Thirty years ago if you needed to have an operation on the meniscus in your knee, an orthopedic doctor would have cut you open, taken out your cartilage and sewed you back up. You might have spent a day or two in the hospital.
Now, it’s outpatient surgery, and you aren’t left with a four-inch scar and weeks of painful rehabilitation. Instead you leave the arthroscopic surgery with part of your meniscus remaining in your knee, two small holes that heal quickly and a brief period of rehabilitation.
The evolution of medicine has progressed with technology, but one man has been instrumental in that progression.
Doctor Champ Baker Jr., 64, has spent his career furthering the science and dedicated his “free time” to countless athletic teams. His contributions to sports medicine has led to Baker being inducted into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2011.
The other members of that class include Claude English, Ron Yarbrough, Wendell Barr and Joe Harrell. The ceremony will be held at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center on Saturday.
“My job is to make sure that the player is safe to go back in (the game),” Baker said. “He is hurt, but the coaches want to know if he can play.
“You can’t have a team without a team doctor.”
Path to Hughston
Baker’s journey with sports medicine began in college when the 6-foot-5 center for Louisiana State University’s freshman team started spending more time watching than playing the game, partly due to “Pistol” Pete Maravich beginning his record-setting college career at the same position.
Baker got his undergraduate degree in 1968 and his medical degree in 1972, both from LSU. He finished his internship at Letterman Army Medical Center in San Francisco and the Armed Forces Entering and Examining Station in Missouri. He attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Medical Corps of the Army in 1980.
During his time in the military, Baker spent time at Fort Stewart, arranged a fellowship with Hughston in Columbus in 1979, then went to Fort Sam Houston before he came back to Columbus in 1982. He will be entering his 30th year at Hughston next month.
Baker credits Dr, Jack Hughston as his mentor and studied under him until his death in 2004.
Baker was the first team doctor at Valdosta State in 1983. He worked with all of Auburn University’s women athletic teams in 1983 and spent several years with the Pacelli School.
In 1986, he was a team doctor for the University of Alabama. It was his time with the Crimson Tide that pushed Baker into the limelight.
All-SEC center Wes Neighbors hurt his knee during a game. The doctors who saw Neighbors in Tuscaloosa said he needed surgery. Alabama coach Ray Perkins, Neighbors and family members flew to Columbus to meet with Baker for surgery.
Baker didn’t operate.
“My biggest case was a non-operation,” Baker chuckled. “They all showed up expecting surgery. I consulted with him and coach. He’d slightly torn a ligament but didn’t need surgery. I told Perkins he’ll play in four to six weeks.
“The prevention of injuries is what we do.”
Baker said he’s operated on the late Derrick Thomas (Alabama, Kansas City Chiefs, football), Travis Best (NBA), Dottie Pepper (golf, TV), Don Pooley (golf), Steffi Graf (tennis) and Ernie Els (golf).
He operated on Columbus resident and current Champions Tour golfer Larry Mize in 1994.
“I had my right knee scoped because I had torn cartilage,” Mize said. “He’s really helped me with several minor injuries. He’s a good friend and a good doctor for me.”
Mize said he had surgery on a Tuesday. Six days later Baker told him to get back on the course.
“I played the next weekend at Bay Hill,” Mize said. “I believe I finished third in Augusta that year too. He exceeded my expectations.”
Friend, mentor, doctor
During the 1980s, Baker worked with the renowned Dr. James Andrews, who is known for shoulder and elbow surgery on several Major League Baseball players, among others. Andrews and Baker still maintain a close relationship.
“He’s certainly deserving of this award,” Andrews said. “He’s been a pioneer in sports medicine not just locally but nationally and internationally. And he’s helped carry on Dr. Hughston’s legacy there.”
The two meet twice a year, bringing their trainee groups together for a seminar. They try to squeeze in a golf match or two.
“He’s a much better golfer than me,” Andrews said. “But I talked him out of a few holes the last time we played.”
Aside from the golf course, Baker still spends several hours at athletic events. He’s been the team doctor at Columbus State since 1986, and you can often find him on the sidelines of Central-Phenix City High football games, where his son Champ Baker III is a team doctor.
“It’s fun to watch the games with him,” Baker III said. “And it’s nice to have 30 years of experience sitting right there if I need him. But really, it’s great to spend time with him on the sideline.”
The elder Baker sees it the same way.
“I get to eat popcorn and let him do it,” Baker Jr. said.
While Baker Jr. isn’t on the sideline as much as he use to be, he is still very involved in the continued development of sports medicine. He’s been instrumental in new Little League rules on pitch count and has devoted countless hours to educating athletes on prevention.
“Sports medicine is after hours,” Baker said. “We don’t work regular 9 to 5 hours, but it’s what some consider after hours. We spend our weekend nights at the ball fields. It’s about the game, and the players honoring and us honoring the game by keeping the players protected.
“I miss the locker room. I miss knowing the players and gaining their trust. It was a pleasure being a team doctor because if you don’t gain their trust and let those players know you have their best interest in mind, you’re just an outsider.”
Baker is currently a staff physician at The Hughston Clinic and is part of the group of doctors who own the Jack Hughston Memorial Hospital. He estimated he sees around 800 patients a year, and the ones he does operate on are usually done with an arthroscope.
Who knows how many meniscuses he’s saved over the years.