The Clown Prince Of Football

Sack specialist Bubba Baker gets a kick from the juicier tabloids, and he would rather joke than fight, but he's one of the best
August 04, 1985

When Ernestine Baker got a look at her fourth child, James Albert London Baker, she thought something had gone wrong.

"He was so strange-looking I was afraid to bring him home," she says. "His head was too large. His mouth was out to his ears. He looked like, well, did you ever see a catfish when you first pull him out of the water, how angry he is, with his mouth out to here? That was Albert. He was nicknamed Catfish Mouth."

As Al Baker got older his contours changed, and so did his nickname.

"They started to call him Fat Albert," his mother says. "Then his brothers nicknamed him Bubba. As he grew up, his mouth began to get smaller, his behind bigger."

He was a fat kid in Newark, where it doesn't pay to be a big target. He went out for football and basketball, to lose weight. He climbed the athletic ladder, from Weequahic High School to Colorado State to the Detroit Lions and now the St. Louis Cardinals. At 28 he is one of the NFL's finest pass-rushing defensive ends, with seven seasons and three Pro Bowls behind him, and a rare sacks-to-games-played ratio of 99 to 98, but Al (Bubba) Baker's place in football history will be secure in the same way that Bobby Layne's is. Stories, tales, one-liners, zingers are his trademark, a never-ending pipeline from brain to mouth.

"You will never doze off in a team meeting," says defensive tackle Stafford Mays, "if you're anywhere near Bubba."

It is August 1983. The Cards are playing the Vikings in an exhibition game in London. Their bus is bringing them back from a practice session in Wembley Stadium, and in the very rear, Bubba Baker is conducting a one-man Cook's tour. Has he ever been in London? Well, no, but that doesn't seem to matter much.

"See those buildings," he says. "That's where they filmed The Hunchback of Notre Dame. You can see him jumping from building to building.

"Those guys," he says, pointing to a couple of men fishing in a canal, "they're after the Loch Ness Monster." The neighborhood turns gray, dingy.

"Right now we're passing a ghetto, but it's a white ghetto," Baker notes.

"How do you know that, man?" someone says.

"No basketball courts," he says.

The Bakers have a new baby, Brittani, their first child. "Sabrina says she has two babies," Bubba says. "One newborn and one who is 28. I wonder about my wife, how she can put up with me. My last couple of years in Detroit I was miserable. I was worried about dying of old age at 30. I gained 66 pounds in seven weeks so I could get traded. But you learn, you learn from cartoons, like The Road Runner. Fall off a cliff, and the stone falls on top of you and you still get another chance.

"I'm an avid reader, a trash reader actually. I've got a 12-year supply of National Enquirers. I can remember some of the stories:

"A little girl named Nellie, born with a rabbit's face, eyes on the side. They showed her picture. She needed an operation. I sent a dollar when I was a kid.

"How's this one? Witness claims Texas ghost warns firefighters. When there's going to be a big blaze the alarm goes out and the firemen are warned by ex-captain Woodard Bloxom, who died in the line of duty.

"Or this? A water baby at age three: swims one mile nonstop. Her name was Helen Kurz. Three feet, six inches tall. She swam 32 laps in a neighborhood endurance contest in Fort Lauderdale.

"I met only one guy who was a greater authority on the National Enquirer than me, a guy named Steve in Hawaii, when I was there for the Pro Bowl. We sat in the Atlantis Disco for five hours, trading National Enquirer stories and shots of Wild Turkey."

Not everyone in the NFL takes to Bubba. Too much gab, not enough growl, they say.

"I'm not a growler and never was," he says. "I'm afraid that if I ever came up to the line growling, the guy opposite me would break up laughing."

Which made it even more surprising when he got into a fight against the Colts in Indianapolis last season. Bubba says Jim Mills, a tackle, grabbed him by the face mask, so he stuck a finger in Mills's eye. The Colts say Bubba started it. Mike Humiston, a linebacker, rushed to Mills's rescue. He got a finger in the eye, too.

"I don't think they were aware of the fact that I was an avid Three Stooges watcher as a kid," Bubba says.

"What do you mean, 'as a kid'?" his wife says.

"O.K., O.K., I like to watch them. The point is this. You're either gonna like me because I'm fun or dislike me because I talk too much. I can't help it. I got it from my mother."

Ernestine Newsom, who remarried after the death of Bubba's father 24 years ago, came to Newark from Jacksonville, where she was known as The Dog Lady. She had 33 of them.

