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Obituary: Bob Baker / Local boxer was top heavyweight contender in '50s

Friday, April 26, 2002

By Chuck Finder and Pohla Smith, Post-Gazette Sports Writers

Bob Baker, a professional boxer who spent nearly a decade as a nationally televised top contender for the world heavyweight championship, though he never got a chance at the title, died Tuesday of heart failure at Life Care Hospital in Wilkinsburg. He was 75.

Mr. Baker, of the Hill District, briefly worked as a referee on "Studio Wrestling" television broadcasts in Pittsburgh and in Golden Gloves boxing competitions. But it was as a fighter that he was best known.

"Big Bob" Baker, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound slugger, won the first 25 bouts of his professional career, which started in 1949. Later, some of the era's most recognizable fighters, including Archie Moore and Tommy "Hurricane" Jackson, used him as a stepping-stone to heavyweight-title bouts.

Moore, the former light-heavyweight champion, knocked him out in the ninth round March 9, 1954 in Miami Beach on his way to a heavyweight-title bout with Rocky Marciano, which Moore lost.

Jackson decisioned him twice in 1956, the second time in a nationally televised bout at Forbes Field on Sept. 26. Mr. Baker later said he had bet his entire $33,000 purse on himself.

Two fights later, Jackson his shot at the title and defeated Floyd Patterson.

Mr. Baker went on to beat George Chuvalo, the Canadian champion, but his career was careening downhill. The man who had knocked out 17 of his first 25 opponents recorded just one knockout win in his last 15 fights. He lost nine of those fights.

He retired in October 1959 with a record of 51-16-1.

"He fought some tough [guys]," said Frank "Spacky" DeLeo of East Pittsburgh, a lightweight fighter during that period who now works the corner of Pittsburgh's Paul Spadafora, the International Boxing Federation lightweight champ. "He had a good left hook and a good right hand. His punch was strong."

"He couldn't even punch the bag in the end," said Andy "Kid" DePaul of Green Tree, an erstwhile fighter and later a Pennsylvania boxing commissioner. "He would've been the heavyweight champion of the world if he hadn't broken both of his hands.

"He was a fine heavyweight, No. 1 contender in the world. He fought the tough guys. He wasn't afraid of anybody."

Mr. Baker worked as a bartender at the Brass Rail in Wilkinsburg and spent 7 1/2 years as a PennDot foreman after his ring career ended, retiring from the latter position in 1985.

He rarely talked about his ring experiences once they ended, said his son, Rickie Ross of Point Breeze. "All [his photographs and clippings] were in the bottom of a box on the shelf," Ross said.

Born in Canonsburg, Mr. Baker was raised in the Hill District. At 18, in the midst of World War II, he dropped out of high school to enlist in the Navy. He served in the South Pacific and was discharged in 1946.

Lou Ledbetter, a Pittsburgh fight trainer, met Mr. Baker at a local YMCA and asked him to become a sparring partner for another boxer. Ledbetter helped launched Mr. Baker's career, which saw him win the national Golden Gloves championship before turning pro in April 1949.

Survivors also include a daughter, Mari Rita Clark of Seattle, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Viewing is tomorrow from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. at George A. Warden Funeral Home, 1100 N. Homewood Ave., Pittsburgh, 15208. Interment is private.

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