Three people who were part of Don Baylor’s baseball life were invited to speak at his funeral on Saturday in his native Austin, Tex. I was honored to join Bobby Grich and Frank Robinson in speaking. Robinson even explains when he gave Baylor the nickname that stuck, “Groove.”
For those interested in the speeches, the transcripts are posted here.
In order of the appearance of the speakers:
Tracy Ringolsby, an Angels beat writer when Don signed as a free agent and a Rockies beat writer when Don managed the team.
For all that Don accomplished on the baseball field what overshadows everything else is what he did for mankind during his 66 years on earth.
I first met Don in 1977 when I began covering the California Angels and he signed with them as a free agent. Over the years we became very close, even when both of us moved on from Anaheim. And then, after I was hired to cover the Rockies for the Rocky Mountain News the year before the team played its first game, Don was hired as the franchise’s first manager.
What I will always remember is listening to Don talk about his background, the challenges he faced in life. Being a white boy from Wyoming he brought up things that I could not relate to, things that just didn’t seem real.
He grew up in a segregated world, but he moved forward. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to be one of three kids in junior high school who integrated public schools in Austin. I couldn’t imagine what he dealt with in becoming the first African-American athlete at Stephen F. Austin High School and what it took to become the first African-offered a football scholarship to by Darryl Royal at the University of Texas.
The taunt and abuse, verbal and threatened physical that Don went through are not anything I could relate to. More than that the way Don dealt with it was a sign of just how strong he was.
Don didn’t become bitter and hateful. He moved forward with his life, and used what he had been through as guidance to help others grow. He saw the challenges he faced growing up as a strength to allow him to make the world a better place.
His was a life of equality, for everyone. His was a life of caring to help what he felt were the less fortunate.
The one story I know Becky has heard before that underscored Don’s focus on helping others and not feeling sorry for himself was when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. I wrote a story for the Rocky Mountain News because he is still so popular among the people in the Rocky Mountain region, and mentioned the hospital he was in.
The next day he called. He was upset about the story. Not because I wrote about his condition. He was upset I mentioned the name of the hospital because of all the work it was requiring of the nurses to deal with the bouquets that people were sending to the hospital.
Yes, this was a man who had just found out he was in a battle for survival and his concern was about imposing on the nurses, there to take care of him.
Don was a man committed to making the world a better place. He was committed to helping people understand that everybody is equal, regardless of race or religion. He did not simply talk the talk, he walked the walk.
Bobby Grich was the 1st round draft choice of the Orioles in 1967 and Don was the second-round choice. They played together 14 years, and Bobby became the God father to Don’s son Don Jr.
|The one and only Donnie Baylor. Simply stated, Donnie Baylor was a giant of a man. He had a huge heart, he had a kind soul. And yet, one of the most ferocious competitors you would ever want to go up against. And typical of Donnie, he fought cancer in the same ferocious way, fighting it hard to the end, never complaining, facing the cards he was dealt in his own heroic way. I will miss and think of him often, as I’m sure you will as well.|
|Don and I were together 14 years. Four years in the minor leagues, five years with the Orioles in the majors, and five years more when we both joined the Angels as free agents in 1977. Thank God for free agency. Joe Torre, did you have something to do with that? We were roommates in 1971 in Rochester, and again in 1972 in our first year in the majors. I’m not sure, but I think Donnie and I were the first black and white roommates in major league history, as far as I know. But it didn’t matter, and we didn’t make a big deal out of it.|
|Playing AAA ball in Rochester in 1971, we won the International League, the Governors’ Cup, and the Junior World Series by beating Denver. I’ve been told by the people of the city of Rochester that they consider our 1971 team the best team that ever played in the city of Rochester, and that dates back to 1929. Thank you.
