The Case for the Defense: Bill Baker. Baker is a CFL defensive all-time great. Playing a decade for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and briefly BC Lions, he had a Hall of Fame career playing defensive end from 1968-78.
All of which got me to thinking. We have run a series on all time great CFL special teams players in the past. * So now I think in honour of Willie Jefferson being perhaps the biggest name this time around, we should focus on some defensive greats.
It is time to redress the balance a little. The series itself so far has featured Willie Pless, Angelo Mosca, Dickie Harris, Norm Fieldgate, and Wayne Harris. Now it is time to look at another great defensive player from the CFL annals. Step forward Bill ‘The Undertaker’ Baker.
Bill Baker: Replacing a legend
In 1968 a torch was passed on the Saskatchewan Roughrider defensive line. That is because the great defensive lineman Ron Atchison was at the end of his career. It was up to Baker to step into his place. No mean feat – but one he actually managed with aplomb.
Baker played junior football for the Regina Rams in 1963. He played college football at Otterbein College in Ohio where he was an All-Star for four years and his motto was “your opponents are only as tough as you let them be”.
So replacing Atchison – who’s toughness was legendary, came naturally to Bill Baker. You don’t get a nickname like ‘the undertaker’ for gentle play after all!
Dominating Defensive Play
No official quarterback sack statistics were kept during the years that Baker played, but he was widely regarded as one of the best pass rushers in the CFL of that era.
Throughout his 174 game career, “Undertaker” Baker was known for his ferocious pass rush and no QB wanted to receive his forearm to the head!
A Solid Saskatchewan D
Over the 1968 regular season Saskatchewan had the fewest points allowed in the CFL with 223. Including teams in the Eastern division with two fewer games played!
In 1969 the Roughriders defence allowed 261 points, second in the conference, and won the Western conference final. However they would lose to the Ottawa Rough Riders in the Grey Cup.
For the third year in a row in 1970 the Riders D was dominant holding opponents to just 206 points over the course of the season.
1972 saw the Roughriders back in the Grey Cup once more. Saskatchewan had finished 8-8 but their D had allowed least points in the West and gave up just 13 points in a losing effort in the Grey Cup. Bill Baker and the D line were a large part of keeping them in games.
BC Lions Diamond in the Rough
Bill Baker was a CFL all-star defensive end four times over his 11 year CFL career, including two of his three years with the Lions (1975-76).
He won the Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award in 1976 despite BC’s 336 points allowed and 5-9-2 record.
During his time in BC the Lions went 19-27-2 but Bill Baker stood out enough to be recognised for his consistently excellent defensive play.
Baker was named a CFL All-Star on 4 occasions (1972, 1973, 1975 & 1976). As well as being named CFL West All-Star on 5 occasions (1971, 1972, 1973, 1975 & 1976).
Whilst a member of the BC Lions in 1976 Baker collected the award for Most Outstanding Defensive Player in the league. As well as picking up the Norm Fieldgate Trophy twice (in 1975 & 1976) recognizing him as the best defensive player in the West Division.
Despite never having played on a Grey Cup winner, Baker was placed on the TSN top 50 CFL players of all time list.
After the Gridiron
As we have noted before, pro athletes face a dilemma, after retiring from the field of play, what then?
For Bill Baker there was a return to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He took over as the Club’s 10th General Manager heading into the 1987 season. Baker helped assemble a team that finished second place in 1988 and hosted a playoff game for the first time since 1976.
Many of the players Baker brought into Saskatchewan helped the team win the Grey Cup in 1989. More importantly his “football is your heritage” drive, fundraising, and budget trimming kept the franchise afloat.
Baker resigned from his GM position following the 1988 season to take over briefly as the CFL Commissioner.
It is however for his dominant defensive play and toughness that Bill “the undertaker” Baker is best remembered.
Banner Image: Roughriders helmet showing the 1966-84 logo Bill Baker would have worn. Image from cfl.ca