Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Baker, Reginald Leslie (Snowy) (1884–1953)

by W. F. Mandle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Reginald Leslie Baker (Snowy) (1884-1953), sportsman and showman, was born on 8 February 1884 at Surry Hills, Sydney, son of George Baker, an Irish-born Sydney Municipal Council clerk, and his wife Elizabeth Jane, née Robertson. Very blond, he was called 'Snowy' from childhood; he was educated at Crown Street Public School and, reputedly, learned horsemanship at dawn work-outs on Randwick Racecourse. In 1897-99 he won a series of swimming championships for his school, swam and played water polo for the East Sydney Swimming Club, and in 1901 finished second to R. Cavill in the State half-mile championship. He did not, as was later claimed, study engineering at the University of Sydney or win several 'blues'; he may have worked for the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. as an engineering draftsman. He played Rugby Union for Eastern Suburbs and represented New South Wales at half-back against both Queensland and the touring Great Britain side in 1904. A 'rare tackler … and as hard a player for his weight as has been seen in the game', he played for Australia in the first Test. As an oarsman, he rowed for the Mercantile Rowing Club in championship maiden and junior fours and eights in 1905-06; he was also a capable cricketer.

Baker served as a trooper with the New South Wales Lancers from about 1902, gaining the rank of sergeant and excelling in a variety of military sports: over the years he won many prizes in such activities as fencing (with the sword and bayonet), wrestling on horseback and tent-pegging. A fair shot, he was 'a decidedly handy man in the event of a foe descending on our peaceful shores'. In 1902 he took up boxing; for many years he weighed 11 st. 7 lb. (73 kg). In 1905 he became New South Wales amateur middleweight champion and next year retained his title, won the same belt in Victoria, and became the heavyweight champion of both States.

In December 1906, farewelled by 1000 people in Sydney including a boatload of twenty young ladies who pursued him to the Heads, Baker left for England to compete in the Amateur Boxing Association's championships, but contracted enteric fever and pneumonia. However, he boxed in the 1908 Olympic tournament held in London in October, three months after the games proper. As a middleweight he won three fights in the one day, two of them by knockouts, to reach the final which he lost narrowly on points to J. W. H. T. Douglas. He visited Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and Europe and performed at both exhibition and competition level, mainly in aquatic sports. He was welcomed as a distinguished athlete at gentlemen's sporting clubs wherever he went.

Returning to a considerable welcome in Sydney in December 1908, Baker began to capitalize on his athletic and boxing fame and opened a physical culture establishment, with mail-order courses, in Castlereagh Street. On 31 March 1909 at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, he married 37-year-old Ethel Rose Mackay, daughter of a squatter and widow of Augustus Daniel Kearney, a Victorian physician and notable tennis player. A journalist of skill, Baker contributed to the Sydney Evening News in 1908-10, published a book, General Physical Culture (Melbourne, 1910), and in 1912 began Snowy Baker's Magazine, a penny monthly that attained a circulation of over 3000 in its two years of existence.

Meanwhile he had become involved in H. D. McIntosh's Stadiums boxing organization, mainly as a referee; at times controversial, Baker wore green trousers and a felt hat, later evening dress. In December 1912 he arranged the purchase of the Rushcutters Bay Stadium for £30,000 and soon, with John Wren, had Baker's Stadiums in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane, and was following McIntosh's policy of bringing international boxers to Australia. In July 1914 the stadium staged its first Les Darcy fight and Baker soon controlled the Maitland boxer's engagements. He was annoyed when Darcy left Australia secretly in October 1916, and had to face accusations thereafter that he had been largely responsible for the boycotting and even the death of Darcy in the United States of America in May 1917. Baker always denied the charges and seems conclusively to have disproved them face-to-face with a Maitland committee of inquiry in October.

He tried three times to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force, but was prevented by a spinal injury; instead he devoted himself to fund-raising concerts. Boxing declined in popularity and he put on shows and film-nights at the stadium. Baker moved into the film business in 1918, and played a secret agent in The Enemy Within and a stationhand in The Lure of the Bush. In 1919 he was co-producer with E. J. Carroll and starred as a boxing parson in The Man from Kangaroo, as a bushranger in The Shadow of Lightning Ridge, and as a jackeroo in The Jackeroo of Coolabong (1920). All his roles featured his horsemanship, with his famous grey, Boomerang.

In August 1920 Baker left for the United States of America to further his film career, but although he did appear in some movies, succeeded rather as a coach and instructor in athletic feats and as a businessman. In 1933 he became a director and major operating partner of the Riviera Country Club, near Santa Monica, California, and spent an active life largely as a riding instructor to Hollywood stars and as a polo player. In the early 1930s he had contributed a column to the Sydney Referee. He re-visited Australia briefly in 1925, 1932 and 1952.

Survived by his wife and a step-daughter, Baker died of cerebro-vascular disease on 2 December 1953 at Los Angeles, and was cremated. His estate in New South Wales was valued for probate at £39,111. His stature as an athlete depends largely upon the enormous range rather than the outstanding excellence of his activities; it was as an entrepreneur-showman, publicist and businessman that he seems in retrospect to have been most important.

His brother William Harold (1887-1962), was born on 29 September 1887 in Sydney. He was a notable swimmer, winning three New South Wales championships in 1906 and captaining the Australian water polo team. He played Rugby football for Australia three times against New Zealand and won boxing and wrestling championships. With Snowy he worked for Stadiums Ltd and refereed many of Darcy's most important fights, including the one against Fritz Holland on 12 September 1914 when he disqualified Darcy for a foul. He was described as a 'man with a marble mouth and a jaw of steel. A man of ice with frozen eyes and a frozen voice'. Captain of Maroubra Surf Club in 1900-10, on 28 January 1910 he took part in a famous surf rescue of over 100 people at Cronulla Beach and was awarded the Albert Medal for bravery; a public subscription for him raised £1000 in its first week. He died on 17 October 1962 at Woollahra, survived by a daughter and by his wife Nellie Innes Sara, née Crawshaw, whom he had married on 12 June 1912.

His brothers Frank, who joined the film industry in Los Angeles in the 1920s, and Ernest were water polo players; Frederick was an amateur welterweight champion of Australia, and refereed for Stadiums Ltd.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Swanwick, Les Darcy, Australia's Golden Boy of Boxing (Syd, 1965)
  • E. Reade, Australian Silent Films (Melb, 1970)
  • People (Sydney), 27 Sept 1950
  • Parade, Oct 1959
  • Referee, 1908, Dec 1912–Dec 1913, 31 Oct 1917, 13 Apr 1932
  • Punch (Melbourne), 19 June 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Dec 1953.

Citation details

W. F. Mandle, 'Baker, Reginald Leslie (Snowy) (1884–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baker-reginald-leslie-snowy-5106/text8531, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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