Dusty Baker has spent a lifetime in baseball. After a productive career as an outfielder for four teams over a 19-year career, Baker joined the managerial ranks. As a major league manager over most of the past three decades, he developed a reputation for helping teams win, although a coveted World Series title has eluded him.
Johnnie B. Baker, Jr., was born on June 15, 1949, in Riverside, California. He picked up his nickname, Dusty, early in life from his mother. “We had a big backyard that my dad planted, had grass everywhere,” according to Baker. “It was like a football field, and then there was one dirt spot in the middle and that’s where I seemed to like to play. My mom didn’t want to call me ‘Dirty,’ so she called me ‘Dusty.’”1
Baker’s parents were Johnnie B. Sr., who was a defense industry worker and Christine, a professor. His father worked two jobs in order for his family to have what they needed. After the senior Baker finished his work for the Air Force, he would work as a salesman at Sears in the evenings. “He wanted better for us kids,” said Baker. “He said that I would be better than that.”2
He was the oldest of five children. Since both parents worked, Baker was often called upon to manage his unruly younger siblings. When things went wrong and his siblings misbehaved, his father would punish Baker. His mother was also important in his life. It was his mother who determined what courses Baker would take in school, especially during his high school years.
Besides his academic classes, she also insisted that he take piano lessons. “I wanted to be Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. She wanted me to be Liberace. Did I have a choice? That wasn’t a word in our house. She told me that I was going to have culture whether I wanted it or not. Love is discipline. I had plenty of both.”3
Baker expressed an interest in baseball early in life. He spent many hours with his father who believed that “once you decided to do something, you have to completely finish it. [Dusty] said he wanted to play baseball so I hit him hundreds of balls. By the time that he was 12, he was a very good player.”4
Baker did have thoughts of hanging up his glove at times. “I didn’t make the Major Little League team. Then I didn’t make one of the all-star teams, and I thought that I should have. So I decided to quit and get a paper route. But thankfully my father wouldn’t let me.”5
When Baker was 14 years old, his father lost his job and the family moved to Sacramento California. He enrolled at Del Campo High School where Baker and his brother were the only Black students. He excelled in several sports and was chosen all-city in baseball and all-county in basketball, football and track during his time there.
Basketball was his best sport. Baker would play with his friends as often as possible although “pickup games in his driveway would always cease when his father came home at 4 PM.”6 When asked about playing baseball in high school, he said, “I was good in baseball but I wasn’t great in baseball. I played in the spring with the school team and, in the summer, I would play with the American Legion, Little League or Pony League. I came all the way up. I was skilled in all departments, but I just wasn’t strong.”7
Baker’s parents divorced during his senior year. His father wanted him to attend college but Baker had other plans. When the Atlanta Braves drafted him in the 26th round of the 1967 MLB June Amateur Draft, Baker had already received a basketball scholarship to Santa Clara University. He and his mother signed the Braves contract against his father’s wishes.
The Braves sent him to the Class AA Austin Braves (Texas League) where he played in nine games and hit .231. The following year he bounced around the Braves minor league system, playing on the Braves Class A teams in Greenwood and West Palm Beach as well as in the Arizona winter league. Baker made his major league debut that year when he pinch-hit for Phil Niekro in a game against the Astros on September 7, 1968. He came up empty in his debut but managed to get two hits in five plate appearances by the end of the season.
In 1968, the Braves asked Baker to enlist in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. “I wasn’t crazy about the idea. It turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened in my life. It helped me a lot. I came home more disciplined,” he said later.8 Baker served as an auto mechanic until his honorable discharge as a lance corporal in 1974.
Baker continued to move up through the Braves system in 1969. In between his time in the Marine reserves, he played in Class AA Shreveport and Class AAA Richmond. Baker hit .285 with 11 home runs and 61 RBIs that year. He also made an appearance with the Braves in three games near the end of the season.
