A Walk Through Don Baylor’s Austin

Don Baylor (standing, second from right) was Stephen F. Austin High School’s first black varsity baseball player. (via SFAHS 1967 Yearbook)

If you talk to people of a certain age, they will remember where they were when they heard John F. Kennedy was shot in November of 1963. It was a sudden and internationally significant act of violence carried out by Lee Harvey Oswald (or by whatever group of people, depending on which theory of the assassination you believe) that also wounded Texas Gov. John Connally as the motorcade passed through downtown Dallas.

Don Baylor didn’t remember where he was when he heard about the JFK shooting as much as he recalled being in an Austin junior high classroom two rooms down from Gov. Connally’s daughter when she found out her father had been shot, by an announcement over the school intercom. It was a classroom in O. Henry Junior High which, prior to the 1962 school year, Baylor would not have allowed to attend due to his skin color.

The West Austin of Don Baylor’s childhood was an area that had the governor’s mansion and the homes of many of the city’s wealthy and high-profile people, including University of Texas Longhorns football coach Darrell Royal. Except there was also a half-square-mile area called Clarksville, which extended west from Lamar Boulevard to the Missouri Pacific Railroad, that did not have paved streets, sidewalks, or playgrounds other than weed-covered lots. This was the West Austin Don Baylor grew up in, and even the black residents of Austin’s historically poor and black East Side referred to Clarksville as the ghetto.

In the obituaries written about Baylor since his passing on Aug. 7, his highlights have been mentioned. His was a career in which, as a young player, he had a combination of power and speed that would place him among the league leaders in home runs, runs scored, runs batted in, and stolen bases.

He was a lock to finish near the top of the leaderboard in one category: hits by pitch; He placed no lower than fourth in his final 17 seasons and led the American League in the category eight times. It was no wonder he retired as the modern-day record holder in the category with 267. His on-field abilities as an outfielder earned him the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1979 while a member of the California Angels.

The obits also mentioned his nine seasons spent as the inaugural manager of the Colorado Rockies and later at the helm of the Chicago Cubs. Baylor even won the 1995 National League Manager of the Year Award, with the Rockies in only their third year of existence.

However, for this nearly 50-year professional baseball lifer, the awards and stat lines were accompanied with anecdotes about his “presence,” “leadership,” “love” and “impact,” with the descriptors “tough” and “gentle” used in equal measures. He was a man whose part in the greater baseball fraternity was more important than his game-winning playoff home runs and postseason awards.

It would be easy to speculate that Baylor’s experience being in the first class of three black students to integrate Austin public schools played a part in developing this character. But it would be just as easy to suppose that Baylor succeeded in trying times due to his character already being evident at the age of 12. In all likelihood, it was a combination, added to whatever other elements go into creating the whole of a person.

For a young Baylor though, a driving reason to want to go to O. Henry Junior High was not civil rights advancement and equality but the simple desire to go to the school that was closest to his home. Baylor spoke of being too young to fully understand why he could not go to the closer schools or play on the nicer playgrounds; it was just something he knew he had to endure, as did his parents and grandparents.

Before integration, traveling to school was more involved than just walking down the street. The journey included an hour-long trip across the city requiring two buses to reach Kealing Junior High in East Austin. At the bus transfer on South Congress by the Texas State Capital building, the Hispanic students would wait for their separate bus to take them to South Austin. When the school year started in 1962, Baylor finally was able to walk to school.

The civil rights fights and advancements in the 1960s carry a heavy emotional weight in the present day 50-plus years since they started. This weight is accompanied by the iconic presence of people and places that need only a word or two to bring to recognition: Selma, bus, Malcolm, Rosa, I have a…

It was a time of marches featuring thousands, speeches to hundreds of thousands, and race riots. But what can get lost in the passage of time and the turmoil this nation went through, and is still, is that these fights were for black people to do small, basic things. Sit at the same lunch counter as everyone else. Take your children to the same playgrounds. Stay at the same hotel as your teammates during spring training. To be able to walk to school instead of being bused an hour across town.

I was writing my first draft of this article while I found out about the rally and accompanying violence in Charlottesville, Va. It was roughly while writing the paragraph about Baylor’s character that I saw an alert that a 32-year-old woman named Heather Heyer lost her life when hit by a car driven through a crowd by a 20-year-old white supremacist who had traveled from Ohio to attend the event. Several hours later, I saw the pictures of a young black male being beaten and left with a large bloody gash in his forehead, while his attacker yelled “Die n*****!”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Writing about civil rights in baseball is difficult when images of someone swinging a large piece of wood at a young black man wishing him death are hours fresh.