|Don and I were very proud of that accomplishment, and he and I were welcomed back there many times. We were also teammates on the Angels’ first Western Division championship team in 1979. That year, Donnie had a monster year. I mean, monster year. He played in all 162 games. He scored 120 runs. He hit 36 home runs, he had 139 RBIs, and he hit .296.|
|Let’s clap hands for that monster year. Don was the American League MVP that year, and because of his clutch hitting and his leadership, we had the entire Angel fan base screaming, “Yes, we can.” I can remember Rhonda Carew with her “Yes, we can” t-shirt sitting behind home plate every game. As fierce a competitor as he was on the field, off the field, he was one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. He disproved the old adage that nice guys finish last. He proved that nice guys can finish first, and he did many times, both on the field and with every person that he ever met.
|In the 50 years since I first met Don, I have never, ever heard a bad word about Donnie Baylor. And that’s pretty good, yes. And that does say a lot about your family and friends, so that’s a reflection on all of you, for sure. And that’s pretty incredible, especially taking in consideration the highly competitive and sometimes heated world of professional baseball. And if things are that heated, you want a Donnie on your side.
|I’ll never forget the first time I met Don. It was 1967, we were in Bluefield, West Virginia, and we were both 18 years old, fresh out of high school. I was a first-round draft pick, Donnie was a second-round draft pick. I held out about three weeks before joining the team, and when I finally got there, I got to the ballpark early one afternoon about 3:00. Finally, the rest of the team pulled up in the bus and everybody came in, and Donnie Baylor was the first guy to come right over to me, and he put out his right hand with a big smile, and he said, “Bobby Grich?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Donnie Baylor. Welcome to the team.”
|But from the moment that we met, there was never one speck of jealousy, or animosity, or anything except that we were teammates, and that’s all that mattered. That’s how Donnie was at 18 years old, and that’s how he was at 68. He never changed, welcoming new players to the team. And going out of his way to make them feel as comfortable as possible. A real team guy. Knowing that if the new player was comfortable with his surroundings, he had a better chance of performing well, and we had a better chance of winning. That was his formula.
|A couple weeks after I was there, we took a bus trip over the Appalachian Mountains to Salem, West Virginia. Over in Salem, they had a future big leaguer and tremendous hitter. A guy named Richie Zisk. And he was hitting about .370, but all of a sudden, he went into a horrendous slump, and now he’s 0-for-30. And we come into town. I’m playing shortstop, Donnie’s in center field. First time up, Richie Zisk hits a rocket to center field, over my left shoulder. So, I turned to chase the ball, and Baylor’s stunned, and he goes to his left, and he goes back on it, but the ball got on him like, really fast, and it started to hook. So, all he could do was kind of spin. He threw his bare hand up, and you won’t believe this, but he caught the ball with his bare hand.|
|I mean, he’s risking a broken hand, he’s risking a broken finger, but that’s just the kind of competitor that he was. And he makes the catch. And there’s Richie Zisk over in the dugout beating up the water cooler, because now he’s 0-for-31. I’m sure if we would have had YouTube back in those days, Donnie Baylor would have been an instant internet sensation. That would have been everywhere. Absolutely amazing catch.|
|I received an email the other day from Steve Freeman, who is head of alumni affairs for the Orioles. It was a group email to about 50 ex-players. I recognized a lot of names, and I replied to all. I said that I would be coming down here today, and if any of you have any enduring, humorous stories, I would certainly like to hear them, and maybe share a couple. Quite a few guys responded with different things. Everything was always about admiring Donnie, what a great guy he was, but I’d like to share four of the emails that I got.|
|The first was from Benny Ayala. “Bobby, lots of respect and admiration from all of the players and fans in Puerto Rico. He was a good friend to us all, as he played a few years of winter ball here in Puerto Rico. He is well-remembered and loved by the entire country.” Thanks.|
|Ross Grimsley. “When I was traded from the Reds to the O’s in 1973, it was a very unexpected shock to me. I wasn’t expecting to be traded at all. I got up to see the Orioles’ spring training, and Don was the main guy who took the time to make me feel welcome and part of the team immediately. I will never forget that.”|
