You don’t have to care about baseball to care about Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, whose team is heading to the sixth game in the World Series tomorrow. He is a civil rights hero: a Black Major League Baseball manager who’s taken five teams, in three decades, in both leagues, to the playoffs and/or World Series.
And who, in almost all of those years, didn’t have a contract waiting for him at the end of the season.
Is that, maybe, about race? I think so. It’s complicated—like stories about race always are. It’s been a melange of culture clash and bad professional fit and changing white front-office dudes… and yet, when you see it over the course of almost 30 years, it’s hard not to say race had something, maybe, to do with it.
But also: Stories about racism all sound the same, in a way, and Baker’s is so much more. Baker’s story sounds to me like… Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, Levon Helm, Angela Davis, Andre 3000 and… so many more. I’ve covered him (I’m not a baseball writer; I’m a politics and culture writer, and he’s a political and cultural figure) for almost 30 years. Most of what I wrote isn’t even online, it’s so long ago. But I repurposed it in a couple of pieces when I was at Salon, so I can share snippets.
I became a San Francisco Giants fan the moment they hired Baker, almost 30 years ago. I can’t find the San Francisco Chronicle stories that made me love him, online or off. The piece just let me know he was a bad-ass, an instigator, someone who would continue the legacy of Jackie Robinson and Henry Aaron (who was his baseball mentor)—and do it in his (at the time) Malcolm X glasses, while listening to Outkast or Tupac or Van Morrison, whenever I got to stop by his office. Which wasn’t often, but was enough.
In his first season, in 1993, the Giants won 103 games—but the Atlanta Braves (yes, I do get the echo, and it pains me. Retire the tomahawk chop, assholes) won 104. It was absolutely crushing to me. But Baker took to local television, as a commentator on the post-season games, and I was like: “I’m moping around as a fan, but he’s still fine? I have to know how he does that.” So I interviewed him for a local magazine the next spring.
He talked openly about race and being a Black manager of a multiracial team. It honestly changed my little white life. Though not at first. In person, he was all bravado—race didn’t matter. “I didn’t even think about that. My attitude is, I’ve got a job to do, and it’s not a matter of black and white.” I asked him about how players tended to separate themselves, by race, in the clubhouse. “That’s in every job. You hang out with people you have the most in common with.” I gave up. Then he called me on the phone a few weeks later. He talked about his struggles going to the South in the minor leagues—and I’m not even going to share that here, because it still hurts me to read—and also about clubhouse racial politics.
“Sure, I’d like to see more mixing, but there are reasons there isn’t. White people aren’t used to thinking about their race; Black people have to think about it all the time. Guys will say, ‘Bake, man, I wish you’d been with me last night; I was the only white guy out at this club.’ And I’ll say, ‘Now you know how it feels.’ But on the field, we’re a team. In that clubhouse, we’re together.”
It’s not that I’d never thought about that, or that none of my Black friends had shared that feeling with me. It was just that it was unexpected to hear it from a major league sports figure, of whatever sport. Or a major industry CEO. A major person, in any field. We didn’t talk that way in 1994. (You can read this piece, which has a lot of other time-specific racial revelations.)
In 2002, after Baker had won three Manager of the Year awards, the same magazine hired me to do a 10-year appreciation of his tenure. But what I quickly found out was that management was gearing up to fire him. I’m not a sports reporter, obviously—but I had the local scoop of a lifetime, in sports terms. Baker was recovering from prostate cancer, and I was lame enough to believe that would keep the Giants management from firing him.
Here’s what the late then-owner of the team, Peter Magowan, told me: “I know the man was coming back from prostate cancer, and I’m well aware what that can do. I lost a brother last December who had prostate cancer, among other problems. I’ve got another brother with prostate cancer. But the job is what it is. And with the job comes responsibilities and, inevitably, expectations.”
Almost 20 years later, I cannot believe he actually said that.
The beat went on. “I don’t think, as an organization, we get anywhere near the credit that we should for the things that we’ve done,” Magowan told me. “And one of them is put consistently good teams on the field. I mean, it’s all very well to cite Dusty. And I’m not trying to take anything at all away from Dusty. But when we look at his Manager of the Year awards, I think in part they reflect an ‘organization of the year’–type award.” He went on: “I’m just a little resentful. I think the players haven’t gotten the credit they should have.”
The high point of my career, in terms of national renown, came when then–World Series announcer Tim McCarver told the crowd in game five of the World Series (this is not online either!) something like: “If you want to know why Dusty Baker doesn’t have a contract extension, you have to read an article in San Francisco magazine.” My little Nokia phone blew up—with phone calls, I couldn’t get texts at the time. The Giants won that game 16-4. You read that right. They went up 3-2.
Of course, they would famously go on to lose the series. And Baker would lose his job. And I would always feel guilty—and honestly, I just realized, I still do—as if by exposing the rift, I’d widened it. As if, by revealing a decision rooted in many issues, but especially race, I encouraged a decision that I will always believe was rooted mainly in racism.
Baker went on to manage the Chicago Cubs (no comment), the Cincinnati Reds (read this piece by my friend Howard Bryant, in which they discuss the local Underground Railroad sites and why he was praying for Barack Obama), the Washington Nationals, and now, the Houston Astros. He, and his team, faced heckling on the road all season long over the 2017 cheating scandal (which, of course, Baker was not involved in).
But the Astros hired the man with the most integrity in Major League Baseball, and he’s handled it.
“This team has a very strong mind,” Baker told reporters. “It’s strong-willed—dealing with adversity, dealing with booing, dealing with the amount of negative energy that was cast our way throughout the year.”
Sounds like Baker himself.
A few writers have noticed what’s gone on in the last 30 years, and they’ve written about it. Claire Smith captured a lot of it here. Why doesn’t he boast about the five teams, two leagues, three playoffs thing? “I don’t really think nothing, other than why was I on so many different teams,” Baker said. “I’m serious. I feel fortunate to have gotten that many jobs, but I feel unfortunate that I shouldn’t have lost jobs when I was winning.”
Or as David Steele wrote: “Managing five teams to division crowns makes him look big and makes baseball look small.”
The Astros are down 3-2 going into Tuesday night’s game six. Here’s hoping they reverse my 2002 3-2 nightmare. Either way, the idea that this is Baker’s “last chance” at a World Series ring makes me crazy. He should be back in Houston next year. There are so many mediocre managers in the MLB, I’d go to sleep before naming all of them. They’re all white.
Could that, possibly, be about race? You tell me.