Noted sports historian and former University of Maine professor William Baker has died at the age of 83 after complications from an infection, members of his family said Saturday.
Baker died at 9:05 a.m. at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center on Saturday in Bangor. He had contracted methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a staph infection that commonly spreads in hospitals, as well as COVID-19 after undergoing a partial hip replacement surgery on Sept. 1, his daughter, novelist Christina Baker Kline, said.
Baker Kline praised her father as a “deeply moral” man of adventure who celebrated the unique personalities of each of his four daughters. He encouraged each of their individual pursuits, Baker Kline said, harboring high expectations for them while never being prescriptive.
“He just had this great sense of adventure and especially for combining literature with exploration,” Baker Kline said.
Fully vaccinated, Baker had tested positive for the virus shortly before he died, though family members do not believe his coronavirus infection played the decisive role in his unexpected death. A more significant contribution, they said, was the massive influx of primarily unvaccinated coronavirus patients that is overwhelming hospitals in Maine and across the country.
Baker served for three decades as a history professor at the University of Maine and held the title of professor emeritus after retiring. He was working on a book on the history of basketball at the time of his death, his family said.
The son of mill workers in rural Georgia, Baker excelled in football as quarterback of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. A scholarship to study at Cambridge University for a summer eventually led him to earn a PhD there and into an academic career that took him to the University of Maine in Orono.
Baker’s biography of Jesse Owens, “Jesse Owens: An American Life,” is among the most widely cited books about the Black track and field star, who gained fame for winning four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin.
Baker was interested in “the story behind the story,” Baker Kline said. He wanted to look at the rise of nationalism and Nazism through the lens of Jesse Owens, who, like Baker, grew up in poverty in the south.
“My father brought to his book the kind of humanity that’s often missing from academic books,” Baker Kline said. “That’s partly why I think it took off.”
He also wrote about the intersection of religion and sports, writing several books on the subject, including “Of Gods and Games: Religious Faith and Modern Sports” and “If Christ Came to the Olympics.”
Baker was living seasonally in Manset, a village in Southwest Harbor, at the time of his death, but spent much of the year in Aiken, South Carolina, with his partner, Jane Wright.
He originally planned to have hip replacement surgery in South Carolina or Georgia, but was unable to book it due to pandemic-related restrictions on elective surgeries. That’s what led his family to book the surgery at EMMC, about an hour from Southwest Harbor
He was supposed to be in the hospital for a day or two max, Baker Kline said, but ended up staying for nearly a month. He had wanted to leave the hospital for a rehab facility in Maine, but the family had difficulty finding a satisfactory location due to a rising number of COVID-positive patients.
Baker’s family found him an opening at a rehabilitation facility in South Carolina, but the family was told just hours before he was scheduled to fly there that he had tested positive for MRSA, Baker Kline said. His stay in Bangor was further delayed when he had to be quarantined due to contact with someone with COVID-19.
Northern Light spokesperson Suzanne Spruce said the hospital system was not able to comment on care for specific patients due to privacy reasons.
“Like most health care organizations in Maine, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center has seen instances of staff and patients testing positive for COVID-19 as the rates continue to increase across the state,” said Spruce, who said the source of the virus is not “easily identifiable” with community transmission high.
The family said they found it unconscionable that it was not a requirement for unvaccinated nursing staff to be regularly tested for the coronavirus. Spruce said that any staff member, including those who are unvaccinated, are tested if they show symptoms, are known to have been around a COVID-19-positive person or require surveillance testing — people who are asymptomatic but at-risk of contracting the virus due to exposure, high-risk occupation, behavior or living situation.
“The idea that hospital staff are not vaccinated is mind blowing,” Baker Kline said. “To us, it feels as if we’re in a horror movie and the killer is inside the house.”
Once the state of Maine begins enforcing its mandate on health care workers on Oct. 29, all staff members who remain unvaccinated and have medical exemption will be regularly tested, Spruce said. The deadline had been Oct. 1, but Gov. Janet Mills extended it earlier this month.
“We remain in full support of Maine’s vaccine mandate for health care workers and expect to be fully compliant with the state’s mandate by the deadline of October 29,” Spruce said.
Baker was an adventurous man that had dreams of going to India and Africa, where he had never been, before he died. He and his family’s travels were chronicled in a 2017 New York Times article written by Baker Kline.
He was predeceased by his wife of 51 years, former Maine House Rep. Christina L. Baker, who died in 2013.
He leaves behind Wright, his four daughters and sons-in-law, Baker Kline and David Kline; Cynthia Baker and Jon Zeitler; Clara Baker and Chris Lester, and Catherine Baker-Pitts and Will Pitts as well as his 13 grandchildren, which he called his “Baker’s Dozen” and his siblings, Jimmy “Wink” Baker and Reba Duckett and their families.