Dusty's vow to Hank fulfilled -- with a twist

Baker will have to beat legendary friend and mentor's former club to earn first ring

October 26th, 2021

Dusty Baker resolved to reach this World Series. Not just for himself. Not just for the Houston Astros. But for Henry Aaron.

Aaron was Baker’s friend, his mentor, his baseball father figure. When the pain of Aaron’s passing on Jan. 22 was still raw, a reporter from Sactown Magazine asked Baker to put words to the loss.

“In terms of what he did for people’s lives outside of baseball and what he did for mine, it really makes me want to do more for people,” Baker said. “I really want to try and win this year in his honor.”

The 72-year-old Baker has his chance now. He can win the ring that has famously eluded him as a skipper, and he can do it for his hero.

But because baseball never seems to miss an opportunity for irony or intrigue or just incredible coincidence, the team standing between Baker and that trophy that would mean so much to him is Hank’s team -- the Atlanta Braves.

What we have, then, in this World Series that begins Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park is a cosmic conflict. If the late Aaron is up there somewhere, able to whisper in the ears of the baseball gods, you’d have to imagine these are the pennant winners he would have been rooting for: Baker and the Braves.

But Hammerin’ Hank would surely be conflicted over whom to root for now that they’re actually facing each other in the Fall Classic.

“In the year of Hank Aaron’s passing, to go back to Atlanta and talk to his wife and his kids and all the people that are close to the family … it’s very special,” Baker said Sunday. “This is kinda going to be a storybook ending, really, for all of us.”

Game 1 comes 53 years, one month and 19 days after Baker, then a 19-year-old Atlanta outfield prospect, made his Major League debut as a player. He pinch-hit for Hall of Famer Phil Niekro (who, sadly, also passed away in the last year) and grounded out in the same inning in which Aaron drew a walk.

Their opponent that September day in 1968?

The Astros, of course.

Baker’s debut never would have happened if not for the promise Aaron had made to Baker’s mother, Christine, a year earlier. In the summer of 1967, Johnnie B. Baker Jr. was fresh out of Del Campo High School near Sacramento, Calif., and ready to commit to Santa Clara University on a basketball scholarship. But the Braves had interest in Baker and invited him to come to Los Angeles to meet members of the team during a series against the Dodgers.

That’s where Baker first met Aaron, who was 15 years his senior. After sizing up the young man, Aaron urged the Braves to draft Dusty.

Baker actually dreaded that possibility. He prayed that the Braves wouldn’t pick him, because, as a Black kid from Northern California, he feared playing ball in the Deep South, where he couldn’t eat where his white teammates ate or live where they lived.

Thanks to Aaron’s influence, however, Baker’s selection in the 26th round turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to him.

Baker’s father wanted him to go to college. After Baker signed his first professional contract on the hood of a car in the Dodger Stadium parking lot against his dad’s wishes, the two didn’t talk for several years. But Baker only signed after Aaron had made a promise to Baker's mother that he would look after her oldest son.

“I think it was harder for Dusty in the South than for me,” Aaron told the St. Louis Dispatch in 1993. “I had grown up there. He was unaware."

Aaron took Baker and outfielder Ralph Garr under his wing. At their first Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Fla., he helped them find a host family in a Black neighborhood. He let them borrow his car. He had them over for dinner. He showed them how to dress, how to act, how to train, how to push yourself to play through pain. His knowledge of the game and his dedication to it made an impression on them.

“He was second only to my dad,” Baker said of Aaron’s influence, “and my dad meant the world to me.”

Baker was billed as the next Hank Aaron. At Class A Greenwood in South Carolina, where Baker won over a tough audience by batting .342 in 52 games, he had the nickname, “The Little Hammer.”

The comparisons and expectations eventually irked Baker.

“It was great at first,” he once said, “but the shoes got heavier and heavier.”

Baker had his own nickname for Aaron: “Supe,” for superstar. And though he would never reach Aaron’s superstar ceiling as a player, the quiet wisdom he gleaned from Hank has never left him and has served him well.

