MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Baylor inspired many, including ex NFL star

'Hollywood' Henderson watched former MLB player fight odds

Baylor inspired many, including ex NFL star

AUSTIN, Texas -- Thomas Henderson never met Don Baylor. But he knew all about him.

And so, when Henderson, who grew up in a segregated area on the East side of Austin, learned of Baylor's death earlier in the week he decided to fly from his home in South Florida back to Austin. Henderson attended Saturday's funeral for a man the public knows as a former big league player, who was the 1979 American League MVP, and a former big league manager, who won the National League Manager of the Year Award in 1995.

Don Baylor became the first manager of the Colorado Rockies.(AP)

For Henderson, like so many others, Baylor was an inspiration. The man, better known in the NFL as "Hollywood," explained as part of an open microphone session during Baylor's funeral at the Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church.

Henderson is 4 years younger than Baylor, and grew up across town from Baylor, who was born and raised in Austin's Clarksville District, the oldest surviving freedomtown, the communities in which emancipated slaves settled. But Baylor was no stranger.

"He had a mystique about him," Henderson said. "He was one of the people I looked up to growing up. I was [in junior college in Oklahoma] when he got to the big leagues in 1972. I felt if he could be from Austin and make it I could, too. I chose football. … Think about it. Two boys from Austin with a World Series ring and a Super Bowl ring."

The Angels' Don Baylor swings away during Game 1 of the 1982 American League Championship Series against the Brewers.(AP)

How far did Baylor come from the kid who grew up in a section of Austin where the streets weren't even paved until after he made it to the big leagues for good with the Orioles in 1972?

He was laid to rest Saturday in the Texas State Cemetery, next to Chris Kyle, the highly decorated sniper who lost his life trying to calm a veteran suffering from PTSD. Kyle and Baylor worked together on the Wounded Warrior Project, which led to a strong friendship. Off to the side was the grave of James Street, a former University of Texas quarterback and father of big league pitcher Huston Street, and nearby was the grave of legendary Texas football coach Darrell Royal, who in 1967 offered Baylor a scholarship to become the first African-American player in University of Texas history.

The Rev. Steve Manning, the pastor for Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Austin, Baylor's childhood church for which he oversaw a major renovation in recent years, said, "We are here to celebrate an MVP, an MVP on the field, an MVP in life, and an MVP of his church."

The ceremony underscored the universal appeal of Baylor, whose his former teammates Bobby Grich and Frank Robinson were among a list of speakers that included a long-time sportswriter who had known Baylor on a personal basis for more than 40 years, his son Don Jr., niece, Marquette, and nearly a dozen people from the audience, including his fifth-grade teacher.

And Baylor's memory was honored by the presence of a fellow Texan and former teammate with the Angels, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and his wife, Ruth.

"I don't think of him as my uncle," Marquette said. "I think of him as my hero, who I thought was so special I shared him with my friends. I shared him with the world."

The church auditorium was filled with friends and family, not only from Austin, but throughout baseball, including Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who missed games in Toronto on Friday and Saturday to be in the audience.

Former Rockies manager Don Baylor, back, chats with then current manager Clint Hurdle in 2006.(AP)

"Where else could I be?" Hurdle asked. "The man believed in me when I don't know that many did. He gave me a chance to be a big league coach [with the Rockies], and when I became a big league manager, he honored me by becoming my hitting coach [with the Rockies]. He helped me along the way, like he did so many people."

Don Jr. said he was proud people didn't wait until Baylor died, but that "they let him know how they felt about him … He taught so many people lessons in life and as his only child, I was his No. 1 pupil. I was never his equal [as an athlete], but he supported me in whatever I did. I know in his heart he wanted me to have the opportunities he never had."

Not that Don Sr. ever said that. One of the things that made Baylor so special is that for all the challenges he faced in being one of the three African-American kids to integrate O. Henry Middle School in 1962, and later becoming the first black athlete at Stephen F. Austin High School, he never spoke of hardships. He never complained about what he went through growing up.

He saw all that as challenges that made him strong, and opened the way for him to help others deal with the challenges they faced in life.

Baylor passed on that chance to play football at Texas to instead sign with the Baltimore Orioles, who selected him in the second round of the 1967 Draft, a round after Grich, who became his roommate in the Minor Leagues and big leagues in an odd-couple mixture of the kid from the Clarksville district of Austin and a Southern California surfer.

"He never pushed me into it, but I knew in his heart he wanted me to have an opportunity [to have an occupation] where I never had to use my hands," said Don Jr., who did his undergraduate work at Georgetown and graduate work at the University of Wisconsin. "I studied under professionals with global respect. I had professors who wrote a number of books. But my dad was the best teacher I ever had.

"He taught me to be a leader. That the most important thing about being a leader is leading by example. He taught me the value of hard work, the value of discipline."

It was how Don Baylor lived his life.

He did not know any other way.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.