The Braves were so confident in Baker that they promoted him to their Class AAA team, the Richmond Braves, in 1970. He played in 118 games for Richmond, played outfield, and batted .325. Baker also spent the 1971 season in Richmond. He continued to provide a solid bat for the team, hitting .311 that year. The Braves called him up again in September and he started in 20 games.
Baker finally made the Braves major league roster for good in 1972, becoming their starting center fielder. Baker provided punch to the Braves batting order, hitting .321, second on the team behind Ralph Garr. He even remained in contention to win the NL batting title that year. “If I had been told that a year ago, it would have really made me nervous. Now, it doesn’t bother me so much.”9
After his first full season in the majors, Baker cemented his role as the Braves center fielder for the next three seasons. Although he never batted as well, he averaged .269 and hit 60 home runs during that stretch. As Baker played alongside Hank Aaron, the press began to tout him as “the next Hank Aaron.” His manager, Eddie Matthews, said in 1974 that, “He has super tools. Maybe he doesn’t have the power that Hank has, but he has everything else. He’s a tremendous athlete.”10
Despite his solid efforts, Baker was traded on November 17, 1975 along with Ed Goodson to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Lee Lacy, Tom Paciorek, Jerry Royster and Jim Wynn. Baker had expressed a desire to be traded at the end of the 1975 season. The trade sent him back home to California where he would take over center field for the Dodgers. “He can run, throw, field and hit for power. And it’s our feeling that he has yet to reach his peak,” said Dodgers general manager Al Campanis.11
Baker played 112 games for the Dodgers in his first year before he was injured near the end of the 1976 season. He needed knee surgery to repair stretched ligaments. The surgery reduced his speed and he shifted to left field the following year. The change seemed to help Baker as he improved his batting average almost 50 points in 1977. He also hit 30 home runs, the most of his career to date. “They told me it was about time that I reached my peak,” he said at the end of the season.12
Baker was also part of the first “high five” in baseball on October 2 after he hit his 30th homer of the season. The Dodgers became the first team in history to have four players hit more than 30 home runs (Baker, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Reggie Smith). Glenn Burke, who was waiting on deck, thrust his hand enthusiastically over his head to greet Baker at the plate. Baker, not knowing what to do, smacked it. “His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back,” said Baker. “So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.”13
When the Dodgers reached the playoffs, Baker batted .357 in the NLCS against Philadelphia. His play earned him the MVP award for the series. Baker continued to hit well in the World Series against the Yankees, hitting .292 with one homer, as the Dodgers fell to New York in six games.
Baker continued to improve over the next five seasons. He batted just .269 with 34 homers during the 1978-79 seasons but he once again performed well when the Dodgers returned to the playoffs in 1978. Baker batted .467 against Philadelphia to help the Dodgers return to the World Series.
Baker enhanced his numbers even further in 1980. He batted .294 and led the Dodgers with 29 home runs while his 97 RBIs were second to Garvey. His efforts earned him a Silver Slugger award. Baker became a free agent at the end of the season but eventually signed a five-year contract with the Dodgers.
He continued to improve in 1981 when he batted .320 and earned his first All-Star game nod. Shortly before he was chosen, Baker said, “Last year I had got my hopes up about making the All-Star team. I’ve been disappointed so many times that this year I don’t have my hopes up.”14 Baker replaced George Foster in the game and got one hit in two plate appearances. He also earned his second Silver Slugger award at the end of the season and his only Gold Glove award.
When the Dodgers returned to the postseason, Baker struggled in the NLDS, hitting just .167, but his bat came alive in the NLCS. He batted .316 to help the Dodgers return to the World Series where they faced the Yankees again. Baker managed four hits against New York, despite thinking that he might have broken his wrist near the end of the season when he threw a punch at a heckler in Montreal.15
Baker had another solid season in 1982. His .300 batting average, .818 slugging percentage and 23 home runs were second on the team to Pedro Guerrero. Baker’s bat led him to being chosen to the All-Star Game for the second year. Although he made two plate appearances, neither produced a hit.
