1986-1987
DON BAYLOR   DH

Don Baylor was a hustling player who ran the bases aggressively and stood fearlessly close to home plate as if he were daring the pitcher to hit him. Quite often they did, as Baylor was plunked by more pitches (267) than any other player in the 20th century, leading the American League eight times in that department. Notoriously tough, Baylor wouldn’t even acknowledge the pain of being hit, refusing to rub his bruises when he took his base. 

Baylor played for seven first-place teams in his 19 seasons and was a respected clubhouse leader, earning Manager-of-the-Year recognition in his post-playing career. The powerfully built 6-foot-1, 195-pounder hit 338 home runs and drove in 1,276 runs, and clicked on all cylinders when he claimed the AL Most Valuable Player award in 1979.

Don Edward Baylor was born on June 28, 1949, in the Clarksville section of Austin, Texas. Baylor was one of just three African-American students enrolled at O. Henry Junior High School when Austin’s public schools integrated in 1962.

At Stephen F. Austin High School, Baylor had to ask the football coach three times for a tryout, but by his senior year he had made honorable mention all-state and got a half-dozen scholarship offers, including ones from powerhouses like Texas and Oklahoma. Baylor also played baseball, as a sophomore and being named team captain for his senior season. 

After suffering a shoulder injury serious enough to inhibit his throwing for the rest of his career, Baylor decided to spurn the gridiron scholarship offers and pursue a career in professional baseball. The Baltimore Orioles selected him with their second choice in the 1967 amateur draft. 

Baylor reported immediately to Bluefield, West Virginia, where he wasted no time earning Appalachian League player-of-the-year honors after leading the circuit in hitting (.346), runs, stolen bases, and triples.

The 1968 season started with a lot of promise. In 68 games for the Class-A Stockton Ports, Baylor smashed California League pitching at a .346 clip 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. 

The Orioles invited Baylor to his first big-league spring training in 1969, and he got to meet his role model, Frank Robinson. He began the season by hitting .375 in 17 games for the Class A Florida Marlins of the Florida State League. He spent the bulk of the year with the Double-A Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs, hitting .300 in 109 games to earn a Texas League All-Star selection.

After a strong spring training with the Orioles in 1970, Baylor returned to Rochester to bat third and play center field every day. Midway through the season, he reluctantly moved to left field. He tore through the International League by leading all players in runs, doubles, triples, and total bases. The Sporting News recognized Baylor as its Minor League Player of the Year. He batted .327 with 22 home runs and 107 RBIs, and was called up to the Orioles in September.

After the 1970 season Baylor went to Puerto Rico to play for the Santurce Crabbers in the winter league. The manager was Frank Robinson. With nothing left to prove in Triple-A but no room on the star-studded Orioles roster, he returned to Rochester in 1971 and made another International League All-Star team. He put up strong all-around numbers, hitting .313, as the Red Wings won the Little World Series. 

He was confident that he’d be on some team’s major-league roster in 1972, but was shocked when the Orioles cleared a spot for him by dealing away Frank Robinson. The Orioles effectively had four regular outfielders in 1971, so Baylor still had some competition in front of him. He got into 102 games with an Orioles team that missed the playoffs for the first time in four years, by hitting .253 with 11 home runs and 24 steals.

Much like the Orioles, Baylor started slowly in 1973, but heated up when it mattered most. He played enough to qualify for the batting title for the first time in 1974. He batted .272 as the Birds finished two games ahead of the Yankees before getting swept by the Oakland A’s in the American League Championship Series.

When major-league action got underway in 1975, Baylor’s talents continued to blossom. With 32 stolen bases, he cracked the AL leader board for the fourth of what would eventually be six consecutive seasons. Though the Orioles finished second to the Red Sox, his name appeared towards the bottom of some writers’ MVP ballots.

Just a week before Opening Day in 1976, he was traded you to Oakland for Reggie Jackson. He didn’t hit well at the Oakland Coliseum, and batted just .247 with 15 homers overall. On November 1st, Baylor became part of the first class of free agents after the arbitrator’s landmark decision invalidated baseball’s reserve clause.

Just over two weeks later, Baylor signed a six-year, $1.6 million deal with the California Angels, but he struggled to justify his salary for the first half of 1977. He broke out to bat .281 with 16 homers and 75 RBIs the rest of the way.

