finally heard his name called, after also being a finalist nine times, just like Kramer.

In all, Kramer has seen 11 of his former teammates get inducted, as well as his legendary head coach.

In 1997, Kramer was a senior finalist, but for some reason he did not get the votes necessary for induction.

Many of Kramer’s peers who either played against him or with him and who were selected to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame have endorsed Kramer to receive that same honor.

I asked Baker about Kramer’s bewildering omission from the Hall.

“There is a huge backlog with the seniors, as I’m sure Rick Gosselin has let you know that,” Baker said. “Whether a player is nominated or not can be very subjective. Sometimes it’s by a razor-thin margin.

“The thing that most defines the men who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, are the guys who aren’t in the Hall. We are talking about some really spectacular players.”

The senior backlog may get a helping hand in the centennial year of the NFL in 2019. Gosselin, who sits on the seniors and the contributors committees, proposed that a number of worthy seniors be put into the Hall of Fame that year.

Baker talked about that possibility.

“To get into the Hall, it’s really elite and exclusive company,” Baker said. “That’s why I’m considering a proposal to expand the senior section in the NFL centennial to include some more deserving guys.”

Earlier in the story, Baker talked about the various attributes that players learn playing football. Things like like perseverance, commitment, sacrifice,  teamwork, love, loyalty and discipline. These are also things Kramer learned from Lombardi when he played in Green Bay.

“Coach Lombardi had a tremendous impact on my life,” Kramer told me awhile back. “The fundamentals that he taught us were fundamentals for life. They were about football, but also about business or anything else you wanted to achieve.

“You would use the Lombardi principles. He believed in paying the price. He believed in hard work and making sacrifices for the betterment of the team. His principles were preparation, commitment, consistency, discipline, character, pride, tenacity and perseverance.

“Those things are still helping me today.”

Kramer also talked about Lombardi’s background which helped him achieve great success in the NFL.

“Coach Lombardi read ancient Greek and Latin, plus taught chemistry and algebra,” Kramer said. “He was a very bright man. In a lot of ways, he was more like a teacher, as opposed to a coach. He believed that he was a teacher, first and foremost. For him, teaching and coaching were one in the same.”

Yes, Vincent Thomas Lombardi was a great coach and a great teacher. But he was more than that. He was also a great man. A man who molded great football players to be sure, but more importantly than that, he molded great people.

Kramer is certainly a testament to that, both as a man and as a player.

This is what Lombardi said about Kramer in a 1969 article in the Chicago Tribune:

“Jerry Kramer is the best guard in the league,” Lombardi said. “Some say the best in the history of the game.”

vince-and-jerry-iii

The voters who named the NFL 50th anniversary team in 1969 would definitely agree.

I sincerely hope that the day is coming very soon when Baker will knock on Kramer’s door and say, “Jerry, it is my great pleasure to tell you that you will be going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the greatest players, coaches and contributors to ever play this game.”

That is a moment that is long overdue in my opinion, but I know the occasion would be very rewarding for not only Kramer, but also for his family and friends as well. Not to mention all the fans who have supported his enshrinement in Canton for all these years.

3 thoughts on “A Conversation with David Baker, the President/Executive Director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame

  1. Pingback: Jerry Kramer Talks About the Power Sweep | Bob Fox

    • No, it’s not for certain. Jerry first has to be nominated as one of the two senior nominees by the Seniors Selection Committee next month in Canton. If that happens, Jerry will automatically become a finalist who will then be voted on by all of the voters for the Hall on Super Bowl Saturday. The key is getting the nomination by the seniors committee. Jerry has some allies there, which includes Rick Gosselin, who will be one of the members voting for the senior nominees in August. If Jerry is indeed nominated, I can’t see him not getting inducted this time.

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