Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Don Baylor - Forgotten Trailblazer

This was not a good weekend to be a former Major League baseball player.

On Saturday night, word trickled out on social media that former Phillie All-Star catcher, Darren Daulton, passed away after a four-year battle with brain cancer. Daulton earned a Silver Slugger and MVP votes in two separate campaigns, while also leading Philadelphia to the World Series in 1993.  However, seeing as his career peak came well before I was cognizant of our nation's pastime, I was saddened by this news but not overly affected.  

On the other hand, when I heard about the tragic passing of Dan Baylor just yesterday afternoon, also after a long battle with cancer (at the age of 68), the loss hit a little closer to home.  I audibly gasped in the middle of a grueling 14-hour long drive home from our North Carolina vacation when I saw the news on my Twitter feed (don't worry - I was the passenger, at the time).  You see, Don Baylor was the first Cubs manager who I was truly aware of.

But, before he skippered my beloved Cubs, Baylor had himself a borderline Hall of Fame playing career himself.  In a 19-year Major League Baseball career, Baylor smashed 338 home runs, won the 1979 AL MVP award, and earned a 1987 World Series ring while playing for the Orioles, Athletics, Angels, Yankees, Red Sox, and Twins.  Additionally, during the latter half of his career, Baylor helped to revolutionize the designated hitter position, which allowed him to extend his time in the Bigs by nearly a decade.  Needless to say, Mr. Baylor was a notable name.

Even more important, prior to the start of his professional career, Baylor was one of three African Americans to integrate Texas public schools when he was only in junior high school.   Furthermore, when he went on to star on the diamond and gridiron at Stephen F. Austin High School, where he was the first African American to play athletics.  It's important to remember that he was a trailblazer, as well.

All things considered, perhaps the most oft-cited aspect of Don's playing days was his proclivity to getting hit by pitches.  On eight, count 'em, EIGHT separate occasions, the lumbering slugger lead his circuit in "hit by pitches."  There's no doubt that this stung a little bit (it sure looks like it in the picture above); but, it most assuredly helped to buoy his career .332 on-base percentage.  This was not insignificant since his batting average rarely rose above the .260's, a minor flaw which has been cited as one main reason for his not being enshrined in Cooperstown.

In fact, until Craig Biggio came along, Don Baylor held the MLB record for HBP, with 267.  His "mark" still leads the American League ledger.  Hey, getting on base is getting on base, right? 

When he hung up his spikes after the 1988 campaign, Baylor soon transitioned into coaching, taking up spots on the coaching staffs of the Brewers and the Cardinals through the 1992 season.  Then, expansion struck with the addition of the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins to the National League.  Based on his stature as a prolific hitter and his rave reviews as a coach, the former  hired Baylor on as the first field manager in franchise history.  He would lead the expansion club through the 1998 season, beating the odds and navigating the newbie club into the playoffs just two years into their existence (via the Wild Card), earning him Manager of the Year honors for 1995.

Then, after a few more years coaching, Baylor was brought on by the Chicago Cubs to take over the reigns from longtime skipper, Jim Riggleman, starting in the year 2000.  Amusingly, Baylor's hiring was accidentally leaked onto the internet by the club before it was made official.

Unfortunately, the Cubs of this time were pretty much devoid of talent, outside of Sammy Sosa and Kerry Wood.  Nevertheless, after a rough first season, Baylor had the Cubs exceeding expectations by 2001, as the Cubbies suddenly became major players in the NL Central.  Though they would eventually fade down the stretch, missing the playoffs, their 88-74 record was a 23 game improvement over the previous season.  As such, hopes were high going into 2002.

Then, the glass slipper broke and the Cubs went back to being the Slammin' Sammy show - blue chip prospects busted (Roosevelt Brown, Bobby Hill, Corey Patterson), aging veterans hit the wall (Jon Mark Bellhorn, Bill Mueller, et al) and the magic was gone.  Not to mention, Baylor clashed with the mercurial superstar that was Sosa, once saying that he needed to be a more "complete" player and refusing to placate his antics.  "Sam-me" was not thrilled and fired back, saying that his manager had "no class" - and Sosa basically ran the show, in those days.  These factors combined to earn Baylor his walking papers midway through that 2002 campaign.

I vividly remember hearing the announcement of Baylor's dismissal on WGN radio (I assume later in that same day) and thinking to myself, "what the heck does that accomplish?  No one could win with this disarray.  You have to retool this roster!"  However, I don't think that team president, Andy MacPhail, concerned himself with the opinion of a 13 year old junior high student.

Thankfully, Baylor landed on his feat and, while he never did sit in the manager's office again, he served as a well-respected hitting coach in the Major Leagues for many years after.  As late as 2015, he provided batting tips with the Angels.

Also, remember how I noted earlier that Don Baylor was a trailblazer?  Here's something that I didn't realize until I began to draft this post - he was the first African American manager in Cubs history.  How about that?  It's a damn shame that his tenure was so brief, talent-deprived, unsupported by the front office, and nearly downright forgotten.

At any rate, rest in peace, Mr. Baylor - a trailblazer, borderline Hall of Fame player, beloved teammate, human bean (ball) bag, deeply respected coach, accomplished manager, and an esteemed human being.  He definitely deserved better from the Cubs!


  1. My favorite Don Baylor fact - He went to the World Series 3 straight years with 3 different teams (1986-1988)!

  2. Nice tribute.

    I've always liked that "Ouch!" Card.

  3. Baylor did some great work as a hitting coach. I remember the Cardinals traded for Andres Galarraga in 1992, Baylor swore he could fix his swing. If you ever get a few spare minutes you should check out Galarraga's numbers the few years prior to the Cardinals and then post-Cardinals. Amazing turn around.