|Kenny Singleton. “I had been traded to the Orioles in the winter of 1974, and I had the opportunity to play with Don in the 1975 season. Don was always there with advice from where to live in the Baltimore area, to what it was going to be like to play for Earl Weaver, if that’s even possible. And that proved to be an experience unto itself. He helped make us all better players, but more importantly, he showed us how we should respect one another, and work together towards a common goal. This was a man that will be spoken of fondly, and with admiration by all those who had the pleasure of knowing him.” I thought that was pretty awesome.|
|And the last one is an incredible story. This is from Gary Roenicke. “Bobby, I’m glad you’re representing a lot of us honoring Don. Here is a story that I never shared with anybody. 1984. When I was an Oriole, and Don was now a Yankee, we went to Yankee Stadium to play the Yankees, and I was really struggling at the time. Prior to the game, Donnie and I had a little conversation around the batting cage, and he made a suggestion that I use a heavier bat. I went ahead and hit, and when batting practice was over, I got back to my locker, and there was two of Donnie Baylor’s heavy bats. R161 35-35s, which is a big bat that Frank Robinson used his whole career. You had to be a beast to use that bat. So anyway, that game, I hit a grand slam in the eighth inning using one of his bats.”|
|“He said …” Wait. That’s just half the story. Wait till you hear this. He said, “It broke a tie game, and also won a lady back in Baltimore $1 million because she had the eighth inning in the Grand Slam Lottery. I never mentioned who this bat really belong to because I didn’t want Steinbrenner to get upst with Donnie. That’s the kind of many he was, always trying to help others.”|
|I’m sure examples like this would go on and on from players with every team that he either played, coached, or managed with. He was truly one of a kind. I would also like to point out a very big part of Don Baylor’s legacy. That is his 38 years of chairing the 65 Roses Golf Tournament that raises much-needed funds for the research in helping to find a cure for cystic fibrosis.|
|When Donnie first started doing this in 1978, the life expectancy of a young person with CF was 12 years old. In the 40 years from the time that he spent with CF, the life expectancy is now in the mid-forties. From nearly 40 years of golf tournaments, dinners and fundraisers of all types, Don helped to raise north of 10 million bucks with the Cystic Fibrosis Sports Club that he helped spread to the NHL, the NBA, and the NFL as well. It all started with Donnie Baylor and now … Miss you. Thank you. This year’s golf tournament will be renamed the “Don Baylor’s 65 Roses Memorial Classic.” So, that name is forever. He will forever be recognized for his 40 years of donating his time and energy to a wonderful cause.|
|Just as a quick side note, my wife and I had dinner last year with the head doctor of a cystic fibrosis foundation out of Washington, D.C. We’ve kept in touch. He texted me recently and he said, “There are some great combination therapies coming, Bob, in the second quarter of 2018 with some, in capital letters, MAJOR BREAKTHROUGHS by 2019.” So, I wanted to share the great news with everyone, how it looks like, in the very near future, our great genetic scientists and our doctors are knocking on the door for a cure for CF.|
|Don Baylor made a big difference. Don Baylor made a big difference. Not only in his fundraising, but increasing awareness with our government, so large amount of needed funds were passed through Congress while Don was involved. So much so, that Major League Baseball selected Don for the Roberto Clemente Award in 1985, given to the player that “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual’s contribution to his team.” It’s quite an honor. Quite an incredible honor.|
|Don passionately kept … I’m almost done, I’m sorry. I’m just carrying on. There’s so much to say about this great man. Don passionately cared about winning, and he expected you to care just as much as he did. He was always about team wins, and never about his stats.He brought everyone on the team up to his level of being a ferocious competitor. And at the same time, he was a catalyst in making the team more cohesive and closer than effort really could.
In closing, I would like to ask, on behalf of Donnie Baylor, that we keep his ideals of kindness, color-blindness, and being respectful towards everyone close to our hearts, and close to our minds. We were all very fortunate to have known him, and as Ken Singleton said, he made all of us better players. But just knowing Donnie Baylor made all of us better people. I’m sure we will all never forget this giant of a man.
Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was Baylor’s mentor in baseball. He helped Baylor understand the challenges he would face.