Hobey Baker was a standout athlete in both ice hockey and football, competing for the Princeton Tigers. | Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Hobey Baker is considered one of the greatest American hockey players of all time. In a new three-episode podcast, 106 years after Baker’s tragic death, ESPN is claiming he was gay.

That’s the main takeaway from the latest in-depth “30 for 30 Podcasts” entry, “Searching For Hobey Baker.” The podcast aims to explore the life of a multitalented man who was known for his athletic prowess, intelligence, courage in World War I, good looks and his seemingly loving relationship with another man.

The revelation of Baker being gay is a new one. If you search the 25 years of Outsports’ archives, Hobey Baker is not mentioned once. The ESPN podcast will be a head-scratcher for some.

Yet ESPN and the podcast producers are sticking by their claim that Baker was gay (or in the words of the publicity and producers for the podcast, “a queer man”).

“That is what we are claiming,” said executive producer and researcher Andy Reynolds. “But it’s based on massive amounts of research and documentation. Talking about what does this mean, and how do we get this right, we know we have to dot every I and cross every T.

“Our bar for the validity of our storytelling needs to be incredibly high.”

In twice listening to the podcast, narrated by actor David Duchovny, and talking to various people in and around the production and distribution of the podcast, plus my colleague Jim Buzinski from Outsports (who also listened), there is a compelling case they make that Baker — a revered figure in hockey and the only American who was a member of the first Hockey Hall of Fame in 1945 — was gay.

Who is Hobey Baker?

While Hobey Baker was a contributor to the American war effort as a pilot in World War I, he is best-known today as the name on the trophy given annually to the “most outstanding” player in NCAA men’s hockey, taking into account on-ice excellence and character.

Yet very few people in 2024 know a thing about the man after whom the trophy was named more than six decades after his death.

“We want to uncover stories that you think you know, or you know nothing at all about,” said vice president and executive producer for ESPN Films and “30 For 30” Marsha Cooke. “Hobey is a statue coveted by amateur athletes. If we were to ask the latest Hobey Baker Award winner, he may not know a lot about Hobey.”

Baker was a standout athlete at Princeton. While a member of the Tigers’ football team, they posted an impressive record of 20-3-4 (that’s when low scores and ties were much more common).

In the ESPN podcast, there is some conversation about his football-playing days. Yet most of the sports conversation revolves around his spectacular hockey play, at one point elevating the Americans over the Canadians, a feat of great pride for the Yanks at the time. The podcast delves into great detail about many of Baker’s athletic exploits and his hold on the American sporting imagination in the pre-World War I era.

Baker holds an incredible sports distinction: He is the only person inducted into both hockey and college football halls of fame.

He was a stud, on par with his multisport contemporary Jim Thorpe.

There’s also something of note the podcast addresses: Hobey Baker was gorgeous. Even teammates would comment on how physically beautiful he was.

“With his lean but well-muscled figure and his handsome, manly yet boyish face, he was someone who would appeal to both men and women alike,” a former roommate wrote to Baker biographer John Davies.

And yet, according to the reporting on the podcast, he had zero interest in women. In one anecdote, a classmate recalls Baker fleeing the hockey arena at Princeton via a back entrance to avoid a woman who wanted to go out with him.

Was Hobey Baker ‘gay’?

Andy Reynolds is a leading academic and researcher of LGBTQ history and politics. He served as executive producer and co-writer of the “Searching for Hobey Baker” podcast, along with executive producer and co-writer Tim Smith and executive producer Ross Greenburg.

Reynolds joined the project four years ago, he told Outsports, after Smith tipped him off to a fascinating historical figure named Hobey Baker.

Recasting someone from the past as “queer” or “gay” isn’t taken lightly by Reynolds. These words simply weren’t used the same way in 1924 as they are in 2024.

Yet Reynolds’ research has been meticulous. Despite Baker passing away in 1918, Reynolds has found a copious amount of information that points to one conclusion for the researcher and the ESPN team: Baker was in a same-sex relationship, and he was gay (or, in Reynolds’ words, “queer”).

“We basically gathered together the letters, the remembrances, and dug up a lot of new stuff as well,” Reynolds said. “This is a 90-minute podcast, but there’s a lot of other stuff under the bottom side of the iceberg.”

