REMEMBERING A HERO, STEPHEN RORY BAKER
The following article is about a young man and his tragic death that brought together the Sanger community and many individuals for years. Sanger grieved, was brought together, and inspired by what happened on that August day in 1964. As you read this story, set your heart and mind to that day. A beautiful sunny day with school set to begin the following week. Try to grasp the feelings, the mood, the dedication, and the affect it had on those who were there.
Sanger has always been a good place to be from. Many families arrived in early years to the community and raised their families with the hope of a good life for their families; good schools, rich black soil for farming, and good people. Sanger, incorporated in 1886, began growing the community with the early settlers providing boarding houses, businesses, and a school for the children. Roots of these families still remain in this now progressively growing community.
Howell Greene was an early settler in the new town of Sanger. He was the second or third postmaster, and a cobbler working to keep the townsfolk’s shoes in good condition. Greene was instrumental in local affairs, a good businessman, and well respected in the area. Thus, the Greene family became a part of Sanger’s early history.
Jimmie Greene Baker’s paren
ts were James and Alice Greene, and were life-long residents of Sanger. Jimmy was a half-sister to Alton Lee Greene who shared a father but a different mother, Martha. Jimmie married Clifford Baker and they had two children, Elaine and Stephen.
Stephen Rory Baker is primarily remembered by Sangerites of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Stephen was beginning his junior year in high school when a tragic event occurred on August 27, 1964 which ultimately took the life of this outstanding young man. A quarterback-sneak was the final event of Stephen’s life. He was taken to Parkland Hospital in Dallas that late Thursday afternoon where the doctors performed surgery to release pressure in his brain, but early Saturday morning he succumbed to his injury. Classmates crowded the emergency room of Parkland awaiting good news from the doctors, but it was not to be.
Stephen’s was the first and only sport-related death in Sanger ISD history. He suffered a severe concussion in a football game with Alvord the previous season and was uncertain if he would be able to return to the sport which he loved and exceled. He did return the following year in 1964 to the grid-iron and his life was tragically cut short. A memorial scholarship was established and has been awarded each year to a student that met requirements as demonstrated by Stephen in his life.
Memories from fellow classmates and friends tell his story. Everyone’s primary thoughts began with what a friendly and kind young man he was. He was a faithful member of the First Baptist Church.
CLASSMATES AND FRIENDS
“Before the game began, the Sanger Indians’ football team had dressed and were waiting at the elem
entary school next to the field. The Carroll football team was using the Sanger field house to suit up. I was sitting on the sidewalk with my back against the building wall, facing east, and noticed Stephen walking past me, from right to left. He had tape around his wrists and I believe he was carrying his helmet. And then, I was playing left end and remember him calling a quarterback sneak in the huddle. The field at that time was oriented north and south, and we were moving the ball toward the south end zone from somewhere around our 40-yard line. At the completion of the play I turned around to return to the huddle and noticed he was on the ground, surrounded by the team. I recall he was on his back with his head pointed toward the south end zone. My father was living in New York City at the time, and the story of this eventual tragedy had been reported in the New York Times newspaper. “(Mike Martin ‘66)
“It was August 27, 1964 and we were playing Carroll in a practice game. Our quarterback had suffered two blood clots on the brain and had to have brain surgery after going down from a quarterback sneak in the game. We were told he was not expected to live.
“Friday, August 28, 1964, we were back at Parkland Hospital in Dallas and learned things were very bad. Most of our team and classmates were able to look through a window into his room and his face had no look of life left.
“My sister woke me on Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m. to tell me he had died. It was terrible and I just sat stunned. During the game I had talked with him several times and he seemed alright. When I got in the game and we ran a pass that didn’t work, he ran a quarterback sneak, came back to the huddle and then fell down. I walked over beside him and he could still understand Coach Hicks. He tried to get up but don’t think he knew what he was doing. Then he got worse, and started breathing very hard. Stephen was one of my best friends. I am deeply sorrowed by the loss of a wonderful friend and athlete. I can’t really express how I feel.
“Stephen was a well-liked classmate and liked by everyone. He had a wonderful personality and was excellent in every sport he played.” (Information taken from a journal kept by Larry Campbell of the events in August 1964, ’67).
“I was the football center of that game August 27, and hiked that final ball in his last football game. I will never forget. “(Eddie Draper ’67)
“He was my friend, mainly at church, and was a good Christian young man with many friends in high school. In early March of 1964, our coaches had us do several Kennedy youth-fitness tests mandated by that president to evaluate teen health. One of these events was two laps around the football field which that year was still in a north/south direction before being realigned to west/east. We were put into groups of about a dozen each and timed for the two laps. In my group Billy Roy Switzer was far in the lead, I was second over half-way, until Stephen passed me on the second back-side lap to take second. This was typical of Stephen’s athletic work ethic as a quarterback and team leader.
