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Russell Baker got his start as a reporter for The Sun and always looked back to Baltimore

Russell Baker got his start as a reporter for The Sun and always looked back to Baltimore
Russell Baker twice won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1979 for his Observer column in The New York Times, and for "Growing Up," his 1982 memoir. (AP)

When parts of the dismembered body of Evelyn Rice, 30, who worked as a barmaid and mind-reader, began appearing in East Baltimore sewers and three-quarters of her torso was found in the spring of 1939 by a hospital worker in a dump near City Hospitals, The Evening Sun quickly dubbed it “The Torso Murder.”

On the morning the news broke, 14-year-old Russell Baker, the future Baltimore Sun reporter and New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, who already was dreaming of a newspaper career or being a writer one day, stood shivering in the pre-dawn darkness on deserted West Lombard Street, preparing to deliver the Sunday American.

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As he ripped open the bundles of newspapers whose front pages were normally dominated by news of Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain and Stalin and the possibility of war, this morning was different.

“This morning, however, there was a bloodcurdling revelation,” he wrote in “Growing Up,” his 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir.

“Page one was half-filled with a picture of several parcels, crudely wrapped in newspapers, lying on a police-station table.The story said they were pieces of a human body which had been dissected by an insane killer and discarded in the Baltimore sewer system,” he wrote.

“I scanned the story rapidly and felt a little better to learn that all the human parts so far recovered had been found in East Baltimore, a full two miles from West Lombard Street. Police had still not found the victim’s head, however, and what was worse, the insane dissector was still at large.”

Mr. Baker’s mind flashed to the 1937 movie thriller “Night Must Fall,” whose killer roamed the streets carrying his victim’s head in a hatbox.

“I had seen this film. So, apparently, had the reporter writing this morning’s story. It was possible, that the Baltimore madman was wandering the streets carrying his victim’s head,” he wrote. “The American was a Hearst paper, and I knew Hearst papers sometimes tried to make a good story better than it actually was, but at that hour of the morning, alone on the streets of southwest Baltimore, I was incapable of mustering any reassuring skepticism.”

Russell Baker, who became a Baltimore Sun reporter and its London bureau chief, and later a New York Times correspondent, columnist, and a national humorist whom scholars rank on a par with Mark Twain, James Thurber or H.L. Mencken, died Monday from complications from a fall at his home in Leesburg, Va.

He was 93.

Mr. Baker, who was born in Loudon County, Va., spent his first five years in Morrisonville, Va., and then after the death of his father, Benjamin Rex Baker, a stonemason, he moved with his widowed mother and younger sister to Newark, N.J., where they lived with relatives.

In 1936, they moved to Southwest Baltimore, to a home near Union Square, where resided one of his idols, H.L. Mencken, the Sun newspaperman, author, editor and philologist.

“Even though he was terrible as a political prognosticator, he was a master of invective, and nobody could abuse a man with such eloquence as Mencken,” Mr. Baker told The Sun in a 2006 interview. “I had an uncle who wasn’t a great reader and lived in the 1500 block of Hollins Street. He used to say of Mencken, ‘He writes those things in the paper that make people mad.’”

He added: “First of all, he is a wonderful writer, and no one has been able to write like Mencken. He is sui generis.”

It was his schoolteacher mother, Lucy Elizabeth Baker, who steered her son into the world of journalism, when she arranged for him to be a Baltimore News-Post paperboy.

“My mother started me in newspaper work in 1937, right after my twelfth birthday,” he wrote in a second memoir, “The Good Times.” “She would have started me younger, but there was a law against working before age twelve. She thought it was a silly law.”

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His mother became a lifelong influence, and even as a grown man, he could still hear her exhortations: “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a quitter. … Russell, you’ve got no more gumption than a bump on a log. Don’t you want to amount to something?”

Fondly recalling his formative and influential years at City College, he sent a letter in 1980 to the special assistant to the superintendent of Baltimore public schools.

“City … was one of the very special places in my life. I was taken in hand by an astonishingly capable and dedicated group of teachers who compelled, cajoled, wheedled and seduced me into exercising my flabby brain until it was fit enough to win an academic scholarship to Johns Hopkins. … [City] kept you awake by making life interesting and, in the process, managed to slip a tiny pinhole into the thickest skull and let in a ray of light,” he wrote.

After graduating in 1942 from City College, he enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University, only to withdraw after a year and enlist in the Navy, where he had planned to be a pilot.

