PETER JACKSON, president of the Rugby Union Writers’ Club, on the passing of Gary Baker, a journalist whose popularity, enthusiasm and compassion knew no bounds.
The tributes flowed from a veritable who’s who of international rugby, from successive generations united in their admiration of a Welshman who began his working life in a factory in Newport.
They rolled in from all four home countries, from, among others, Jon Hall, Dave Egerton, Andy Nicol, Paul Hull, David Hilton, Jon Sleightholme, Freddie Burns, Mark Ring, Paul Turner, Alun Carter, Jason Forster and David Corkery.
Each and everyone said how much they liked and respected Gary Baker who ran his own agency, Wales and West Media, based on an unfailing can-do attitude that no job was ever too big or too small from the London Olympiad to a club cycling race.
The freelance sports reporter renowned for his innate bonhomie and unflagging enthusiasm for all matters rugby on both sides of the Severn Bridge died at Southmead Hospital, Bristol after a walking accident near his home in Trowbridge on January 5. He would have been 60 next month.
Baker made such an impression on Corkery during the Irishman’s time at Bristol in the early years of professional that the Test flanker remembered him even though two decades have elapsed since he left the English Premiership. “He was a true gentleman,” said Corkery.
Ralph Knibbs, by some distance the best Bristol centre not to be capped by England, described Baker’s passing as ‘terrible news of such a nice and genuine guy.’
They all spoke of his sincerity and his sense of fun, as the following selection shows:
“A bloke I had huge respect for”– Freddie Burns, of Bath and England.
“What a lovely person, dedicated to his profession”– Mark Ring, ex-Wales.
“Always enjoyed our Anglo-Welsh banter”– Simon Devereux, ex-Gloucester.
The major clubs, on both sides of Bridge, wasted no time paying their tributes on line and via social media. Gloucester, London Irish and Newcastle Falcons led the way.
At Kingsholm they will remember a ‘funny and unique character who worked tirelessly, a gent and a doer. Thanks for everything, Gary.’
London Irish: “Always reported sympathetically and professionally about the game, a popular figure with everyone.”
Falcons acclaimed ‘a staunch and vocal advocate for our great sport.’’
Bath, Bristol, Cardiff Blues, Dragons, Exeter, Harlequins, Leicester, Ospreys, Scarlets all marked the passing of a journalist who ‘had a smile for everyone he met.’
His contemporaries at Newport Saracens RFC still smile at the sudden transformation of G Baker from back row forward into touchline goalkicker. A decisive home win had ended with a corner try when Baker asked Sarries’ captain, Nicky Parkes: “Would you mind if I took the conversion?”
Parkes nodded his approval and stood back as Baker drilled the ball between the uprights. “I never really knew whether he meant it,” Parkes recalled recently. “Or whether it was a complete fluke.”
By then Baker had set himself a different goal, that writing about the game would be more profitable than playing it. His persistence persuaded the Newport Free Press that he was worth a punt, a move which would clear the way for his name to appear in a host of titles, including Wales On Sunday, Western Daily Press, South Wales Argus, The Rugby Paper and the Bath Evening Chronicle where his versatility stretched to covering Bristol Rovers home and away.
“Gary’s reports were always well-written and he was never less than incredibly enthusiastic,” says his great friend and mentor, Andrew Baldock, rugby correspondent of the Press Association. “He was prepared to work all hours and go anywhere in pursuit of a story.
“He’d invariably come back with two or three stories in his notebook which was pure gold for a weekly newspaper. After the factory work, he felt quite privileged to be in journalism. Nothing was ever too much trouble.
“He got into cycling and they thought the world of him. He also devoted a lot of time to covering snooker which became huge in Gwent with the rise of great champions like Doug Mountjoy, Mark Bennett and Darren Morgan. Gary knew everyone in snooker.”
And thereby hangs a tale which deserves a special niche in the folklore of sports journalism. Some ten years ago, after a double Sunday shift at the Western Daily sports desk in Bristol which barely left him time for a very late curry, Baker was still in a somewhat cream-crackered state when he arrived early on the Monday to cover the Welsh Snooker Open in his home-town.
The Newport Centre offered plenty of empty seats for the early matches, even if one happened to feature Steve Davis against Jimmy White. Having taken refuge somewhere near the back of the auditorium, Gary nodded off blissfully unaware that the curry wasn’t going to go quietly.
In the deathly hush of a snooker hall, the subsequent noise must have sounded more like the breaking of the sound barrier than mere wind. Len Ganley, the famous referee, looked up to where he thought it had come from and spotted Gary sat alongside Baldock.
In his finest stentorian voice, Ganley issued a classic two-word rebuke: “Gentlemen, pleaeeese.”
Ganley, who died in 2011 at the age of 68, wasted no time acknowledging that he was hard pushed to stifle his laughter. However unwittingly, the anecdote provides a perfect illustration of a man whose sense of fun and capacity for compassion knew no bounds.
The tributes from near and far provide ample testament.
Gary Baker is survived by a daughter, Sally, brother John, niece, Lucie, and 90-year-old mother, Marie.