'He's family': Dusty, Aaron had a unique bond

January 22nd, 2021

HOUSTON -- Dusty Baker’s mother wanted him to go to college, but young Johnnie B. Baker Jr. had bigger dreams. So when he signed in 1967 to play baseball with the Atlanta Braves at 18 years old, legendary slugger Hank Aaron promised Baker’s mother he would take care of her son.

Aaron made sure Baker went to bed on time, insisted he showed up at church every Sunday and had him up early enough to eat a good breakfast daily. They were all things Baker didn’t necessarily want to do as a young man, but they kept him out of trouble. Baker learned to appreciate the guidance and friendship as the years flew by. And even now, hardly a day goes by where Baker doesn’t apply one of Aaron’s lessons to his own life.

"He was second only to my dad, and my dad meant the world to me,” an emotional Baker told MLB.com from his home in California early Friday, only minutes after his wife had informed him that Aaron had passed away at the age of 86.

Aaron, a baseball legend and American icon, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 following a 23-year career in which he was a 25-time All-Star, National League Most Valuable Player ('57) and two-time batting champion. He hit .393 when the Braves won a seven-game World Series against the Yankees in '57. He was baseball's home run king for 33 years.

And he was a towering figure in the life of Baker, who started a 19-year Major League career as a teammate of Aaron’s on the Braves in 1968 and has taken five different teams, including the 2020 Astros, to the playoffs in 23 years as a big league manager. Aaron was among those who called Baker last summer when he picked up his first win as Astros manager.

“He helped me in so many ways, you know, more off the field than on the field,” Baker, 71, said. “I grew up with his kids. I was actually closer in age to his kids than I was to him. We kind of all grew up together. I was 18, 19 and they were 10, 12. I mean, he’s family. He’s family.”

Coming out of high school, Baker had hoped to be drafted by any team except the Braves. He had no interest in playing in the Deep South, where racial unrest in the 1960s was rampant. Baker later said it was one of the best things that ever happened to him because of Aaron, who helped him deal with racial injustices the same way Aaron did while pursuing Babe Ruth’s home run record.

“I wasn’t going to sign,” Baker said. “I was going to play basketball. My parents got divorced and he told my mom that if I signed, if I had confidence in myself to make it to the big leagues by the time my class would have graduated from college, then go ahead and sign. If not, go to college and get your college education. I decided, you know, I was going to sign to help my family, and he told my mom he’d take care of me like I was his son on and off the field, which he did. Him and I, we were always running around the hallways together.”

Baker and Aaron were teammates in Atlanta from 1968-74, before Aaron returned to Milwaukee to finish his career with the Brewers. Baker’s career took off a year later, after he was traded to the Dodgers before the '76 season, where he played for Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame manager who died earlier this month. Baker was roommates with Braves outfielder Ralph Garr, and they stuck close to Aaron.

“We signed the same day, same time,” Baker said. “We were always with Hank. Always.”

A few years ago, Baker recalled digging through the trash of Aaron’s hotel room on the road to read some of the threatening letters he had received as he chased Ruth’s record. Aaron didn’t want Baker to see the letters, but Baker soon realized that if Aaron was strong enough to deal with racism, then he better be, too.

“He was a man, you know?” Baker said. “He was a man, he was a father, he was a social leader -- long time ago. He was very generous. He helped everybody. He really did. He helped everybody, especially African American young people.”

Baker grew up idolizing Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers because his dad was a Dodgers fan. Any time Baker thought about getting in a scuffle at school, he’d remember the words of his dad: “Think about what Jackie would do.” When Baker joined the Braves, Aaron told him firsthand stories about the life and legacy of Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. He can’t imagine where he’d be without Aaron in his life.

“I was a little on the wild side and liked to have a good time,” Baker said. “I was never a bad kid. I was never in trouble, but I was close to trouble. It was fun, you know what I mean? Trouble wasn’t no good for you.”

The past year has brought a world of heartbreak and pain for Baker. Lasorda’s death on Jan. 7 hit him especially hard, and then former Dodgers teammate and Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton passed away 12 days later. Prior to that, Baker mourned the losses of Hall of Famers Lou Brock, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan and Phil Niekro.

Baker was also friends with former Astros legends Jimmy Wynn and Bob Watson, both of whom died in early 2020, and he also said goodbye to former big leaguers and friends Jay Johnstone and Claudell Washington.