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The Greatest all-round sportsmen you’ve probably never heard of

posted 24 Apr 2019, 03:38 by Roy McDonald   [ updated 24 Apr 2019, 03:38 ]

This story was originally written for inclusion in the Senior Cup Final programme. However, the Editor forgot that he had it! It finally surfaced in the match programme for the game against Newcastle Town on 13th April 2019. I have been fascinated by these two remarkable men, since reading books about each of them, and came across them again whilst researching the Northern Nomads.

 

The City of Liverpool has produced more than it’s fair share of sporting heroes.

Born just a few miles, and a few months, apart in Liverpool in 1892 were two boys who became phenomenal polymath sportsmen. They remain virtually unknown, yet they should be celebrated amongst the city’s greatest.

Growing up, the paths of the two boys took very different directions.

Benjamin Howard Baker’s father, a ”wholesale druggist”,  was determined that his son should not go to public school, and he was educated at Marlborough College, a small independent preparatory and secondary school in Liverpool. After completing his schooling, the young Benjamin entered the family chemicals business in the city. By contrast, Max Woosnam, the son of the chaplain for the Mersey Mission to Seamen, spent most of his early childhood in Aberhafesp in Mid Wales and was sent to boarding school at the age of seven, then on to Winchester College and Cambridge University.

The paths of the pair did not cross until the early 1920’s, but they went on to become great friends, and even played football for the same Chelsea, Northern Nomads and Corinthians sides on several occasions.

These days, the term ‘amateur’ is often used in a derogatory way to mean poor or second rate. However, the true meaning of the French word is that of a lover of something. Thus, a century ago an amateur sportsman was regarded as one who loved participating in sport for it’s own sake, rather than for monetary gain. Throughout their sporting careers, both Howard Baker and Woosnam remained staunchly amateur, even when playing alongside full-time professionals for club and country. Their love of the game was absolute.

Benjamin Howard Baker excelled in a wide range of sports from an early age. He was introduced to athletics after his father took him to the Liverpool Harriers club in an effort to ‘tire him out and stop him jumping about’. Tall and agile, he was an all-round athlete, although he specialised in the High Jump discipline for Liverpool Harriers. He was the AAA champion six times, and Northern champion seven times. He also won Northern honours at the Discus, Hammer, Long Jump, Pole Vault, Hurdles and Javelin.

Howard Baker held the British High Jump record on three separate occasions – his 1921 record of 6’5” (1.95 m) stood for 28 years. The Daily Telegraph lauded him as “The Liverpool jumper with the figure of Apollo”. He was selected to compete for his country at the 1912 Olympics, in the High Jump, Standing Jump and Triple Jump. In the 1920 Olympics, he finished sixth in the High Jump and eighth in the Triple Jump competition.

In football, he played, as a centre-half, for Marlborough Old Boys and Liverpool Balmoral, represented Lancashire and had trials for England amateurs in that position. He was signed, as an amateur, by Blackburn Rovers. However, he did not make any first team appearances for the Ewood Park outfit before the Great War intervened. He had the reputation of being the longest dead ball kicker of the time.

An ankle injury sustained on mine-sweeping duty on a Q boat during the war forced him to switch to goalkeeping, and it was in this position that he played for Preston North End and Liverpool at reserve team level after the war. After impressing for the Reds in a reserve derby fixture, Baker was signed by Everton in November 1920. In all, he appeared more than 100 times in League games for Everton, Chelsea and Oldham Athletic.   

Throughout his time with professional clubs, he maintained his amateur status and also played a number of games with the famous amateur sides, Northern Nomads, and after his move to London, with the Corinthians, when he wasn’t appearing in League teams. He earned his first senior England selection in May 1921, keeping a clean sheet in a 2-0 victory over Belgium.  He also made ten appearances for the England Amateur team.

His propensity for producing spectacular saves and juggling the ball, basketball-style, made him a firm favourite amongst spectators. He often used his pre-war outfield experience to charge out of his area, Sweeper-style, to clear the ball, in a manner otherwise unseen at this time.

