In honor of Black History Month as well as the Colorado Rockies’ 30th anniversary, it only feels appropriate to reflect on the career and contributions of Colorado’s first manager, Don Baylor. This week we focus on the highlights of his stellar 19-year big league playing career. This is going to be a long one, so buckle up my friends. (Part 1)
Prior to playing in a single major league game, a 20-year-old Don Baylor ran afoul of the Baltimore Orioles' “kangaroo court” in 1970. Despite an All-Star outfield, headlined by Frank Robinson, Baylor stated, “If I get into my groove, I’m gonna play every day.”
The court read aloud the quote and shortstop Mark Belanger prophetically warned Baylor, “That’s going to stick for a long time.” For his entire 19-year career, Baylor was henceforth known as “Groove,” proving year after year what would happen when he got into his groove.
Baltimore Orioles (1970-1975)
After just nine games with the Orioles in 1970 and 1971, Don Baylor had nothing left to prove with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings after a stellar season in 1971. When the Orioles traded Frank Robinson to clear a roster spot, Baylor found himself in the big leagues for good starting in 1972.
In his first full season, Baylor played in 102 games, batting .253/.330/.416 with 11 home runs, 38 RBI, and 24 steals. He was named to the Topps Rookie Major League All-Star Team, but the Orioles playoffs for the first time in four years. Still, at 23 years old, Baylor was just getting started.
In 1973, Baylor showed his first instance of finding his groove. Heading into July 17, 1973, the Orioles were in third place and Baylor was batting just .219 with four home runs in 219 at-bats. From that day to the end of the season, Baylor found his groove and batted .366 with seven home runs and 30 RBI to help the Orioles win the American League East title. In his first taste of playoff baseball, Baylor tallied three hits and drove in a run in 11 at-bats before sitting out a decisive Game Five where Oakland’s Catfish Hunter tossed a shutout against the Orioles.
Following another strong 1974 season where Baylor batted .272/.341/.382 with 10 home runs in 137 games, catching fire down the final stretch with a .381 AVG to help the Orioles go 28-6 to win the division, but would get swept by Oakland in the playoffs. The following year, Baylor would put up his best season in an Orioles uniform.
Playing in 145 games, Baylor batted .282/.360/.489 with a staggering 25 home runs along with 76 RBI and 32 stolen bases. The 26-year-old’s performance was enough to garner some MVP votes and prove that he was going places. However, prior to the 1976 season, manager Earl Weaver called Baylor aside to break some news to him; Baylor had been traded.
Oakland Athletics (1976)
“When he told me to sit beside him I knew something was wrong,” Baylor recalled. ‘“I hate to tell you this,’ Earl said quietly, ‘but we just traded you to Oakland for Reggie Jackson.’ I looked at Earl but he couldn’t look at me. I was stunned. I started to cry right there on the bench. ‘Earl,’ I sobbed. ‘I don’t want to go anywhere.’”
Being traded for Mr. October himself is an honor in and of itself, however, the change in scenery had a bit of an impact on Baylor’s season. While Jackson went on to lead the league in slugging and put up 27 home runs for the Orioles, Baylor struggled to a .247 AVG with 15 home runs in 157 games. The Oakland Coliseum proved especially troublesome as he batted just .232/.310/.318 with five home runs and 33 RBI. Baylor did at least have one highlight, swiping a career-high 52 stolen bases, including four in a game on May 17. Following the 1976 season, Baylor would again make some history, joining the first free agent class following the invalidation of baseball’s reserve clause.
California Angels (1977-1982)
On November 16, 1976, Baylor signed a momentous six-year $1.6 million contract with the California Angels, a move that would highlight some of the best years of his career.
Things got off to a rocky start in 1977, Baylor was hitting a minuscule .223 with nine home runs and 30 RBIs when manager Norm Sherry was sacked. New manager Dave Garcia immediately took action and hired Baylor’s mentor and former teammate Frank Robinson to be his hitting instructor. Just as he did in Puerto Rico, Robinson helped Baylor find his groove as he broke out to bat .281 with 16 homers and 75 RBIs the rest of the way.
1978 was more of an indication of Baylor justifying his contract after he helped the Angels have their first winning season in eight years by smashing 34 homers, driving in 99 RBI, and scoring 103 runs, but 1979 would be the marquee season of his career.
Baylor played in all 162 games of the 1979 season. Batting cleanup for the Angels, Baylor led the league in runs scored (120) and RBI (139) while also posting career-highs in hits (186), doubles (33), home runs (36), OPS+ (145), and total bases (333). He batted .296/.371./530 and perhaps some of the most amazing stats were that he struck out just 51 times while drawing 71 walks and batted .330 with runners in scoring position. Baylor was a menace at the plate and led the Angels to their first playoff appearance in team history.
“It’s obvious I don’t concentrate when there aren’t men on base,” Baylor said. “I am a completely different hitter with men on base. I do a lot more thinking when there are guys in scoring position. I look for pitches and I don’t go for home runs. I just try to hit the ball hard and drive it somewhere.”
Baylor’s performance earned him All-Star honors, but more importantly, he earned 20 first-place votes to be named the 1979 American League Most Valuable Player, following in the footsteps of his friend Frank Robinson.
Unfortunately, the 1980 season was not kind to Baylor and the Angels. The team lost 95 games, and injuries to his left wrist and right foot limited Baylor to just 90 games in which he batted .250/.316/.341 with five homers and 51 RBI. A move to primary designated hitter in 1981 would define the rest of Baylor’s career. Though he batted a career-low (to that point) .239, his totals of 17 homers and 66 RBIs each cracked the American League’s top 10 in the strike-shortened season.
