Sad news from Austin this morning, as the Austin American-Statesman reports that Don Baylor, the 1979 American League Most Valuable Player and former big league manager has died. He was 68 and been suffering from multiple myeloma.
Baylor was a multi-sport star from Austin who was offered a football scholarship from the University of Texas but turned it down to play baseball. If he had gone to UT he would’ve been the school’s first black football player. Instead he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the second round of the 1967 draft. He broke into the bigs in 1970 but played sparingly that season and the next due to being blocked by Frank Robinson and Don Buford, who starred for an absolutely loaded Orioles squad. Robinson would be traded following the 1971 season and Baylor would become a fixture in the corner outfield spots for Baltimore for the next four seasons, hitting .275/.348/.433 while stealing 117 bases. He’d steal 52 in 1976 after being traded by the O’s to Oakland in the Reggie Jackson deal. Even the graying among us remember Baylor mostly as a power-hitting DH in the second half of his career. It’s sometimes easy to forget the fact that he was an athletic and well-rounded player in his early days.
He was certainly a more valuable player later, however. Quite literally, actually, winning the AL MVP in 1979 as the California Angels’ DH. That year Baylor hit .296/.371/.530 with 36 homers and 139 RBI while leading the Angles to the AL West crown. Curiously, that year Baylor was “only” hit by 11 pitches, one of his lower season totals. Baylor was otherwise famous for getting plunked, leading the league eight times in his career. He’d retire as the all-time leader in that category in the post-deadball era with 267. Craig Biggio would later pass him.
After leaving the Angels, Baylor would continue to have productive years in New York with the Yankees and in Boston with the Red Sox, winning three Silver Slugger Awards between 1983 and 1986. His teams made the postseason seven times, though he’d only get one World Series ring with the 1987 Twins. That was an odd year for Baylor, as he wasn’t traded to Minnesota until September 1 and was a non-factor in the season’s final month. He’d hit .385/.467/.615 in five World Series games, however. He’d retire after one more year back in Oakland in 1988, finishing with a career line of .260/.342/.436, 338 homers, 1,276 RBI and 285 stolen bases over 19 seasons. He was on three World Series teams in his final three seasons: Boston in 1986, Minnesota in 1987 and Oakland in 1988.
Baylor would serve as the hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals before being named the Colorado Rockies’ first ever manager before the 1993 season. He’d manage the Rockies for six seasons, making the playoffs as the NL’s first-ever Wild Card winner in 1995 and finishing with a record of 440-469 in Colorado. After one season as the Braves hitting coach in 1999, the Cubs would hire him as their skipper. He’d go 187-220 in two full years and a partial 2002 season. After leaving Chicago he’d serve as the Mets bench coach in 2003-04 before hitting coach stints in Seattle, Colorado, Arizona and Anaheim.
As is evidenced by both the eagerness of teams to hire him and the word of mouth from people who knew him well, Baylor was an almost universally respected and beloved figure within the game. He was also a great player and a fine manager. He will be missed.