When Joe Baker decided to bid an initial farewell to Hibs in 1961, many believed he would go on to prove himself as one of the deadliest strikers in Europe, but an ill-fated spell on the continent almost did enough to tarnish his legacy.
Baker’s Easter Road exit was prompted by his demand for a £5 wage increase on his £12 per week contract. When the Hibs board rejected his request, Baker immediately sought a move away with no shortage of suitors for a player who’d netted 158 times in 194 games for the Hibees.
Italy seemed the most likely destination and despite interest from Fiorentina, Baker joined Torino in 1961, linking up with the legendary Denis Law – though he would later admit a move to Florence would have been a better decision. As part of the deal to take him to Italy, Torino agreed to a friendly match at Easter Road in October of the same year and handed over this statue of a bull as a present.
Baker and Law quickly became friends, taking up residence in an apartment in Turin’s bustling city centre. However, it didn’t take long for fans and media to discover their whereabouts, with crowds often gathering outside to track their every move. Thousands would turn up to training sessions, while dozens more would wait at the train station for the team to return after long away trips.
For Baker, who enjoyed revelling in the nightlife of his new home, this was a nightmare scenario. Modest and soft-spoken, he found the Italian press intrusive, often chastising him for sampling La Dolce Vita after matches while hordes of paparazzi scrambled to get the latest images of his excess.
Famous for his hard-man reputation on the pitch, Baker eventually allowed this to spill out on a trip to Venice. After an overzealous paparazzo refused to leave him alone, Baker responded by breaking his camera before sending him flying into the nearby canal.
His actions cost Torino over 700,000 lira in compensation payments and further increased media scrutiny of the forward who, by this point, had come under fire for his lacklustre performances.
A winner in the Derby della Mole victory over Juventus did little to placate the famously fervent Torino fans, who had already seen him sent off twice during the season, though Baker had his own complaints over the Italian style of play.
Both he and Law were fierce opponents of the ‘catenaccio’ system favoured by many Italian coaches at the time. The ultra-defensive formation made it significantly harder for the pair to repeat their previous goalscoring feats, with Law scoring just ten times during the season and Baker only managing seven.
By the end of the season, it was clear both men’s time in Italy was over but as they negotiated moves back to Britain, Baker’s Italian sojourn was almost brought to a tragic end.
In February 1962, Baker lost control of his Alfa Romeo while driving the wrong way round a roundabout on the streets of Turin with Law in the passenger seat, flipping the car and sending it careering into the Garibaldi monument. While Law walked away from the accident relatively unscathed, Baker fractured his nasal septum and palate, requiring emergency surgery. He’d spend the next few weeks in hospital being fed by a drip and Torino, exhausted by his off-field antics agreed to let him go once he completed his recovery.
Baker departed for Arsenal later that year - becoming the Gunners’ record signing at £70,000 - before spells with Nottingham Forest, Sunderland, Raith Rovers and a brief return to Hibs in 1971. He died in 2003 after suffering a heart attack.