'Very special to go back': Baker's ATL roots

October 26th, 2021

One thing you can say about Astros manager Dusty Baker: He hasn't forgotten his friends in the Braves' organization, a team he played for from 1968-75 and will face in the World Series starting Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park.

Baker will tell anybody who will listen about his mentor and teammate for seven years, Hank Aaron, who taught Baker the ropes in the Major Leagues.

After the Astros won the American League pennant on Friday night, Baker wanted fans to know that he was thinking about Aaron, who passed away in January of natural causes. Two days later, he told local media he was looking forward to going back to Atlanta to see members of the Aaron family.

“In the year of the Hank Aaron celebration and being the year of his passing, to go back to Atlanta ... I plan to talk to his wife, his kids and people who are close to the family,” Baker said. “I know a bunch of people [from] when I first started. It’s very special to go back.”

Former manager Davey Johnson knows all about Baker as they were teammates for two-plus seasons starting in 1973. That offense that first year was something to watch with Atlanta leading the National League in batting average and the Majors in home runs. Baker drove in a career-high 99 runs that year.

“[Baker] was a great teammate. He has been a good friend for a long time,” Johnson said via telephone. “He was a complete player. He took the game seriously. We had a great leader on the club in Hank Aaron. You became a better hitter just watching Hank hit.”

Baker is still close to Cito Gaston, the first Black manager to win a World Series title. In fact, Baker said in a text message to MLB.com, “That’s my boy.”

Their friendship dates back to 1967, when they were playing with Double-A Austin, then a Braves Minor League affiliate.

Gaston, 77, badly wants Baker to win his first World Series as a manager and become the third Black manager to win it all. After Gaston won back-to-back championships with Toronto in 1992 and 1993, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts accomplished the feat in 2020.

When reached by phone on Sunday afternoon, Gaston said while he hopes Baker wins it all, he is also is rooting for Braves manager Brian Snitker because they were roommates while coaching in the team’s instructional league in the 1970s.

“It would mean a lot [if Baker won the World Series],” Gaston said. “Hopefully, it will create more jobs for African Americans. I know it did when I won. I hope that happens again.”

Baker and former Braves outfielder Ralph Garr remain close, too. Garr is best known for winning the National League batting title with a .353 average in 1974. Baker is the godfather of Garr's two kids, and Garr's wife is the godmother of Baker's daughter. Baker met his first wife through Garr, and he credits Garr for watching his back while they were playing in the South during the 1960s.

"I'd never been to the South, and he kept me out of a lot of trouble," Baker said in 2016. "I would get a little belligerent if the cops gave me a ticket or called me 'boy.' He kind of taught me the ropes of being in the South. We did everything together. He helped motivate me all the way up to the big leagues. He was always one step ahead of me."

Baker and Garr started playing every day in the Braves' outfield during the early 1970s. The duo was separated after the Braves traded Baker to the Dodgers and Garr to the White Sox in 1975. Although they were apart for more than 40 years, Baker heard from Garr via telephone at least three times a month.

"He is like a brother," Garr said in 2016. "He is very intelligent. He is an adviser. He is a loving person. He is a very respectful person."

Is Baker a Hall of Famer? In Johnson’s opinion, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

“He accomplished so much,” Johnson said. “He has helped so many people. He has always led by example. He is well rounded -- a lot more than most of us. His entire career is a Hall of Fame career -- top to bottom. He has taken five clubs to the postseason. That’s the hard part. He has been a positive influence with every club he has been with.”