Card Corner: 1973 Topps: Don Baylorby Bruce Markusen
November 01, 2013
If you’re a younger fan, you think of Don Baylor as a steely, rugged-looking manager or as a burly slugger in the latter stages of his career. But if you’re a fan of middle age proportions (somebody like me), you might just remember the young Don Baylor, whom Topps captured fantastically on his 1973 card.
Looking lean but muscular, Baylor is seen at the apex of his swing, his bat pointed dramatically toward left field, where it appears that he has just planted a line drive. This Baylor is not just a one-dimensional slugger, but a dynamic four-tool talent who combines line-drive power with breakout speed and surprising range in the outfield.
Baylor created a distinctive image whenever he came to the plate. Holding his bat high but keeping his hands unusually close to his chest, he seemed to uncoil when he unleashed one of his typically ferocious swings. Baylor swung so hard that I thought he would eventually fall down on a swing and a miss, but he never did, at least not that I can remember.
After demolishing Double-A pitching in a six-game trial, the O’s quickly bumped him up to Rochester of the International League, where he struggled at the tail-end of the season. The following summer, Baylor strangely went back down to Class-A ball before moving up to Double-A Dallas/Ft. Worth, where he hit an even .300 and stole 19 bases.
That performance proved him worthy of another shot at Triple-A ball, which he received in the summer of 1970. Putting in nearly a full season for Rochester, Baylor blossomed, hitting .327 with 22 home runs and 26 stolen bases. Winning The Sporting News’ Minor League Player of the Year Award, Baylor looked to be ready for an assignment to Baltimore.
When given an eight-game cup of coffee with the world champion Orioles, Baylor struggled. But he remained confident. “If I get into my groove," Baylor said one day, "I’m gonna play every day.” His teammates took notice of the extreme confidence, sarcastically dubbing him "Groove." More pertinently, he faced the quandary of an overloaded outfield, which featured Robinson, Don Buford, Paul Blair, and Merv Rettenmund.
Thanks to the multiple roadblocks, Baylor went back to Triple-A in 1971, practically repeated his huge numbers of the previous season, and received only a one-game look-see in Baltimore. Clearly, something needed to give in order to clear some space for Baylor with the Orioles.
The break that Baylor craved came at the historic 1971 winter meetings, when the Orioles traded Frank Robinson to the Dodgers for Doyle Alexander and several prospects. The trade of Robinson didn’t move Baylor into the starting lineup—that promotion was reserved for Rettenmund—but it did give him a prominent role as a fourth outfielder in Earl Weaver’s outfield. When Rettenmund, Buford and Blair all slumped, Baylor earned plenty of playing time and emerged as Baltimore’s most productive outfielder. He hit 11 home runs and stole 24 bases, giving the plodding Orioles a much-needed boost of speed.
That brings us to 1973, when this action shot of Baylor first appeared in stationery and drug stores. It’s almost as if the folks at Topps knew that Baylor was ready to move into the starting lineup, so they spotlighted him with one of the coolest cards of their new action-laden set. Baylor didn’t play every day for the Orioles, but he did appear in a career-high 118 games, stole 32 bases, and posted an OPS of .794. He also showed himself to be an aggressive hitter who crowded the plate. Never one to flinch on inside fastballs, Baylor led the American League with 12 hit-by-pitches.
In 1974, Baylor’s OPS fell by 70 points, an indication of more growing pains in his game. But he drew the admiration of Orioles manager Earl Weaver for the way that he ran the bases, in particular his tendency to apply ferocious takeout slides at second base. “He gets down to second base as fast as anyone,” Weaver told The Sporting News. “Baylor doesn’t [slide hard] for himself. He does it to keep the inning alive.”
On one play, Baylor ran over Indians second baseman Angel Hermoso, knocking him out for three months because of a knee injury. Feeling terrible about the incident, Baylor phoned Hermoso in the hospital, but the Indians felt that Baylor had executed a clean slide with no malicious intent.
Then came the outbreak of 1975, when he more than doubled his home run production (hitting 25 blasts), lifted his OPS to .849, and earned some support for American League MVP. At the age of 26, Baylor had arrived as both a legitimate power source and dangerous base stealer.
That also turned out to be Baylor’s final season in Baltimore. A series of court decisions and a new collective bargaining agreement had created free agency. Baylor, like many other stars, would become a free agent at the end of the 1976 season. The Orioles, seeing a chance to acquire another impending free agent, a fellow named Reggie Jackson, decided to part with Baylor. The O’s sent Baylor, right-hander Mike Torrez, and top pitching prospect Paul Mitchell to Oakland for Jackson and accomplished left-hander Ken Holtzman.