“Prior to this in the fall of 1963, at a game in Alvord was Stephen’s first head injury where he was put in the Decatur hospital for several days. Being two years older and not a football player, I was not as close to him as many in our high school. In early August 1964, while leaving Sunday night church I asked Stephen if he was to be cleared to play that season after his concussion in late 1963. He said he was and looked forward to again leading the team. Within a week he had the next concussion on the playing field, and was in the hospital several days before his death. I was told that a number of his friends, sophomores, juniors, and others, kept a three-day vigil in the hospital waiting room before his untimely death.
“I was pleased when the school named the field in his honor. My opinion is that it would be best to keep the “Baker” designation at the site of the original field, in part due to the 55 years that have elapsed. I know the track has the Arledge name to honor Herb, which I also support leaving intact.” (Richard Muir ’64)
“My memories of high school are vivid, but very insignificant. When I remember Stephen, I remember a 15-16-year-old boy, very quiet, very sweet. I remember the night he was injured in Alvord and he was taken to the hospital in Decatur. For a while after he came to, he couldn’t see. I visited him the next day. He played basketball that year after his injury and I remember him being fast and taking lots of risks on the court---flying through the air---playing every minute like the game depended on it. I don’t remember anything about baseball, but I am sure he went at it the same way.
“The rest of my memories are strange. He went down on the field and when I saw who it was, I looked up at Mrs. Baker. Her hair was in curlers and she put both her hands over her face and lowered her head to her knees. The next thing I remember was sitting in a small waiting room at Parkland Hospital but have no idea how I got there. The room was full of kids from Sanger, and I think there may have been kids from the opposing team. I don’t think at that point any of us knew that Stephen was already gone. Maybe they were keeping him alive by machines or did they even do that back then?
“Someone must have told us how bad it was because I remember looking at Cal Harberson and his eyes were red but he wasn’t exactly crying, and he laughed. I laughed, too. We knew it wasn’t funny but I think he was trying to cover the fact that he was crying and I didn’t want him to be embarrassed. I’ll never forget that laugh and how it was the first time for most of us to experience a great loss. We had no idea how to deal with it. I forgave myself for laughing because I knew it was just a way to cover what we were really feeling. I don’t think Cal ever recovered from this loss. He looked at life differently after that.” (Vickie Cole Jenkins ’66)
I started school in Sanger the year that Stephen had his accident. We were at a scrimmage, I believe. We were all on the drill team. I never had the privilege of meeting Stephen and getting to know what a great person that he must have been. It really does bother me that they are doing away with his memory because that is what is basically happening. The last time I visited Sanger I drove by the old field and noticed that they were demolishing the place. I thought that maybe they were just going to transfer to the new field. I am saddened by all of this and know that his memory must live on.” (Jane Sparkman ’66)
It was a very warm day in August 1964. I was a freshman in high school. We had our first scrimmage game with Carroll on a Thursday afternoon.
Stephen was tackled and lay on the field motionless. I thought “this can’t be.” We all went to Parkland Hospital and sat silent waiting to hear from the doctors.
There was a small window we could look through. Stephen lay there, his eyes open but no response. I walked off many times that night and would come back with no change. I remember going to another room where the family was sitting. The look on Jimmie’s face told it all.
That evening seemed like an eternity. A nurse came out and told us his vitals were better and we needed to go home and rest. I really believe she knew what was going to happen.
Up in the morning hours, the phone rang and my daddy answered. It woke me up and I knew it had to be bad. Eddie had called. Daddy came in and sat down on the bed and told me Stephen had died. He sat with me for a while. First time I saw my Daddy cry.
Many tears were shed in the next days and longer. It was a very sad school year. Thank goodness we had loving parents and as a high school, we were all very close. This is how we got through it.
The one questions in our minds was “why Stephen?” I’ll never forget that voice or that beautiful smile. After 56 years I still tear up when I speak of Stephen. I just hope that when we are all gone, he is never forgotten.” (Linda Harvey Hewlett, ’68)
“I was 12 years old when that tragic event happened. I was riding my bicycle when I saw Coker’s ambulance going down a street fast. I followed the ambulance and when I got to the football field about a minute later, the ambulance was going across the field and put the fallen player on the gurney and loaded him for the trip to Dallas.” (Jimmy Waggoner ’70)
“You could ask anyone in the small town of Sanger and the schools in the early to mid-60s about Stephen Baker and they would all have their special memories. It makes me sad that his legacy has faded away. There are many in Sanger and in the schools, who have no idea of who Stephen was and some things that made him so special.
“I was lucky enough to have know Stephen from the time he began first grade until the time he lost his life playing the game of football (that he loved) as a junior in high school.
“My brother was in his class, my mother was a den mother in cub scouts, and I went to all their meetings. Plus, I was a bit of a tomboy and thought I was just one of the boys and would always play with the boys when they were at our house. Stephen was also on Little League teams with my brother.
