He was the original hard-hitting, strong-marking, woolly-bearded Melbourne ruckman.
Long before Max Gawn there was Garry Baker.
“Bull’’ Baker could play a bit, too. His 147 games between 1972-83 included the 1978 Demons best-and-fairest award.
And yet, due to the legacy of two memorable Scanlens footy cards late in his career, he is largely remembered as the bloke who wore one of the great beards in the game’s history.
“It’s funny, I played league footy for 14 years and I only had the beard for two of those, but usually if anybody ever remembers me as a player they remember me for the beard,’’ Baker, now 63, said this week.
“Bull’’, who was originally from Meeniyan in south Gippsland but now lives in Hobart, said he was ”pretty rapt’’ to see another ruckman with a decent beard running around in the Red and the Blue.
“He looks terrific,’’ Baker said. “One thing I like about it is that a lot of old Melbourne supporters have started coming out of the woodwork down here and they’re comparing him with me, which is fantastic. I’m starting to feel good about myself after everybody forgetting for the past 30 years that I used to play the game.
“It’s amazing the different sort of fan that a player gets when he does grow a beard, as opposed to the straight necks – someone like that North fella Todd Goldstein, who looks a bit boring for mine, a bit clean and squeaky. With big Max there’s some sort of atmosphere about him when he runs out. That beard just does wonders.
“There are some good ones out there in the league these days, some rippers, and he’s got a bit of competition, but I think Maxy’s got the best of the current crop.
“’When I was playing there were some shockers and I didn’t have all that much to beat.’’
Baker said the main difference between his beard and Gawn’s was that “I just used to let nature take its course’’.
“’The hipster of today is a bit different to the hipster of the 1970s. We just let beards grow as they grew and that was it, whereas your modern footballer obviously gets along to the barber to have them shaped and sculpted.
“Imagine a ’70s footballer going to a hairstylist to get his beard done – he’d never hear the end of it out on the ground. You just wouldn’t live it down with the other blokes.’’
While Gawn’s facial hair has chopped and changed over the past few seasons, Baker said his own beard grew steadily through superstition.
”One Friday night before a game I went to Pellegrini’s at the top of Bourke Street and had a lasagne and meatballs. And I hadn’t shaved from the Saturday before, so I had a six-day growth.
“Any rate I went out the next day and got best on the ground. So I thought ‘this is all right’ and for the next two years I made sure I got to Pellegrini’s every Friday night and never shaved.”
Baker said he produced some of the best football of his career during those two seasons – with the added bonus that he “could still taste the meatballs on my moustache during a game’’.
His wild and woolly days came to an end in the summer of 1981, when former Melbourne great Ron Barassi returned to the club as coach.
“I remember ‘Barass’ sat down the whole squad during the pre-season – there would have been about 65 of us – and I was sitting up the back row with my good mate Peter Giles (who also had a beard at the time).
“Barass starts off by saying ‘There’s two things I really hate in a footballer: 1) if they’re not clean shaven, and 2) I need every player to have a job. Well, Gilesy and I looked at each other and at that stage I hadn’t worked for about 18 months, and I said ‘I think I’m in a bit of strife here’.”
He duly went out to get a job and had a demon barber whip off his whiskers. “The next time I went to training nobody knew who I was.’’
“For the next two years I made sure I got to Pellegrini’s every Friday night and never shaved.”
– Garry Baker
On the Monday before Round 1, Barassi announced that Baker would be vice-captain to the great Robert Flower, but not long afterwards the big man injured his knee and never play for Melbourne again. Baker wonders if there was something to his superstition and whether losing his beard was akin to the Biblical tale of cutting Samson’s hair.
He bore no grudge against Barassi, though, who now owns a share of Baker’s renowned Rockwall bar and grill at Hobart’s historic Salamanca Place. The menu even features a ”Barassi Steak’’ – a 250g eye fillet stuffed with blue cheese and grilled medium rare.
“It’s funny how it works out,’’ Baker chuckles, “these days nearly every footballer’s got a beard and none of them have got a job.’’
In the years since his league career ended with a six-game stint at Sydney in 1983, Baker has mostly favoured a clean-shaven look. But towards the end of last year he reconsidered.
“As we all know, I can grow a beard – and one of the better ones – so about six or seven months ago I started growing one again and I actually had it to a stage that it was a bit bigger than Max’s.
“But I kept looking at myself in the mirror and thinking ít’s not a good look’, so I shaved it off only a couple of weeks ago.
“These days it goes all these different colours. It was like Joseph’s technicoloured dream coat, there was colours that I’ve never ever seen in my family’s history. It’s amazing when you do get up there in years the colours that start to appear in your hair and the places where you do grow hair.’’
He’s happy to leave the Beard To Be Feared stuff to Gawn these days, and rates the 208-centimetre ruckman a handy footballer.
“He’s come a long way as a player,’’ Baker said. “The performance he puts on reflects the way the team plays; he was a bit down on the weekend and so were the Demons, so that’s how important he is.’’
If there was one thing Baker would like to see, though, it would be the combination of a woolly beard and the No.1 guernsey he wore during his time at Demonland.
“’Maybe big Maxy could swap jumper numbers with Jesse Hogan. That’d really get them talking about the old Bull.’’