While he learned to get the plane off the ground, he didn’t master its landing, he told two visiting Baltimore newspaper friends several years ago.

After graduating in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in English from Hopkins, where he had been managing editor of the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, Mr. Baker walked through the front door of the stately old Sun building at Baltimore and Charles streets — then known as Sun Square — and interviewed for a job with legendary managing editor Charles H. “Buck” Dorsey Jr.

“He was Hollywood’s dream of a managing editor. Tall and lean. Iron-gray hair closely cropped. Eyes chilly gray, infinitely wise to the world,” Mr. Baker recalled in “The Good Times.”

”An imperious manner, and a way of holding his head that suggested arrogance, impatience, maybe danger. A dangerous man, I thought. Not a man to trifle with. Not a man to tolerate fools. Though we were both seated, he managed to make me feel that he was looking down on me from a great height.”

Mr. Baker began his career as a $30-a-week police reporter who worked in the police districts, and by 1950, was working “inside,” as he called it, as a rewrite man, taking phoned in reports from the “district men” who never came into the building.

“In 1947 newspaper work was for life’s losers. Men who dreamed of big money and rich wives went in for medicine, law, business or engineering,” he recalled in “The Good Times,” adding that “respectable folks” did not want their daughters marrying one.

They “occupied the social pit ... they were thought to be a vagabond crowd addicted to booze, vulgar language, bad manners, smelly wardrobes, heavy debt, and low company.”

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In 1952, he was sent to London as The Sun’s correspondent, and one of his first big stories was covering the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

When Mr. Baker, who was 29 when he joined The New York Times in 1954 as the newspaper’s White House correspondent, always a journalistic plum, his mother cracked, “Well, Russ, if you work hard at this White House job you might be able to make something of yourself.”

As it turned out, his mother had nothing to worry about. Her son covered the presidential campaigns of 1956 and 1960, and beginning in 1962, he moved to New York and launched the Observer column, which ran three days a week and for which he was awarded the 1979 Pulitzer for commentary.

Its tone was as varied as its subject matter. One day a column would wonder about what happened to the two-pants suit or some other vagary of American life that had caught his eye, whimsy or even wrath.

“My policy on fashion is to sit tight. When a garment goes out of style, I do not discard it and rush to buy the season’s latest look,” he wrote in 1978. “I hang the unfashionable threads in the attic and sit tight.”

In 1998, he announced his retirement and wrote his last Observer piece.

“I shall take the otherwise inexcusable liberty of talking about me and newspapers. I love them,” he wrote, and how they were the instrument that let him be a witness to history in the making, to hard times, presidents in the making and those in the going, people down on their luck, and if only for a fleeting moment, allowed him to speak to the great and the celebrated.

There were other dimensions to his career. From 1993 to 2004, he was host of PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre.” He wrote books, enjoyed spending summers at a second home on Nantucket, with his wife, the former Miriam Nash, who died in 2015.

His office was in a small former brick carriage house that bore no testimony to his professional success and celebrity. It was modest, like the man, and comforting and welcoming. Walls, bookshelves and his desk were not covered with the mementos that such a person would have displayed.

“It was pure Baker that he hid away in a writing cabin in his backyard and kept the Baker writing spirit alive there,” said Ernest M. Imhoff, former Evening Sun and Sun editor, for whose 2006 book, “Goodshipmates” about the restoration of the Liberty ship John W. Brown, Mr. Baker had written the foreword.

He enjoyed visits from newspaper colleagues at his pre-Civil War brick home on West Market Street in Leesburg, where he would greet approaching guests from the porch while waving his arms, “No talk about medical problems.”

While sipping wine in an antique-filled front parlor, he wanted to hear stories about his beloved Baltimore, while including plenty of his own from the old days, and confessing that he liked tuning his radio to WBJC-FM.

He was a perpetually boyish figure whose face was draped with a shock of hair that dropped to the right, and his voice did not belie his Virginia origins.

In a letter to Mike Olesker, a former Sun columnist and author, Mr. Baker had expressed his affection for The Sun.

“Though The New York Times has been home to me for half a lifetime, my heart still belongs to The Sun … as to a first love that was lost but can never be forgotten.”

Services are private.

Mr. Baker is survived by two sons, Allen Baker of New York and Michael Baker of Morrisonville, Va.; a daughter, Kasia Baker of Nantucket; two sisters, Doris Groh and Mary Leslie Keech, both of Baltimore; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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