“One of my memories is when I was sitting on a blanket with another one of the sisters of a player watching their game and talking as little sisters do when Stephen hit a foul ball down the first base side of the field and the ball grazed my mouth. I still have a scar inside my mouth from the fat lip I got from that ball. Stephen felt so bad and he taught me a great lesson about watching the game.
“Stephen was a gentleman and a stand-up guy. He was like another big brother. There was a time when someone said something about me that Stephen did not like, and he was a real stand-up friend and took up for me.
“Stephen had a love for all sports, but really loved football. He had a couple of concussions and as I remember there had been talk about him not playing again, but he pressed on with the desire to play. It was a different time and not near as much was known about head injury and concussions, plus the helmets were not like they are today. Stephen just knew he loved the game and he could not imagine life without football. He was the leader of the team.
“The whole town was stunned when Stephen lost his life and they put school off for a week because everyone was in shock over this loss. He lost his life and it was so very important to the town and the school wanted this to be remembered forever. There is not one of us that thought there would be a time in the future when he would be forgotten. Years later one of my boys was playing middle school football and one of the scrimmages he had on a #10 jersey. I got a big lump in my throat! Afterward I told him I did not want to see him in that jersey again so I explained my reasons. I still get a sick feeling anytime I see a football jersey with the #10.
“His number #10 was retired and put in the trophy case, the football field was named after him, and there was a scholarship set up in his name which is still active 56 years later.
“As time passes, memories fade, not for the ones who knew him, but for his legacy. I feel that we need to hold on tight to our history. Our history is who we are. It should make our team stronger if we had the fire in their hearts that Stephen had for the game.” (Myrl Yeary Webb ’67)
“Some of the things I remember about Stephen is he was devout Royal Ambassador and a member of First Baptist Church of Sanger. He and our neighborhood gang played baseball, football, basketball, and even made a track in our neighborhood. Our neighborhood was part of the Harold Easley Addition which at the time didn’t have many homes. So, we had plenty of room for our mischievousness. Stephen’s dad was a carpenter in the neighborhood which allowed him to hang out with us.
“Stephen loved the game of football and was a great athletic quarterback. In his freshman year, he obtained two concussions during that season and because of this, the doctors highly recommended that he no longer play football. But, with his persistent begging to play, his parents finally allowed him to participate. During a football scrimmage with Carroll High School at Sanger, Stephen received another head blow that knocked him out. If I recall, he died that night in the hospital. The following day the entire football team, coaches, and administration met in the Sanger Library for community counseling. (Note: Stephen had head surgery at Parkland Hospital and died Saturday morning after the event Thursday afternoon).
Stephen was loved and respected by everyone he came into contact with. His devotion to athletics and football in particular, was as much of his life as life itself.” (Ken Cook, ’67)
“The year Stephen died I was in the 8th grade and he was a junior in high school. He had been a friend and hero of mine for many years. I was raised in the First Baptist Church in Sanger as was Stephen. In fact, his mother was one of my early Sunday school teachers and his uncle was one of my dad’s best friends. I knew Stephen for all my life even though he was older.
“Stephen was very active in the First Baptist Church and because in small churches, youth from junior high and high school had activities together, I was able to interact with him and other older kids every Sunday. He always was a great leader that treated everyone the same even if you were much younger. Stephen was a good athlete and leader in sports. I also wanted to be just like him when I got in high school. He was quarterback and wore number #11 (Note: Stephen’s football jersey was #10) Eleven was my number and I played quarterback just like Stephen. He had been class favorite as a freshman and Sophomore years and FHA Sweetheart. He was respected by all who knew him. He was one of the heroes that I wanted to do everything like Stephen.
“I remember when he collapsed on the field in scrimmage and everyone waiting to hear that his surgery was a success. Everyone was hoping to hear that he was better. I was at a church camp that weekend and heard on the radio that Stephen had died. We were all devastated. I remember going to the funeral and having to sit in another part of the church because there was an overflow crowd. He influenced a lot of people in Snager and the area.
