Oct. 25, 1941 – Oct. 19, 2017
Jim Baker, the hard-hitting sportswriter and radio-TV columnist for the Buffalo Courier-Express who went on to a lengthy career at the Boston Herald, died Oct. 19 under hospice care in Lexington, Mass., after a short illness. He was 75.
“I plead guilty to setting him in motion,” said Douglas Turner, Mr. Baker's editor at the Courier-Express in the 1970s. “He was totally and excellently fearless. He offended everyone.”
Born in Buffalo, James L. Baker was a 1959 graduate of Kenmore High School. After earning his bachelor’s degree from the University at Buffalo in 1963, he began at the Courier-Express covering high school sports.
He was assigned to the Buffalo Braves in the early 1970s and traveled with the basketball team before he became one of the traveling writers with the Buffalo Bills, along with Larry Felser of The News, radio play-by-play man Rick Azar and color analyst Ed Rutkowski.
Then he got a new assignment.
“We had a rather bland coverage of radio and television,” Turner said, “and we decided to create something called Channel One. I never interfered with him much. His credo and mine, we were the junior paper and we had to do a little extra. He was never looking for friends other than the readers.”
"He got under the skin of Channel 17 for failing to produce local coverage," Turner added. "He got himself good and hated by the then-management."
In the final edition of the Courier-Express in 1982, Mr. Baker wrote: “Dating back to the days when I covered O.J. Simpson and little Ernie DiGregorio, I have tried to approach each piece of writing from the standpoint of what might best entertain and inform the reader.
“In sports, that means remaining at arm’s length from the team you cover. They are the Bills, not ‘we.’ In television, that means dodging the pitches of stars, executive and PR-types to write how great they or their operations are, and to colorfully tell it as it is.”
While in Buffalo, he also authored four books on sports topics – “O.J. Simpson” and “The Buffalo Bills: O.J. Simpson, Rushing Champion,” both in 1974; “Billie Jean King” in 1975 and “O.J. Simpson’s Most Memorable Games” in 1978.
When the Courier-Express closed, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. offered Mr. Baker a job at its tabloid Boston Herald, where he was a radio-TV columnist and sports media critic.
Shortly after he arrived in Boston, he received a better pay offer and left to work at the Hartford Courant, but quickly returned to the Herald.
“It was too staid for him,” said his wife, the former Barbara Buscher.
The Herald’s Joe Fitzgerald wrote that he “joined us in 1983 to cover the way sports were being telecast and broadcast around the nation, especially here in Boston, where knowledge and passion make it very serious stuff.
“It also made this Jim’s kind of town. The man was fearless with his zingers and critiques.”
“He loved what he did and did it like no one else,” former Boston TV sports anchor Bob Lobel told Fitzgerald. “We’d almost be afraid to pick up the Herald in the morning, wondering what Jim had to say.”
He drew admiration from many of his colleagues in the newsroom.
The Herald’s Steve Baker wrote, “The desks in that bullpen area were always full with staff members on a Thursday when ‘The Bakes’ was tuning up his weekend column, making calls to this famous broadcaster or that well-known network executive and squeezing the truth out of them. We would be high-fiving each other as he bent someone like Bob Costas to his will.”
After Mr. Baker retired from the Herald in 2003, he continued to write. He contributed commentaries for the Buffalo Rocket and for many years wrote the sports guide for TV Guide magazine. His articles also appeared in the Cheektowaga Times and the Niagara Gazette.
He published two more books, “A View From the Booth: Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti – 25 Years of Broadcasting the New England Patriots” in 2008, and “Buffalo Bills IQ: The Ultimate Test of True Fandom” in 2012.
He also was a play-by-play commentator for high school games on cable television in Lexington and Burlington, Mass.
He and his wife would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in January.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by three daughters, Kathleen, LeeAnn and Erin Zarnecki; a son, Thomas J.; and nine grandchildren.
A Mass of Christian Burial was offered Oct. 24 in St. Brigid Catholic Church, Lexington.