Rest In Peace To Former MVP & Skipper Don Baylor! You Will Be Missed!

Bill James has often observed that as first-hand memories of a player fade, his career gets reduced to his statistics and a few simple impressions on which his image centers. If that’s true, then Don Baylor was subject to that reductive process even as his playing career was still ongoing. By the time he was 30, Baylor was down to one word, “leader,” and everything else, with the exception of “hit by pitch,” became an afterthought. It’s a shame, because Baylor had more dimensions than that.

The oversimplification of Baylor happened in part because the longtime designated hitter, who succumbed on Monday after a long struggle against multiple myeloma, was as mercurial of an offensive performer as his personality was consistent. When he was young he was fast and stole a lot of bases, peaking at 52 with the 1976 Oakland A’s, a run-mad team. For a while, it seemed as if he might become the third player after Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds to join the 300 home runs-300 steal club, but as his career went on he thickened physically and emphasized power at the expense of speed. He finished with 338 home runs and 285 steals; he still ranks 10th in the latter category among players with 300 or more career home runs. Though he stopped running, he never ceased being a terror to middle infielders in breaking up a double play.

Baylor got his first taste of the major leagues in 1970 with a stacked Baltimore Orioles team that still had Don Buford, Paul Blair and Frank Robinson in the outfield. As such, it took him a few years to achieve regular status. The year he made his big-league debut he played at Triple-A Rochester and hit .327/.429/.583. The Orioles had nowhere to play him and sent him back. In 1972 he hit .313/.422/.539 while repeating the level. The O’s still couldn’t find a place for him.

When he finally did come up his game took some time to evolve. In his first season, Baylor had over 500 plate appearances and hit 10 home runs. Five years later, in his MVP season for the 1979 California Angels, he hit 36. The next year, hampered by a broken wrist and a dislocated toe, he hit just five in 90 games. That was hardly his fault, but it serves to symbolize a career pattern in which he spent five of his 16 full seasons ranked among the league leaders in home runs and 11 in which he did not, as well as six seasons in the AL top-10 in stolen bases and 10 outside of it. Some of that was the parks in which he played, most of which, with the exception of Fenway Park, were not favorable to right-handed power. Some of it was just Baylor, who played through many injuries and, as such, had results that varied widely.

What was consistent was his ability to get on base via being hit by pitches. He led the league eight times, getting nailed as many as 35 times in a season, and set a modern record with 267 for his career, a total that was later surpassed by Craig Biggio. Baylor’s hit by pitches tended to strain the idea that the batter is supposed to make an effort to evade the pitch before being awarded first base. Shaped roughly like an inverted equilateral triangle with legs (topped with a huge, gap-toothed smile and a dapper mustache), Baylor had wide, meaty shoulders that he used as a shield. If he saw a pitch headed inside he would simply turn his body into it. If the act pained him, he never let on; one had the impression that his back musculature was so thick that he didn’t feel the impact. Getting hit by a pitch is supposed to be a negative for everyone, something both hitter and pitcher are meant to avoid. For Baylor it was an elective, something he could order off the menu at will.

Bill James has often observed that as first-hand memories of a player fade, his career gets reduced to his statistics and a few simple impressions on which his image centers. If that’s true, then Don Baylor was subject to that reductive process even as his playing career was still ongoing. By the time he was 30, Baylor was down to one word, “leader,” and everything else, with the exception of “hit by pitch,” became an afterthought. It’s a shame, because Baylor had more dimensions than that.

The oversimplification of Baylor happened in part because the longtime designated hitter, who succumbed on Monday after a long struggle against multiple myeloma, was as mercurial of an offensive performer as his personality was consistent. When he was young he was fast and stole a lot of bases, peaking at 52 with the 1976 Oakland A’s, a run-mad team. For a while, it seemed as if he might become the third player after Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds to join the 300 home runs-300 steal club, but as his career went on he thickened physically and emphasized power at the expense of speed. He finished with 338 home runs and 285 steals; he still ranks 10th in the latter category among players with 300 or more career home runs. Though he stopped running, he never ceased being a terror to middle infielders in breaking up a double play.

