Editor’s note: “As Told To Amy G,” presented by Toyota, will feature exclusive conversations with Giants staff, players and alums, as well as interesting figures around Major League Baseball, throughout the 2019 season. We head back into the dugout with Dusty Baker, the former Giants manager, in the second installment of a two-part interview.
When I recently talked to Dusty Baker, we covered so much ground that we had to split the interview into two parts. In Part 1, we discussed his life after playing baseball, his transition into managing and the Giants' 2002 World Series loss.
There's so much more to hear from Baker, particularly from his playing days, but let’s start Part 2 of this special "As Told to Amy G" with his name, because it’s not Dusty. Enjoy!
“Well, yeah, everybody in my family has always called me Dusty. I’m Johnnie B. Baker Jr., but I used to play in the dirt all the time, and my mom didn't want to call me ‘Dirty,’ so she called me ‘Dusty.’ The only people that ever called me Johnnie are guys that I went to elementary school with, and the elementary school teacher wouldn’t call you by your nickname.
“I got to the big leagues, and I’d be in various towns and somebody would say, ‘Hey, Dusty,’ and I’d just wave and go on about my business. They’d say, ‘Hey, Johnnie,’ then you know they really knew me for a long time.”
Even though Dusty is a product of Northern California, growing up in Sacramento and attending Del Campo High School, the Giants were not the team he admired as a kid. Ironically -- and I admit it’s difficult to type this -- it was the Dodgers who captured his attention as a child. It wasn’t until a certain first baseman came to the Bay that Dusty’s allegiance began to align with the men in orange and black.
“I grew up a Dodgers fan, and that might not sound right around here. My hero was Tommy Davis, and he wore No. 12. Then when I got to meet him when I signed with the Braves -- and very rarely is your hero the kind that you envision him to be, and he was exactly that. He's still one of my closest friends.
“But I worked out with Bobby Bonds in, I think, 1964, and Bobby called me and he said, ‘Want to come work out with us? The Giants might sign me, and we need shaggers.’ I think I was about 13 or 14, and I went out there, I was running them down, and at the end of the day, I said, ‘Hey man, you want to see me hit?’ And he said, ‘Nah, son, it’s too dark. We gotta go.’ And then I became a Giants fan.
“My dad was always a Willie Mays fan and a big [Willie] McCovey fan. I liked that rivalry. But when Bobby signed with the Giants, that's when I became a Giants fan.”
Sometimes we choose our path, and sometimes the path chooses us. The latter was the case for Baker.
A star four-sport athlete in high school, Dusty had his pick when it came to college. But college wasn’t in his plans, nor was baseball. His parents pushed college, but Dusty was looking for a more diverse crowd than the almost entirely Caucasian crew he grew up with.
That's when a man saw something in Dusty that he hadn’t yet see in himself -- a future big leaguer. And a certain home run king stepped up to take Dusty under his wing, in the game of baseball and in life.
“Actually, I wanted to be a basketball or football player. I was all this and all that in the state with basketball and football. Went to the state track meet like Bobby Bonds. I wanted to be like Bobby Bonds. I played all four sports, like Bobby Bonds. and then my parents got divorced. My dad had signed me to go to Santa Clara, which was fine. They had a good basketball program, but I didn’t want to go to a predominately white, rich school, like my high school. There were only two blacks in my high school -- me and my brother.
“So, I wanted to study less and play ball more. My dad wasn't going for it. But the Braves drafted me, they took a chance, and said, ‘Hey man, if we can get this kid to concentrate on one sport versus four sports, put all his energies into baseball, he’s got a chance.’ A long-shot scout, Bill White, came over to my house almost every day. He had signed Joe Morgan before me with Houston, and he signed Keith Hernandez after me. He had faith in me.
“The Braves treated me great right away. I went to LA to meet with them in Dodger Stadium. They knew I was a Dodgers fan, so they flew me and my mom to LA. I got to hang around Hank Aaron -- I was 18 years old, and Hank Aaron promised my mom that he would take care of me like I was his son, and he did.
“I signed with the Braves, and I was in the big leagues the next year in the September call-ups, and Hank took care of me. Made me and Ralph [Garr] get up, eat breakfast, go to church. He made us come in from staying out late. And that famous, ‘I’m 18 now. I can do what i want,’ it didn’t fly with him or my dad. So, it was like having a dad away from home.”
“That’s how my road started, and it was a little bit different. Going to an all-white school to the South, where there’s segregation in ’67, ’68. On the bus, and all the Braves teams are in the South -- North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, West Virginia, Virginia, Texas, Arkansas, that was kind of a rude awakening, but I learned a lot. There’s good people everywhere, and there’s bad people everywhere, and that was a valuable lesson.
“Vietnam was hot, and the Braves were tired of me missing the season. I’d come out half way to go to school, and if you didn’t have 15 passable units the first semester, you were drafted in between semesters, so I ended up joining the Marine Reserves at the encouragement of the Braves. But they wanted me to join the National Guard, but I didn’t want to join the National Guard because the Guard was being called out on riots. That was the time of non-conformity, especially in the Bay Area -- Berkeley, Sacramento, San Jose, everywhere. That was a very tumultuous time, but I’m glad I came through that time.”