Baker’s production trailed off in 1983. His batting average fell 37 points along with his other offensive statistics. When Baker resisted a trade, the Dodgers placed him on waivers after the season. He signed a contract with the San Francisco Giants on April 1,1984 but only after signing his waiver release. Baker had been the object of unsubstantiated rumors of drug use towards the end of the 1983 season and felt that signing the release was the only way to clear his name.16
“I knew the only way to clear my name and feel good with myself was to be performing out in the field. Even if I got a chance to play next year, then there always would be a shadow hanging over my head.” And when asked about the drugs, he said, “I’m afraid to do something illegal. I have a nice life. I have a nice family.”17
Baker played one season in San Francisco, dividing his time between left and right field in a part-time role. The Giants traded Baker to the Oakland Athletics for two minor league players, Ed Puikunas and Dan Winters shortly before the 1985 season. He expressed excitement about joining the A’s saying “Oakland has a good team and it’s better now with me on it.”18
Oakland said that they planned to use the veteran Baker in a number of roles including first base. He said that he had no trouble playing first base and that his former teammate Steve Garvey had sent him a glove. “I just need a little patience and practice. I can do anything I set my mind to.”19 Besides starting 58 games at first base, he also played 36 games in the outfield that season, batting .268 with 14 home runs and 52 RBIs.
Baker played a similar part-time role in 1986. His production dropped as he batted just .240 with only four home runs and 19 RBIs. The A’s wanted to send him to their Class AAA Tacoma team for the 1987 season, but Baker chose free agency instead and then decided to retire.
After retiring, Baker worked in Los Angeles as a stock broker. Al Rosen, the Giants’ general manager, signed him as the Giants first base coach in the fall of 1987. Rosen also insisted that Baker get some managerial experience by managing in the Arizona Fall League. After one year in the first base coaching box, he spent the following four years (1989–1992) as the Giants hitting coach.
The Giants tried to get Baker to manage in their minor league system after hiring him but Baker resisted. “I think that minor league experience is overrated,” Baker said in an interview in 1992. “I always thought I was bright about baseball from the start. I was always told that I played older than my age. I’ve been a so-called student of the game. As a player, I managed in my mind.”20
Baker was named the Giants manager in 1993, replacing Roger Craig. His team won 103 games, the second-best record in baseball that year behind the 104–58 Atlanta Braves. It was also 31 games better than their 72–90 finish the previous year. His efforts earned him the NL Manager of the Year award. “I got cut from my dad’s Little League team when I was 8, 9, and 10. He said I had a bad attitude. And I remember being an (all-star) alternate when I was 11 and dropping a ball over the fence for a grand-slam homer in a game we lost by one run. After all that, this is the first major award I’ve ever won. I really don’t know what to say or how to react.”21
Baker remained the Giants manager through 2002. His Giants won division titles in 1997 and again in 2000. He would win Manager of the Year honors two more times, 1997 and 2000. In his 10 years at the helm of the Giants, Baker compiled an 840-715 record. Baker’s Giants gained the wild-card berth and went on to win the National League pennant in 2002. They faced the Los Angeles Angels in the World Series and eventually lost in seven games. Baker became the second Black manager to manage a World Series team after Cito Gaston, who led Toronto to the championship in 1992 and 1993.
