In honor of Black History Month as well as 2023 being the Colorado Rockies’ 30th anniversary, it only feels appropriate to reflect on the career and contributions of Colorado’s first manager in team history, Don Baylor. Today’s first part will focus on Baylor’s early life and his minor league career. Following parts will focus on his big league career, followed by his coaching career.
Don Edward Baylor was born June 28, 1949, in Austin, Texas, to George and Lillian Baylor. In 1962, Baylor became just one of three African-American students to integrate into Texas public schools when he enrolled at O. Henry Junior High. Several years later, Baylor would become a notable three-sport athlete at Stephen F. Austin High School. In fact, Baylor again broke new ground as the first African-American to play sports at Austin High.
As a football player, Baylor had earned an all-state honorable mention by his senior year as well as a half-dozen scholarship offers, including an offer from the University of Texas which would have made him the first black football player that the school in 1967. However, it still wasn’t easy for Baylor as the petty plague of racism was still prevalent in the school at that time.
At Austin High, there was a tradition that the cheerleaders would walk the football players to their classes on gameday. After integration, they walked only the white players.
“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.”
Baylor never forgot the racial slurs, taunts and fights, but he never let his own pride consume him into a gall bitterness at the ignorance of those times, in fact, he would laugh at it. He wasn’t going to let those things get in the way of what he wanted to accomplish in his life.
While the scholarship offer to Texas was a tempting one, Baylor would not be able to play baseball at the school, something he was quite passionate about. And, because of a shoulder injury that hindered his ability to throw, he decided to forego the football route and pursue a career in professional baseball. In 1967, Baylor was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the second round and the beginning of a stellar career in baseball was underway.
A Minor League threat
The skills that made Baylor a star at Austin High and worthy of drafting were quickly made evident in the Orioles' minor league system. In his first season in 1967, Baylor batted .346/.432/.549 in 67 games as an 18-year-old with the Bluefield Orioles, earning Appalachian League player of the year honors. A year later in 1968, Baylor would ascend across three levels of minor league ball, reaching Triple-A for 15 games.
In 68 games for the Class-A Stockton Ports to start the 1968 season, Baylor smashed California League pitching at a .346 clip with seven home runs and 40 RBI to earn a promotion to the Double-A Elmira Pioneers of the Eastern League. He stayed there only six games, batting .333, before moving up to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. However, Baylor struggled in his brief Triple-A stint, batting .217 and getting benched for the first time in his life by manager Billy Mars. Baylor struggled with this new manager, even becoming suspicious of Mars's intentions.
“I felt frustration for the first time in my career,” Baylor admitted in his book. “Maybe DeMars hated young players, period. I also noticed that his favorite targets were blacks like Chet Trail, Mickey McGuire, and a guy from Puerto Rico named Rick Delgado. I felt that DeMars did not have my best interests at heart. I was trying very hard to learn, but I got nothing from him.”
Still, Baylor earned an invite to big league camp in 1969 where he met his role model Frank Robinson, a significant influence that would continue to impact his career trajectory. Baylor continued to tear through minor-league pitching, thanks in part to using the same bat model as his mentor, setting the stage for his first true breakout minor-league season in 1970.
Baylor had to make the move to left field in part to his weak throwing arm, but his offensive production never wavered. Baylor tore through the International League that season by leading all players in runs (127), doubles (34), triples (15), and total bases (296). He also clubbed 22 home runs, drove in 107 runs, and stole 26 bases, while ultimately batting .327/.429/.583 to be recognized as The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year. On September 8, 1970, Baylor would receive his first call to the big leagues and later make his debut ten days later.
He made his major-league debut at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, batting fifth and playing center field against the Cleveland Indians. With the bases loaded in his first at-bat, Baylor admitted feeling “scared to death” but like his days in high school, he didn’t show it or let it bother him. He laced the first pitch he saw into right field for a two-run single. In 17 at-bats over eight games, Baylor batted .235 for his first taste of MLB action.
After the 1970 season, Baylor headed to the Puerto Rican Winter League with the Santurce Crabbers. Surprisingly, the manager was none other than Frank Robinson, who shared advice that would ultimately act as the catalyst to turn Don Baylor into the professional hitter we know today.
“Mostly he taught me to think while hitting.” Baylor said, “He would say, ‘A guy pitches inside, hit that ball right down the line. Look for certain pitches on certain counts.’ Frank also wanted me to start using my strength more. Frank knew there was a pull hitter buried somewhere inside me and fought to develop that power. In Santurce, Frank worked with me to strengthen my defense and throwing. I wound up hitting .290.”
From 1969-1971, Baylor never batted under .300 while also clubbing double-digit home runs and triples each season and swiping 20 or more bases every year, and the stage was set for Baylor to finally make a name for himself.
After a stellar 1971 season helping Rochester win a Triple-A championship and a fantastic winter in Puerto Rico again, Baylor would finally get his chance to stick with the Orioles in the big leagues in 1972, but it came at the cost of his mentor getting traded away in order to clear a roster spot. In five minor league seasons, Baylor ended up batting .324/.420/.534 with 656 hits, including 106 doubles, 51 triples, 72 home runs, and driving in 377 runs while scoring 425. He also swiped 115 bags with 395 strikeouts to 286 walks.
Setting the stage
From an early stage, it’s incredibly inspiring to learn about Don Baylor’s legacy. What stands out is the resilience in the face of racism still prevalent in Texas during those formative years. Baylor showed true character in the face of such ugly and hateful societal norms in the days of his youth. He knew his own worth and was going to do whatever it took to obtain his goals, as evidenced by his later performance in the minor leagues.
Already the traits he brought to the Rockies are making themselves prevalent and next week will highlight his incredible 19-year career in the big leagues.
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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Ryan McMahon made the cut at third base on the All-Underrated Team. His defense does a lot of the heavy lifting, but there is still improvements to be made offensively. Over the last two seasons, he ranks third in OAA (19) at third base, behind only Ke’Bryan Hayes (30) and Arenado (25).
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