BOHLS: DON BAY­LOR A MAN OF DIG­NITY IN BASE­BALL

From his years grow­ing up in Austin to his man­age­rial ca­reer, Bay­lor left an im­pact on many in an ex­em­plary, trail­blaz­ing life.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Kirk Bohls

It’s fit­ting that the Ori­oles were play­ing the An­gels on Mon­day night. Don Bay­lor got his start in base­ball in Bal­ti­more, and he made his name as a star player in Ana­heim. He spent 12 of his 19 ma­jor league sea­sons with those two teams and spent an en­tire life­time build­ing an ex­em­plary rep­u­ta­tion.

Early Mon­day morn­ing, Bay­lor died at St. David’s South Austin Med­i­cal Cen­ter af­ter a 14-year bat­tle against can­cer, bring­ing to a close a life of class, dig­nity and worth. He was 68.

“I thought that was an­other sign that was this God’s time for him,” Bay­lor’s son, Donny, said Mon­day of the Ori­oles-An­gels game. “The O’s were where he learned how to play the game and be a win­ner, and he built friend­ships for life. Those An­gels years were kind of mag­i­cal. It was the first

team with four MVPs: Fred Lynn, Rod Carew, Reg­gie Jack­son and Don. Both of the teams are side by side in terms of his ca­reer.”

And his fa­ther stood along­side the leg­ends of the game dur­ing a highly dec­o­rated ma­jor league ca­reer that in­cluded an Amer­i­can League Most Valu­able Player tro­phy, a World Se­ries ring and, on Mon­day, trib­utes from coast to coast. While his num­bers spoke boldly about a play­ing ca­reer that con­sisted of stints with seven ma­jor league teams plus man­age­rial runs with the Colorado Rock­ies and Chicago Cubs, he qui­etly led an ex­em­plary life with hard work even in the hard­est times.

He never backed down from any­thing, in­clud­ing hun­dreds of in­side pitches.

Bay­lor spent al­most 50 years in pro­fes­sional base­ball af­ter the Ori­oles se­lected him in the sec­ond round of the 1967 draft. He roomed with sec­ond base­man Bobby Grich in rookie ball in Blue­field, W.Va. The two couldn’t have come from more di­verse back­grounds, yet they bonded al­most im­me­di­ately, this surfer boy from South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and the hard-scrab­ble black kid from Texas. Grich would later be­come Donny’s god­fa­ther.

Bay­lor grew up in Austin’s his­toric Clarksville dis­trict, just west of down­town, where parish­ioners con­gre­gated at the same Sweet Home Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church that the Bay­lor fam­ily still at­tends, the one that will be the site of Fri­day night’s wake. It was there in the tightly knit, nur­tur­ing com­mu­nity founded by freed­man Charles Clark, where the dirt roads that criss­crossed the area weren’t in­tro­duced to as­phalt un­til the 1970s, that black fam­i­lies raised their chil­dren with love and re­spect.

The Bay­lor fam­ily didn’t own a car back then. Don’s mother, Lil­lian, worked at the cafe­te­ria at Austin High and, ac­cord­ing to former Ma­roons ath­lete Jim Gray, “was pretty much a sec­ond mother to all of us.” Don’s fa­ther, Ge­orge, worked as a mail and bag­gage porter for the Mis­souri Pa­cific Rail­road for 25 years.

Don was ev­ery­thing you would want in a son. He and his brother, Doug, were among the first to in­te­grate O. Henry Mid­dle School and then Austin High School. In 1962, Don was one of only three black stu­dents to at­tend the ju­nior high in West Austin. He ini­tially didn’t have a foot­ball uni­form to wear for games be­cause the school had run out. He per­sisted in play­ing any­way.

“I think the pres­sure was pretty rough on Don,” Ge­orge told me years ago. “He would fight back. Don’t think he wouldn’t. It wasn’t his style to back up. We just told him, ‘You don’t have to be what they say you are.’”

Two-time Mas­ters cham­pion Ben Cren­shaw, a class- mate of Bay­lor’s at Austin High, re­called that the Bay­lors “may have been the first African-Amer­i­can fam­ily ad­mit­ted to O. Henry. Don was very friendly and out­go­ing. He got along with every­body. Peo­ple just ad­mired him.”

Al Matthews pre­ceded Bay­lor at Austin High de­spite liv­ing far­ther away from the school. He trav­eled to cam­pus by rid­ing a bus from his fam­ily’s home, lo­cated where McCombs Field now sits east of In­ter­state 35. Like Bay­lor, Matthews was a gifted ath­lete who ex­celled in mul­ti­ple sports at Austin High, but he chose foot­ball and went on to play de­fen­sive back for the Green Bay Pack­ers for six of his seven NFL sea­sons.

“Don was just a su­per nice guy,” Matthews said. “He was a late bloomer as a foot­ball player, but what a great spec­i­men. He didn’t run track, but he prob­a­bly could have.”