The Giants decided not to offer Baker a new contract after the season. He departed the Giants second in wins and games managed behind John McGraw. Giants general manager Brian Sabean said at the time, “The guy’s had a great career here. He’s going to go off to greener pastures in his mind, the pot of gold. God bless him. I’m happy for him, but I also realize 10 years in one place is a lifetime.”22
Baker didn’t stay unemployed long as the Cubs signed him days later to take the helm of the Cubs. He said after his hiring that he hoped to help the Cubs, who hadn’t had back-to-back winning seasons since 1972-1973 develop into a consistent winner. He told reporters that he planned to change the attitude on the team saying “Everybody around here thinks they’re going to lose. That’s what I see. I had a lot of media tell me today that they feel sorry for me, like I’m going to the death chamber or something.“23
Baker made a major impact with the Cubs in his first season as manager. The club claimed their first division title in 14 years behind the bats of Sammy Sosa and Moisés Alou as well as a solid pitching staff. The Cubs made it to the NLCS but their championship hopes were cut short against the Florida Marlins. The series included the infamous Steve Bartman Incident in Game 6, when the Cubs were up 3-0 and five outs from their first World Series appearance in almost 60 years.24
Baker’s Cubs were involved in a heated wild card chase with the Houston Astros in 2004 but failed to make the playoffs although they finished with an 89-73 record. In 2005 the Cubs lost a number of their key players to injuries and saw its fortunes reversed as they finished with a losing 79-83 record. Baker struggled unsuccessfully to turn around the Cubs’ record in 2006 but they continued to decline and finished 66–96, last in the entire National League.
The Cubs decided not to renew Baker’s contract after the season. When he was asked for his reaction, Baker said “There’s really no answers. I guess that all things must come to an end.”25 His record in Chicago was 322-326.
Baker joined the managerial ranks again in October 2007 when the Cincinnati Reds hired him as their manager. “This was the place where I was most wanted,” he said when he was hired. “It’s a great feeling when you feel wanted and feel needed. I want to reciprocate that need and that want to the organization and the city of Cincinnati.”26
Baker’s teams struggled during his first two years, finishing with losing records both years. But he began to turn things around in 2010 and the Reds were one of the big surprises that year, winning the NL Central title and making their first playoff appearance in 15 years. Unfortunately, they lost to the Phillies in the NLDS. The Reds rewarded Baker with a two-year contract extension at the end of the season.
After the Reds struggled in 2011, Baker led the team to a 97-65 record in 2012. Near the end of the season, Baker had to be hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat. The Reds clinched the division title in his absence. Once again, the team could not get past the NLDS, losing to the Giants in five games. Baker signed another two-year contract extension as manager of the Reds after the season.
Baker’s Reds finished the 2013 season with a 90-72 record. After they lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Wild Card Game, their sixth straight loss at the end of the season, Cincinnati fired Baker. “Maybe the time was long enough because I was starting to get quite a few jeers and some hate mail and stuff,” he said. “Maybe it was time to move on.”27 Baker finished his tenure in Cincinnati with a 509-463 record.
The Washington Nationals hired Baker on November 3, 2015. At the time of his hiring, he had the second-highest total of wins among active managers. “We were looking for a manager to help us achieve our ultimate goal of competing for a World Series championship,” said Nationals owner Ted Lerner. Nationals general manager echoed that sentiment when he said, “We are excited to bring him to Washington and put his steady demeanor, knowledge and many years in the game to work in our favor.”28
The Nationals won the NL East in Baker’s first season, but lost in the NLDS in five games against the Dodgers. The following season, Baker led the Nationals to another NL East Championship. However, their postseason was once again cut short in the NLDS, this time to the Chicago Cubs.
Despite finishing the season with a 97-65, the Nationals announced on October 20, 2017 that Baker would not return as the team’s manager. “Winning a lot of regular season games and winning divisions is not enough,” said Rizzo.29 The Nationals record was 192-132 during Baker’s two years at the helm.
Baker returned to the Giants organization as a Special Advisor to the Giants CEO, Laurence Baer, in 2018 where he would help the team both on the field as well as on the business end. “We are thrilled to welcome Dusty back to the organization,” said Baer. “In addition to being one of the most beloved Giants alumni, Dusty brings a wealth of expertise, knowledge and experience to this position and I know his contributions will be felt far and wide throughout our organization.”30
Baker returned to the dugout on January 29, 2020 when the Astros announced him as their new manager. He signed a one-year contract with a club option for a second year. It was the first time that Baker would manage in the American League. The team had just been caught in a cheating scandal31 and Astros owner Jim Crane said that Baker was needed to help the team move forward. “Dusty’s a person of high integrity and he’s a respected leader,” said Crane. “He has great baseball experience, and he will earn the players’ trust.”32
The Astros, with a 29-31 record, clinched a playoff spot as the sixth seed in a COVID-shortened season, making Baker the first baseball manager to lead five teams to the postseason. His record after 23 seasons as a big league manager is 1,892-1667, the 15th most wins all-time.
