We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  James Curran Baxter (1939–2001), by unknown photographer, 1964 [after Rangers won the Scottish League Cup against Celtic] James Curran Baxter (1939–2001), by unknown photographer, 1964 [after Rangers won the Scottish League Cup against Celtic]
Baxter, James Curran [Jim] (1939–2001), footballer, was born on 29 September 1939 and was adopted in 1943 by Robert Baxter, a miner, and his wife, Agnes, née Denholm, of Hill of Beath, Fife. He was a slightly built boy, left-footed but too frail to impose himself quickly at Queen Anne's Secondary School, Dunfermline, until noticed by the headmaster, James Carmichael, who arranged Baxter's passage to Halbeath Juveniles. From there he went into the tough world of semi-professional Scottish ‘junior’ football with Crossgates Primrose, a team of miners from the ‘little Moscows’ of the Fife coalfield. After a brief period as an apprentice cabinet-maker Baxter followed his father to Fordel colliery, carrying pit props to the coal face while waiting for his football career to take off.

At seventeen Baxter was signed by Raith Rovers, the nearest professional club, and began to show the nonchalant superiority that was to typify his play, never sweating for his laurels, always ready to take a risk to hit the perfect pass to split a defence or a long ball right to the feet of a forward sprinting into space. Though he could be lazy and inconsistent—he kept his best form for the big games—his left foot, which he called ‘the glove’, was so accurate that he could bounce a ball off the cross-bar time after time in training.

In June 1960 Baxter signed for Glasgow Rangers for £17,500 and the next few years—interrupted briefly by national service in the Black Watch—were his finest. In his prime and on form he was a great sight, strolling with supreme confidence around the midfield in the fiercest match, always seeming to have time; graceful and nerveless, he was the supreme provider of chances for his forwards. He scored only 24 times in 254 games for Rangers but he was their most influential player between 1961 and 1964, when they won the Scottish league three times and the Scottish cup in three successive years. Baxter loved the big occasion and the big stage of Hampden Park. In the Scottish cup final of 1962 the Sunday Mail was amazed by his easy dominance, as he ‘moved all over the field with the polite affability of young curate looking up his parishioners’ (Baxter and Fairgrieve, 30).

The clerical manner did not extend to Baxter's social life. Before long the nickname ‘Slim Jim’ became ironical. He began to put on weight in the hard-drinking world of Glasgow bars and clubs where tales of his gambling and womanizing quickly spread through the city, laying the basis for his legendary status in Scottish football. In 1963, probably his greatest year, he guided Rangers to a 3–0 win over Celtic in the cup final after a night gambling in a Glasgow ‘shebeen’ with only a few hours' sleep. Celtic's Billy McNeill tossed him the match ball at the end of the match and he jauntily ‘stuck it up his jumper’ as he walked off.

Antics like this did not endear Baxter to the fierce disciplinarians of Rangers or to the Scottish Football Association. But the fans adored him. As Jock Stein of Celtic observed, ‘Jim Baxter isn't playing the Rangers way, Rangers are playing the Jim Baxter way’ (Baxter and Fairgrieve, 30). This showed in small but significant ways, such as Baxter's flouting of the Rangers dress code which required the shirt to be tucked into the shorts. Leaving a bit of blue hanging over the left hip became a Baxter trademark. In this and so many other ways Jim Baxter was the exact counterpart of his contemporary south of the border: George Best.

In a club which openly refused to sign Catholics, Baxter was often seen out drinking with Celtic players, crossing sectarian lines, enjoying the rival banter without the venomous religious and ethnic bigotry that still ruled much of Glasgow. By chance, Baxter died the day before an ‘old firm’ match between the two Glasgow rivals, when some Celtic fans hung out a banner: ‘Slim Jim, Simply the Best!’. This remarkable tribute was for a man who had played eighteen times for Rangers against Celtic and been on the losing side just once.

