By Lenny Moon
A product of Riverside, Ca, Johnnie B. Baker aka “Dusty” has always shown signs of being a fierce competitor since his childhood. His moniker of “Dusty” was said to be attached to his propensity of being the dirtiest kid on the playground or even from his backyard sports activities. For newer fans of “America’s Pastime”, Baker was quite a power-hitting outfielder during his playing days which spanned 19 years (1968-1986). Two things quickly come to mind when reflecting on his active career. On the final day of the 1977 season, Baker became part of Major League Baseball history when deposited his 30th home run of the season for the Los Angeles Dodgers thus becoming part of the first quartet (Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Reggie Smith) to blast 30 or more home runs from the same lineup. The second Baker memory that readily jumps out is his being on deck in 1974 (see video link at the bottom of article) when MLB icon Hank Aaron slammed his 715th round tripper vs ironically the same Dodgers.
A quick Dusty Baker story. During the time I was covering MLB on a consistent basis as Sports Editor for a Houston, Tx based newspaper, I decided to do a feature on Baker while he was the skipper of the San Francisco Giants during the late 90s. I strolled over to the Astrodome (then home of the local Houston Astros) to make that happen. I popped into the Giants clubhouse and did not know specifically where the manager’s office was at that time. I located a familiar-looking face and decided to ask him where the Skip’s office was. The gentleman was Bobby Bonds (father of famed slugger Barry Bonds) who was on staff as one of the coaches. The senior Bonds instructed where the office was located and offered that Baker has an open door policy and if closed, wait until reopened to approach. I thanked him and walked down this narrow hallway to the door. Once there, I posted directly across from the door when I detected a series of high-pitched discussions seeping from the other side of the wall. I began to have second thoughts after hearing the heated discussion assuming that I had chosen a “not so good day” for a friendly chat with the Giants skipper.
Following an estimated 10 min wait, the door flung open and out walks a smiling Barry Bonds who spoke and went on about his business. I hesitated but thought again that since I had invested this amount of effort to procure this visit with Baker that I self-convinced myself to move forward with the process. The skipper invited me to come in and have a seat which resulted in one of the more memorable baseball interviews that I encountered from that era. I asked Baker to reflect on his days as a young player with the Atlanta Braves, and what was revealed was his relationship with mentor Hank Aaron who himself was a product of the Negro Leagues and consequently one of the early Black players to enter the game in 1954. Their association carried beyond the baseball diamond and the reverence for the “Hammer” from Dusty is a conversation that I’ll always remember.
As a manager, Baker has exceeded all expectations with his current Houston Astros. He inherited a team that had been penalized by the league for cheating and resulted in the firing of previous manager A.J. Hinch. Candidates were not exactly lining up to fill the Stros newly created void, and eventually Baker agreed to come out of retirement to take the job. In his first full season, Dusty led his club to the World Series and at press time has Houston again positioned as an American League force and will be the manager of the 2022 MLB All-Star Game.