1982 would be his last season with the Angels but he ended things on a high note, batting .263/.329/.424 in 157 games, Baylor also slugged 24 home runs and drove in 93 to help the Angels to their second playoff appearance. The team would lose the ALCS to the Milwaukee Brewers in four games, despite Baylor hitting .294 with 10 RBI.
Baylor found himself a free agent and decided to head back east, only this time it was to the city that never sleeps.
New York Yankees (1983-1985)
Baylor hit the ground running in the Bronx, earning a Silver Slugger award in his first season in 1983. Playing in 144 games, Baylor posted a career-high .303 AVG and a .830 OPS. He also reached 21 home runs and drove in 85 runs. The following year he suffered a decline in the average department, but still blasted 27 dingers. His final season in 1985 was a mixed bag of results.
Despite a .231 AVG, Baylor earned his second Silver Slugger award after hitting 24 home runs and driving in 91 runs. Perhaps more significant was that Baylor was named the Roberto Clemente Award recipient for his work with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the 65 Roses (so-named for the way one child pronounced Cystic Fibrosis) club.
That award highlighted the fact that Don Baylor was one of the kindest human beings around. While he played with grit and intensity on the field, Baylor was well known for his kindness and compassion for those around him.
As Richard Justice wrote in 2017 following Baylor’s passing, “When you ask them [people who knew Baylor best] about him, this is what they will say: That he was one of the best human beings they’ve ever met.”
Baylor did a lot of good while in New York, even if he butted heads with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and his three seasons there highlighted the fact that his veteran presence extended beyond all the results on the field.
Boston Red Sox (1986-1987)
The Yankees decided to send Baylor over to their rivals the Boston Red Sox prior to the start of the 1986 season. Though Baylor struck out a career-high 111 times and managed to bat just .238 that year, his 31 home runs and 94 RBIs were his best since his MVP year. He also established a single-season record by getting hit by a pitch 35 times.
The Red Sox won 95 games to take the division and Baylor had a hero moment in Game Five of the ALCS against his former team the Angels. Two outs away from elimination, Baylor launched a game-tying, two-run homer to spark a comeback to win the series. In the seven ALCS games, Baylor had a .346 AVG with four extra-base hits. The Red Sox would lose the ‘86 World Series to an incredible New York Mets team.
In his age-38 season, Baylor posted some of the lowest power totals since his injury-plagued 1980 season, hitting just 16 home runs and driving in 63 while also batting .239/.355/.404 in 108 games. He did set a record though with his 244th hit-by-pitch at the end of June that year. Despite his lackluster performance by his standards, Baylor would have a chance to join another team making a playoff push that season.
Minnesota Twins (1987)
The Minnesota Twins surprised everyone by being in the hunt for the playoffs. In the final month of the season, the team yearned for Baylor’s right-handed bat and veteran presence on the team and acquired him from Boston.
Baylor batted .286 down the stretch to help Minnesota reach the postseason for the first time in 17 years, and his eighth-inning pinch-hit single drove in the go-ahead run in Game One of the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers. In the World Series, Baylor showed off his knack for hitting in the clutch by batting .385 against the St. Louis Cardinals including a game-tying two-run homer off John Tudor in Game Six, helping the Twins to a comeback victory en route to the title.
After 18 years in the big leagues, Baylor was finally able to claim the title he had been hunting. That could have been the storybook ending, but he felt he had one more season in him, so, he headed back to the west coast to the Oakland Athletics.
Oakland Athletics (1988)
At 39 years old, Baylor played in just 92 games, batting .220/.332/.326 with seven home runs and 34 RBI. On a roster that featured the Bash Brothers, Walt Weiss, and Dave Henderson, Baylor added the veteran clubhouse presence that serves as an important and unspoken part of any team.
The club won 102 games and was the third straight American League pennant winner to feature Don Baylor on its roster. Baylor would have just one at-bat in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, a series that is best defined by Kirk Gibson’s home run off Dennis Eckersley in Game One. The Dodgers went on to win the World Series and mark the end of Baylor’s career.
In the offseason, Baylor called it a career after 19 years. He finished with a career batting line of .260/.342/.436 with 2,135 hits, 338 home runs, and 1,276 RBIs. He also stole 285 bases and was hit by a pitch a record 267 times at the time. In fact, Baylor led the league in hit-by-pitches eight times in his career. Amazingly, he also struck out 1069 times and walked 805 times. He ended his career with 28.5 rWAR.
He was a hustling player that was fearless on the basepaths and in the batter’s box. He played on seven first-place teams and was a respected clubhouse leader wherever he went. Don Baylor’s playing career while not perfect by any means, can truly be measured by the performance of those around him, and his commitment to helping his team as best he can. The true measure of his playing days was that magical 1979 MVP season where he truly measured up and made good on the name “Groove.”
Next week we will follow his coaching days and how he lead an infant franchise into the public eye.
Information for this article was provided in part from the following resources:
- Don Baylor | SABR
- Don Baylor: Nothing But the Truth: A Baseball Life
- Don Baylor broke barriers and never backed away from a fight
- Baylor’s big presence left mark on game
- Don Baylor Baseball-Reference
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Spring Training always brings a lot of questions and this year will be no different. Thomas Harding highlights the fact that Kris Bryant is getting a do-over this year and the spring will need to be a proving ground that he can stay healthy and productive. We also much keep an eye on Ezequiel Tovar and if he is all he’s cut out to be. Finally, it all comes down to the formation of the starting pitching and if it can be effective.
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