By Peter Schwartz
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David Baker put on a pair of white gloves and removed the Vince Lombardi Trophy from a display case. It was carefully placed in a padded box and sent — along with security — to New York and New Jersey where it will be presented February 2 to the winner of Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium.
A pretty cool part of the job description, huh?
Monday was just another day at the office for Baker, the new President and Executive Director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. After this year’s trophy was wrapped up and sent to the Big Apple, Baker replaced it in the display case with the trophy for Super Bowl XLIX, which will be presented next year in Arizona.
Since 2009, the NFL has made Canton the home of the Lombardi Trophy, so that football fans all over the country can see it in person. And now Baker can see it every day.
“I love it,” Baker said. “For me, it’s the greatest honor that I can possibly have to serve at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I respect the game and how important this game and its values have been to America’s culture.”
Baker served as Commissioner of the Arena Football League for 12 years from 1996-2008. He was also the owner of the AFL’s Anaheim Piranhas in 1995 and was elected as league chairman.
He has 35 years of experience in business management, professional sports and public service. Before joining the Hall of Fame, Baker spent four years as a partner in Union Village, LLC, a healthcare project that created thousands of jobs in Henderson, Nevada.
But his passions are family and football — and they are both intertwined.
Baker’s son, Sam, is an offensive tackle for the Atlanta Falcons after being drafted in the first round back in 2008. Baker’s other son, Ben, worked in the AFL’s broadcasting department before moving on to jobs with ESPN and now NASCAR.
“Football has shaped our character,” said Baker. “To have that opportunity to honor the game that has blessed my family so much is a great privilege.”
It was through during his Arena Football League tenure when Baker created relationships with the NFL and the Hall of Fame. He would have breakfast, lunch or dinner with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell once a month for 10 years.
“David is a dynamic executive with a strong football background,” said Goodell. “We look forward to supporting him in growing the Hall of Fame’s record of success.”
Goodell became Baker’s liaison to the NFL. During their get-togethers, they would discuss the sport and how they could grow it together.
“We would talk about the integrity of the game and the philosophy of the game and ways we could represent the fans,” said Baker. “I think that experience is going to help me a lot here.”
In 2007, Baker helped spearhead an Arena Football League exhibit in Canton. After all, it’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame and not the NFL Hall of Fame. It was through that process that Baker would meet his predecessor, Steve Perry. The Hall of Fame’s former President and Executive Director served an eight-year term that began in April 2006. He presided over about $40 million in renovations and expansions to the Hall’s campus.
Now, the baton has been passed to Baker, who becomes the sixth President and Executive Director in the Hall of Fame’s 50-year history.
“When I had the opportunity to come here to do this, I jumped at the chance,” said Baker. “Steve and his team have done a great job but I get excited about the things that we can do in the future.”
Baker would love to see the fans get more involved in the Hall of Fame process. Part of that would involve more fans coming to Canton to see the history that’s preserved or taking part in how Hall of Famers are enshrined every year while also maintaining the integrity of the process.
This year, fans will get an up-close look at how the 2014 Hall of Fame class is elected.
“For the first time, we’re going to have some cameras in the selection room,” said Baker. “It’s a very difficult process. Some of these guys end up being on the ballot for 10, 15 or even 20 years.”
On a selfish note, I’ve always felt that former Jets defensive lineman Joe Klecko deserves to be enshrined in Canton. So, given my long relationship with Baker from our AFL days, I figured I would ask if I can get a favor from the Hall of Fame’s new boss.
Can we get Joe in the hall?
“There’s no doubt that Joe is a deserving candidate,” said Baker after a chuckle to my question. “But there are so many deserving candidates. Some of these guys I look at and I shake my head and I say ‘Why aren’t they in already?’ The fact of the matter is that this is our sport’s highest honor.”
Baker went for the politically correct answer there — and I’ll give him a pass.
This year, Giants great Michael Strahan is one of the finalists that will be discussed at the selection meeting on February 1, the day before the Super Bowl. That night, this year’s class will be announced on “NFL Honors,” which will air on Fox. Before the announcement, Baker will take part in the process for the first time.
He’s looking forward to it and compares it to another long and arduous process.
“I think it’s going to be a great privilege,” said Baker. “I feel like I’m going to be inside the Sistine Chapel watching this and seeing if it’s white smoke or black smoke that comes out of the chimney.”
Baker makes a good analogy in that football is a religion for many people. If you are a serious football fan, you need to make a trip to Canton to see this wonderful cathedral to the game.
It’s the Hall of Fame’s belief that they have more education, content and memorabilia than any place in the world and that they are the foremost sports museum in the world.
“I think that any true football fan, once in their life and hopefully more often, needs to get to Canton, Ohio,” said Baker. “Our goal is to have more and more football oriented events here in Canton.”
Baker’s goal is also to take some of the memorabilia from the Hall of Fame and take it to NFL team sites as well as to other cities so that fans can get involved.
Creating new fans is something that is not new to Baker. He guided the Arena Football League to unprecedented growth during his time as Commissioner. He brought in stronger ownership, struck television deals with NBC and ESPN, and was a true ambassador to a sport that saw attendance and revenues soar.
“My time in the Arena Football League was real special,” said Baker. “That was a great time for me because we got to participate in a lot of great growth there and I was very excited about it.”
Baker was certainly having an AFL flashback while he was watching the AFC Championship game on Sunday. After the Broncos beat the Patriots, Baker watched an old friend standing on a stage while picking up some hardware.
“I was thinking about (the AFL) when (Broncos Executive VP) John Elway was accepting the Lamar Hunt Trophy because he won an ArenaBowl with the Colorado Crush.”
That was in Las Vegas back in June of 2005 when Baker was using his vision and love of football to grow a fledgling sport. Fast forward eight and a half years and Baker is now in charge of the one of the most cherished elements of football.
Baker has some great ideas about how to grow the hall, but he has not lost touch on Canton’s bottom line. The foundation of the Hall of Fame is comprised of those individuals who have been enshrined.
“It is sweat, it is blood, it is good health and a little bit of luck to make it in,” said Baker. “It’s just not that easy.”
You think it’s easy trying to get someone to buy a ticket to a 50-yard version of football with smaller goal posts, dasher boards, and just eight players for each team on the field?
He handled a tough and what seemed like an impossible task very well. Growing the Pro Football Hall of Fame will be another challenge for Baker, but his track record says he’ll do a great job.
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