As good as Baylor was, he didn’t quite have the jawbreaking power or throwing arm Jackson possessed. Most baseball scouts favored the Orioles in assessing the deal. But Baylor did fit into the system preferred by new Oakland manager Chuck Tanner. Realizing that the newly fashioned A’s would have less power to rely on, Tanner encouraged his team to run at all times. Giving all of his players the green light, Tanner watched the A’s run roughshod against American League catchers. The A’s set a record by stealing 341 bases, or an average of more than two per game. No one was more emblematic of their wild running attack than Baylor, who stole 52 bases, a total that he would never come close to approaching over the balance of his career.
The A’s split Baylor’s playing time between right field and first base, even though he had a very weak throwing arm that mandated he should have been in left field. (Baylor’s lone weakness as a player was his throwing; due to a high school football injury to his right shoulder, he could hardly throw at all. In fact, Baylor had such a poor throwing arm that he never once doubled off a runner on the basepaths.) Baylor did well in creating havoc on the bases for the A‘s, but his batting average and power both suffered. He struggled badly at the Oakland Coliseum, where the expansive foul territory and poor sight lines tended to weaken productive sluggers like Baylor.
Even if Baylor had hit better, it’s still likely that Charlie Finley would have failed to offer him a new contract. Baylor hit the open market running, signing a massive six-year contract with the rival California Angels.
Some of California’s free agent acquisitions would turn out to be relative disappointments, including the sore-backed Bobby Grich and the aging Joe Rudi, but Baylor remained productive. Doing most of his damage as a DH, Baylor hit 25 home runs and stole 26 bases.
Baylor also impressed the Southern California media with his hard-nosed approach to the game. They took note of his hustle, his aggressive baserunning, and his ability to vault second basemen and shortstops into somersaults on potential double play balls. Other than perhaps Kansas City’s Hal McRae, no player took out middle infielders with more ferocity than Baylor. A future Angels teammate, Rick Burleson, would call Baylor the toughest baserunner in the league, ahead of McRae, George Brett, Al Bumbry, and Ron LeFlore.
His reputation firmly in place, Baylor would fare even better in 1977. Feeling more comfortable in his second season with the Angels, Baylor reached career highs with 34 home runs and 99 RBIs, and lifted his OPS to .804. American League beat writers took note, giving Baylor enough consideration to place him seventh in the league’s MVP sweepstakes.
Still, Baylor’s numbers would pale in comparison to what he accomplished in 1979. For the first time in his career, he batted over .290. He clubbed 36 home runs, led the league with 139 RBIs, and slugged .530. He also stole 22 bases and walked 71 times, pushing the Angels to their first division title and postseason appearance.
Though his selection has become much debated by Sabermetricians in subsequent years, and a good argument can be made in favor of teammate Bobby Grich, Baylor won the American League MVP. It’s a myth that Baylor became the first fulltime DH to win the MVP—he appeared as a DH only 65 times—but his ability to hit for both average and power clearly won over the voters. Without question, Baylor had arrived as a major league star.
Baylor’s all-around play drew high praise from Angels manager Jim Fregosi, who felt that his veteran outfielder had been unfairly typecast as a one-dimensional slugger. “It’s so unfair,” Fregosi told Peter Gammons. “He’s a good outfielder. There’s just one thing he can’t do [throw].” Angels GM Buzzie Bavasi concurred. “If he could throw,” Bavasi told Gammons, “he’d be the perfect player.”
The 1979 season represented the apex of Baylor’s career. The following summer, injuries robbed him of much of his power. Plagued by a broken wrist and a dislocated toe, he hit only five home runs and slugged a mere .341. He then bounced back with two solid seasons, including a 24-home run campaign in 1982.
Though Baylor was still a productive player, he was now 33. With his contract having run its course, he was again eligible for free agency. The Angels made little effort to sign him, standing by as Baylor took his heavy bat back to the East Coast, signing with the Yankees.
By now Baylor looked much different than he had at the beginning of his career. With at least 30 pounds of additional weight, mostly muscle, Baylor took on the look of a behemoth. But the Yankees needed someone to play first base, so they gave the veteran a tryout in Ft. Lauderdale. Lacking both range and soft hands, Baylor handled the position atrociously in practice and exhibition games. Realizing that he could not play first base on a fulltime basis, the Yankees made Baylor their primary DH. Giving Dave Winfield some much-needed support in the middle of the Yankee order, Baylor hit 21 home runs and slugged .494. As a bonus, he hit .303, batting over .300 for the first time in his career.
