The most successful MLB manager — arguably speaking, I suppose — is the Houston Astros’ Dusty Baker. Fresh off a World Series championship season and an aggregate win/loss total of 1969-1692 (a .538 winning average), Baker defines successful coaching. But that isn’t all. He has compiled a 34-34 postseason record and also led the San Francisco Giants to the series in 2002.
However, the former MLB outfielder — a .278 career average with 242 dingers and World Series courtesy of the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers — has earned a distinction that many don’t know about. In 2017, Baker became a member of the United States Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame.
“One of the things that I’m most proud of all, is being in the Marine Corps Hall of Fame. And I just went down there and walked around, you know, for the day and reflected back on my life,” Baker said. “And you know … I’m proud of being in that Marine Corps Hall of Fame.”
Baker is no stranger to halls of fame. He’s been inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, Sacramento Sports Hall of Fame, Riverside (California) Sports Hall of Fame and the National High School Hall of Fame. There’s only one remaining — and he’s a lock.
“Dusty Baker’s going to get into the [Baseball]Hall of Fame,” wrote Chris Bodig, a former producer for ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, on the Cooperstown Cred blog. “If he can seal the deal with a (World Series) title this weekend, that will put the icing on his Cooperstown sundae. But he deserves to make it regardless.”
But Baker is also proud to have served in the Marine Corps.
“Some of my strength came from being raised in the church, and some of my strength came from being a Marine … I’m serious about that …. willing to work and not give up and keep fighting and fighting,” Baker told Military Families Magazine in an exclusive interview. “I mean this is what we’re taught as a Marine.”
Baker joined the Marine Corps Reserve while playing with the Atlanta Braves organization in the late 1960s.
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“And so the first year, I didn’t leave until June after school was out. And I led the team in hitting,” he said.
Baker said the Braves felt he was on a fast track to a major league career.
“And they wanted me to join the National Guard.”
But that was around the time of the chaotic Democratic National Convention in Chicago when all hell broke loose between protesters and the Chicago police, fortified by the National Guard.
“And at that time, the National Guard were being called out, you know, with unrest and riots. And I’m like, ‘No, I can’t join the National Guard.’ And so they [the Atlanta Braves] said, ‘Well, you’d have to join the Marines,’ so I said, ‘OK,’ I joined the Marines then.”
Baker was sent to Parris Island for basic training and made the best of it.
“I took pride in trying to be the best at everything,” he said. “You know, I was expert in rifle and pistol, and I won the hand-to-hand combat with the other platoons.”
Baker’s father was in the Navy, and several of his uncles served too; Navy, Army and Air Force. He was familiar with the Armed Forces, and serving was really part of a family tradition. Baker said the Marine Corps enhanced his life.
“I learned about self-defense. I learned about hand-to-hand combat. I learned about weaponry. I learned how to survive,” Baker said. “I just learned a lot.”
Baker credits the Marines with playing a critical role in his proudest accomplishment as a player. The Astros skipper was traded from the Braves to the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 1975 season and subsequently suffered a knee injury while playing basketball in the winter of 1976. And it showed during the season. He finished 1976 with a mere four home runs — he had averaged about 17 per year the prior four seasons — 39 RBIs and a .242 batting average.
“And boy, that was a tough year … They were booing me every day,” Baker said.
He had a knee operation during the off-season and hit 30 home runs the following season, helping the Dodgers earn a trip to the playoffs. But that first season in Los Angeles tested the long-time MLB manager and California native. What made it more difficult was he grew up a Dodgers fan and dreamt about playing for the iconic franchise.
“And then to get there and fail miserably, my first year, boy, that was a downer,” Baker said. “But you know, some of my strength came from being raised in the church, and some of my strength came from being a Marine … I’m serious about that. You know, the willing to work and not give up and keep fighting and fighting … this is what we’re taught as a Marine.”
Baker also was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had a stroke, but soldiered on, partly because of his experience as a Marine.
“Being a Marine had a lot to do with my perseverance, and between dad and the church had a lot to do with my perseverance, to keep striving and keep working,” he said.
And the veteran of the big leagues received a well-rounded “education” in the Marine Corps Reserve. He served in 50-caliber Howitzer and MP units from Richmond, Virginia, to Sacramento, California, and even chauffeured around generals.
“One time, they went to Pendleton, and I had brig duty in an MP unit. That was a little weird because there were a couple of guys in the brig that they said had done some Vietnam War crimes, but I grew up with them as kids,” Baker said.
Though his experience in the Marines wasn’t perfect, in true Baker form he embraced the positive and processed the negative.
“So, it was a learning experience, taught me discipline, which I needed at the time,” he said. “Once a month, you did a weekend in Atlanta, and then I go to the stadium and try to play the game, and then we leave for two weeks every summer. And we couldn’t touch a bat or ball ‘cause we were a Marine.”
Baker said serving his commitment and playing professional baseball had its trials, requiring him to jump right back into playing after missing days or weeks.
“I’d come back not hitting for two weeks, and I didn’t have a rehab assignment so they throw you right back in the lineup,” he said. “That was a challenging part of it.”
But there were other disappointments too. Baker’s unquestionable commitment never materialized in a higher ranking. Coming out of boot camp, he was promoted to lance corporal but that’s where his rank remained.
“I never got any more rank after that,” he said. “And that was the part that’s probably disappointing because everybody likes to see progress and likes to see themselves being elevated.”
However, Baker said the Marines taught him teamwork, probably more than any team sport ever did.
“You know, when you got to try to protect a guy’s life that you may not even like, but you need him to live, and he may need you to live … I learned a lot,” he said.
No doubt those experiences have helped him manage the many personalities he has encountered throughout his career, such as Barry Bonds, Justin Verlander, Bryce Harper, Aroldis Chapman, Sammy Sosa and a variety of owners and general managers.
“You learn how to coexist at the workplace, and you learn hard work … you learn the chain of command, you know?”
Serving as a reservist for six years seems to have “served” Baker well. His appreciation for the time spent in the Marine Corps is apparent.Read comments