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Don Baylor

How my family became friends with the humble and kind baseball great

by
Jeremy Sigler
February 23, 2021
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author

Back in the 1970s, my parents befriended a sporty, fun-lovin’ man named Don Shaver, who had the appeal of a Burt Reynolds. More appeal. Super fit, single, in his early 30s, great smile, huge amount of confidence—which I assume means he was gettin’ it—Don was a lady’s man from an era when it actually took charm to be charming. So my parents basically gave this guy carte blanche with their precious three preteens, and let Don Shaver (I think he may have had a mustache … of course he did!) drive me and my older sister and younger brother down our long driveway and out onto the open road. He drove us away, to put it simply. We drove five hours to a place called Busch Gardens.

Don was on the sales and marketing side of Anheuser-Busch, after leaving a PR job for the Baltimore Orioles organization, which is how he met my dad. I can only assume that he had a pass to bring clients (or their children) to the park. It had to be a strategy. Why else would he have spent the day with Arnie and Tammy’s kids? Perhaps he was trying to take fatherdom out for a spin, to see if he was ready to settle down. I still find it hard to believe that a bachelor would make time for anything other than sexy women, or maybe a beer with a guy friend at happy hour.

On the drive Don let us all take turns up with him at the wheel. I don’t recall much talk, back then, of seat belts. Do you? Cars weren’t so compartmentalized—you could slide around, and even climb over the seats. We spent the entire day at Busch Gardens riding roller coasters and basically getting high on endorphins. Had that single day not been so spectacular, I might actually have a little dopamine left—I mean now, 40 years later. I guess too much fun too soon can make a man grow prematurely grumpy. And lazy.

It was during those years, that my dad, who was gaining even more traction as the most popular pediatrician in town, got in tight with the Baltimore Orioles organization, mainly due to the fact that he was taking care of almost the entire team’s children, thanks in part to introductions from Don Shaver. It didn’t take long before the walls of his examination rooms and the hallways and waiting area were lined with framed Orioles memorabilia: autographed gloves, bats, balls, jerseys, photographs of this or that player posing at the gateway of the quintessential American pastime.

It was at that point that my dad worked out a scheme in his head to go to a couple of the ballplayers’ wives with a whopper of an idea—a summertime bullpen auction to raise money for children with cancer being treated at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. Dee Belanger, the ultra-perky wife of The Blade (Mark, the Orioles’ no-hit shortstop) and an adorable cast of babes (today, they’d be the stars of a reality show called “Baseball Babes” and it would be on like its seventh season), got behind my dad, who ordinarily avoided the spotlight, and they kept reaching out into the community until they found the generosity they were looking for. People genuinely believed in the cause. And so my dad’s dream came to fruition.

Soon, the big day arrived for the bullpen auction. A fast-talkin’ auctioneer arrived, and hundreds of paying people began to roll in and fill the bullpen out behind the left-field wall in old Memorial Stadium. It was an off day, so many of the actual players were in attendance, dressed in their street clothes with their wives and cute little kids riding on their shoulders. People were charged up and ready to do some competitive bidding on all kinds of baseball related packages (dinner out with this player, or a hat signed by that player). One really special item was the chance to interview Rick Dempsey (the Orioles’ catcher) for a few minutes field-side before a game on the live local news, accompanied by the regular sportscaster. My dad actually bid high on that one, and got it.

A few months later I had my TV debut. My big question for Rick Dempsey was “how far back in the seats can you go to catch a pop up?” I guess I’d seen him literally climb over the fence and lunge across three seated fans and extend his mitt to catch a foul ball. The following year my little brother got to interview Tippy Martinez, our ace relief pitcher known for jogging to the mound in the ninth, throwing maybe four immaculate strikes, spitting some seeds or tobacco on the dirt, hitting the showers, and praying.

All sorts of people showed up to the big bullpen event, with my modest dad at the helm. Even Oprah Winfrey was there! With her co-host Richard Sher. Back then they had a local morning show called People Are Talking. Man, did she have it. Unbridled charisma. I discovered a stash of black-and-white prints documenting the event in a stained manila folder, wedged inside a hanging folder with other documents in an ancient file cabinet in my parents’ condo. It was a picture of Oprah. Off in the distance I can be seen. I’m about 12. My arms are crossed before my chest, and I seem to be studying her with a look of pure pleasure swelling up in my eyes.