Baylor got his first taste of the major leagues in 1970 with a stacked Baltimore Orioles team that still had Don Buford, Paul Blair and Frank Robinson in the outfield. As such, it took him a few years to achieve regular status. The year he made his big-league debut he played at Triple-A Rochester and hit .327/.429/.583. The Orioles had nowhere to play him and sent him back. In 1972 he hit .313/.422/.539 while repeating the level. The O’s still couldn’t find a place for him.

When he finally did come up his game took some time to evolve. In his first season, Baylor had over 500 plate appearances and hit 10 home runs. Five years later, in his MVP season for the 1979 California Angels, he hit 36. The next year, hampered by a broken wrist and a dislocated toe, he hit just five in 90 games. That was hardly his fault, but it serves to symbolize a career pattern in which he spent five of his 16 full seasons ranked among the league leaders in home runs and 11 in which he did not, as well as six seasons in the AL top-10 in stolen bases and 10 outside of it. Some of that was the parks in which he played, most of which, with the exception of Fenway Park, were not favorable to right-handed power. Some of it was just Baylor, who played through many injuries and, as such, had results that varied widely.

What was consistent was his ability to get on base via being hit by pitches. He led the league eight times, getting nailed as many as 35 times in a season, and set a modern record with 267 for his career, a total that was later surpassed by Craig Biggio. Baylor’s hit by pitches tended to strain the idea that the batter is supposed to make an effort to evade the pitch before being awarded first base. Shaped roughly like an inverted equilateral triangle with legs (topped with a huge, gap-toothed smile and a dapper mustache), Baylor had wide, meaty shoulders that he used as a shield. If he saw a pitch headed inside he would simply turn his body into it. If the act pained him, he never let on; one had the impression that his back musculature was so thick that he didn’t feel the impact. Getting hit by a pitch is supposed to be a negative for everyone, something both hitter and pitcher are meant to avoid. For Baylor it was an elective, something he could order off the menu at will.

Take the game of July 2, 1975 as emblematic. The Orioles were in Detroit. Baylor homered in each of his first three at-bats. He had three shots to get the fourth, but he didn’t get there. He fouled out, he walked and he was a hit by a pitch. He got on base twice in three tries, just not in the way that would have brought him greater glory.

A sometime outfielder and first baseman, Baylor had suffered a dislocated shoulder playing high school football and couldn’t throw at all. “Don can hit, run and lob,” O’s outfielder Merv Rettenmund once said. As a result, he played nearly 1,300 games at designated hitter. His reputation as a leader grew in inverse proportion to his lack of time on the field. He was a strong voice in the clubhouse who typically ran his team’s kangaroo court, helping keep players focused. Late in his career, he got passed from World Series team to World Series team, going from the 1986 Red Sox to the 1987 Twins to the 1988 A’s. He also developed a reputation for clutch play that, as with all such players, was only partly deserved, but he did bear out in a losing effort against the Brewers in the 1982 ALCS (.296 average, 10 RBI in five games) and the Twins’ World Series win over the Cardinals, hitting .385 in five games, including a key home run in Game 6.

Despite winning a Manager of the Year Award for his stewardship of the 1995 Colorado Rockies, Baylor’s managerial career was not successful. As with many players known for their clubhouse leadership, the expectation had long been that Baylor would be able to translate his interpersonal skills in a way that would make him a strong dugout leader. It turns out those aren’t the same things; as a manager, Baylor was overly enamored of one-run strategies that were self-defeating given the high-scoring environments of his teams. He also had 14 years as a hitting or bench coach, roles for which he was perhaps more suited. Regardless, as an African American who got to follow his Orioles teammate and role model Frank Robinson into the dugout, an aspect of the game in which black players have not been proportionately represented, he deserves credit as a pioneer.

On a personal note, I spoke with Baylor on two occasions and found him every bit the gentleman he had been reputed to be. If that were his only legacy it would be plenty, but he was so much more than that. Had he been consistent at the level of his best seasons, he might have been a Hall of Famer. Instead, he resides firmly in the Hall of Very Good, as well as the Hall of Very Good Guys. There are some players who are great but aren’t fun to watch, and some who are fun to watch but aren’t great. Baylor, the slugging truck barreling down on second base, was often good and always fun. Neither “hit by pitch” nor “leader” tells you that, but it should always be remembered nonetheless. 

By Steven Goldman