Memories: Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron Were the Guiding Lights for Dusty Baker
Dusty Baker remembers the night before Major League Baseball's 1967 June Draft vividly.
"I prayed that I would be drafted by any team except Atlanta," said Baker. "And what happens? I was drafted by Atlanta. This was 1967. I didn't want to go to the South. There was a lot of racial unrest, riots and freedom marches. There was nonconformity to everything. Vietnam. Racial issues.
"I got the call the next morning, congratulating me on being drafted by the Atlanta Braves. I thought, 'Lord, you didn't hear me."'
Truth is, Baker later realized, he was heard.
The Braves became a starting point for a career in baseball, first as a player, and then as a manager. After success filling out the lineup card for the Giants, Cubs, Reds and Nationals, he is now set to take a seat in the dugout with the Astros, whenever baseball is allowed to return to the playing field.
Baker heard about Robinson throughout his youth, but he didn't fully understand what Robinson faced.
Then Baker got into pro ball.
And then, he was given a first-hand understanding of the struggles of a Robinson because of his exposure to Aaron, who became a living symbol to Baker of how to deal with the challenges he would face in an adult world.
Baker grew up in California, born in Riverside, and later moving north, where he attended Del Campo High School in Carmichael, outside of Sacramento.
"My last two years in high school, the only blacks in the school were my brother and me," said Baker. "The only black in the junior high school was my sister. In the elementary school, the two blacks were my other brother and sister."
Then he signed with the Braves, who not only were based in Atlanta, but had every one of their Minor League teams in the South.
It was a cultural shock.
"I went from the all-white high school to an all-segregated environment," said Baker. "We were not allowed to eat in certain places [in the South]. We had to stay in black neighborhoods.
"At the same time, it was one of the best things to happen to me. I met a lot of good people in the South, white and black, which was contrary to my beliefs before I got there. and I got to know Hank Aaron. Before I signed, he promised my mom he'd take care of me as if I was his own son. I was always with Hank. That's an experience I wouldn't trade for anything, and that's why I know God put me in a situation for a purpose."
Baker was there to witness the trying days leading up to Aaron breaking Hank Aaron's home run record. He hit behind him in the Braves lineup, and lockered beside him in the clubhouse.
"He was going through hell, but handled it without complaints," Baker said of Aaron, who faced a bigger challenge off the field than on. "He had to have two rooms in the hotels on the road. He was getting death threats. He had a bodyguard who slept in one room. ... And the letters he would receive.
"He wouldn't let me read the letters, but I could tell when he got a bad one. He'd drop it or ball it up and throw it in the trash can. When he'd leave, I'd go over and read (the ones in the trash can). I was appalled at what was being said to him and how he was treated. I felt like if he was strong enough to deal with that and be able to do on with life, I had to be strong, too."
And then he was able to be a part of that April 8, 1974 night on which Aaron surprassed Ruth.
"It was the home opener," Baker recalled. "That and Hank's situation led to the biggest crowd of the season (53,775). It was a cold, cold night, coldst I ever spent in Atlanta.
"Before the game, Hank told me, `I'm going to get this over with right now.' He walked that first time up, but in the fourth inning, with a runner on first, Al (Downing) pitched to him and he hit the home run. He was running the bases with Secret Service against there to protect him."
Baker remembers an on-field ceremony for Aaron and his family, "then I'm going up to bat and I hear, `Clank, clank, clank.' I am thinking, `What's going on?' I turn aorund and everybody is leaving. They came to see Hank, not me, not the Braves, but Hank in his pursuit of the record that belonged to Babe Ruth."
Just as significant for Baker was a growing appreciation for the challenge Robinson had.
"I remember things when I was a kid, inequities would come up, like rich kids making the All-Star teams because their dad's name would be on the back of the uniform as sponsors," Baker said. "I'd be an alternate. I would get mad and want to quit, and my dad would say, 'What would Jackie do?'
"I'd get in fights, and my dad would say, 'What would Jackie do?' My dad was telling us about Jackie all the time. It was always, 'What would Jackie do?' I'd tell him, 'I'm not Jackie."'
Now, Baker laughs at his own naïve attitude, and he is quick to acknowledge that what Jackie did opened a whole new world for Baker, who after an All-Star playing career has become one of the most successful managers in the game.
Hired last winter to manager the Houston Astros, Baker brings a resume that His 1,863 managerial wins are 15th on the all-time list, the most among active managers. Everyone ahead of Baker on the all-time win list has been inducted into the Hall of Fame, except Gene Mauch and Bruce Bochy. Out of the 711 men who have managed in the big leagues, he is one of only 23 to have managed in at least 20 seasons.
He has managed a team into the post-season in nine of his 20 managerial seasons -- Giants (3 of 10), Cubs (1 of 4), Reds (3 of 6) and Nationals (2 of 2).
"I have Jackie Robinson pictures on the walls in my house," said Baker. "I am teaching my son what Jackie meant. I know what he meant for me to be in this position, and how it has helped me to deal with the pressures and some of the letters I get. I was taught how to handle it by Hank Aaron, who was taught by Jackie Robinson. They were good teachers on how to be mentally and physically tough."
And most of all, Robinson pushed open doors for African-Americans in life, not merely baseball.
"He began a change in the mindset of the world," said Baker. "He didn't just create opportunities in baseball, but when baseball began to open doors, that impacted basketball and football. He was prior to the civil rights movement.
"Branch Rickey picked Jackie to be the first player for a reason. [Robinson] was well read. He was well spoken. He understood how things were and how things should be."
Robinson is praised for his restraint on the field, knowing that he had to be careful in the battles he fought. Baker, however, said Robinson wasn't a pushover.
"The Chase Park [Plaza Hotel] in St. Louis said Jackie couldn't stay there, and the Dodgers said if Jackie didn't stay, they weren't staying," said Baker. "The hotel said it was OK as long as he didn't go in the restaurant. Jackie went in the restaurant. They said it was OK if he didn't go in the pool. He dove in the pool and went swimming. They drained the pool and scrubbed it.
"He was strong enough to face the challenges and open the door."
Decades later, life is far from perfect, but thanks to Robinson and Aaron, it is better.