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Austin Legend Don Baylor: A Life Well Lived

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Don Baylor was a pro’s pro in baseball for decades, but he had already made his mark in his hometown by the age of 18.

Yankees v Angels Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Don Baylor, a 19-year veteran of major league baseball, and the first manager for the Colorado Rockies, has passed away here in his hometown of Austin at the too-young age of 68.

Baylor was a career 260 hitter with 368 home runs and 1,276 runs batted in. Baylor batted .385 for the Minnesota Twins in the 1987 World Series that Minnesota won in a 5-game set with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Talk to those who played with Don and they will tell you that he was the ultimate “Clubhouse Guy” a leader who had the respect of everyone in the room. He came by that trait at a very early age, growing up in the Clarksville area of Austin. Clarksville is the oldest surviving post-Civil War area settled by freed slaves west of the Mississippi.

In 1961 Baylor and two other neighborhood kids integrated O’Henry Junior High School, a mile walk from their homes.

As Baylor explained to Fox Sports several years ago, it was not an easy time for a teenager.

“You were walking into an all-white school. The teachers were just as tough as maybe the students were. Kids are going to be kids. Kids in the seventh grade are going to call you names. Call you the ‘N’ word. See how far they could push you. I was going to take on anybody’s challenge, so I had to calm down.”

Baylor didn’t play football in the 8th grade (they didn’t have enough uniforms for the newcomer), but after watching him play flag football, the 9th grade coach made sure he was suited up the next year.

When Don entered Austin High he became the first black man to participate in athletics for the high school. He was a 3-sport star, as well as being a good student with a charismatic personality. He was named team captain of the baseball team as a junior, and was a voted a student officer of the senior class.

Just down the street Darrell Royal took notice.

Like many other educational systems throughout the South and Southwest, the University of Texas has a checkered past when it comes to integration. In 1956, Dr. Logan Wilson opened all academic programs at the University of Texas to black students, making it the first university system in the South to integrate.

However, The Texas Board of Regents continually voted to keep athletics segregated citing "deference to the climate of opinion operative at the time." Finally on November 9, 1963, the board voted unanimously to approve the desegregation of all student activities at Texas, "including varsity athletics."

University dorms were not desegregated until 1964. It wasn't until 1965 that the University Interscholastic League removed the word "white" as a membership requirement for participating schools.

This was the climate that the 32-year old Royal entered in 1957.

Prior to coming to Texas, Royal had coached African-American players at Edmonton in the Canadian Football League. He coached and recruited blacks to the University of Washington.

Royal had faced class discrimination during the "Dust Bowl" era when he and his family moved from Oklahoma to California. In the book, "Darrell Royal, Conversations with a Texas Football Legend," Royal recalled the label "Okie" being used. "Sure it affected me," Royal told author John Wheat. "I can still get kind of peeved. I can somehow relate to that and know how deeply people can be by those tags."

Empathize, yes. Be at the forefront of change in the SWC, no.

The stereotype that paints Darrell Royal as a racist coach of a racist program is absurd. The idea that Royal could have been pro-active in bringing about a more rapid change is valid - and one Royal acknowledged.

Royal told the Daily Texan, "If I've had a fault, it's been this - that I didn't go ahead and be the first to and say, This is right, and blacks should be given equal opportunity. Now I'm going to pioneer it,' I feel a little guilty about that."

Having watched how Baylor handled integrating local schools Royal thought he was the perfect candidate to do the same for Texas football.

Baylor was interested. However he wanted to continue to play baseball at the collegiate level. Darrell was opposed to that. He had multi-sports stars on the team. James Street and Randy Peschel, a year ahead of Baylor were playing baseball. But Royal believed that with all the extra attention - and pressure, that would come from being a Texas, Baylor should just concentrate on football.

No way would Don Baylor give up baseball. When the Baltimore Orioles drafted Baylor the choice was simple.

So two years later it would fall to Julius Whittier to become the first African-American scholarship player on the Texas football team. He was was more than up to the task.

It’s easy to play the what if game with Don Baylor and Texas.

For instance he would have been the cherry on the top of the greatest recruiting class ever at Texas the 1967 “Worster Bunch.”

He would have been a junior during the 1969 season, and I like to think by then that Baylor — a gifted runner in HS — would have been a heat-seeking safety in the defensive backfield. He also would have saved Texas from being the last all-white national championship team.

Never mind, he made the right choice.

He never backed down. He still ranks 4th all-time in Hit By Pitches (267) in the majors.

I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing Don several times over the years as a player and manager, and all you needed to do was spend a little time with him to understand how others were always being attracted to his light.

Don Baylor learned from his father at an early age that one of the ways to respond to the slings and arrows of prejudice was to understand who you were and to continue to work hard to be the best at whatever you did.

While at Austin High, said that the other black students would make fun of him for playing baseball, a “white man’s sport.” He didn’t care.

"I like to think I laid the groundwork for the generations that followed," Baylor said.

Baylor had been battling with multiple myeloma for almost 14 years when he passed away Monday morning at St. David’s South Hospital. Funeral services are pending.