Also present in the bullpen was the local star, Wild Bill Hagy, a cabbie who splurged for a ticket to every home game and sat way far back in the upper deck. This is where he began to lead a small section of rowdy fans in his vicinity in a cheer, any moment he’d perceive a lull. He’d set down his beer, step down the steep row of seats, lift off his 10-gallon cowboy hat and start waving it. He’d arch his back, stick out his big belly in his orange and black Orioles jersey and bring his fans to their feet, waving those beefy pale cab driver arms, and using his whole body to form giant letter shapes in the air. O-R-I-O-L-E-S. And then a roar “Orioles!” And he’d do it all again.

Hagy’s manic enthusiasm caught on. The Birds got very hot that season and went all the way to the World Series. Wild Bill’s crew in the upper deck began to spread till he was like conducting the entire stadium … the entire city … and the entire country. The entire world? Eventually ushers started escorting him down from his nosebleed seats, past the box seats (where we sat), and carefully up onto the roof of the dugout, where he’d do his thing. Google it. Just type in Wild Bill. He lives on as a meme.

There was even a time we met Reggie Jackson. Need I even say his last name? Hear the chant: “Reggie, Reggie, Reggie …” And then the sound of wood cracking a ball, the sight of a bat being dropped, and a man trotting in tight pinstripe pants around the bases with more arrogance than you’ve ever seen. Reggie was one of those players who was so cocky that he’d point to the outfield wall, before sweeping a little dirt across home plate, digging his back cleat into the batter’s box, stepping into position, and drawing back his bat. I think he also wore glasses, which gave him a really iconic look.

I met Reggie around the time he left the Yankees (or maybe the Angels or the Oakland A’s) and came, in a big trade, to Baltimore, where he was apparently never satisfied. It’s true, his personality was far too big for our city. He was famous enough to have had a chocolate bar named after him: the Reggie Bar—basically a Snickers with different packaging. And maybe he had his own aftershave commercial. I think of him hitting homers at will, as I described above, but I also have images of him taking massive swings at pure air. So big were these whiffs that he’d often lose his balance and his helmet. The most embarrassing way to strike out.

Reggie never grew out of being that obnoxious Little League kid who wanted to win more than anyone else. He was your basic bad sport, with an enormous ego that he occasionally lived up to. But I have to say he was a superstar—my guess is that even Andy painted him.

I’ll tell you how we had this crazy lunch with Reggie Jackson, who was too big for Baltimore, in a dark restaurant called the Cross Keys Inn. Apparently, my family (who I interviewed for this), all remember the slugger offering to help my big sister cut her giant hamburger in half. I think he also warned my mom not to choke on the toothpick holding together her BLT. But I think he would have rather been lunching with Howard Cosell.

Reggie had been invited to join us at lunch by our true friend, Don Baylor. At the games, the usher would let us walk right down to the edge of the dugout between innings and yell “Hey Don! Hey Don!” loud and in unison, and Don would pop his head out and smile at us, and stretch his neck a bit further, and locate my parents about eight rows back, and give them a proper beautiful wave. And every time we’d meet with Don, he’d usually bring along one or more of his teammates like Reggie Jackson, both when he was still playing for the O’s and also after he had been traded to the Angels, whenever he’d wind up back in town for a series.

Don Baylor was so modest, so humble, that even though he was a megastar athlete, with heroic stature, he never acted like he was a big deal at all. He was cool, and mellow, and as poised as anyone I’ve ever met. I think he genuinely loved our family.

Why? I’m not sure. We were his chosen Jewish suburban family, I guess. The chosen ones. He was a 6-foot-something very dark Black man who everyone in sports called a “class act.” Trivia: Baylor, a fearsome power hitter, is top-five in the majors in career hit-by-pitch, a feat that attests to his willingness to crowd the plate and refuse to back down in the face of a 100 mph fastball. He was willing to just stand there, like a vertical monument, as if he was playing Wiffle ball.

It was amazing how kind and thoughtful and gentle Don Baylor was, but in a minimalist way, without ever exerting much visible emotion. He was composed and solid, powerful and immovable. Experiencing this man, in this way, at an impressionable age, created in me an inability back then to even begin to compute the idea of racial animosity. In his presence, even the existence of racism was inconceivable.

It is interesting how much was hidden, no? His rise to fame required that he walk down a daily gantlet of bigotry. But race and fame had nothing to do with his relationship to our family. Don was just, how can I put it?—a man who deeply loved and trusted my parents. So it wasn’t really about him at all. Or about me. It was about them.

Don’s love for my dad had to do with his feelings of gratitude and indebtedness for saving his little boy Donny’s life. One day, when Donny was perhaps 5 months old, when Don was traveling to an away game, a frantic babysitter brought in little Donny, who was having a severe anaphylactic allergic reaction to milk. My dad quickly diagnosed the problem and, sensing its severity, threw Donny into his own car and rushed him to the emergency room a few miles away. Apparently, it was one of the most dramatic saves of my father’s career. Even an ambulance wouldn’t have allowed enough time to bring his blue face back. And so Donny lived happily ever after.