"I had a wine and beer garden," she says. "One of my customers gave me a she dog, and it had puppies, and the puppies had puppies."

Mrs. Newsom was known for other things besides her dogs. She had extraordinary luck when it came to playing the numbers. "I hit for $15,000," she says, "and would you believe it, I hit the same number [819] again for $10,000."

Bubba, who had been an unlikely looking football prospect from the start, needed more than luck to get him started. "Fat, not very tough, you could say I was a punk," he says. "I was built funny...thin upper body, big butt, small lower legs and fat thighs that bumped into each other when I walked. I'd wear those corduroy pants that would make noises, wheet, wheet, like that.

"When I was in the eighth grade, my mother made me a lavender and black suit, one side was lavender, the other side black. You needed batteries to keep it going. The name of the suit, get this, was a clown suit.

"My real game was basketball. I had moves. I could always move my feet. My claim to fame was hearing guys say, 'Boy, he's sweet for a fat guy. He can really play for a fat guy.' I considered myself the greatest fat guy in Newark, a fat George Gervin."

One year they tried putting Bubba into a boxing program to toughen him up. It didn't work.

"When I was 13, I was scheduled to fight in a Police Athletic League recreational program," he says. "I weighed 162. Everyone's sitting around and someone said, 'Look at the guy you're supposed to fight.' The sumbitch had a mustache, and he came in with his wife and little girl, and he started making sounds while he was warming up, hooh, hooh. I thought, 'Doesn't this guy know this is for recreation?' Luckily my mind has a good relationship with my body, so I started throwing up. They said, 'This kid is sick,' and I didn't have to fight. The truth is that in the ring or on the football field or the street, I wanted no part of getting beaten up." By the time he was a senior, though, he had attracted notice, if only because of his size. "I got recruited by all the people I didn't like," he says. He remembers a trip to Alabama and meeting Bear Bryant. "I was in and out of his office so fast," he says. "I went out to Oklahoma and felt like a big Jersey cow. It was a factory. I saw about 30 guys lifting weights, redshirts, waiting to play." He settled on Colorado State because the coaches said he could play both football and basketball.

He majored in sociology, but though he never received a degree, Bubba likes to say, "I got a B.S. in BS." In basketball he was a two-year letterman and good enough to get a tryout with Golden State, where he lasted about two weeks. Football was different.

"One year they tried me at tight end," he says. "I could just about catch anything. I could catch BBs in a hailstorm. But then it dawned on me, what happens if I do catch the ball? Everyone on the field gets a hit on me. So I lost interest in catching the ball."

He was an indifferent offensive lineman for 2 l/2 years. "We had a coach, Charley Armey, who used to say, 'Stick your face in the guy's chest. Express yourself by hitting.' I thought, 'There's got to be a better way of doing things.' "

In his junior year a new world opened up. Three games into the season they tried him at defensive end, as a pass-rush specialist. Now he could be cute; he could use his quick feet and his basketball moves and his long arms. "It seemed so natural to me," he says. "I got 11 sacks my junior year, 20 as a senior."

The Lions drafted him in the second round in 1978. He got 23 sacks and made Defensive Rookie of the Year. A new world opened up.

"Everything happened to me so fast I didn't have a chance to enjoy it," Bubba says. "Girls would come up to me in a bar and tell me, 'You've got cute eyes,' and it would be so dark in there they couldn't even see your face. Cute? In my mind I was still the fat kid from Newark with the corduroy pants."

Along about his third year, though, as he was getting ready to play in his second Pro Bowl, a nasty realization dawned. He wasn't making much money. He'd gotten a $50,000 rookie bonus and salaries of $40,000, $45,000 and $50,000. When he said he needed $15,000 to help pay for a house for his mother in Irvington, N.J., they said sure, we'll give it to you if you sign for $70,000 next year.

In 1982, his fifth year in the NFL, he negotiated his current contract, $85,000, $155,000 and $175,000, and in this, his option year, he will make $192,500, small change in the era of half-million-dollar contracts for defensive linemen with similar credentials. His last years in Detroit were downers. He had expected former coach Monte Clark to go to bat for him in his contract negotiations and he had been disappointed.

By the end of the 1982 season his hostility toward Clark and the Detroit Lions had reached the breaking point. He begged for a trade.

"It seemed they were always checking me for something," Bubba says. "I'd take any test—as long as Wild Turkey's not illegal.