Bay­lor came close to be­com­ing the first black foot­ball player at the Univer­sity of Texas, but the school’s coaches and ad­min­is­tra­tors didn’t have the for­ti­tude to break the color bar­rier at the time. Donny said he al­ways heard his dad had in­sisted upon play­ing base­ball as well as foot­ball for the Longhorns, and “that was ap­par­ently a deal-breaker. That was his in­ter­pre­ta­tion, but I’m sure there were other things in the back­ground.”

Don car­ried him­self with a com­mand­ing pres­ence, even dur­ing his high school days when he “had a great, great look about him,” Cren­shaw said.

“Part of it was the way he car­ried him­self, and part of it was the way he was raised,” Donny said. “His daddy told him, ‘Don’t let any­one tell you you’re less than that.’ My dad grew up in a very nur­tur­ing en­v­i­ron- ment, but he never thought he was in­fe­rior to any­one.”

Matthews be­came the first black stu­dent to play for Austin High’s var­sity bas­ket­ball team but said he was so naive that “I re­ally didn’t even know at the time what that meant. There were a hand­ful of us when I was a sopho­more on the foot­ball team in 1963, but I was the only black player on the bas­ket­ball team. It was tough, but you couldn’t have rab­bit ears. You had to put your­self above that, but we kind of got a pass be­cause we played sports. Sports is the great equal­izer.”

Bay­lor wasn’t the type to pick fights. Nor was he the type to back down from one ei­ther, which ex­plains why he was plunked by a pitcher a then-record 267 times dur­ing his ma­jor league ca­reer and winced ex­actly never.

“It was a per­sonal ob­jec­tive never to let the pitcher know it both­ered him,” his wife, Re­becca, told me years ago. “Many nights, you couldn’t even get close to him, he was so bruised.”

More fre­quently, Bay­lor bruised op­pos­ing pitch­ers.

Bet­ter yet, he had such a pow­er­ful im­pact on the game thanks to a ter­rific rep­u­ta­tion as a player who played hard and a man­ager who man­aged by his gut. He was passed over for man­age­rial po­si­tions a hand­ful of times ini­tially, but that only fu­eled his pas­sion be­fore he landed the Rock­ies’ job and took the ex­pan­sion club to the play­offs.

I can still re­mem­ber sit­ting in a dugout at Minute Maid Field and in­form­ing Bay­lor about his in­duc­tion into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. We spoke for more than an hour, and af­ter my story of about 2,000 words was cut by three-fourths, Don told me later, “Thanks for the blurb.”

Cren­shaw re­calls a char­ity golf event at which he was paired with ma­jor league base­ball Com­mis­sioner Peter Ue­ber­roth.

“I told him I grew up with Don Bay­lor,” Cren­shaw said. “He just stopped and said, ‘I wish I had 30 Don Bay­lors around me.’ “

Don Bay­lor played with class. And he lost with it, too.

His son can still re­call the An­gels’ painful loss to the Milwaukee Brew­ers in the 1982 Amer­i­can League play­offs af­ter Bay­lor and his team­mates had won the first two games at home. Af­ter Ana­heim was de­nied a World Se­ries bid, lit­tle Donny lis­tened to the din of rau­cous Brew­ers fans’ cel­e­bra­tions in­side the sta­dium re­ver­ber­at­ing through an oth­er­wise deathly si­lent vis­i­tors’ club­house.

Bay­lor had never played in a World Se­ries and was crushed af­ter his team fell short for the fourth time in the post­sea­son.

“My dad pulled me aside to go over to Milwaukee’s club­house to con­grat­u­late them,” Donny said. “I can still re­mem­ber him shak­ing Robin Yount’s hand as he was drip­ping in cham­pagne. That taught me how to be some­one who knows how to lose with dig­nity. That was the kind of per­son he was.”

This week, Don Bay­lor’s rich life surely will be cel­e­brated as Aus­tinites re­call one of the city’s great­est sports stars ever and one of its most dig­ni­fied men.

His fu­neral Sat­ur­day will be at the Greater Mount Zion Bap­tist Church in East Austin, with ser­vices be­gin­ning at 11:05 a.m. Why the odd start­ing time?

“Come on,” Donny said, “that’s when games start. That’s the first pitch.”

AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN 1978

Former Austin High School star Don Bay­lor came close to be­com­ing the first black foot­ball player at the Univer­sity of Texas be­fore choos­ing base­ball in a ca­reer span­ning decades as a player and man­ager.

AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Don Bay­lor, Amer­i­can League MVP in 1979 with the An­gels, signs au­to­graphs for kids on the state Capi­tol grounds. Bay­lor died Mon­day at 68 af­ter a 14-year bat­tle with can­cer.

GETTY IM­AGES 1985

Don Bay­lor’s play­ing ca­reer spanned 19 years and six teams, and aside from his MVP sea­son, he was prob­a­bly best-known for be­ing hit by 267 pitches.

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