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Baker and Douglas - opposites who collided in an Olympic final.

Byline: Alun Rees

BOXING DAY 1908 was literally boxing day at Rushcutter's Bay, Sydney: boxing as in Jack Johnson winning the world heavyweight title by tormenting outweighed, outreached, outclassed Tommy Burns so cruelly that the police stopped the fight in the 14th round. One of the men behind the bout, though the extent of his involvement is debatable, was Snowy Baker.

Baker, a most unusual chap, provides a notorious fight with links to Test-level rugby union, Olympic boxing, swimming and diving, rowing, polo (wet and horseback sorts), athletics, gymnastics, wrestling, Douglas Fairbanks the elder, Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley Temple. Plus, at one remove, international amateur soccer and cricket of both county and Test species.

For two men who sparred with Burns that year covered many a square mile of sporting territory behind them. Baker sparred with the Canadian as he prepared for the Johnson fight. John William Henry Tyler Douglas had crossed gloves with the champion in March at a private do in London. And the connection between Baker and Douglas was direct.

In October of that same year they met in the final of the Olympic middleweight competition. After three fierce rounds they could not be separated, so a fourth was ordered. Douglas - awarded the gold - went on to captain Essex and England, and he also won Amateur Football Association caps.

The contrast between the two could not have been greater. Douglas was a plain, blunt man, as they say (though some settled for flaming rude), and had very decided views about class:

the professional cricketer who presumed to address an amateur familiarly in his hearing was very likely to feel the rough edge of his tongue.

Indeed, it was rumoured that his tongue had two edges, rough and rougher, and that his batting had a similar number of gears - dead slow and deader slow. A match-saving eight not out for Essex against Kent consumed an hour and a half. His 189-minute 33 for the MCC tourists against Victoria in 1911 inspired suggestions that his initials stood for Johnny Won't Hit Today.

Sydney-born Baker was scamp, scoundrel and rogue blessed with the con-man's charm. He knew more about angles than Euclid. Dealing with Baker it was best to get hold of your money up front.

At the same time he possessed extraordinary sporting ability. Fairbanks described the former silent screen actor (yes, Baker was that, too) who taught him to use the stockwhip for The Mark of Zorro the greatest allround athlete in the world.

An early exponent of the crawl, at 13 he was beating adults in the New South Wales swimming championships over 100 and 200 yards. On the track he could outrun most over anything from 100 yards to the mile.

Apart from his boxing silver, at the 1908 London Olympics he also competed in the 4x200m freestyle relay and springboard diving. His team dominated water-polo in New South Wales. He was an expert horseman, and gave wrestling and gymnastics exhibitions. He rowed in junior fours and eights, and gave Hollywood stars polo (horse-type) lessons.

So what couldn't he do? Act, according to report, which didn't stop him trying in the infant Australian cinema industry, though when he moved to the States he was more valued for his tutoring. Among those said to have been helped by his equestrian seminars were Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley Temple.

Perhaps, though, the high point of his sporting career (Olympic medal notwithstanding) came early, four years before the London Games. The 20-year-old played half-back for New South Wales against the 1904 British Isles tourists, and did well enough to be capped by Australia in the first two Tests.

All his life he kept on looking for those angles. Well, you wouldn't expect a man who gulled Australian punters into forking out for what Baker billed as world title fights between imported boxers so anonymous that their nearest and dearest needed reminding who they were, to change his ways, would you?

It was a quirky turn of history that brought Douglas and Baker together.

Douglas was as straight as a die, but a queue of those who liked him would have struggled to reach double figures. Baker made the corkscrewiest corkscrew look straighter than the most undeviating die, but folk took to him; until he diddled them, anyway.

Funny business, life.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 28, 2001
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