"After the '82 season I heard Monte tell Larry Lee, whose weight had gone up to 290, 'You show up for minicamp like that and you're gone.' So I gambled. I gained 66 pounds from February to April, up to 332. I'd even eat pasta in the morning. The three biggest friends in my life were my wife, my God and my refrigerator."

The Lions finally gave in and traded him to St. Louis and Jim Hanifan, whom he calls "my kind of coach. He treats us like men, instead of the animals we are." He played the first year heavy ("310 pounds and inside I was dying") but trimmed down last season to 270. He hopes to play at 260 or under in '85.

In Detroit he had played the right side, the sacking side, for five years, but St. Louis decided to move him over to left end, the power end. Play the run, play the pass, square up on your man and control him.

"I was neither fish nor fowl," he says. "That wasn't me. This year you're gonna see the old pass-rushing Bubba Baker. I'm gonna discontinue trying to be Lee Roy Selmon. I can't jack up a 300-pound man and pin him down, but I can line up on his outside shoulder and say, 'Hey, buddy, you're gonna throw the ball 40 times, no way you'll block me 40 times. You can trap me, run the draw on me, but by golly, on third-and-10 I'll be so wound up you'd better worry.'

"I'm obsessed with this now. All I've been doing is running, a dozen quarters, a dozen 220s, then sprints of 100 and 40 yards, with 15 seconds' rest in between. People have criticized me. They've said, 'Bubba Baker, all he does is rush the passer.' Well, you've got a guy in New York named Gastineau. All he does is rush the passer and he makes something like $800,000 a year." (Last year Gastineau had 22 sacks, Baker 10.)

A return to doing things his own way actually makes sense in a way. In college Bubba got so disgusted with the fraternity system that he started his own fraternity, Bubba Phi Bubba. In the NFL the players he admired most were always the individualists, such as Matt Millen, the Raiders' linebacker.

Dave Pureifory, his teammate on the Lions, was another alltimer on Bubba's character list. "I roomed with him, and I sincerely believed he was the toughest guy in pro football," Bubba says. "He was mean, ornery; he didn't talk to anyone else on the team. He used to say, 'Al, don't trust anyone.' He used to make a tape for every game and go in a room by himself and listen to it, stuff like 'pain is only mental.' He played with two bad shoulders and a bad knee that had a loose piece of bone floating around—it would crack when he walked—and he played the strike year with a lot of pain. He'd work on my mental attitude, and there were times when he'd have me going crazy out there, actually gritting my teeth and everything like that. Against Denver he had me so psyched that I actually walked up to the line saying, 'Kill, kill, I'm gonna kill Claudie Minor.'

"Then on the first play, Claudie bent me backward so far that I sprained my toe. As I limped off, Pureifory yelled at me, 'It's only pain,' and I yelled, 'Hey, Pureifory, shut the hell up! That stuff doesn't work for me.' "

In his eighth year, with a rebirth as a new and lighter sack specialist on the horizon, Bubba surveys the panorama of pro football and sees a vast collection of little kids in big boys' suits, and yes, he sees the humor.

"I feel like telling the fans, 'Hey, we're the same little fat kids who used to break windows in the neighborhood,' " he says. "I'm playing against the Dallas Cowboys in the nationally televised Thanksgiving game in 1983 and my mind's in limbo. I'm thinking, 'I wonder what Mrs. Jones thinks, watching me now. I let that lady's seven cats out once. And how about that guy whose porch window I busted with a baseball when I was 11. Is he thinking, 'Hey, I didn't charge you for it then. Now I'm gonna bring you up before People's Court'?

"I remember seeing Mike Charles of the Dolphins on film, an awesome sort of man, about 280, 290 pounds. I used to squeeze his head when we were kids in Newark. What if he walked up to me on the field and said, 'Hey, you're the guy who used to squeeze my head'? I thought, 'What if I tried it now?' And then ran away. He's probably the only guy in the NFL who couldn't catch me."

PHOTORONALD C. MODRABubba is an authority on the "National Enquirer"; he studies it the same way he does quarterbacks. THREE PHOTOSRONALD C. MODRABaker's interests are wide-ranging, from cooking to playing a pretty good guitar at home—or for his teammates in St. Louis. PHOTOHERB WEITMANOfficially, Chicago's Jim McMahon wasn't sacked on this play, but Bubba got his man, as always. PHOTORONALD C. MODRABubba and Sabrina are proud to show off the smallest Baker, Brittani, who was born in June. PHOTORONALD C. MODRABaker handed off this game ball to Mom.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)