Reynolds pointed, as mentioned in the podcast, to what clearly seem to be love letters, bursting with emotional and physical affection, between Baker and Percy Rivington Pyne II, son of one of the country’s richest men at the time and himself a Princeton alum. Baker and Pyne lived together in Pyne’s swank Manhattan house for two years and were reportedly inseparable, becoming fixtures on the New York social scene.

“If we presented this evidence of a man and a woman, there’s no doubt we’d see them as a romantic couple,” Reynolds said. “In this case, the experts told us that they see this as a very strong loving relationship.”

This is, of course, not apples to apples. In 1915, no man and woman would live together outside of a romantic relationship. Yet many men had at the time, and have today, male roommates. Still, Reynolds insists there is far deeper evidence, and the podcast shares much of it.

The language most used in the podcast, and in the media outreach from ESPN, is that Baker was “queer.” Yet in the podcast are moments (as mentioned above) of Baker hiding and running from women, to avoid their romantic advances. While there is mention of the term “gay” maybe not working in cultural context in the early 1900s, the podcast does call his contemporary, the composer Cole Porter, as well as Baker’s alleged lover Pyne, “gay.”

While the podcast uses the term “queer” for Baker, the inference of the podcast is clearly that he was “gay.”

While it’s easy to prejudice research with the selection of experts on a topic, Reynolds assured Outsports that was not the case here.

“Their views were consistently shared across all the experts we spoke with. We didn’t receive any feedback saying, ‘No, you’ve got it wrong here.’ And I was careful not to prejudge their evaluations — we set out what we had, and said, ‘based on your expertise what do you think?'”

Fair criticism of the podcast lies in the handling of Hobey Baker’s tragic death

If there is fair criticism to be levied about the three-part podcast — beyond the use of the terms “queer” and “gay” — it surrounds Baker’s death at age 26.

Undisputed is that Baker died in a plane crash in France on Dec. 21, 1918, while he was the pilot, shortly after receiving his orders home following the end of World War I.

The podcast speculates — with little evidence other than the assertion of one historian — that Baker potentially killed himself in the plane crash because he was gay and didn’t want to return to an intolerant America. This is despite the podcast also saying that America at the time, and certainly New York City, wasn’t that intolerant for gay people.

Reynolds, the lead researcher, told Outsports he does not think that Baker intentionally ended his life.

“There are a lot of people saying it was an accident,” he said. “And to be honest, that’s my view. I don’t think he crashed himself.”

Why was the speculation that Baker killed himself because he was gay included in the podcast, if the lead voice on the project didn’t believe it? It’s tough to defend. In the years following Baker’s death, there was some speculation he had intentionally crashed his plane because his former female fiancee — Mimi Scott — had ended their relationship.

The assertion that he may have killed himself because he was gay is baseless, and it simply doesn’t belong in an otherwise well-documented piece.

The cultural impact of ‘Searching For Hobey Baker’

The NHL was founded in 1917, a year before Baker’s death.

In the time since the NHL was founded, there has never been a current or former NHL player or coach who has come out publicly as gay.

Contrast that with the NFL, NBA, MLB and MLS, each of which has had multiple players and coaches —current or former — come out publicly.

As Outsports has documented extensively, the culture of hockey for gay and bisexual men has been, over recent decades, the worst in North American sports.

That elevates the importance of publicly out gay men in the sport, like Luke Prokop, who is in the Nashville Predators system with a real shot at the NHL.

“My work is all about visibility and being at the table changing conversations,” Reynolds said. “And its effects of role modeling and validation, and youth seeing gay people in the public sphere.”

Some people may raise questions about the podcast, including the timing of its release, for Pride Month. Is ESPN reaching to provide content for the LGBTQ community?

Everyone Outsports spoke to assured that this project is the result of years of research and what the company believes is a reflection of the life of a legendary figure in sports whose name is mentioned once a year to honor the best player in college hockey.

“We’ve been really focused on telling the most nuanced, complete version of Hobey’s story,” Preeti Varathan, head of “30 for 30 Podcasts,” said. “It’s important to me that we recognize backlash might be part of any story we produce. And like Andy, I think of the queer players in hockey. What we’re saying is based on archives and based on evidence.”

You can find ESPN’s “Searching For Hobey Baker” on Apple podcasts.