Immaculate Reception football means a lot to its caretaker
Jim Baker, who ended up with the ball from the Immaculate Reception, holds the prized possession Friday at the Heinz History Center.
Days after the game in 1972, Ben Baker kicks the Immaculate Reception ball as his father, Jim Baker, holds and his mother and baby brother watch.
The original Immaculate Reception game ball is displayed at the Heinz History Center.
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He began the day bringing his newborn boy home. He ended it by bringing home what became a hallowed piece of National Football League history.
Around 10 a.m. Saturday morning, Dec. 23, 1972, then 26-year-old Jim Baker, an insurance adjuster from West Mifflin, left McKeesport Hospital, his wife Mary and 6-pound infant son Sam in tow.
Sam, his second child, had entered the world four days earlier.
Arriving home, he got them settled in. Then he rushed to pick up his teenage nephew to take him to the Steelers' first home playoff game in 25 years and only the third in franchise history, against the Oakland Raiders.
He'd scored a pair of tickets from a friend. First level, section 57, row E, 30-yard line, behind the Oakland bench. Face value: $10.15 -- about $56 today.
They made it to Three Rivers Stadium just in time for the 1 p.m. kickoff.
Wearing a Franco Harris jersey Friday at the Heinz History Center, Mr. Baker, now 66, recounted his memory of the Immaculate Reception, while gently holding the Wilson football that Mr. Harris stormed across the end zone with and into sports immortality.
Its faded, brown, pebbled leather is scuffed from use in the game. The ball is on display through January as part of the museum's Gridiron Glory exhibition, which also features hundreds of artifacts on loan from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"Being 5-foot-5, I don't remember seeing the play. ... Terry [Bradshaw] rolled back, and everybody in front of me jumped up -- I didn't actually get to see the ball bounce, or which way it went, but I did see Franco running down the field."
"Even before he hit the end zone -- people started jumping off the dugout running down to the field. I grabbed my nephew and we jumped off the dugout and we watched what was going on as we ran down onto the field."
Like Franco Harris during the famous play, Mr. Baker never took his eye off the ball in the aftermath.
"I'm watching, I'm watching, I'm watching -- and they didn't take the ball out of play. When Franco circled around, he dropped the ball and an equipment man grabbed [it] and handed it right back to the ref. And I'm watching, I'm watching, I'm watching. ... I had presence of mind to go behind the goal post.
"They called [kicker Roy] Gerela out. They put the ball down. Gerela kicks the extra point -- back then they didn't put nets up -- the ball hits the wall, it comes back and there's a lot of us flying for the ball -- I'm thinking I have a chance to get the game ball."
A former wrestler and an avid runner, he employed both skills immediately.
"I jumped on the ball as it squirted around and a lot of people fought [for it] -- I tore a jacket, ruined a camera, but I came off the bottom of the pile, grabbed my nephew, stuffed [the ball] under my coat and ran as hard as I could because I was afraid of a big guy taking the ball from me.
"There was so much excitement at that stadium nobody [from the Steelers or NFL] had the presence of mind to grab the football. Even Franco, being rookie of the year that year, you would think they would've took the football. But there was so much excitement -- we beat Oakland! -- they just didn't think about it.
"When I left the stadium, that was my biggest concern -- that somebody is going to be coming after me for the football. ... Needless to say, I was in a hurry."
Hustling through the stadium parking lot, he saw a couple sitting in a 1958 Pontiac. Unable to get tickets, they'd listened to the game on the car radio. Mr. Baker tapped on the window.
"I said listen, I got the game ball. I don't have my car, would you ride me across the bridge, because I didn't want to carry this ball out in the open. ... He dropped me in Gateway Center where my car was, and I started home with the football."
He wasn't even home before he got his first cash offer for the ball.
"I did stop on the way home at a prominent auto body shop. I knew the owner real well, and he was a big Steelers fan. He always carried his money -- and a lot of money, not just peanuts -- in a briefcase. He got his briefcase out and said, 'I'll give you $1,000 right now.' "
Mr. Baker declined and said, "I'm going to dedicate it to my son Sam, who was just born."
Visitors at the Baker home were there to see baby Sam, but made a fuss over the ball instead.
