Baker recalls lessons from Aaron, Gilliam

Nats' new skipper looks back on mentors during Black History Month

Baker recalls lessons from Aaron, Gilliam

WASHINGTON -- When Nationals manager Dusty Baker looks at the wall in his house in California, he is reminded that black history is celebrated every day, not just during Black History Month in February.

There are photos of former player and coach Jim Gilliam, Baker's former coach with the Dodgers; Hall of Famer Hank Aaron; and former Braves farm director and general manager Bill Lucas and his father, Johnnie B. Baker Sr. Baker said he has been successful for more than 50 years in professional baseball because of those people.

Baker also let it be known that African-Americans weren't the only ones that helped him advance in baseball. Mickey Vernon, his Triple-A manager with the Braves, and former Dodgers coach Preston Gomez were also vital cogs in his career.

"They saw something in me that I didn't see in myself," said Baker, who will be featured on MLB Network Presents "Dusty: A Baseball Journey," today at 9 p.m. ET. "I had a father figure or an uncle around me all the time. I've been so fortunate and lucky to come in when I came in. Here it is: 2016. Those people steered me right all the time."

Take Aaron: After Baker signed his first professional contract with the Braves in 1967, Aaron promised Baker's mother that he would take care of him as if Baker was his son. Aaron was true to his word -- Hammerin' Hank made Baker go to church, eat properly and insisted that Baker never showed signs of showboating on the field.

"I never heard Hank brag -- nothing," Baker said. "I have him all over my wall. It was a tough day when he left the Braves in 1975 and went to the Brewers. He was a defender of the young. Whenever we had a problem with the front office, Hank would tell us if we were right or wrong."

Gilliam taught Baker how to play and think through the game. He also taught Baker how to play unselfishly. Gilliam even gave Baker a history lesson on Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues, especially Gilliam's time with the Baltimore Elite Giants.

When the Dodgers went to St. Louis, Gilliam would take Baker to "Cool Papa" Bell's house. Baker was like a fly on a wall, taking in the stories told by Gilliam and Bell.

"[Gilliam] talked the game in an easy manner. I never saw him raise his voice," Baker remembered. "He used to tell me stories. I don't know if they were all true, but they were very entertaining."

Baker learned his lessons well. He would become an above-average Major Leaguer. Baker was a two-time All-Star and won the Most Valuable Player Award in the 1977 National League Championship Series and guided the Dodgers to a World Series title in '81.

Baker would later become one of the most successful managers in baseball history, winning 1,671 games, three Manager of the Year Awards and taking teams to the playoffs seven times. He is now looking to win his first World Series title as manager of the Nats. When Baker looks at the photos on his wall, they tell him to keep fighting for what he believes in.

"It means I've persevered and I've endured. It hasn't been all roses," Baker said. "… You are under a lot of scrutiny [as a manager]. Sometimes, it seems no matter what I've done, I was wrong, and I'm constantly defending myself. But you realize you are doing the right thing for the game and for those who are coming after you."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.