'Groove' a leader and much more during 50-year career
By Richard Justice
Don Baylor was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and emotion when he was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2003. Until then, about the only thing he never understood about baseball was his own impact on it.
"It reminds you that baseball is a pretty good fraternity to be part of," Baylor said at the time.
Baylor's death on Monday at 68 ended a 50-year career in the sport, one in which he rose from hotshot prospect with the Orioles to a 19-year career with six teams.
Baylor was a wickedly consistent hitter who got the nickname "Groove" by lashing line drives, hitting 20-plus home runs eight times and earning the American League Most Valuable Player Award while playing for the Angels in 1979. He managed the Cubs and Rockies for nine seasons, won the NL Manager of the Year Award with Colorado in 1995 and served as hitting coach for an assortment of teams.
Here's the thing to know about all that stuff. It's irrelevant to the people who knew Baylor best and loved him unconditionally. When you ask them about him, this is what they will say: That he was one of the best human beings they've ever met.
They will say Baylor was kind, decent and thoughtful. They will say that he had a smile that could light up a room and a physical presence -- he was 6-foot-1 and a solid 210 pounds -- that got your attention.
Baylor was a star player for about the first dozen seasons of his career. After that, teams had him to fill roles, mostly as a right-handed hitter off the bench. What they really wanted was his leadership, presence, communication skills -- the whole package.
Baylor had a magical touch with people. He could light a fire under veterans or calm down kids. He just had this way of looking at you and putting his arm around you that made you feel inspired or scared to death.
Baylor was one of those people that had others gathering around him in social settings, in ballparks, whenever. Late in his career when he knew almost everyone and had a reputation as wide as his shoulders, people would flock to him the moment he walked from the dugout.
People say cancer changes a person's perspective on the world, that it jolts someone into paying more attention to things that really matter and less on silly stuff that once seemed so important.
Baylor said it did a lot more than that. He could run down his various cancer treatments unemotionally. But he would shake his head and struggle for words when asked about the stacks of cards and letters and the countless telephone calls that poured in.
Baylor's life was remarkable long before the Orioles selected him in the second round of the 1967 Draft and handed him a check for $7,500. Growing up in Austin, Texas, he was on the front lines of school desegregation.
Baylor was one of three blacks at O'Henry Junior High School, attended predominantly white Stephen F. Austin High School and had the chance to be the first black football player at the University of Texas.
Baylor never forgot the racial slurs, taunts and fights, but he also became convinced that some of the toughness and resolve he learned then contributed to the same qualities he was known for during 19 years in the big leagues.
Rather than be consumed by bitterness, Baylor could laugh at the ignorance of those times. At O'Henry, only one football uniform was reserved for a black. When another black student got it first, Baylor had to plead for one.
At Austin High, cheerleaders traditionally walked the football players to their classes on game day. After integration, they walked only the white players.
"There were times it wasn't real pleasant," Baylor once said. "I got into a few fisticuffs, but I made a lot of friends. It was harder in baseball, because I could hear the things people were yelling. It was harder to hear while playing football and basketball. There were some towns around Austin that weren't real fun trips."
From his home in the Clarksville section of West Austin, Baylor could hear the Longhorn Band on football game days. He grew up dreaming of playing for Darrell Royal's team and remembers the $15 he saved to buy a Longhorns helmet as "the purchase of my life."
Baylor almost made history at UT. In 1967, a year after SMU's Jerry Levias became the first black scholarship football player in the Southwest Conference, Royal offered Baylor one.
"But Coach Royal was not going to let me play baseball in the spring," Baylor said. "I think that was his way of telling me the time wasn't yet right."
And then the Orioles drafted Baylor in 1967 to begin a journey that would take him to the postseason seven times and get him a World Series ring as a member of the 1987 Twins.
Baylor's post-playing career was just as successful. Even after the cancer diagnosis, he worked for another dozen years, most recently as hitting coach for his beloved Angels, the team for which he had six of his best seasons.
Even in that cancer battle, Baylor looked for a silver lining. He wondered if maybe cancer hadn't been a vehicle to remind him just how blessed his life has been.
Things like that cut two ways. Baylor may have felt blessed, but a lot of people in baseball had the opportunity to remind him how lucky they'd been to know him.
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.