Many wondered if Baker might have been hired as a one-year stop gap to distance the club from their previous management. But the Astros picked up the 2021 option on the 71-year old Baker’s contract midway through the 2020 season. “Dusty has been a perfect fit for our ballclub,” general manager James Click said. “His knowledge of the game and experience have been invaluable to us in his first few months with the club.”33 He is the oldest manager in major league baseball at present.
In between several managing stints, Baker was an ESPN analyst. He first worked during the 2006 MLB Postseason and returned for the 2007 postseason. Baker joined TBS as a studio analyst for the final two weeks of their regular season coverage in 2015 as well as for their coverage of the National League playoffs that year.
Baker also owns Baker Family Wines. The winery was started in 2014 along with co-owner and winemaker Chik Brenneman. The small winery produces approximately 800 cases of wine a year, and sources fruit from around the Sierra Foothills and Northern California.34
Baker’s first marriage was to Alice Lee Washington and he has a daughter from that marriage, Natosha, who was born in 1979. He is presently married to Melissa. They have been married since 1994. They have one son, Darren, who was born in 1999. His son is following in his father’s footsteps by playing baseball. After graduating high school, Darren was drafted by the Nationals in the 27th round of the 2018 June amateur draft. But he chose to attend the University of California on a baseball scholarship.
As Baker nears 50 years in baseball, he still works to bring the many lessons that he has learned in life and in the sport to his players. Baker will be remembered as one of the most successful managers in baseball history. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to win a World Series championship, perhaps the one prize that has eluded him over his managerial career. As Baker said when he was hired by Houston, “I was happy, but I wasn’t satisfied, where I was and what I was doing because something’s missing. I think the Lord gave me the best chance to accomplish what I need as a person, as a father, and as a man [by managing the Astros].”35
Last revised: October 18, 2021 (ZP)
This biography was reviewed by Paul Doutrich and Bruce Harris and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author used Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball-Almanac.com, and Retrosheet.org for player, team, and season pages, and other pertinent material.
1 Briana Tinsman, “Ever Wonder How Dusty Baker Got His Nickname?” Washington.CBSlocal.com, October 10, 2016.
2 Pedro Gomez, Baker a Giant to His Troops, Arizona Republic, March 5, 1998: C5.
4 Lance Pugmire, “On the Same Side,” Los Angeles Times, October 18, 2002: D11.
5 Wayne Minshew, “Baker is Thankful His Father Knows Best,” Atlanta Constitution, May 28, 1972: 4D.
6 Steve Rushin, “Easy Rider,” Sports Illustrated.com, August 23, 1999.
7 Cody Porter, “Dusty Baker was Four-sport Standout in High School Days,” NFHS.org, January 14: 2020.
8 Jim Dresbach, “Marines taught Nationals Manager Dusty Baker valuable life lessons,” Pentagram (DCMilitary.com), October 16, 2020.
9 Wayne Minshew, “Only Race for Braves Involves Garr, Baker,” Atlanta Constitution, September 22, 1972: 3D.
10 Wayne Minshew, “The Next Henry Aaron?” Atlanta Constitution, April 4, 1974: 26S.
11 “Dodgers Deal Jimmy Wynn for Dusty Baker,” Palm Springs Desert Sun, November 18, 1975: B4.