Despite being a pull hitter at Yankee Stadium, where the Death Valley dimensions ruined many a right-handed slugger, Baylor remained productive over the next two seasons in New York. But he grew disenchanted with the circus atmosphere in New York, in particular the managerial style of Billy Martin. Baylor became such a vocal leader against Martin that the Yankees hired Willie Horton as their “tranquility coach.” The Yankees hoped that Horton, an ally of Martin from their days in Detroit, would neutralize Baylor’s influence in the Yankee clubhouse.
When it became apparent that Baylor would soon become a platoon player in New York, he asked for a trade at the end of the 1985 season. The Yankees tried to oblige him, reaching agreement on a blockbuster, multiplayer trade that principally would have sent Baylor to the White Sox for Carlton Fisk, but Baylor exercised his no-trade clause to block the deal. He said he would only accept the deal if the White Sox satisfied some of his specific financial demands. It seemed like a disingenuous move on the part of Baylor. He had practically demanded a trade, the Yankees had satisfied the request, and now Baylor wanted no part of the White Sox.
Baylor reported to the Yankees’ spring training camp in Ft. Lauderdale, but he remained on the trade block. In late March, the Yankees finally found a new suitor, but it was a deal that George Steinbrenner pestered GM Clyde King into making, against his better judgment. The Yankees foolishly sent Baylor to the rival Red Sox for another DH, the left-handed hitting Mike Easler. It would turn out to be a steal for Beantown.
With his tendency to pull pitches and hit fly balls, Baylor proved an ideal match for the unusual dimensions of Fenway Park. For the season, he hit 31 home runs, giving the Red Sox yet another right-handed slugger, in back of Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, and Dave Henderson. As an added bonus, Baylor was hit by pitches 35 times, which not only led the league but also represented a career high. (With 30 home runs and 30 hit-by-pitches, it might have been the strangest 30/30 season in big league history.)
A major factor in the Red Sox’ run for the American League pennant, Baylor exerted an unusual amount of leadership for a player. When Rangers coach Tim Foli initiated some severe bench jockeying against Oil Can Boyd, the 37-year-old Baylor walked out of the dugout between innings and confronted Foli, telling him to shut up. Foli kept quiet for the rest of the series.
After playing in his first World Series, Baylor put up similar solid power ratios in his second season with Boston. But when the Red Sox fell out of the pennant race, they dumped his contract on the Twins, who were headed to a Western Division title. Joining the team just in time to be eligible for the postseason, Baylor became a force during the World Series. He quietly hit .385 with a home run and three RBIs, as the Twins defeated the Cardinals in seven games.
Baylor wasn’t done with the postseason. Released by the cost-conscious Twins during the winter, he signed with the A’s, who made him a part-time DH. Baylor didn’t hit much during the regular season or the postseason, but he did make his third straight appearance in the World Series, all three coming with different teams. Appearing once as a pinch-hitter, he watched as his A’s stunningly lost to the overachieving Dodgers in four straight games.
Now 39 years old and coming off his worst season, Baylor realized the end had arrived. He opted to retire, ending a long 19-year playing career and leaving the game as its most prolific clay pigeon (244 hit-by-pitches). Baylor wore the latter honor like a badge of courage.
Known for his smarts and his leadership skills, Baylor remained in the game as a coach, first with the Brewers and then the Cardinals. In 1993, he became the first manager in the history of the Colorado Rockies. After two poor finishes with the expansion Rockies, he led the team to three consecutive seasons with better than .500 records. When the Rockies dipped to a record of 77-85 in 1998, Baylor feuded with general manager Bob Gebhard and ultimately lost his job.
Fresh off the firing, Baylor became the batting coach for the Braves. He did particularly good work with a young Chipper Jones, helping his star protégé improve as a right-handed hitter. The acclaim Baylor received as a hitting coach earned him new life as the manager of the Cubs, but the team struggled for much of his tenure of two and a half seasons. Baylor took criticisms for his handling of Cubs pitchers and was fired by the Cubs in the middle of the 2002 season.
A year later, Baylor received far worse news when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Known for his toughness, he has found a way to beat the disease and now serves as a major fundraiser in the fight against this form of cancer.
Baylor has not managed since his tenure with the Cubs, and probably won’t receive another chance because of his reputation with pitchers and his advancing age. But he remains well-respected for his ability to instruct young hitters; the Angels recently brought him back to the organization as their new batting coach under Mike Scioscia. They are hoping that he can help Josh Hamilton, who struggled during his first season with the Angels.
I guess that’s only appropriate. When one looks so good taking a swing on one of his Topps cards, it only makes sense that he should find work teaching young hitters to do exactly the same.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.