As a young African-American from Southern California, Dusty Baker said his worst nightmare during his senior year in high school was that he would be drafted by the Atlanta Braves. It became reality.
Ultimately, Baker said, it was the best thing that could have happened, opening the doors for not only a quality big league career, but also a chance to stay in the game -- first as a coach and then as a manager of the Giants, Cubs and Reds, before his current position as the skipper of the Nationals.
Becoming a member of the Braves' organization allowed Baker to get to know and play with Hank Aaron, who provided Baker with the foundation to deal with the challenges he would face -- particularly when Baker was able to watch up close as Aaron pursued Babe Ruths iconic career home run record.
It was 43 years ago Saturday that Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run, and Baker was in the on-deck circle, watching his idol and waiting to hit when history was made.
Baker discusses that night and the impact Aaron had on his life in this week's Q&A.
MLB.com: You've said your life was shaken by the change you went through when you were drafted by the Braves out of high school.
Baker: I went to high school outside of Sacramento, Calif. My last two years in high school, the only blacks in the school were my brother and me. The only black in the junior high school was my sister. In the elementary school, the two blacks were my other brother and sister.
MLB.com: You had a good feeling you were going to get drafted by some team. Did it really matter?
Baker: I prayed that I would be drafted by any team except Atlanta. And what happens? I was drafted by Atlanta. This was 1967. I didn't want to go to the South. There was a lot of racial unrest, riots and freedom marches. There was nonconformity to everything. Vietnam. Racial issues.
MLB.com: And then came the MLB Draft.
Baker: I got the call the next morning, congratulating me on being drafted by the Atlanta Braves. I thought, "Lord, you didn't hear me." I went from the all-white high school to an all-segregated environment. But you know what, He did.
MLB.com: But it wasn't easy, was it?
Baker: [Black players] weren't allowed to eat in places. We had to stay in black neighborhoods. It was a very difficult time. At the same time, it was the best thing that happened to me. I met a lot of good people, white and black. And I got to know Hank Aaron. Before I signed, he promised my mom he'd take care of me as if I was his own son. I was always with Hank. That's an experience I wouldn't trade for anything, and that's why I know God put me in a situation for a purpose.
MLB.com: You had to wonder at times how he dealt with his situation, all the attention of chasing Ruth's home run record.
Baker: He was going through hell, but he handled it without complaints. He had to have two rooms in the hotels on the road. He was getting death threats. He had a bodyguard who slept in one room, [Aaron] had his name registered in another room. And the letters he would receive. He wouldn't let me read the letters, but I could tell when he got a bad one. He'd drop it or ball it up and throw it in the trash can. When he'd leave, I'd go over and read (the ones in the trash can). I was appalled at what was being said to him and how he was treated. I felt like if he was strong enough to deal with that and be able to go on in life. I had to be strong, too.
MLB.com: Was it a special night in Atlanta when Aaron broke the record?
Baker: It was the home opener. That and Hank's situation led to the biggest crowd of the season (53,775). And it was a cold, cold night in Atlanta. It was the coldest night I ever spent in Atlanta. Before the game he told me, "I'm going to get this over with right now." He walked that first time up, but then in the fourth inning, there was a runner on first. Al (Downing) pitched to him and he hit the home run. He was running the bases with Secret Service agents there to protect him.
MLB.com: Then what happened?
Baker: They had the ceremony on the field. His family was there. It was a nice event. Then I'm going up to bat and I hear, "Clank, clank, clank." I am thinking, "What's going on?" I turn around and everybody is leaving, and that was it. They came to see Hank, not me, not the Braves, but Hank in his pursuit of the record that had belonged to Babe Ruth.
MLB.com: The lessons of being a confidant of Aaron have stuck with you over the years?
Baker: Sometimes the letters I get …. sometimes the pressures I feel … you know you have to deal with them and move on. I was trained how to handle all that by Hank Aaron, who was trained by Jackie Robinson. My life has been such that I have had good training on how to be mentally and physically strong and tough.
MLB.com: You have to feel fortunate you had him there to help you.
Baker: I had Hank as a mentor and he had Jackie (Robinson). That's a pretty good tandem. When I face a challenge, I think to myself, "What would Hank have done? What would Jackie have done? What they would have done helps me have the strength to deal with the situation."
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.