“Once you told him something,” Aaron said of Baker in 1993, “you never had to repeat it.”

The relationship benefited both men.

When Aaron was going through a gut-wrenching divorce in 1971, he would have Baker and Garr sit on each side of him on team flights so they could goof off and make him laugh. In his autobiography, “I Had a Hammer,” Aaron wrote that he also counted on the fun-loving Baker to distract him from the stress of his chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record.

Before the Braves played the Dodgers on April 8, 1974, Aaron, sitting on 714, called his shot to Baker.

“I’m going to get it over with right now,” Aaron said.

“OK, Hank,” Baker replied.

Baker was in the on-deck circle when Aaron kept his promise. In the video of that famous feat, you won’t see Baker in the mob congratulating Aaron.

“I should have been the first one out there, but I felt it should be his moment,'' Baker once said. “After he hit it, there was about a 20-minute ceremony. When I came to bat after the ceremony, everyone was leaving. I heard all the seats go 'Clink, clink, clink.' I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm about to hit!’”

Baker, who earlier in the game had doubled to drive Aaron home with the run scored that broke Willie Mays’ National League record, drew a walk off Al Downing.

Aaron and Baker were teammates through the 1974 season, after which Aaron was traded to Milwaukee. A year later, the Braves dealt Baker to the Dodgers, for whom he’d have two All-Star seasons and win two Silver Slugger Awards.

The two remained connected, though.

On Aug. 1, 1982, Aaron was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. That same afternoon, Baker and the Dodgers played in Atlanta. Baker hit two home runs, the first of which nearly struck the sign commemorating the spot where Aaron had hit No. 715.

“Hank’s a close friend, and he was like my father figure when I was with the Braves,” Baker said afterward. “That’s sort of my tribute to him.”

Most fans today think of Baker only in terms of his managerial career. But he was a durable, reliable hitter in a playing career that spanned 19 seasons.

And Aaron’s intellect was a vital influence.

“He knew everything. Everything,” Baker once said. “He knew the umps, which ones were high-strike umps and which were low; he knew every pitcher's sequence, knew where to play every hitter, different on every pitch. One night in the dugout he said, 'Watch their left fielder. He puts his head down a little early every time fielding ground balls. If I hit one to him, I'm going to take off fast, slow down, then sprint.' That night, Hank hit a routine single to left, and I look up and he's on second base. He was amazing.”

Aaron taught Baker how to read pitchers and how to memorize their repertoires. Baker took those lessons and applied them in a four-year tenure as the Giants' hitting coach from 1989-92 -- the job that earned him his first managerial opportunity, also with San Francisco.

So it’s pretty safe to say that Baker would not be here, in the World Series dugout, if not for Aaron.

“He taught me a lot of life lessons, big time,” Baker said Sunday. “I don’t know why he chose me, because I might not have been his favorite, but I was one of them. He really taught me discipline. This guy was the most disciplined, hard-working, highest-concentration guy I ever met.”

Baker lived up to his promise in large measure because of the promise Aaron had made to his mom. The two men were like family. They were even business partners. Not long before he died, Aaron invested in Baker Family Wines, which is Dusty’s vineyard. When Baker took Aaron to a wine tasting, the legendary slugger took a sip of a cabernet and turned to his friend.

“Do you make a cab?” Aaron asked, pointedly.

Well, they sure did after that. The bold-flavored Hammerin’ Hank Cabernet Sauvignon was a bit of a deviation for a vineyard more focused on medium-bodied styles. But there was no way Baker was going to let Hank Aaron down.

Now, at this World Series, Baker’s intent is to do right by Aaron again, to win one in his memory … even if it means beating Hank’s Braves.

In the message he recorded for Aaron’s memorial service, Baker poured his heart out.

"You meant as much to me as anybody in my whole life,” he told his late mentor. “I just want to thank you for giving me love, discipline. Sometimes, you know, you had to tell me like it was. But I really appreciated you helping me be the man that I am. We all love you. We'll see you in heaven.”

If Aaron can see what’s happening now, he has to be smiling. Baker vs. the Braves.

So … who ya got, Hank?