Dusty Baker (left), shown in 2009 alongside son Darren Baker (center), was mentored by Hall of Famer Hank Aaron when he started his baseball career in Atlanta (Photo by The Associated Press)
I quickly realized I was sitting next to a living historical source who was delivering a testimonial of perseverance through segregation as an African American man in the South. During all of this, his “father figure,” Aaron, broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, and it wasn’t the celebrated event we like to paint it as today.
“It wasn’t a very pleasant time for him. I used to read a few of the letters, saw some of the hate mail that he got, which I ended up getting later, which prepared me when I went to Chicago [as the Cubs' manager in 2003], because I got similar hate mail. So, I was like OK, I’ve seen this act before. But it made Hank more driven, made him concentrate more.
“It hurt him, big time, because not only was he going for the record, he was also getting divorced at the same time. We were there for him the way he was there for us. He was a great man, and everyone was trying to meet Hank at that time, especially being in Atlanta. All the civic leaders at that time were centered in and around Atlanta.
"We’d go to Jesse Jackson’s house, then Maynard Jackson’s house [he was the mayor of Atlanta) ... Ted Abernathy’s place. Andrew Young was always around, and at the same time, Hank was close to Jimmy Carter. He was the governor at the time. Hank would take us over to the State Capitol, which was about a mile from the stadium …. So we’d go by to see Jimmy Carter, and his mama would say, ‘Aw, Dusty is so cute.’ And I’d say, ‘Just don’t touch my afro.' "
After eight seasons with Atlanta, Dusty was traded and donned Dodger blue in 1976. He was able to return to his home state and be closer to his loved ones, but the Los Angeles fans didn’t really love him. Not his first year there, anyway …
“It was pretty cool because I was born in Riverside in Southern California, but my heart was in Northern California, so I was close to a lot of my homeboys and the people I have grown up with. But playing in LA with the Dodgers didn’t start out well. That’s what I tell guys -- sometimes the first year when you get traded is a tough year.
“I hurt my knee playing basketball that winter, I hit a home run my first at-bat, and I didn’t hit another one until July the Fourth. Then I end up on the bench. I was booed every day because I was the focal point of a big, big trade -- they traded some pretty good players for me [Lee Lacy, Tom Paciorek, Jerry Royster and Jim Wynn] But Tommy Lasorda and my trainer who really stuck with me, trained me up every day in the winter after my operation, and I was running up and down Dodger Stadium, and then Tommy Lasorda said, ‘Hey, you’re my left fielder.’ But between you and I, he kind of tampered with me the year before, where he’s like, ‘Hey man, you belong on the Dodgers,’ and I was like, ‘I sure do.’ The Dodgers had the pretty uniforms, the good bodies, pretty good lookin’ guys, and I was like, that’s me.
“It ended up great -- I enjoyed my time in LA, but at the same time, I was ready to leave LA because I like the outdoors, I like fishing and hunting, and I had to go too far to go fishing and hunting, and then when I got there, thousands of people were there. I wasn't used to that, and traffic! I enjoyed my time, but it was time to go.”
Dusty Baker and his Los Angeles Dodgers teammates, particularly Glenn Burke, were responsible for the creation and popularization of the high five (Photo by The Associated Press)
One of the coolest things to come out of Dusty’s career, IMHO, is the creation of the high five. I had never really thought of sports existing without the iconic hand slap. It’s such a routine celebratory reaction from my own playing days that when I found out Dusty and Dodgers teammate Glenn Burke “created” it in 1977, I had to ask.
“I was going for my 30th home run, and Reggie Smith already had his. Garvey already had his -- Steve was trying to get two more hits -- and Ron Cey had his. JR [Richard, the Houston Astros ace] is pitching on a four-game series, the last game of the season on a Sunday, and Reggie had told JR on Thursday that “Dusty was going to hit it off of you.” My lifetime [average] is about a buck 50 off him, if that, and I said, ‘Reggie, he don’t need any more motivation.’
“And so first at-bat on the last game, hit a line drive to left. It was a single -- I didn’t get it up. Second time, foul tip went back into the catcher’s glove. Then I came back in, and there was some betting going on above the dugout [by fans]. I could tell they were betting. … So, I came back and sat down, and said, ‘You know, man, I don’t think I’m going to get it.’ I was tired, everybody else was resting, and I was trying to get my 30th, so Lasorda heard me say that, and he goes, ‘Dusty, you gotta have faith. The Red Sea ... the sea parted,’ and I said, ‘Tommy, OK, OK, I believe, please don't do that.’
“So the next at-bat, I went up there, and I saw guys exchanging money. … JR threw me a fastball -- looked like it stopped -- and I hit it over the center-field wall, and that’s when I came around, and Glenn met me, and that’s when he gave me the high five. And you know Tom Lasorda said, ‘I told you, you gotta have faith.'
“First thing I did was I looked at the guys in the stands, and the one guy was wiping out money to the other guy, and I was like, ‘See, that’s what you get.' "