World Series recalls Dusty Baker's relationship with Hank Aaron

HOUSTON – As Ralph Garr remembers, the Sacramento kid could have done well in any sport. The Atlanta Braves picked Johnnie B. Baker Jr....


HOUSTON – As Ralph Garr remembers, the Sacramento kid could have done well in any sport. The Atlanta Braves picked Johnnie B. Baker Jr., known as Dusty, out of high school in the 26th round of the 1967 Draft. They knew he had options, but they also had a gun. secret.

“Dusty could have been in the major leagues in football, basketball or baseball, and I don’t think he cared as much about baseball,” said Garr, a third-round pick that year. “But Dusty was drafted by the Braves, and Henry Aaron called his mother and told her he would take care of him.”

Aaron was 33 and set to break Babe Ruth’s home run record. When Aaron did so, with Homer 715 in 1974, Christine Baker’s son was in the circle on the bridge at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. It was a case, one might say, of the hitter who knows best.

“I prayed I wouldn’t go to the Braves,” Baker said Sunday, in the canoe at Minute Maid Park, where his Houston Astros will host Atlanta in the World Series opener on Tuesday. “There were freedom marches, riots, segregation, anti-Vietnam, anti-short hair – I mean, there was a lot of unrest, and all the Braves teams were in the South. The deep, deep, deep south.

“But it was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I wouldn’t have met Hank Aaron.”

Aaron passed away in january at 86 years old. He remains an inspiration for Baker, 72, who manages the World Series for the first time since 2002. For Aaron’s protégé and the main team to meet in the World Series, just nine months after his death, is a a reminder of a heritage that went far beyond home runs.

“If Henry looks down, he’ll enjoy this World Series because of Dusty, first and foremost,” Bud Selig, a former Major League Baseball commissioner, said by phone Sunday. “Definitely because of Atlanta too. But mostly Dusty.

Aaron was one of Selig’s closest confidants, with a friendship dating back to the Braves years in Milwaukee and Selig ownership of the Brewers, Aaron’s final stop in a 23-year playing career that ended in 1976. Aaron was calm and thoughtful, said Selig, a decent and loyal man who kept his connection to Baker to the end.

“Henry had very deep feelings and great affection for Dusty,” said Selig. “There is no doubt that he was as close to Dusty as maybe any other player, and he was very sensitive to him. Some of Dusty’s criticisms from time to time annoyed Henry, and he thought it was unfair.

Baker is 12th on the career list for managerial wins, with 1,987. He has more wins and a better winning percentage (.534) than others widely praised for their insight, such as Whitey Herzog, Jim Leyland and Buck Showalter. Baker is famous for his interpersonal skills, but not so much for his strategy.

After winning the American League pennant on Friday, Baker said he knew why.

“As an African American,” he said, “most of the time they don’t really say that you are of a certain intelligence.”

Aaron helped Baker manage race relations in this early days in professional baseball, drawing on lessons from Baker’s father, Johnnie Sr. Baker said Aaron’s example spanned many areas.

“About being a man, helping people, being as honest as possible, many of the same lessons my dad taught me about this life,” Baker said. “Being a proud African American but not wearing that on your sleeve because it’s already on your face, you know what I mean?”

Baker added, “He really taught me the discipline. This guy was the most disciplined guy, the guy who worked hard, the guy with the highest concentration level that I have ever met.

In the minors, of course, Aaron wasn’t there to guide Baker in places like Austin, Texas; West Palm Beach, Florida; Richmond, Virginia; Greenwood, South Carolina; and Shreveport, La. Garr, who had attended Grambling State University and is about four years older than Baker, helped educate Baker about Sacramento’s cultural differences.

Once, Garr said, a police officer noticed Baker smiling at a white woman at a concert. The officer confronted Baker and shook him, Garr said, but Garr intervened and defused the situation. Life is different here, Garr explained to Baker.

“You couldn’t just bring California down south, and there were some things he didn’t quite understand,” Garr said. “But he made adjustments. One thing about Dusty: You don’t have to tell him something more than once.

After the Braves drafted Baker, Aaron reasoned with him that if he believed he could reach Atlanta before his college class graduated, then going pro was the best bet. Baker did it easily, making his debut at age 19 in September 1968, becoming a pinch hitter for Phil Niekro in a game against the Astros.

Baker entered the majors in earnest in 1972, and the following year he shared the outfield with Aaron and Garr on opening day. They were constant companions.

“Ralph Garr, Hank Aaron and I were together the whole time,” Baker said. “We were at his place and I was closer in age to his children than to him. So I always played with his children. I am always very close and I talk to her children all the time.

Aaron mentored other young teammates like Cito Gaston, who played with Aaron and Baker, but not at the same time. When Gaston was young, he says, Aaron stayed with him and taught him how to tie a tie. When Gaston was older, Aaron persuaded him to start a coaching career in the Braves farming system, which Aaron led.

“He always said, ‘Come to work with me, ”Gaston said on Sunday. “He never said, ‘Come to work for me.'”

Gaston would become the first black manager to win the World Series, for Toronto in 1992 – against the Braves – and again in 1993. He sees part of Aaron in Baker.

“I think Dusty is the same as Hank in that they treat people the way you would like to be treated,” Gaston said. “Dusty’s players respect him because he respects them.”

Aaron also hired the current Atlanta manager, Brian Snitker, who is white, as an instructor after Snitker’s minor league playing career ended in 1980. Snitker would manage for 20 years, at all levels of the farming system, before having the chance to manage in the majors in 2016.

So Snitker endured a different kind of challenge on his rise: he never played in the majors and could easily have been labeled as a minor league life sentence. Now, like Baker, he’s competing in the World Series.

“Henry Aaron would be so proud of the whole situation,” Garr said. “He thought everyone deserved an opportunity and a chance. I know he’s smiling in heaven right now.

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Newsrust - US Top News: World Series recalls Dusty Baker's relationship with Hank Aaron
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