“As a senior in high school, I was very proud to receive the Stephen Baker Scholarship Award in 1969. Now 50 years later, I am still proud of this recognition. To me it was recognition that I was meeting my goal to be like him. If you win the award and you don’t know who he was, you should be proud to uphold Stephen Baker’s example of being an athlete who was a leader, friend, and example for others to follow. You are helping to keep the memory of a great Sanger Indian Stephen Baker alive.” (Rusty Armstrong ’69, 1969 Stephen Baker Scholarship Award winner)
“I was standing at the end of the field by the elementary school on my bicycle when it happened. Must have been Darlene, Jimmy, Becky, and I --- can’t imagine who else it would have been. Just remember the panic! So terrible!“
(Janis Ready ’70)
“I remember Stephen’s mother, Jimmie Baker, telling me that the night before Stephen’s game, there was a big storm and she, Clifford, and Stephen went to the cellar. While they were waiting for the storm to pass over, they all three had such a good talk. It was something she said had not happened in years because having a teenager and the parents being older had created more non-communication. Jimmie and Clifford were left with this memory after Stephen’s death.” (Jacqueline Hall Campbell ’71)
“I was the tailback on the football team in 1964. I remember Stephen was the quarterback for this scrimmage game against Carroll High School. He called for a quarterback sneak, I began to run, and looked back and he went down. We knew it was not good as he had a concussion in Alvord the previous year and no one was sure if he could ever play football again. It was such a moment in time and something all the school students have never forgotten. Stephen’s memory should be kept alive.” (Billy Roy Switzer ’67)
“Stephen was a good guy. He loved football and was a great athlete. Even though I was younger, I always looked up to his abilities and everyone liked him. I remember that his parents didn’t want him to play football again in 1964 as he had suffered a concussion in Alvord the previous football season. Everyone was very sad at the loss of a friend.” (Joe Mack Norris ’74)
“Indeed, Stephen was a great friend, and loved by all. Stephen played second base on our little league baseball team during the summer. His dad, Clifford, was our coach and would drive us around in the back of his pickup. Do you know how Stephen got those two front silver teeth? We were all on the tennis court at the old school when Billy Jack McReynolds and Stephen collided. Jack got a large cut in his head, and Stephen lost those two front teeth.” (Robert Howard, ’66)
“Such a tragic loss of a fine young man. My memories include shock and then sorrow that we lost one of our own. It was a terrible night.” (Donna Smith Mayes, ’66)
“He was my friend, and a good Christian young man with many friends. In the fall of 1963 at a game in Alvord, he suffered his first head injury and was in the Decatur Hospital for several days. In August 1964 while leaving Sunday night church, I asked him if he was to be cleared to play football that season after that concussion, he suffered in 1963 and he said he was and was looking forward to again leading the team. Within a week he had the next concussion playing on the field and was in the hospital several days before his death. A three-day vigil was held in the hospital waiting room before his untimely death. “
“I was playing tailback position and remember Bobby Payne being on the field. Stephen called a quarterback sneak play and as we started the play, it stopped. I realized that Stephen had gone down. It was something always in the back of our minds if he would be okay. But he was not.” (Billy Roy Switzer, ’67)
“I remember what a cute and sweet boy he was.” (Sandy Thomas Bowles, ’63)
“I remember making pimento sandwiches with him and maybe Larry Campbell or Cal Harberson. They were to be sold at the basketball tournament in Sanger. I also remember the accident. Bill Hicks (coach), and John (Lowrey, coach) coming to my mother and dad’s house to spend the night so they could get to Parkland Hospital quickly.” (Vicki Lowrey, wife of Coach John Lowrey)
Stephen’s story has been a meaningful part of the heritage at SHS which has become all but forgotten. The title of this article could have been ‘A Fading Inspiration’, or ‘How Communities Lose Their Identify’. Let’s not forget.” (Chet Switzer, ’76, Proud Stephen Baker Scholarship Award Recipient).
“Stephen was my friend from as early as I remember being in church with him. When we began school in first grade and through-out high school, we typically were seated one behind the other due to our names hitting the alphabet just right. He was kind and caring.
“The day of August 27, a Thursday, the students had registered for the 1964-65 school year. Later in the day there was a scrimmage with Carroll and the drill team had been at the field practicing when the football teams showed up. We took the sidelines and as the game began, I believe we all had thoughts in our mind that Stephen had taken the field in the quarterback role, and hoped he would be okay. That was a lot to think of at our mostly 16 years of age, but we all remembered the previous year of him going down in Alvord with a concussion. I remember the play began, and then it seemed to stop abruptly in my mind. The boys gathered around and we could see someone lying on the field and we just knew. Stephen was transported to Parkland Hospital and everyone that had the opportunity jumped in cars and headed to Dallas. Stephen passed away early Saturday morning. How many tears were lost by so many during that time?
“We were young and had never encountered the passing of a classmate. There just wasn’t anything to compare it to in losing your friend and classmate.” (Tona Batis, ’66)
The old football field located by the I35 freeway was named Stephen Baker Field after his death to honor his memory. There was a memorial plaque and a field sign to designate the name of the field. After the new high school field was built, Stephen Baker Field was used for other events, and in recent years the bleachers were taken down, and there is no longer a field honoring the only student to lose his life playing a sport for a Sanger ISD team.
This article is written to inspire and renew the memory of Stephen’s life lest he not be forgotten. Those that grew up with Stephen will never forget.
Article submitted in conjunction with Sanger Area Historical Society,
Chet Switzer and Tona Batis.