Don Baylor made quite an impression on me when I started following baseball. It could be that the first year I REALLY followed the game day in and day out was 1979, the year Baylor won the MVP as a member of the California Angels.
But another thing caught my attention. Starting in 1978, before I really understood the day in and day out flow of a baseball season, I used to look at the backs of baseball cards and see the pattern of how they listed the teams a player played for.
On the back it would say “Year” and “Club” and list a bunch of teams. I would call it the “year club” and I would buy a pack of cards and say out loud “I want to see his year club.”
The year club for Reggie Jackson fascinated me. He was the biggest star in baseball in 1978 and in my mind he was as much a Yankee as Fred Lynn, Yaz, Fisk and Jim Rice were Red Sox. But Lynn, Yaz, Fisk, Rice and Evans only had Red Sox in their Year Club. Reggie had mostly the A’s, one year with the Orioles then with the Yankees.
Then I discovered Don Baylor’s year club. He had many years with the Orioles, one year with the A’s and then off to the Angels. I remember seeing that and thinking “It is like a reverse Reggie Jackson” back in 1978.
Little did I know how close I was.
Baylor, aka Groove, was from Texas and drafted into Earl Weaver’s Baltimore juggernaut. He was the right handed slugger would fill the void left by the departure of Frank Robinson. In 1972, he was a starting outfielder in Baltimore and had power and speed. By 1973 and 1974, he brought his stolen base ability and pop into the post season as the Orioles won back to back divisions but lost to the A’s, and Reggie Jackson, in the ALCS.
By 1975, Baylor had blossomed into a star. The 26 year old combined 25 homers and 32 stolen bases and got MVP consideration for the first time. Then he got caught in the crosshairs of baseball labor.
Reggie Jackson was eligible for the new status of Free Agent after the 1976 season. The A’s and Charlie Finley decided that signing him to a long term contract was not an option. So he needed to get SOMETHING for his star. So, during spring training of 1976, Jackson was bundled in a trade that sent him to Baltimore. Among the players who came back to Oakland was Don Baylor.
The A’s contended late into the season but their streak of consecutive Division Titles ended at 5. Baylor was going to test free agency himself and signed with the Angels. So while Reggie’s “Year Club” had many years in Oakland, one year in Baltimore and then off to the Yankees, Baylor’s had many years in Baltimore, one year in Oakland and then off to the Angels. They mirrored each other.
Baylor, who consistently led the league in hit by pitches, started clubbing homers left and right. By 1979, he became one of the best run producers in the American League. He led the league in runs and RBI. He homered 36 times, stole 22 bases and posted career highs in average and OPS.
The Angels made the post season for the first time that year and Baylor took home the MVP. Of course the voters today would probably have picked someone else. The Sabermetric crowd would not have put him in the top 20. Bobby Grich had the better all around season for the Angels. But in 1979, people looked at homers, RBI, average and if the team made the playoffs, so the award went to Baylor.
In 1982, Baylor and Reggie Jackson became teammates for the first time as Reggie left the Yankees to join the Angels. That year, along with Fred Lynn, Rod Carew, Bobby Grich and Doug Decinces, the Baylor and Jackson combination pushed the Angels back into the playoffs. At this point, Baylor was a fulltime DH. He did not play a single game in the field during the 1982 season.
In the 5 game ALCS, Baylor drove in 10 runs by himself, including a grand slam in Game 4. But the Brewers came back from a 2-0 hole to win the series in 5, preventing Baylor from making the World Series.
He went to Free Agency again and wound up with the Yankees in 1983. Now think about his Year Club. A bunch of years with the Orioles, one with the A’s, then some glory years with the Angels and off to the Yankees. That, save one year overlap in California, perfectly mirrored Reggie Jackson’s bunch of years with the A’s, one with the Orioles, then some glory years with the Yankees and off to the Angels.
After a few years clashing with Steinbrenner while still homering, Baylor made it to 1985 with still no appearances in the World Series.
Then the “Year Club” deviated from Reggie for the first time. The Yankees and Red Sox swapped DH’s as Mike Easler went from Fenway to the Bronx. The idea was Easler’s left handed swing was better suited for Yankee Stadium while Baylor’s right handed bat would take aim at the Green Monster.
For what it is worth, Baylor’s prescience in the club house seemed to have as much an effect as the 31 homers he clubbed. The disjointed “24 men 24 cab” culture seemed to change with Baylor and his Kanagroo court. The Red Sox took control of the Division early in the year and won the first AL East since 1975.
Baylor made his mark in the ALCS, hitting the 2 run homer that set up Dave Henderson’s season saving homer off of Donnie Moore. The Red Sox won the pennant and Baylor saw his first World Series.
He wasn’t much of a factor in the World Series as Bill Buckner famously played at first base over Baylor. We all know what happened in the World Series.
In 1987, the Red Sox went into a transition season. New hitters like Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks, Sam Horn and Todd Benzinger started to get playing time. Veterans Bill Buckner and Dave Henderson were sent packing to make room for the new sluggers.
At the end of August, it was Don Baylor’s time to be shipped off to Minnesota, who were making a surprise post season push. That trade led to this Topps card with a sloppy airbrushed hat.
In the post season as a part time DH, Baylor made the most of his brief career cameo in Minnesota. His RBI hit Game 1 of the ALCS helped set up the Twins come from behind victory. His three run homer in a do or die Game 6 of the World Series against the Cardinals helped force a 7th game. In the end he batted .389 in that October posting an OPS of 1.032.
The Twins held on to win Game 7 and take the World Series title, the first one earned in Baylor’s career.
He returned to Oakland in 1988 as a platoon DH but clearly no longer was the feared slugger he once was. He did play in the post season and got an at bat in the 1988 World Series. That made him the first player to play in three straight World Series with three different teams (since matched by Eric Hinske.)
His final appearance as a player was striking out in the 1988 World Series. Afterwards he a long career of managing and coaching, being the original manager of the Rockies and leading the Cubs during Sammy Sosa’s peak.
One last note about his “Year Club.” When he returned to the A’s, he was replacing the outgoing DH. Who was the A’s DH in 1987? That would be Reggie Jackson. They just kept mirroring each other.