O.C. lawyer brings energy, vision to Pro Football Hall of Fame
David Baker is an enormous man with even bigger ideas.
Baker, 6 feet 9 and nearly 400 pounds, is always looking to do things on a grander scale, whether it was as an Orange County attorney, mayor of Irvine or commissioner of the Arena Football League.
Some people aim to reinvent the wheel. Baker wants to fit it with monster truck tires.
“If my dad owned an Arby’s, he’d want to make it the most extravagant Arby’s you’ve ever seen — times 10,” said his son, Sam, a USC fixture at left tackle during the Pete Carroll days.
But at some point in life you have to downshift, even a man as energetic and ambitious as David Baker. So when he took over as president of the Pro Football
Hall of Fame in January 2014, entering his seventh decade of life, his family breathed a sigh of relief.
“Taking nothing away from the Hall of Fame,” his son said, “but it was kind of a mom-and-pop place. We thought he’d be able to go there, mellow out, and just kind of be a figurehead.”
The elder Baker had different ideas.
“It wasn’t too long before my dad called and started talking about building a Hall of Fame village,” Sam said. “He said, ‘It’s going to be bigger than Disneyland!’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh, here we go…’ ”
A onetime UC Irvine basketball player who towers over everyone, even most of the Hall of Fame players he represents, Baker has established himself as a monumental figure in the nation’s No. 1 sports league.
“The best games I ever played in were ones where when they were over you were totally spent and had nothing left,” Baker said. “But you kind of had this smile on your face like, ‘Man, this was great.’ Win or lose, you shake the hand of your opponent, and it’s, ‘I can’t wait for the next one.’ ”
Baker, 64, is a close confidante of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — even though the unaffiliated Hall of Fame derives only 3% of its annual revenues from the league — and has won the trust of heavy hitters.
“We haven’t really been giving the Hall of Fame the true recognition it deserves,” legendary Cleveland Browns star Jim Brown said. “David has been unreal at really keeping it going.”
Said Jerome Bettis, another Hall of Fame running back: “David has been absolutely incredible in terms of what he’s brought to the Hall of Fame. He understands his role, and he champions our causes.”
That will continue this weekend as the latest class of Hall of Famers is inducted: players Morten Andersen, Terrell Davis, Kenny Easley, Jason Taylor, LaDainian Tomlinson and Kurt Warner; and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
Baker isn’t about bluster and grandiose dreams that never come to fruition. He draws up a blueprint and follows through. According to the Hall of Fame, the organization’s net assets grew 161% under the first three years of Baker’s leadership. He has breathed life into a museum that had turned a tad musty over the years. And that football Disneyland he envisioned is rapidly taking shape, complete with a $100-million naming rights deal.
Progress is underway at Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village, a $700-million mixed-use development at the Hall of Fame’s campus in Canton, Ohio. The village includes the Hall of Fame museum; a Black College Hall of Fame; 23,000-seat Tom Benson Stadium; eight state-of-the-art turf fields for youth football; an upscale football-themed hotel; a retail promenade; a convention center; and a player care center for retired Hall of Famers and others.
“Dave has done a tremendous job,” Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana said. “It’s a 180degree turn from the way the place used to be. He’s trying to make it better and grow it all the time. Before, it was what it was, and it stayed that way. Now, he’s constantly looking for ways to make people want to go there, whether you’re a player or a fan.”
On a credenza in Baker’s office is a glowing clock that’s 10 digits long. Whereas Baker is a forward thinker, this timepiece moves backward. It’s counting down — days, hours, minutes, seconds — to Sept. 17, 2020, the kickoff to the NFL’s 100th season.
One of Baker’s big dreams is, by that centennial season, to have a robust digital database with a full profile of each of the roughly 27,000 people paid to play, coach, officiate or administrate in the NFL.
“The goal for the 100th anniversary is to have something where every guy who ever played can come in and call it up, or call it up online,” Baker said. “Then his grandchildren’s grandchildren can say, ‘He did this in the NFL.’ Even more importantly, ‘This is what he believed. This is who he was. This is his voice.’ ”
Baker is big on establishing traditions. He travels from city to city during the NFL season, presenting updated rings to Hall of Famers during halftime ceremonies and allowing them to bask in the applause of a full stadium yet again. He has participated in outreach programs in the U.S. and abroad, with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft bringing Baker and 18 Hall of Fame players to Israel in June, and another group of Hall of Famers traveling to Italy for an audience with the pope.
Then there’s “the knock,” a tradition Baker started during Super Bowl week, when Hall of Fame hopefuls are informed they have been voted into Canton by Baker knocking on their hotel room doors. It used to be that the 18 finalists stayed home during the voting and learned of the outcome either by a call or by watching on TV.
“Now we bring all 18 guys to the Super Bowl,” Baker said. “It’s difficult for the guys who don’t make it. It’s still a spectacular honor to be a finalist, but these are the most competitive people in the world. …
“Then I go knock on the doors. It’s always a situation where the turn-down service has knocked, or somebody else, so until they really kind of see it or hear it, they’re never quite sure. You see a lot of people crying when they get in.”
For Baker, his own knock came four years ago when he was contacted by a headhunting firm to gauge his interest in running the Canton institution. He was flattered but didn’t intend to take the job. He was overseeing the development of an integrated healthcare village in Nevada and wasn’t planning to leave … until he mentioned it to his wife, Colleen.
“I forwarded her the email and said, ‘Guess what happened today,’ and then I erased it,” he said. “She called me about 15 minutes later and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to go do this.’ I said, ‘Sweetheart, I already told them no.’ And she said, ‘You can call them back.’”
Baker has had his share of challenges in the job, none more daunting than the one a year ago when, because congealed paint had made the field unplayable, he had to cancel the Hall of Fame game less than two hours before kickoff.
That led to a class-action lawsuit seeking $5 million in damages on behalf of fans who had tickets to the planned game between the Indianapolis Colts and Green Bay Packers.
“We apologize to those fans, and we’ve tried to make it right with as many of them as we possibly can,” Baker said. “We’re going to make sure that never happens again. But, yeah, that was a tough time.”
When he thinks about how much longer he wants to do this job, Baker often recalls a memory of his father’s work ethic.
“My dad wasn’t a very sophisticated guy, and he couldn’t read or write and he worked at the lumberyard,” he said. “One day he’s 64 years old — he’s my age — and he’s still working at the lumberyard. It’s dirty, hard, filthy work.
“He takes his shirt off and he kind of collapses into his chair. I was a college kid then, and I was worried about him. I said, ‘Dad, are you all right?’ And he said, ‘Oh, son,’ and he got this slow smile across his face and said, ‘We moved a lot of lumber today.’”
Forty years later, his son moves it by the ton.
DAVE BAKER, right, is president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a job that puts him in touch with enshrinees such as former Steelers great Jerome Bettis.
DAVE BAKER was at the center of a controversy last year when the Hall of Fame game had to be canceled.