For most Scots the most potent part of the Baxter legend lay in his genius against the ‘auld enemy’. Baxter loved playing against England. Wembley was his favourite stage. He scored both goals there in a 2–1 victory in 1963 after Scotland had been reduced to ten men in the first minutes of the game. His next visit to Wembley was with the ‘Rest of the World’ team, which included di Stefano, Eusebio, and Puskas, to celebrate the centenary of the Football Association. However, the game that made him a true hero in Scotland was the England–Scotland match in 1967 on the pitch where England had become world champions in 1966. The Scots wanted to show up what they saw as an unimaginative team—‘Ramsay's robots’—who had only won because they were playing at home. ‘Our aim was to show England how easily we could beat them’, Baxter recalled; ‘we wanted the Scottish punters to laugh at the English’ (Baxter and Fairgrieve, 50). Scotland led from early on. A late goal from England made the final score 3–2 but it was the manner rather than the margin of victory that counted. Baxter playing ‘keepie up’, juggling the ball in front of a helpless Nobby Stiles, became an iconic moment in Scottish sport. ‘I could feel myself gasp at him, at his sense of theatre, his exact awareness of how we Scots felt about winning and the English and ourselves’, as a Scottish writer remarked (Holt, 260). Asked much later how he celebrated this famous victory, he said ‘I went to the pub—for fourteen years!’ (The Times).

He was not joking. Drink fuelled Baxter's career. ‘Slim Jim’ became a very large man. Most of his problems were self-inflicted but breaking his leg against Rapid Vienna in the last minutes of a game in November 1964 was bad luck. Most observers felt he was never quite so good after this. A well-publicized spat with Rangers, who refused him the big wages being paid in England, led him to depart first, in 1965, for Sunderland (for £72,000) and then, in 1967, to Nottingham Forest for a club record of £100,000. The move was a disaster, and Baxter, out of condition and out of control, returned to Rangers in 1969 on a free transfer after fifty matches. He played only a further fourteen for Rangers before retiring in 1970 to run a Glasgow pub, drink Bacardi, and gamble away the profits from the fans who flocked to the pub to meet their hero and buy him a drink.

Shortly after his transfer to Sunderland, Baxter married, on 16 June 1965, Jean Gartshore Ferguson (b. 1942/3), of Coatbridge, a hairdresser; she was the daughter of William Dale Ferguson, master baker. Baxter wrecked the marriage, which ended in divorce, and damaged his relationship with his two sons, Alan and Steven, though they became closer later in his life. Controversially he was given a liver transplant in 1994; despite the occasional relapse, he managed to stay off the bottle for a while to spend time with his partner of sixteen years, Norma Merton, and to socialize with his old friends over golf and coffee. He died of cancer of the pancreas and haemochromatosis of the liver on 14 April 2001 at his home, Flat 2, 14 Dirleton Drive, Glasgow, and was survived by his partner, Norma, and his two sons. His funeral drew large crowds in the streets and a thousand mourners to Glasgow Cathedral, including the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, a son of the manse from Fife, and other dignitaries with whom in life Baxter would have had little in common. Arguably the most gifted Scottish footballer of his generation, Baxter was a man of calm brilliance on the field and wild exuberance off it. His ashes were buried behind the goalposts at Ibrox.

Richard Holt

Sources  

J. Baxter and J. Fairgrieve, Baxter, the party's over: an autobiography (1984) · B. Murray, Glasgow's giants: 100 years of the Old Firm (1988) · R. Holt, Sport and the British: a modern history (1989) · K. Gallacher, Slim Jim Baxter: the definitive biography (2002) · Scotland on Sunday (15 April 2001) · The Times (16 April 2001) · The Guardian (16 April 2001) · The Independent (16 April 2001) · The Scotsman (16 April 2001) · Daily Telegraph (18 April 2001) · adoption certificate · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFINA, performance footage


Likenesses  

photographs, 1959–97, Empics Sports Photo Agency, Nottingham · photographs, 1963–4, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, 1964, Empics Sports Photo Agency, Nottingham [see illus.] · photograph, 1967, Sunday Mail; repro. in The Independent · photograph, 1967, repro. in The Times · photographs, 1967–99, PA Photos, London · photograph, 1970, repro. in Daily Telegraph · M. Ianson, portrait, 2003, Scot. NPG · statue, 2003, Hill of Beath, Scotland · photograph, repro. in The Scotsman · photographs, Popperfoto, Northampton · photographs, repro. in Baxter and Fairgrieve, Baxter · photographs, repro. in Gallacher, Slim Jim Baxter