A true all-rounder, Howard Baker also played for Liverpool Cricket Club, scoring two centuries, was an international goalkeeper in water polo and played tennis at Wimbledon and won the doubles event at the Welsh Indoor Open Tennis tournament in 1932. He was also a star turn as an exhibition swimmer and diver, and even found time to row, sail and box!

In 1962 Basil Easterbrook of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph eloquently summed up this exceptional sportsman: “Howard-Baker loved football, but very properly he only sought it as a balance from his other life as a manufacturing chemist… Baker played for fun outside of the shadow of the pay envelope.

Maxwell Woosnam was a ball-playing all-rounder, who excelled at every sport he played. His abilities were first noted during his schooldays where he captained both the golf and cricket teams as well as representing the school at football and squash. He even scored a century for a Public Schools XI against the M.C.C. at Lords.

Tall, with rugged good looks, topped with a shock of blond hair neatly parted in the centre, Max Woosnam was the archetypal Boys Own Paper hero.

At Cambridge he represented the university at cricket, lawn tennis and real tennis, and captained the football team. He also honed his skills to become a scratch golfer. After leaving Cambridge, Woosnam took part in the famous Corinthian tour of Brazil in the summer of 1913 where he became one of the stars of the touring team.

At the outbreak of the Great War, Woosnam enlisted with the Montgomeryshire Yeomanry and fought at Gallipoli as well as on the Western front, earning a distinction for his bravery. After the war, Woosnam moved to work in Manchester and joined Manchester City, as an amateur, initially playing only in the home games, claiming that away trips would interfere with his work.

At the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games he won tennis gold in the men’s doubles and silver in the mixed doubles – on the same day!

His popularity at City was such that his teammates elected him team captain – a rare honour for an amateur in a professional side – leading them to runners-up spot in the First Division, before heading to Wimbledon that summer to collect the men’s doubles title.  He also captained the British Davis Cup team in America in 1921.

The following year, he was selected, and appointed captain, for England’s 1-0 win over Wales at Anfield, in what was, surprisingly, to be his only international football appearance. 

As a footballer, Woosnam would never enter the field of play without a freshly laundered pocket handkerchief and often played carrying it in his left hand.

Both men were not averse to a bit of showmanship.

Woosnam, as a member of the British Davis Cup Tennis team, was invited to a house party at Charlie Chaplin’s Hollywood mansion, whilst in America. Max and Charlie took an instant dislike to one other. Challenged to a friendly game of table tennis by his host, Woosnam promptly won the match using a butter knife as a bat (his great party-piece). Chaplin was not amused – especially when Woosnam later threw his host into his own swimming pool – and retired to his room until the tennis players had left.

Sometimes, during half-time at a match, Howard Baker would stay on the pitch and perform demonstrations of high jumping to entertain the crowd. He, too had a party-piece, which he ably demonstrated at a function in Paris, jumping up to kick a chandelier – which greatly impressed the famous socialite and actress, Lily Langtry, who witnessed it.

After his sporting career, Woosnam spent most of his working life in personnel at ICI in Cheshire, eventually joining the board of the company. Yet he still found time to manage and coach the works team during a successful run in the FA Amateur Cup in the 1930’s. Howard Baker continued working in the family wholesale drugs, cleaning products and soap business, eventually taking over from his father and becoming a highly regarded figure in Merseyside business circles.

Max Woosnam died in 1965 of respiratory problems brought on by his lifetime of smoking (and probably not helped by working at Chemical plants?). Benjamin Howard Baker outlived his contemporary by more than 20 years, dying at the age of 95, regretting only that he never had the opportunity to try the ‘Fosbury Flop’ high jump technique invented more than 40 years after he retired.

Both men’s lives and achievements are now largely forgotten, as neither sought to gain acclaim for their prodigious talents and deeds. Neither had a desire to draw attention to themselves or recognition in the newspaper columns of the time. Woosnam considered it ‘the height of bad manners’ to talk about himself, and claimed the idea of turning professional was ‘vulgar’.

Both men were content to play hard, do their best and to enjoy their sport.

We shall never see their like again.