I do not call nor consider myself a historian, but history is what I am interested in. It’s what I search out, what I read, what I write about; it’s the locations I make it a point to visit whenever I am in a new place or seek to discover in the city I live. For me, the search for details of the past may at times be difficult, but the history itself usually isn’t. Dealing with and trying to understand an event that is only a few hours old is more difficult.

The difficulty comes in the simplicity. Nazis are bad, and if you are part of a group that attaches itself to any Nazi beliefs, rhetoric, or images, you are in the wrong. If you want to protest someone of a different skin color having the same basic rights as, you are wrong. If you want to harm people because of their skin color, you are wrong. It’s that simple. Yet people still believe these things, and that is a complex thing for me to understand.

This violence in Virginia was occurring during the same time as Baylor’s funeral service in Austin. And as simple as it is to know that attacking people because they are black is wrong, it is also simple that a 12-year-old in 1960s Austin should be able to attend the junior high that was closest to him.

The walk to school may have been easy for the athletic adolescent, but what happened inside of O. Henry wasn’t always. While Baylor did make some lifelong friends with some of his white classmates, he was excluded by far more. He had incidents with teachers that included one hitting him in the head with a book when he got an answer wrong and others telling him not to walk with white girls between classes.

Knowing how difficult the situation was and how hard it would be on the seventh grader even if he did everything right, Baylor’s mother stressed the importance of not getting into fights. But early in the school year, one boy yelled, “Why don’t you n*****s go back to the other side of town, go to school there!”

Despite his promise to his mother, he tore after the student and chased him inside the auditorium, where they fought on the school stage in front of their classmates. Baylor went to the school principal and later got into further trouble when he returned home. As for how the fight itself turned out, all he would say was that he and the two other blacks that integrated alongside him never were called that word again.

In ninth grade, Baylor began to attend Stephen F. Austin High School, an institution that had a long baseball history. The hallways were lined picture of famous alumni, including Ray Culp, who at that time was an All-Star pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, and Bibb Falk, the star outfielder who took over for Joe Jackson in the White Sox outfield following Jackson’s ban. His sophomore season, Baylor became the Maroons first-ever black varsity baseball player.

However, Don Baylor was far from the first black baseball player in Austin.

There are many injustices that accompany an institution like segregation. An obvious one is exclusion, but a long-term effect of that exclusion ends up being an omission from the history books. The story of Bibb Falk is easy to find. He had a stellar collegiate career, became a star outfielder who finished as high as second in a batting title race behind Babe Ruth, and returned to Austin, where he became the legendary manager of the University of Texas Longhorns baseball team, winning multiple College World Series.

And while Falk has been a bit forgotten in modern times–as tends to happen to players who made their major league debut 97 years ago–you easily can find detailed records of every game he played in during his days with the White Sox and the Indians, as well as the local Austin newspapers chronicling every game of his managerial career with recaps, quote, and interviews.

During this same time, Austin had a Negro League team that had more players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown than it does known mentions in the local press. This is a case of segregation erasing all but a few scraps of the history of an entire team.

The Austin Black Senators were a semipro team (all Texas black teams are officially considered semipro, other than the Newark Eagles, who relocated to Houston for the 1949 and parts of the 1950 season) that competed in various leagues and barnstormed from some time following the start of the 20th century to around World War II.

Details are so sparse that it is even difficult to pinpoint the years the team existed. It is considered to be the first to tour Mexico; it began winter trips in the country beginning in the early 1930s. One of their few mentions in the Austin newspapers is not so much a blurb about the team but the announcement of the death of one of the team’s captains during a tour of Mexico during 1933.

During the the Black Senators’ tenure, future Hall of Famer members Joe Williams, Willie Wells and Hilton Smith played for them. Most of the publicly available information about their times with the team comes from interviews with Wells and Smith later in their lives. Another member of the Hall, Biz Mackey, is linked to the team, and that a player his level played with litle notice for the team is an indication of the sort of historical record that exists about the team.

In the fall of 1944, Jackie Robinson took a job as the head basketball coach at Samuel Huston College. The job was offered by the Rev. Karl Downs, who was the president of the small college. Downs was Robinson’s minister and mentor while the two were in Pasadena, Calif., and would become one of Robinson’s closest friends.

Robinson was fresh from an honorable discharge from the Army, where he fought his own battle against segregation while stationed at Fort Hood in the Central Texas town of Killeen. On July 6, 1944, Robinson was ordered to sit on the back of the post bus by the civilian driver. Robinson refused. The driver called military police, who subsequently handcuffed, shackled, and arrested Robinson. Shortly thereafter, the future civil rights pioneer faced a court martial for his actions, but he was exonerated after a trial that lasted several hours.

While in Austin, Robinson struck up a friendship with Kansas City Monarch Hilton Smith, who was returning home for the offseason. From this friendship developed Robinson’s tryout with the Monarchs in the spring of 1945.

