PHOENIX — Don Baylor was hit by 267 major league pitches, some thrown with malice. But nothing may have stung more than the hit he took one day in junior high school in Austin, Texas.
“Where is the 18th parallel?” Baylor’s teacher asked, a question designed to humiliate.
The teacher bopped Baylor on the head with a rolled-up paper when he did not know the answer, as if every seventh-grader should recognize the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam.
“I had to refrain from jumping up and popping him,” said Baylor, now the Diamondbacks hitting coach.
At that moment, a tough decision was easy.
By his life, Jackie Robinson taught Baylor well.
As the movie “42” celebrating Robinson’s life opens to national audiences Friday and baseball prepares to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day on Monday, Baylor still takes inspiration from the story of the man who integrated the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and was a hero in many African-American neighborhoods, especially in the South.
“Absolutely. I know he had some more-than-rough days,” Baylor said. “When you are a pioneer, you are going to have those rough days. No doubt about it. Everybody is not going to be with you. But he showed a lot of determination, dignity.”
“We are going to look back years and years from now and say one baseball player changed sports, really.”
Baylor has spent almost 50 years in baseball, from the day he was drafted in the second round by the Baltimore Orioles in 1967 through his time as star player, coach and manager.
He was the American League MVP in 1979 with the California Angels; he won three Silver Slugger awards, two with the New York Yankees and one with the Boston Red Sox; and he has a World Series ring with the Minnesota Twins in 1987. He played 19 seasons, finishing with 338 homers, 1,276 RBI and 2,135 hits. He also swiped 285 bases — 52 in 1976 — with the majority of them early in his career.
Baylor was also the manager of the 1995 Colorado Rockies when they became the first major league expansion team to reach the playoffs in just their third season. He managed in the Mile High City for six seasons and then skippered the Chicago Cubs from 2000-02.
He has seen about all there is to see in baseball, and his life is not so much different.
Forget the 18th parallel. Baylor was occupied with other borders in 1961, when he and two childhood friends — one boy, one girl — chose to integrate O. Henry Junior High School, which was a 1½-mile walk from their Clarksville neighborhood. Their other option was to attend a junior high across town that required a downtown bus transfer and wasted hours in transit — not much of an option at all. They were the first African-American students at O. Henry, and they felt it.
“That was an eye-opening experience, I tell you,” recalled Baylor, now 63.
“You were walking into an all-white school. The teachers were just as tough as maybe the students were. Kids are going to be kids. Kids in the seventh grade are going to call you names. Call you the ‘N’ word. See how far they could push you. I was going to take on anybody’s challenge, so I had to calm down.”
He managed, overcoming the overtly racist behavior that is so easy now to see for what it is.
The O. Henry football coach might not have been prejudiced, but he did not have enough football uniforms for the two new players who entered school that year. Baylor’s friend got one; Baylor did not.
After watching Baylor play intramural flag football, the coach had a spot for Baylor the next year, even though the uniform was the scruffiest of the lot. Smart choice. Baylor proved so adept at the sport that Darrell Royal would later offer him a scholarship and the opportunity to become the first African-American player at the University of Texas.
“He handled things really well. We laugh about it now. It wasn’t funny then,” said Frank Seale, Baylor’s high school baseball coach.
The administration at Stephen F. Austin High years later might not have been prejudiced, but when the group of cheerleaders known as the Red Jackets escorted the football players to class the Friday before every game, the black players walked by themselves.
Baylor understood what he was getting into at O. Henry — ironically, a writer who lived in Austin and is known for plot twists — but it was not in his blood to shy away. He learned that in Clarksville, a three-block by two-block patch of gravel streets that was settled by freed slave Charles Clark in 1871 and has gone from throw-away neighborhood to a national historic district with homes that are valued at as much as $600,000. It is the oldest surviving post-Civil War area settled by freed slaves west of the Mississippi. The local Sweet Home Baptist Church is 131 years old.
Baylor’s grandparents never owned or drove a car, and his grandfather lived until he was 80. When Baylor was going to school, he would see his grandfather going to work at the only emergency hospital in Austin, a job he held for 50 years. An uncle worked at Greyhound for 50 years. Some of that must have rubbed off on Baylor, too.
“That stay-with-it was kind of in my family, not to quit something,” Baylor said.
“I was determined in seventh grade to get through it, do my homework. My dad went through the 11th grade. He would stand over the top of me, make me do my homework. It was a different look how they looked at you going into an all-white school. I survived it and got through it.”
Baylor grew so proficient at handwriting that he received a certificate.
In his junior year at Austin High, he was named captain of the baseball team by Seale, in his first year on the job. The families remain close to this day, and Seale and his wife, Ann, travel often to see Baylor. Seale brought his grandson, Bo, to spring training this year, and the Seales already have planned their trip to Denver next week, when Baylor is to be inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame for the work he did in getting the expansion Rockies off the ground.
Baylor was a natural fit for the captain’s role, Seale said, even if a few of the seniors on the team grumbled that the first African-American player in Austin High history would get the job.
“It always seemed like there was something special in Don,” said Seale, who is retired and living outside of College Station, Texas. “He was a good athlete and a good person. He was not loud or vocal. He led by example. He deserved it by his work ethic. He would come early and stay late. He was the only black kid we had, but that didn’t make me any difference. They were all Austin Maroons.”
Baylor and his younger brother, Douglas, visited the Seales last winter to hunt and spend time together.
“It was like having two of our kids home for the holidays,” Seale said.
Said Baylor: “He was into helping kids, what coaches are made for.”
Baylor was a pioneer for his family. Douglas and cousins from the Clarksville neighborhood took the same path, to O. Henry and then Austin High. Baylor made it easier for them all.
One day in spring training years ago, Baylor saw Robinson at the Baltimore Orioles complex. A young player, Baylor did not approach him, although as years passed he has become close to Robinson’s widow, Rachel, and their daughter, Sharon.
“His hair was gray then. That’s stress more than anything,” Baylor said.
“I often think of Jackie, what he endured. I don’t know if I could have done that. Throwing a black cat on the field. Calling the names he was called. Sliding into second. Sliding into home. Guys really trying to hurt him. Especially when guys throw at your head — without retaliation.