William J. Baker

Southwest Harbor and Aiken, S.C.


William J. Baker died at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor on Sept. 25, 2021, of complications after surgery.

Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Jan. 28, 1938, Baker grew up in rural north Georgia, where sports and religion dominated his textile mill town. He played baseball, basketball and football, took part in youth evangelism and dreamed of becoming a Baptist preacher — an exalted position in his community.

He attended Furman University on a football scholarship and went on to earn a degree in divinity at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. When he became disillusioned with the stance of the Baptist Church toward civil rights in the 1960s, Baker left that denomination. He earned his doctorate in history from Cambridge University in England.

Baker and his wife, Christina L. Baker (“Tina”), moved to Maine in 1970 when he took a job at the University of Maine teaching British history. He later developed a course in sport history, but when he went to find textbooks, he couldn’t find any on the subject, so he wrote a book that helped to establish the field of sport history, “Sports and the Western World,” published in 1981.

He is the author or editor of a dozen books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including a critically acclaimed biography of Olympic champion Jesse Owens, published in 1986, which became a television mini-series and is still in print today. In 1990, he won the University of Maine Award for Outstanding Research. In the course of his career, he chaired the University of Maine history department and its honors program and served on the City of Bangor School Board.

In 2007, he authored “Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport,” published by Harvard University Press, which traced the dynamic relationship between sport and religion from the Puritan condemnation of games as sinful in the 17th century to the near deification of modern athletics. “The two great experiences of my youth were the Baptist religion and sports,” he told the Bangor Daily News that year. “This book is essentially the summation of all the scholarship I’ve ever done, and of my life.”

In the introduction to “Playing with God,” Baker wrote, “For all their differences, religion and sport seem to have been made in the image of each other. Both are bathed in myth and sustained by ritual; both reward faith and patience; both thrive on passion tempered with discipline.”

He loved research, the gathering of information and shaping it into a thesis, and liked playing with words. “That’s what writing is,” he said. He also liked the sense of completion he got after writing a book. “Once it’s done, it’s done, and it’s something no one can take away from you,” he said. “You can look back on it and say, ‘It’s good.’”

Baker and his wife retired to Mount Desert Island, to the Victorian home they had restored over several years in Bass Harbor. He was on the board of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society, continued to lecture and teach and took great pleasure in gardening, local politics and community.

Tina, a University of Maine professor and member of the Maine House of Representatives, died in 2013. They had been married for 51 years. More than a year later, Baker received a condolence note from Jane Wright, a Furman classmate and a resident of Aiken, S.C. They divided their time between South Carolina and Southwest Harbor and were companions until his death.

He leaves behind Wright; his four daughters and sons-in-law, Christina Baker Kline and David Kline, Cynthia Baker and Jon Zeitler, Clara Baker and Chris Lester and Catherine Baker-Pitts and Will Pitts; 13 grandchildren, whom he called his “Baker’s Dozen”; and his siblings, Jimmy “Wink” Baker and Reba Duckett, and their families.

Gifts in William Baker’s memory can be made to the Christina and William Baker Scholarship Fund at College of the Atlantic, 105 Eden St., Bar Harbor, ME 04609 or https://www.coa.edu/giving/give-to-COA/.

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