Dusty Baker holds a unique place in baseball lore.
He had a close-up vantage point for the two greatest home run chases in history: the on-deck circle in 1974 with the Atlanta Braves when idol and friend Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth for the then-all-time record with his 715th, and in the dugout in 2001 as the Giants’ manager when Barry Bonds set the season record with 73.
As an All-Star outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Baker was part of the first high-five exchange. During his managerial career, he has enjoyed highs (three-time Manager of the Year) and endured lows (the Giants’ 2002 World Series loss to the Anaheim Angels and the Chicago Cubs’ 2003 National League Championship Series loss to the Florida Marlins).
A one-hour documentary about Baker on MLB Network chronicles those stories and his formative years at Del Campo High School, his association with rock guitar great Jimi Hendrix (Baker said he smoked marijuana with him on the streets of San Francisco in 1968) and his rebirth as the Washington Nationals’ new manager.
“Dusty: A Baseball Journey” includes interviews with childhood friends, relatives, Aaron, former Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda and athletes Baker managed. Baker spoke candidly of racism and what he and Aaron faced, especially Aaron when he chased Ruth’s hallowed mark, and how his relationship with his demanding father molded him.
“It’s been a great ride,” Baker, 66, said in the documentary. “Has it been up and down? Oh, heck yeah, it’s been up and down. But when I look back, I wouldn’t trade anything. I know the best is yet to come.”
It’s been a great ride. Has it been up and down? Oh, heck yeah, it’s been up and down. But when I look back, I wouldn’t trade anything. I know the best is yet to come.
Dusty Baker in “Dusty: A Baseball Journey”
The growing pains were daunting. His father, Johnnie B. Baker Sr., was strict and unrelenting, cutting Baker from youth baseball teams three times for displaying a sour attitude. Those lessons inspired Baker, the oldest of five kids.
As a child, Baker helped his father mow lawns but wasn’t paid. The old man kept the earnings, reminding his puzzled son that his shoes and dinner were his payment. Nearly 50 years ago, Baker’s family moved from Riverside to Fair Oaks, and he excelled at Del Campo, a predominantly white school in a predominantly white neighborhood that was a stark contrast to his time in Riverside. The move north was hard on Baker, but it helped shape him.
“My dad got a job at McClellan, so we moved, and I didn’t want to move,” Baker told me two years ago at Sacramento’s Dante Club. “I was really upset. I cried. But it was the best thing for me. I wanted to play everything. I wanted to be like Bobby Bonds, the best prep athlete I ever saw. Del Campo was an adjustment. I asked my brother, Victor, on the first day of school, ‘Hey, you see any other black kids here?’ ‘Nope. Just us.’ It was enlightening. I learned to get along with everyone, to be strong.”
You could tell (Baker) had major-league star written all over him.
Eli McCullough, then Del Campo’s basketball coach, once recalled in a Sacramento Bee story how Baker’s arrival sent a jolt through campus. McCullough said a student rushed into his physical education office, yelping, “Coach, come quick! You’ve got to see this!”
What the coach saw amazed him.
“It was Dusty Baker, doing anything he wanted on the floor, and I was speechless,” McCullough said. “I said, ‘Oh, my God. Praise the Lord, and thanks!’ Dusty Baker helped make this school and touched a lot of us.”
Baker scored every which way in football; averaged 15 points and 13 rebounds in basketball; won the 100-yard dash in 9.8 seconds, sometimes in his baseball spikes; and won high jump competitions despite little or no practice.
The MLB program touches on Baker’s decision to sign a baseball contract with Atlanta in 1967 against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to attend Santa Clara to be a student and play basketball. Baker’s mother, Christine, asked Aaron to watch over her son. Said Aaron in the documentary: “You could tell (Baker) had major-league star written all over him.”
And Baker said in the film that Aaron “meant everything” to him.
Baker’s high-five moment was pure happenstance. He had 29 home runs entering the final game of the 1977 regular season against the Houston Astros, and Lasorda challenged him to swat one more so the Dodgers could become the first team to have four players with 30 homers in a season.
After taking J.R. Richard deep, Baker was greeted by teammate Glenn Burke, who held his palm up. Baker, not sure how to react, slapped it.
Baker has had a high-five sort of life, one that includes music, gardening, authoring a book and winning.
Dusty: A Baseball Journey
- What: MLB Network documentary on Dusty Baker
- When to watch: Saturday, 10 a.m.