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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.