Claim to Fame
Law alumnus David Baker (JD ’79) plays an integral role in promoting the values of the NFL and its heroes
Going to Super Bowl LI in Houston, Texas, this year would’ve been the experience of a lifetime for most people. For David Baker, it was definitely a business trip.
Since the Tuesday prior to the big game, Baker, who is president and CEO of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, attended events in partnership with the NFL, from speaking engagements to a reception for the 18 finalists chosen for the Hall of Fame. Baker also served as master of ceremonies at the Hall of Fame’s Merlin Olsen Luncheon honoring running back Earl Campbell and Houston Texans owner Bob McNair.
Baker also presided over the 48 elite media voters who entered “The Room” at 7 AM Saturday to deliberate which legendary players, coaches, or other contributors should be included in the 2017 Hall of Fame class (any inductee has to earn at least 80 percent of the 48 votes to be elected). They emerged 10 hours later with a class of seven NFL greats who were introduced during the Super Bowl the next day.
During the week Baker also made an appearance at the NFL Commissioner’s Party at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, on Friday evening and sat for interviews on Radio Row at the Media Center downtown.
And even then Baker’s work wasn’t done. “On Monday we have orientation for the new Hall of Famers, and they’re measured for their bronzed busts, gold jackets, and Ring of Excellence—all the iconic symbols for one’s election to the Hall.”
The next day, he was back on the road. Last season he toured the nation and made stops at 15 stadiums in 17 weeks giving fans a look at the Hall of Fame rings.
Yet despite the fact that so much of Baker’s career has revolved and continues to revolve around football—he also owned an Arena League team, the Anaheim Piranhas, for one year before being named the league’s commissioner—he spent his entire athletic career on a basketball court.
“I was too big to play football, if you can believe that,” says Baker, who stands 6-foot-9 and weighs in at about 375 pounds. “But I always loved the diversity and the variety present in football. It takes all kinds of people with different talents. It is a strategic chess match on multiple levels.”
As an undergrad Baker was a power forward for the UC Irvine Anteaters and spent two years playing basketball professionally in Europe. He returned to the US to attend law school at Pepperdine with a small scholarship from the NCAA and eventually served as the editor in chief of the Pepperdine Law Review.
“Being part of the first class to graduate from the law school in Malibu was a magical time,” he remembers.
“There were so many people who made an impact on me there, but none more so than [Dean Emeritus] Ron Phillips,” Baker says. “Long after my days as a student were done, I faced an ethical crisis in my life, and Dean Phillips helped put it in perspective for me; he redeemed me. He is a great man of impeccable character. All my life I have looked up to him, and I will look up to him the rest of my life, too.”
As Baker wound down his career in the Arena League, he took the last five footballs made with his signature and sent them to “the five most valuable people in [his] life.” Phillips was one of them. Despite Baker’s assumption that “he’s probably put it on eBay by now,” Phillips still displays it proudly in his office.
“I wouldn’t get rid of it for anything,” Phillips says. “David is a great, great guy. We’re really fortunate to have a connection with him.”
Sports have been an ever-present part of Baker’s entire family. One of his sons, Sam, was a first-round draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons and played six seasons before tearing a patellar tendon in 2014. His other son, Ben, is director of broadcasting for NASCAR.
“Neither one of my parents could read or write,” Baker says, “so really, if it weren't for athletics, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college at all. If it hadn’t been for sports, I would not have had the advantages presented to me—I wouldn’t have lived in Europe or played basketball there, and I wouldn’t have gone to Pepperdine, which afforded me so many opportunities later on.”
Perhaps that’s why, even in an age when big money controls everything in sports, Baker still speaks with sincere passion about the values the Pro Football Hall of Fame venerates. “Today I was talking to one of our Hall of Famers, Aeneas Williams, who was a safety; he’s now a pastor in Ferguson, Missouri, helping that community deal with some of the racial struggles they’ve had there,” he says. “Or Jim Kelly, who went to four Super Bowls and never won, but never gave up—and he’s the guy God picks to fight cancer.”
"Those are but a few of the reasons Baker calls football “a great metaphor for life.”
“Not every play runs perfectly, not every game is won, and there are times when you get tackled for a loss or you fumble,” he says. “The question is: how do you get back up again? If you have respect for what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with, and you have a passion for it, that makes a huge, huge difference.”