"I knew that some day this ball was going to be famous. A few days later, they named it the Immaculate Reception."
Anne P. Madarasz, director of Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, housed inside the Heinz History Center, said his story checks out and that she is comfortable as a professional historian backing the claim.
"One of the things that makes Jim's story believable and verifiable is from the very second that he ran out of Three Rivers Stadium with that ball underneath his shirt, he talked about it."
Mr. Baker's brother-in-law is Bob Pavuchak, a now-retired photographer for The Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette. Mr. Pavuchak photographed him that night with the ball, and five days later a story ran in the Press.
"Throughout the years, Jim's never made a secret of the fact that he had the ball," Ms. Madarasz said. "There is evidence from the beginning that this is the Immaculate Reception game ball."
Now the "Pro Football Hall of Fame is on top of every moment, every record, every special play, every game that ends in an interesting way," Ms. Madarasz continued. "This stuff is all authenticated and certified and appraised. The old stuff we really have to do the homework on, and you've got to believe some of the story. And when you meet Jim Baker, you believe the story. He has never told any [other] story but the one he's telling."
Picking over a frittata at Buon Giornio in the Strip District, Mr. Baker makes a fair point to anyone who might question his credibility.
"In 40 years, no one else has ever come forward and said that they have it."
The ball's permanent home is in a bank vault in Mr. Baker's office, though it has made special trips out over the years to rest atop the family's television set for luck in major playoff games and Steelers Super Bowls.
The ball is still here, but Sam Baker isn't.
Seven years ago, shortly after opening his own chiropractic practice in West Mifflin, Sam Baker called his parents and said he needed to see a doctor about a pain in his side.
Jim Baker's voice shakes when he recounts the diagnosis.
"Adrenocortical carcinoma. Stage 4. A one-in-two million chance. He had four or five months to live."
An ex-wrestler like his dad, Jim Baker said his son "took it the way he wrestled."
"He was genuine. He was proud. Everybody loved the kid. He took it the way God meant it to be. He didn't go out weak. He went out strong. He knew he was passing. He hugged his kids all the time, and his wife. He asked me if I'd help take care of them. We went fishing in Florida one last time before he died."
Sam Baker died at Jefferson Hospital in May 2005 at age 33. He is survived by his parents; his wife, Joanna; sons Sam Jr. and Alex; brothers Ben and Ryan; and sister Corinne.
A 2005 Sports Illustrated article estimated the value of the ball to be $80,000. Mr. Baker said he's fielded substantially higher offers over the years. He said there is a seven-figure insurance policy on the ball.
"When you have something that's associated with what's considered by many to be the greatest play in football, it is a priceless, irreplaceable, great object," Ms. Madarasz said.
Jim Baker said he did contact the Steelers once about trading the ball for lifetime season tickets. The offer was politely declined, and Mr. Baker says he harbors no animus.
"They have a team to run," he said. "They can't be worried about one football."
He's met Mr. Harris, whom he calls "Mr. Pittsburgh -- a great, great person," numerous times over the years. At a 25th anniversary celebration of the catch in 1997 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Mr. Harris introduced him to the crowd. Someone asked if he would give the ball back to Mr. Harris.
"I thought about it and said, 'That's a good question -- I have my family here. This football is a part of ... my family history, a part of Franco's history. We've been thinking about that for 25 years. We talked it over this past week and decided, instead of giving the football back, we're going to adopt Franco,' " he said, laughing at the recollection.
But the ball isn't going anywhere. Financially secure, Mr. Baker said he'd only consider an offer so substantial that it would create a trust for Sam's children and his three other grandchildren.
But there would be a contractual caveat attached to any sale.
"The ball does not leave Pittsburgh."
The ball he said, is part of Pittsburgh's history and Franco Harris's legacy. Someday, he and Mr. Harris will be gone. But the ball will remain.
"I've been a good steward of this ball for 40 years. It's part of my family history, too. Especially my son Sam," he said, his voice cracking, his eyes welling with tears. "It would take a lot to give it up. Even today, I get to thinking about my son, and he's gone now. But this brings his memory back.
"I don't want to see it in somebody else's living room, or somebody else's safe. I would like to see it on display forever."
First Published November 18, 2012 12:00 am