Don Baylor broke barriers and never backed away from a fight
World Series champion and 1979 American League MVP dies of cancer at 68
Don Baylor would walk through his O’Henry Junior High School and Austin High School hallways and hear the taunts and racial slurs that came with being one of the first three African-Americans to integrate the Austin, Texas, schools.
When students didn’t feel like it was enough to hurl racial epithets at Baylor, fights would break out. Baylor remained steady, even-keeled and tough through it all — traits that would become hallmarks of his 19-year major league baseball career.
Segregation, racism and cancer couldn’t steal Baylor’s joy. He continued to fight for the quality of life he wanted after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2003. On Monday, after a 14-year battle with the disease, Baylor died in his hometown of Austin at St. David’s South Hospital. He was 68.
“Don passed from this earth with the same fierce dignity with which he played the game and lived his life,” his wife, Rebecca, said in a statement.
There wasn’t a big moment — integrating the football, basketball and baseball teams at Austin High School — that scared Baylor. He also never allowed petty slights, such as the high school cheerleaders only walking the white football players to class on game day, or his pride to get in the way of what he truly wanted. Even on the day he had to plead for a football uniform, because Austin High School only had one reserved for a black player and another black student beat him to it.
Had Baylor been allowed to play baseball at the University of Texas, he might’ve taken up Texas football coach Darrell Royal on his football scholarship offer and become the first black football player at the school in 1967.
“There were times it wasn’t real pleasant,” Baylor said in a story on MLB.com. “I got into a few fisticuffs, but I made a lot of friends. It was harder in baseball, because I could hear the things people were yelling. It was harder to hear while playing football and basketball. There were some towns around Austin that weren’t real fun trips.
“But Coach Royal was not going to let me play baseball in the spring. I think that was his way of telling me the time wasn’t yet right.”
Football wasn’t where Baylor wanted to make his mark. In an almost two-decade-long career, the slugger went to three consecutive World Series from 1986-88 with the Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics, respectively. He won the World Series in 1987 with the Twins, hit 21 or more homers nine times and was a three-time Silver Slugger Award winner, the 1979 American League MVP and also an All-Star Game selection that same year.
“Groove,” as he was known around the diamond, was the second-round pick for the Baltimore Orioles in 1967. He would also play for five other American League teams: the Athletics, California Angels, New York Yankees, Red Sox and Twins.
Known for his baserunning, speed and take-no-prisoners sliding approach on the bases early in his career, Baylor stole a career-high 52 bases in 1976 and finished his career with 285 stolen bags. In 1979, he led the majors in RBIs and runs and set career marks in homers and hits.
After 19 seasons, Baylor finished batting .260 with 338 home runs and 1,276 RBIs and led the league in being hit by pitches seven times. He was hit a career-high 35 times while with the Red Sox in 1986. In total, he drew 267 hit-by-pitches.
“Throughout stints with 14 different major league teams as a player, coach or manager, Don’s reputation as a gentleman always preceded him,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said.
Baylor was hired as the expansion Colorado Rockies’ first manager in 1993 and held the position for six seasons. In 1995, Baylor coached the team to its first playoff appearance, and he won the NL Manager of the Year Award. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Baylor is one of four men — Frank Robinson, Joe Torre and Kirk Gibson are the others — to be named both MVP and Manager of the Year.
After the 1998 season, Baylor was fired. He left Colorado with a 440-469 record. Two years later, he was named manager of the Chicago Cubs, whom he led to a 187-220 record in three seasons. He was the Cubs’ first African-American to serve as a full-time manager; Ernie Banks was first when he managed an inning in 1973.
The Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves, Seattle Mariners, Rockies and Angels all hired Baylor as a hitting coach at one point, and in 2003-04, he was the bench coach for the New York Mets.
“Words cannot express the sadness we feel today, as cancer claims two more of the baseball-playing fraternity’s proudest and strongest members,” Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark said. “Darren Daulton and Don Baylor will be deeply missed by the entire baseball community. During their playing careers and beyond, both Darren and Don selflessly helped generations of young players transition from wide-eyed rookies into successful Major Leaguers. Don’s commitment to the game and its future also inspired him to play an instrumental role in helping the MLBPA establish itself as a bona-fide union.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Darren’s and Don’s families, friends and legions of fans.”
Former Philadelphia Phillies catcher Daulton, 55, died of brain cancer on Sunday.