Baylor finished seventh in American League MVP voting in 1978 after a breakout season that saw him smash 34 home runs. He then propelled the Angels to their first playoff appearance in franchise history in 1979, batting cleanup in all 162 games and earning 20 of a possible 28 first-place votes to claim MVP honors. His totals of 139 RBIs and 120 runs scored led the major leagues.

As wonderful as 1979 played out, the 1980 season was a nightmare. The Angels started slowly, and were buried by a 12-28 stretch during which Baylor missed nearly seven weeks with an injured left wrist. He struggled mightily when he returned, batted just .250 with five homers in 90 games, and missed most of the last month with an injured right foot. The next season, 1981, he became almost exclusively a designated hitter, and remained one for the balance of his career. 

In 1982 Baylor homered 24 times and drove in 93 runs as the Angels made their second postseason appearance in what proved to be his last season with California. 

He became a free agent for the second time in November 1982, and signed a lucrative deal to join the New York Yankees. In three seasons with the Bronx Bombers, he was twice named the designated hitter on The Sporting News’ Silver Slugger team (1983 and 1985), and averaged 24 home runs and 88 RBIs. His batting average declined from a career-best .303 to .262 to .231, however, and they were not particularly happy years as he feuded with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

In 1985 Baylor was selected as the winner of the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award, presented annually to a major leaguer of exceptional character who contributes a lot to his community. He was recognized for his work with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the 65 Roses (so-named for the way one child pronounced Cystic Fibrosis) club.

The Yankees traded him to the Boston Red Sox shortly before Opening Day in 1986 for left-handed-hitting designated hitter Mike Easler. Though he struck out a career-high 111 times and managed to bat just .238 in ’86, 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 pitches 35 times.

The Red Sox won 95 games to beat out the New York for the American League East title, with Baylor operating a kangaroo court as his mentor Frank Robinson had done in Baltimore. On the night Roger Clemens set a major-league record by striking out 20 Seattle Mariners, he fined Clemens $5 for giving up a single to light-hitting Spike Owen on an 0-2 pitch. 

In the American League Championship Series, against the Angels, the Sox were two outs from elimination in Game Five when Baylor smashed a game-tying, two-run home run. He batted .346 in the seven ALCS games, but started only three of seven World Series contests against the New York Mets as designated hitters were not used in the National League ballpark. 

Baylor turned 38 in 1987, and he posted the lowest power totals since his injury-plagued 1980 campaign, declining to 16 homers and 63 RBIs. The Minnesota Twins, making a surprising playoff run, and craved Baylor’s right-handed bat. They acquired him from the Red Sox for the final month of the 1987 season. He batted .286 to help Minnesota reach the postseason for the first time in 17 years. He wrapped up his playing career with a return to the Oakland Athletics in 1988. 

Baylor returned to the big leagues for a two-year stint as the Milwaukee Brewers’ hitting coach beginning in 1990, and spent 1992 in the same role with the Cardinals. In 1993 he was named the inaugural manager of the expansion Colorado Rockies, and earned Manager-of-the-Year honors in 1995 when he led the third-year club to a playoff berth faster than any previous expansion club.

Baylor’s Rockies played winning baseball for two more years, but he was fired after the club fell under .500 and slipped to fourth place in the five-team division in 1998. He turned down an offer to become a club vice president, instead opting to become a hitting coach again with the Atlanta Braves. 

Baylor got another chance to manage in 2000 with the Chicago Cubs. Despite 88 wins and a surprising third-place finish in his second year in Chicago, he was fired after a Fourth of July loss in 2002 with a disappointing, highly-paid club sputtering in fifth place. Overall, he went 627-689 as a major-league manager.

Baylor resurfaced with the Mets the next two seasons, serving as a bench coach and hitting instructor. When the Mets changed managers, he moved to Seattle in 2005 to work with Mariners batters.

In 2007 he worked part time as an analyst on Washington Nationals telecasts. After three years out of a major-league uniform, he returned to the Rockies in 2009 as their hitting coach, before moving on to hold the same role with the Arizona Diamondbacks (2011-12).

The Angels brought him back in 2014, but he suffered a freak fracture of his right femur on Opening Day catching the ceremonial first pitch. He came back to serve through the end of the 2015 season before settling into retirement .

In 2003 while serving as a hitting coach with the Mets, he was diagnosed with  multiple myeloma. Don Baylor passed away on August 7, 2017 at age 68, and was laid to rest at Texas State Cemetery in Austin.