SEATTLE — Growing up in Southern California, Astros manager Dusty Baker idolized Dodgers outfielder Jackie Robinson. And he certainly wasn’t alone. Baker said nine out of 10 African Americans at the time were Dodgers fans because of Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier 75 years ago.
Baker’s love and appreciation of Robinson hasn’t dwindled one bit into his 70s, which is what made Friday such a special day for Baker. He joined the rest of baseball in wearing Robinson’s No. 42 — which was in Dodger blue on every uniform for the first time — on Jackie Robinson Day, with the Astros opening a three-game series against the Mariners at T-Mobile Park.
“I’ve kept every Jackie Robinson Day jersey that we’ve had,” Baker said. “It means a lot to me. I think of my dad a lot on this day.”
Baker’s dad, Johnnie Baker Sr., was a huge Jackie Robinson fan, which meant his son followed suit. Who could have believed Dusty Baker would one day wear a Dodgers uniform, just like Jackie, and get to hear firsthand stories of Robinson’s impact on the game from Dodgers greats like Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax, Carl Erskine and Pee Wee Reese, who supported the Dodgers’ signing of Robinson?
“All the time I was growing up as a kid, my dad would always remind me when I would get in a scrap or scuffle or something, especially like a racial scuffle, my dad would also tell me to think about what Jackie would do,” Baker said. “Then I was fortunate enough to grow up as a man. I didn’t get to meet Jackie, but I heard so much about Jackie.”
Baker heard about Robinson from Hank Aaron, the former all-time home run king who was Baker’s teammate when Baker broke into the big leagues with the Braves in 1968.
Baker listened to Robinson stories from Jim Gilliam, the former Negro Leaguer who played 14 years with the Dodgers. And he was surprised to find out his former American Legion coach, Spider Jorgensen, made his Major League debut for the Dodgers on the same day as Robinson — April 15, 1947.
“I was walking down the hall at Dodgertown and I saw this mural, and there was Spider Jorgensen tagging somebody out at third base,” Baker said.
Since then, Baker has met the entire Robinson family and was at the dedication of Jackie Robinson Stadium at UCLA, where Robinson was a four-sport letter winner. Baker has a wall full of photos at home that include many of Robinson.
“It keeps me motivated, keeps me grounded and keeps me pushing forward,” Baker said.
The strides African Americans have made in baseball since Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 aren’t enough, Baker said. He wishes there were more Black star players in today’s game as there were when he played in the 1980s.
“You can count them on one hand, and before it was two or three hands,” Baker said. “It was a different time, different era. … We made a lot of progress, and in a lot of areas, we haven’t made that much progress. … We’ve already regressed enough; it’s time for some progress.”