In 1967, after being drafted by the Atlanta Braves at 18 years old, Dusty Baker’s mother received a promise from Hank Aaron that he would take care of her son as if he was his own — an all-important vow of protection from one veteran black baseball player to a rookie during a time in America marred by racial strife, political assassinations and unrest.
Baker, now manager of the Washington Nationals, revisited his memory of being a young man leaving a racially diverse community in California to play in the segregated South.
“I went from Sacramento to the South in 1967 and that was an awakening, because I had never been a part of segregation,” Baker said. “They wouldn’t allow black players off the bus in certain places like Little Rock, Arkansas and in parts of Texas. White players had to bring us our food and we were forced to live in areas where most of us weren’t really accustomed to, but it taught me a lot.”
Baker, leaning back pensively behind his desk inside the Nationals clubhouse, explained how unfair treatment led him to a more well-rounded perception of people.
“When they wouldn’t rent to us in different places like in Richmond, Virginia, we had to stay on 3rd Street at the Eggleston Motel,” he said. “All my passes at that time were the pimps, prostitutes, the numbers men and drug pushers. That’s who we were friendly with because that’s where we had to stay.
“It taught me a lot about people,” he said. “People sometimes do what they have to do and other people don’t understand what it’s like when people have to do what they have to do.”
Baker, a California boy on the road as a professional baseball player, found a safe haven in his teammates.
“Being from California and in the South, and not being able to go and do what you thought you should be able to do was a challenge, but my roommate Ralph ‘Alligator’ Garr from Grambling, Louisiana, helped me out a lot,” he said. “He was older than me, I was 18 he was 21, and we were in the same draft. … He really hipped me on what to do, what not to do.”
While Baker has no major recollection of the Negro Leagues as a youngster, he got the gift of playing with and being mentored by the league’s greatest as a young player.
“When I was 19 years old, I got called up to the Braves and Satchel Paige was on the team,” he said. “So Satch used to sit around and tell us stories — we don’t know how much of it was true, but it was very, very entertaining.”
On that same Braves team was Paul Casanova, the last player to play in the Negro Leagues. He served as another major influence for Baker, who keeps a photo of Casanova hanging on the wall in his office.
“When I got to the Dodgers, I was even more fortunate because I had Jimmy Gilliam, Joe Black who was with the Baltimore Elite Giants, as well as Roy Campanella,” Baker said. “They use to tell me about the different times with Jackie [Robinson] and we went over Cool Papa Bell’s house in St. Louis one time for dinner, so those guys taught me a lot about baseball.”
Baker’s first baseball mentor, his father Johnnie B. Baker Sr., left Lakeland, Florida, after World War II and headed to California, bringing his Southern values with him.
“Dad migrated from the South after the war,” he said. “Because he was from Florida, the primary occupation at that time would have been him going back and picking fruit. He didn’t want to do that.”
The elder Baker met his future wife and settled in Riverside, birthing Dusty, their first of five children.
“We were raised Southern-style,” Baker said. “We always had a garden, chickens, rabbits, turkeys. The oldest of five I was in charge of the household. We were Southern Baptist, raised ‘yes sir,’ ‘no sir,’ respect your elders, very strict household.
“To tell you the truth, now that I look back, it’s what I needed at that time,” he said. “Most of the heroes we saw on TV were thugs and so I wanted to be a thug too.”
When Dusty started Little League at 8 years old, he played for his father’s team alongside Bobby Bonds, father of baseball legend Barry Bonds and an All-Star player in his own right.
“I was with Bobby almost every day,” he said. “We always played ball. Played ball in the street, backyard, everywhere.”
Growing up, Baker idolized Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Tommy Davis and in 1976, he stepped into his shoes.
“Tommy Davis wore number 12, played for the L.A. Dodgers, left field, then I ended up wearing number 12 playing left field for the Dodgers,” he said. “How many kids get to wear their heroes uniform, and play their same position? And then the great thing for me was when I met Tommy Davis, he was actually a better person than he was even my hero.”
After leaving the Dodgers in 1983, Baker played for the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics before his final season in 1986.
Transitioning from player to manager in the early ’90s, Baker has seen a storied career.
In 2016, Baker and L.A. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts made history when they became the first African-American managers to match up in the postseason.
As one of two black managers in a league placated with diversity issues, Baker believes the answer is spreading the wealth.
“I think it’s a sad state of affairs,” he said. “We have a bunch of kids here that I wish were playing, because we have great athletes out there. A lot of the kids aren’t as privileged to know how to play the game, even though we have the ability, because we don’t have the money to go to camps, and the necessary places to learn.
“Baseball is a slow process,” Baker said. “Baseball is expensive and it’s expensive to play. The cost of the insurance, uniforms, travel, but like I said, it’s a lot of people in this country with a lot of money listening and we need to spread the wealth.”
Baker also believes that just because the faces of color on the field aren’t necessarily African-American doesn’t mean players from Latin America and the Caribbean should be excluded from the count.
“Like Bob Marley says, if you’re black, then you’re an African,” he said. “To me, they count also.”
As far as the diversity issue in the major leagues, Baker said the Nationals are doing more than most, particularly with their Youth Academy.
“It’s not only baseball, it’s after-school programs, it’s computers, using them and having access to them,” he said. “There is a lot of things you can do in baseball other than play. There is PR, community relations and all kinds of different areas where people if they are interested can possibly get an introduction to, and who knows how far you can go.”
Often called a “player’s coach” Baker said he doesn’t know how to be any other way.
“I was one of them not long ago and I can feel what they feel,” he said. “I know their fears and I know when they’re happy. This game isn’t easy, those guys just make it look easy.”
At 67, Baker needs his rest and takes refuge at his residence in Old Town Alexandria.
“I want to do all I can to win for the city because the city needs a winner,” he said. “And sometimes I feel some negativism here as far as teams needing to win. Something I’d like to dispel is [the narrative that] ‘D.C. teams are always losing.’ That’s something I really want for myself, the city and the organization.”
Outside of winning baseball games, Baker doesn’t really care about his critics.
“There are probably a lot of misconceptions about me, but at this point I really don’t care,” he said. “I don’t mean to sound crass, but the only person I’ve got to satisfy is me. Like Tupac says, only God can judge me now, and that’s how I feel.”