A Gleam Of City's History Lost With Passing Of Fighter Baker

An elderly man, stooped and walking slowly with a cane, shuffles out the front door. He's an old-time gambler, I'm told. A regular.

Familiar faces roll in and out of the Turf Smoke Shop like tides.

The Turf is as much a part of the old Seattle as the Smith Tower and the Jackson Street jazz clubs. It was a sports bar before there were sports bars.

It was a haven for bookmakers and boxers. In the old days, the big local fights often staged their weigh-ins at The Turf.

Today, on Pike Street, halfway between First and Second avenues, The Turf is an anachronism. It is part of Seattle's faded swaggering, bowler-hatted past.

It is an important part of the city's sporting history, like the Rainiers, the Totems and the old boxing club on Ninth and Olive.

At The Turf, you still can get a grilled ham dinner for five bucks. A large, dated picture of a fighter landing an overhand right hangs prominently, framed by a red neon light. Also on the wall are the promises of "Quality service, sporting news, good fellowship."

At The Turf, everybody knows your name, or your face, or your history.

The Turf was the personal turf of former Northwest heavyweight champion Bearcat Baker. He ate all his meals here. He spun stories of his days as a fighter.

He rehearsed the few lines he would have in his small roles in the movies and commercials shot around town. The Turf's owner, Pat Altshuler, would help him with his cues.

"He had problems remembering what he was supposed to say," Altshuler said yesterday. "He'd just go blank and get so mad at himself."

Bearcat Baker was part of old-time Seattle. He fought in 133 bouts and, according to the murky records of the time, lost only 10. In 1931, at the age of 17, he won the Northwest heavyweight championship.

A Seattle Times story on April 10, 1931, described the championship bout: "Cyclone Thompson, the Yakima heavyweight who took the Northwest heavyweight championship from Eddie Gross, the Ballard gingerbread man, is without his crown today.

"Hard punching George (Bearcat) Baker, Riverton Negro, jarred it off his head last night when the two met in the six-round main event at the White Center Athletic Club and today Baker is champion."

At age 82, George Williams, who boxed under the name Bearcat Baker, died quietly in his sleep last week.

His death shouldn't go unnoticed. He should be remembered for the power in his right hand; for the energy he always brought into a room and for his undying optimism.

"He never got down on life," Altshuler said. "He always believed anyone can make it in the world if they try hard enough."

He came from Aberdeen to Seattle as a teenager and gravitated to the gym on Ninth and Olive. In the 1920s and '30s, more than 100 fighters sparred there regularly.

Baker stayed here the rest of his life, a part of the fiber of the city; one of the downtown people who survived all of Seattle's makeovers.

He fought in the days before television, when boxing was a major franchise in Seattle, when gyms were thriving all over town.

"He was built like Mr. America," said long-time friend, boxing promoter George Chemeres. "He had huge arms on him and he could punch with both hands. He was a murderous puncher.

"But he caught a thumb in his eye in his last fight and detached a retina and had to retire. No telling how far he would have gone if he hadn't been hurt. If he were around today, he'd be far ahead of them fellows you see on ESPN."

He stayed downtown because his friends were there. He lived at the Moore Hotel because he was single and this corner of Seattle was where he was most comfortable.

"As a young man with a great deal to offer, he had to struggle with the racist attitudes that he came up against," said Joe Martin of the Pike Market Medical Center. "But he stared all that racism straight in the face and kept going.

"In a lot of ways, he epitomized old, downtown Seattle. It was a community of hard-working, hard-struggling blue-collar workers."

Baker retired from the post office in 1979, but he never quit working. He did commercials for Boeing and Metro and had small parts in movies including Glory Days, Trouble In Mind, Cinderella Liberty, Singles and Waiting for the Light. He also worked as a security officer at KOMO.

He was always vibrant. Even late in life, his Foreman-like arms were rock-hard. When he came into the medical center, he would flex his biceps proudly for Dr. Les Pittle.

"Feel this," he would order with a smile. "Am I really getting older, or am I just imagining this?"

Bearcat Baker never got old. He never got soft. He was never known to utter a word of bitterness or complaint. He was a part of a different Seattle that, like The Turf, shouldn't be forgotten in a modern-day swirl.

Want to comment or pass on an idea? You can contact Steve Kelley by voice mail at 464-2176.