Dusty Baker: from 19-year-old Braves rookie to 72-year-old Astros manager

Credit: Tony Gutierrez

Credit: Tony Gutierrez

In 1968, near the end of just their third season in Atlanta, the Braves called up a 19-year-old outfielder for his major-league debut.

That rookie, Dusty Baker, now the 72-year-old manager of the Houston Astros, is about to cross paths with the Braves again in the World Series.

He was in Atlanta most recently in January as a pallbearer at the funeral of his former teammate and beloved friend and mentor Hank Aaron, who undoubtedly would have relished a World Series featuring both the Braves and Baker.

“He would just be grinning inside,” said Ralph Garr, who also debuted as a Braves outfielder in 1968. “I know he’s grinning in Heaven now.”

The World Series matchup of Astros vs. Braves means a lot to Baker, too, as he maintains ties to Atlanta all these decades after playing here.

“It is special because that’s where it started,” Baker told reporters Sunday in Houston. “Being 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 — and also I know a bunch of people there from when I first started — it’s very special. This is kind of going to be a storybook ending, really, for all of us.”

Garr is thrilled about it because, he said, “I love the Braves, and I love Dusty Baker.”

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Now 75 and in his 37th year as a scout for the Braves, Garr lives in Houston and says it was “like hitting the lotto” when Baker, the godfather of Garr’s children, was hired as manager of the hometown team. Garr attended almost all of the Astros’ home games this season, not as a scout but as a friend of the manager for more than a half-century. When the Astros clinched the American League pennant Friday, Garr sat proudly in the stands with Baker’s wife and son.

“Dusty has been such a wonderful part of my life, all of my family’s lives,” Garr said.

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Baker’s long MLB journey began when the Braves drafted him out of a California high school in the 26th round in 1967, the same year they drafted Garr out of a Louisiana college (Grambling) in the third round. Before Baker signed with the Braves, Aaron promised Baker’s mother that he’d look after her son.

Baker’s first big-league at-bat came in Atlanta Stadium (later named Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium) on Sept. 7, 1968, as a pinch-hitter for Phil Niekro against, coincidentally, the Astros. (He grounded out to shortstop.) After bouncing between the majors and minors for a few years, Baker became a starting outfielder for the Braves in 1972 and hit .321, third best in the National League behind teammate Garr (.325) and the Chicago Cubs’ Billy Williams (.333). When Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record on April 8, 1974, Baker was in the on-deck circle.

Bob Hope, a Braves executive and publicist in the 1960s and ‘70s, remembers Baker being one of the team’s most popular and engaging players. He also recalls that Baker, in his first spring-training camp, was assigned a locker next to Aaron’s.

“We had him as Johnnie B. Baker in the press guide,” Hope said, “and he told me, ‘I’d rather you call me Dusty.’ So we changed it from then on.”

Coincidentally, the Astros now hold spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla., where the Braves trained when Baker was a young player.

“Dusty used to drive from California to spring training, and he’d pick me up in Louisiana,” Garr recalled. “I will never forget that Dusty and I both had a good season one year, and we called ourselves holding out (for better contracts from the Braves). Mr. Bill Lucas (then the team’s farm director and later its general manager) called us and said, ‘If y’all don’t get your butts down to spring training, I’ll run both of you off.’ Dusty looked at me, and I looked at him, and we rushed out of there for spring training.”

In November 1975, the Braves traded Baker to the Los Angeles Dodgers. (A month later, they traded Garr, who had won the 1974 NL batting title with a .353 average, to the Chicago White Sox.) Baker played eight seasons with the Dodgers, twice making the All-Star team and winning a World Series championship in 1981. He then played one season with the San Francisco Giants and two with the Oakland A’s.

ExploreFollow AJC coverage of the Braves in the World Series

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

When Baker ended his 19-year playing career at the end of the 1986 season, a career .278 hitter with 242 homers, he initially was reluctant to get into coaching or managing.

“I remember he told me he didn’t want to coach,” Garr said. “I told him I’ve always admired the way you know the game of baseball. And Henry Aaron had done a remarkable job of helping us to understand the game. So I talked Dusty into taking a coaching job with the Giants (in 1988), and the rest is history.”

Baker became the Giants’ manager in 1993, the year they won 103 games and finished second in the NL West to the Braves, who won 104. He remained the Giants’ manager for a decade and went on to manage the Cubs for four seasons (2003-2006), the Cincinnati Reds for six (2008-2013), the Washington Nationals for two (2016-27) and now the Astros for two.

He has a 1,987-1,734 record in 24 seasons and is the only manager to lead five MLB franchises to division titles. The 2021 Astros are the second team he has managed to the World Series, his 2002 Giants losing to the then-Anaheim Angels in seven games. Nineteen years later, at what Baker has described as “a cool 72,” he’s the second-oldest manager (behind Jack McKeon) to reach the World Series.

Credit: Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves

Credit: Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves

Baker has credited Aaron for much of his success, on and off the field. In a tribute at a memorial service for Aaron at Truist Park in January, Baker said Aaron “meant as much to me as anybody in my whole life” and thanked him “for giving me love, discipline ... (and) helping me be the man that I am.”

The respect was mutual. Said Hope, who joined Baker as a pallbearer at Aaron’s funeral: “To have the Braves in the World Series and Dusty managing the other team, it really wouldn’t get more special than that for Hank.”

The Astros hired Baker in January 2020 to take over a team enveloped in scandal for illicitly stealing signs during its 2017 World Series championship season. MLB found that the Astros used a camera to capture opposing catchers’ signs and banged a trash can to tip their hitters to what type of pitch was coming.

The cheating scandal, which made the Astros baseball’s most disliked team, resulted in the firing of manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. The Astros needed to hire a manager widely respected in the game and quickly chose Baker. Now he has them back in the World Series, and come Game 3 on Friday he’ll be back in the city where his distinguished career began 53 years ago.

“He does a wonderful job of communicating with players, and he has a wonderful knack of putting guys in position to succeed,” Garr said. “I’m so happy to see him in the position he is in today.”

Explore2017 - Dusty Baker: An old Brave comes home again

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