A few years later, I was at a big Orioles game on my birthday. The game ended and my family was waiting in a hallway outside the clubhouse (or locker room). Finally, Don appeared. He was no longer in his uniform but was now dressed more like a ’70s movie star, in a tight silk shirt (I’m sure it had one of those wide ’70s collars), and nice-smelling cologne. He had a clean shave, and his Afro was neatly picked.

You’d have thought he was anxious to go out on the town with his teammates, but instead he acted like he had all the time in the world. He was first ambushed by at least five fans who had somehow bribed their way into the waiting area, and he patiently signed autographs in his subdued way. Soft-spoken … the dictionary definition of. Almost monotonal.

When he was done signing, he turned and handed me a baseball bat—one of his giant Louisville Sluggers. It was almost too heavy for me to hold. He dryly wished me a happy birthday and quickly shifted his attention to my dad and mom. Not a big show at all, which left me time to examine the bat, which I saw had been signed in a variety of pens and marker by pretty much the entire Orioles team. A sea of autographs was wrapped around every tubular inch of that thing, a collection of scrolled, barely legible names, including coaches, and even the manager Earl Weaver, for God’s sake. Palmer. Even Brooksie.

Which means Don had taken the time to walk around his locker room and hand that bat to every player and coach and ask them for a special favor. He went all out for Jeremy Sigler! Who was 13 that day! Don’s number 25 was penned on the bat’s knob.

On another occasion I remember, a game ended in extra innings, and it was late. Don was by now playing for the Angels, and he was back in town from LA. He came out of the locker room all cleaned up at around 11 p.m. We had all fallen asleep on the floor of the hallway, waiting.

It was finally decided that Don and a few of his teammates would pile in a few cars and come back to the Sigler house for a home-cooked meal. My mom went into action like I’ve never seen. She pulled enough frozen steaks out of the freezer to feed an army, and somehow managed to defrost them and get them into the oven pronto. Dinner must have started around midnight, and it was a school night!

But here’s the amazing part. Two big players were there, Joe Rudi and Ron Jackson, as well as a guy with a beard who claimed to be the most famous baseball pitcher of all time, the strikeout king Nolan Ryan. I didn’t believe he was Nolan Ryan. So I invited the man downstairs to my bedroom, and showed him the poster on my wall of Nolan Ryan on the mound kicking up a leg and preparing to fire a high, hard one. I looked right in the eyes of this humble man and then back at my poster. “You,” I said, “are not him.”

Don Baylor, Nolan Ryan, Jennifer Sigler (author’s older sister), and Ron Jackson in Baltimore, undated

Don Baylor, Nolan Ryan, Jennifer Sigler (author’s older sister), and Ron Jackson in Baltimore, undatedCourtesy the author

He shrugged, and smiled. Then he pulled a magic marker out of a mug on my desk, walked to the wall, leaned over my little bed and signed the poster with big loose letters, “Nolan Ryan.”

I was looking at a family photo album the other day, and right there in the middle of the album was a picture of Don Baylor reclining on a raft in our swimming pool. He’d managed to squeeze into one of my dad’s trunks, which attests to the fact that my dad may have been a little overweight at the time, and also that Don was willing to squeeze into some pretty tight garments in an emergency. In the picture, the plaid trunks look extremely awkward. But Don is smiling for the camera, probably four hours from suiting up in his uniform, stepping out of the dugout into the summer lights, and holding his hat to his chest for the singing of the national anthem.

Mom tells me Don came to her rescue one day. He had some extra time and she needed help hanging a show of large paintings at a college museum. Her man-with-a-van canceled on her at the last minute, and Don kindly offered to step up. He spent the entire day transporting artworks and helping my mom get the large canvases up onto the walls. Like 40 abstract paintings. It took close to eight hours. Apparently while they were working, some dingbat curator tried to boss Don around mistaking him as a member of the custodial staff. My mom had no choice but to inform this ignoramus who she was talking to. Hard not to feel shame all around for that one, you know?

Don Baylor was one of the most celebrated and beloved figures to ever play and coach in the majors and he never lost his humility. Late in his career he did write an autobiography and I found a copy inscribed to my folks on a shelf, when I was recently down in Baltimore cleaning out their condo to be sold. The inscription reads:

Arnie and Tammy
To two of the finest people I’ve had the pleasure to meet over the years and through my travels. Baseball is temporary, but friends are forever. Thank you for your love and support from the beginning. Hope you enjoy the book.
Sincerely,
Don
April 10, 1989

Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.