12 Toby Zwikel, “Baker, Dodgers…Feeling Powerful Now!” Van Nuys Valley News, October 9, 1977: 41.
13 Jon Mooallem, “The Wild, Mysterious History of Sports’ Most Enduring Gesture: The High Five,” ESPN.com, May 22, 2020.
14 David Moore, “Lopes, Baker Take All-Star Fortunes in Stride,” San Bernnardino County Sun, August 4, 1981: D1.
15 Bob Padecky, “Baker Thought His Wrist Might Have Been Broken,” Sacramento Bee, October 29, 1981: C4.
16 Bob Padecky, “Sincerity Most-Missed Member of Dodgers ‘Family’” Sacramento Bee, April 22, 1984: C2.
17 Padecky, 1984.
18 Glen Schwarz, “Giants Trade Baker to A’s,” San Francisco Examiner, March 24, 1985: C2.
20 Nick Peters, “Humm Baker? Dusty Says He Can Manage,” Sacramento Bee, December 6, 1992: E14.
21 Jim Van Vliet, “Manager of Year Award Helps Ease Baker’s Pain,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, October 27, 1993: C2.
22 Henry Schulman, “Tell Him Goodbye,” SFGate.com, November 7, 2002.
23 Paul Sullivan, “Baker Seeks to End Fan Club,” Chicago Tribune, November 20, 2002: C4.
24 The “Bartman Incident” occurred when Steve Bartman reached for a fly ball but deflected it, disrupting Moises Alou’s potential catch. The incident happened in the eighth inning of Game Six of the National League Championship Series, with Chicago leading 3-0 and up three games to two lead in the best-of-seven series. Florida Marlins batter Luis Castillo hit a fly ball into foul territory in left field. Chicago outfielder Moisés Alou chased the ball and leapt near the fence in an attempt to make the catch. Bartman’s interference prevented Alou from making the catch. If Alou had caught the ball, it would have been the second out in the inning, and the Cubs would have been just four outs away from winning their first National League pennant since 1945. The Cubs eventually surrendered eight runs in the inning and lost the game 8-3.The Cubs were eliminated in the seventh game the next day.
25 Mike Downey, “Baker Has No Answers,” Chicago Tribune, October 3, 2006: 4-6.
26 Dustin Dow, “Reds Persistence Was Convincing,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 16, 2007: C4.
27 (Associated Press), “Reds Dismiss Baker After Dreadful Finish,” Akron Beacon Journal, October 5, 2013: C4.
28 Howard Fendrich, “Washington Nationals hire Dusty Baker as manager,” TheStar.com, November 3, 2015.
29 Steve Adams, “Dusty Baker Will Not Return As Nationals’ Manager In 2018,” MLBTradeRumors.com, October 20, 2017.
30 “Giants name Dusty Baker special advisor to the CEO,” MLB.com, March 26, 2018.
31 The Astros were found guilty of stealing signs by Major League Baseball in 2019. Houston’s illegal sign-stealing operation included using live video feeds and banging on a trash can to convey to batters which pitches were coming next. The Astros were fined $5 million and lost two first-round draft picks. Jeff Luhnow, Houston’s general manager, and A.J. Hinch, the team’s manager were suspended for a season. Both were fired shortly afterward by the team. Alex Cora, Houston’s bench coach at the time and later Boston’s manager, helped lead the Astros’ scheme. He was also suspended for a year and eventually fired by the Red Sox. No players were suspended since Rob Manfred, MLB commissioner, said that such an action would be ‘difficult and impractical’ and there was no clear way to evaluate whether the players actually benefitted from the operation. Neal Vigdor, “The Houston Astros’ Cheating Scandal: Sign-Stealing, Buzzer Intrigue and Tainted Pennants,” New York Times, July 16, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/article/astros-cheating.html.
32 “Dusty Baker Takes Over Scandal-marred Astros, Says It’s His ‘Last Hurrah’,” ESPN.com, January 30, 2020.
33 Steve Adams, “Astros Exercise Club Option On Dusty Baker, MLBTradeRumors.com, July 28, 2020.
34 Emily Hamann, “Dusty Baker’s winery moving to West Sacramento,” Bizjournals.com, July 5, 2019.
35 “Dusty Baker Takes Over.”