During my research for this article, I was not able to find any record of Baylor mentioning Willie Wells, Hilton Smith or any of the other prominent black baseball players who had passed through Austin. Maybe he had, and those mentions are buried in newspaper articles that aren’t yet digitized, or in books I haven’t read. But Baylor was excited to play on the same high school team that Bibb Falk and Ray Culp played for.

And as excited as I would be if we lived in a world where Falk and Culp were household names, it makes me sad when I wonder if Baylor grew up not knowing about the Hall of Fame talent that not only grew up within miles of where he was from, but likely likely had played on some of the same baseball fields.

On Saturday, Aug. 12, Baylor was laid to rest at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. The cemetery is the final resting place for many prominent Texans, from the Father of Texas himself, Stephen F. Austin, to Gov. Connally, the father of a school friend who was kind to Baylor while the two attended junior high together.

Don Baylor was not the first black man, nor was he the first baseball player, to receive the honor of being buried in this place as a tribute to the state’s prominent citizens. That honor belong to Willie Wells, whose body was moved from Evergreen Cemetery in 2004. Following his selection to the Hall of Fame in 1998, Congress Avenue (the city of Austin’s unofficial Main Street) was renamed Willie Wells Avenue. The honor came eight years after he died, having been living in the same South Austin home he was raised in.

Congress Avenue also was renamed in honor of Baylor for a day following his MVP season of 1979. Don Baylor Avenue worked south from the State Capitol building through downtown and ended where the Congress Avenue Bridge crosses what was then known as Town Lake. Its starting point was a location he knew well. It was where a young Baylor had to wait for a bus to attend a school across the city.

References & Resources

Eric Robinson is a Fort Worth, Texas-based writer, researcher, and presenter on baseball history and sometimes more. He is co-chairman of SABR's Asian Baseball Committee. For more information please check out his website, Lyndon Baseball Johnson, and/or Facebook page.
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87 Cards
5 years ago

In 1976, Baylor was traded from the Orioles to the A’s for Reggio Jax. That same year, Austin paved the roads of Clarksville. Source: a colleague attending UTexas at that time.

Eric Robinson
5 years ago
Reply to  87 Cards

The original plan for this article was to talk about what happened to Clarksville afterwards but the story went in a different direction. In recent years, the corporate headquarters for Whole Foods and Home Away are on the outer edges of the community with home prices starting in excess of $1 million.

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

Nice article about someone whose background I was never aware of. Baylor was part of what I would call the Second Wave of black baseball players to integrate the majors. The list included Reggie Jackson, Joe Morgan, Paul Blair, Reggie Smith, George Scott, Jim Wynn, and countless others who started in the late 60’s and then reached their primes in the ’70’s. My recollection may be wrong, but I think the consensus was that Baylor would be another Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. As good as he was, I don’t think he ever met the expectations that the baseball scouts had for him when he first came up with the Orioles.

Barney Coolio
5 years ago

Interesting story. Baylor never made it to the World Series until his third to last season, but he finished his career with 3 consecutive WS appearances. 1986-1988. He won the middle one with Minnesota.

He appeared in 8 games with the 1970 Baltimore Orioles. Not sure if he was given a ring. He did not appear in the WS for them.

87 Cards
5 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

In 1970, Baylor received a WS share of 305 US Dollars; no word on the ring bling; the Birds’ batboy got $1,822. Take my word for it or get out the magnifiers: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1970/10/30/page/58/article/orioles-get-18-215-slices .

Baylor had three RBIs in his MLB debut vs the Tribe including the 11th inning walk-off RBI.

Cuban X Senators
5 years ago

Great job, Eric.

I’d read the next article on Clarksville, if you still want to write it.

I’ve visited, lived in, read about Austin for 25 years, and there’s still so much to learn.

Eric Robinson
5 years ago

Thanks! I no longer live in Austin so it’s made it a little more difficult to do research on more neighborhood specific of the city but that is something I am still curious about so if I come across the right research material that could be a fun article/project.

Brandon T
5 years ago

Great article, thanks.

David Keene
5 years ago

Great article! I recall Mary Baylor from the early 1970’s who was head of the Clarksville Neighborhood Center on West Lynn Street. Was Mary Don’s mother? She was really kind and warm-hearted and a great advocate for improving the streets, housing and conditions in Clarksville. (Elliot Naishdat lived there and was a great advocate with Mary as well, prior to becoming a State Rep.)

Don was revered in Boston, where I live, and gave a lot of thrills and wisdom to Red Sox fans.

Was Mary Don’s mother or Aunt?

Eric Robinson
5 years ago
Reply to  David Keene

Don’s mother was named Lillian so I will assume that Mary was Don’s aunt or another relative.

Joe Pilla
5 years ago

Very thoughtful and quietly moving article. Thank you.