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Dusty Baker, Reggie Jackson take alternate paths to the Houston Astros

Baker found his post-playing career role as a manager; Jackson feels denied a chance at MLB franchise ownership

ARLINGTON, Texas — Reggie Jackson and Dusty Baker were never bosom buddies.

For most of their 20 years-plus MLB careers, Jackson, 77, and Baker, 74, were competitors. Jackson primarily in the American League, Baker in the National.

“I didn’t really know Reggie,” Baker recalled last week in Arlington. “He was in the American League. Reggie was older than me and I was in the National League.”

Jackson recalled, “We were always respectful friends. We never hung out together; he was an opponent for several years because he was on a great team, and he was a great player. He’s climbed over some tremendous obstacles and has made significant gains for the African American, minority players — including Latin Americans — with his success as a manager.”

Jackson added, “He’s still not given the credit that other white managers have been given.”

For the last two seasons Jackson and Baker have been allies and colleagues with the Houston Astros. Baker has been the Astros manager since 2020 and led Houston to a World Series title in 2022, his first.

Jackson was brought on as special adviser to owner Jim Crane in 2021, after serving in that same capacity for several years with the New York Yankees.

A victory against Texas on Monday will put Houston in the World Series for a second consecutive season. A victory will also put Baker in position to achieve as a manager something Jackson achieved as a player: back-to-back World Series championships. Jackson won three consecutive championships with the Oakland A’s and back-to-back titles with the New York Yankees as a player.

Reggie Jackson looks on before Game 3 of the American League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field on Oct. 18 in Arlington, Texas.

Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Baker was hired to restore the credibility of an Astros franchise whose image was tainted in 2017 by a cheating scandal. Jackson was hired to help drive diversity and inclusion initiatives in the organization and more widely in the MLB, where he believes Black voices have been silenced.

“The African American should be part the future of the game and we’re really not,” he said.

Jackson mentioned such former players as Derek Jeter, Ozzie Smith and Barry Larkin. “I want us to be included. I want players who have played the game, guys who understand the game, to be included in decision-making.”

Jackson and Baker are throwbacks to an era in which African American players were superstar forces in the MLB. The two were teammates and friends such players as Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Willie Stargell, Willie McCovey and so many others. This was a generation of Black baseball players who absorbed the slings and arrows of racism, yet persevered and prospered.

Now in their 70s, Jackson and Baker have wound up in leadership positions in Houston on the same team. They first met in 1967 when Baker was an 18-year-old rookie for the Atlanta Braves.

“I met Reggie the first time through Bobby Bonds,” Baker recalled, referring to the former baseball star and father of Barry Bonds. 

Baker’s father had been Bobby Bonds’ Little League coach in Riverside, California. At the time they met in 1967, Jackson had already debuted in the MLB with the Oakland A’s. They met at a Phoenix Suns basketball game. Baker remembers that Jackson was cordial but he himself felt inconsequential. “I was a little nothing rookie,” he said.

Baker said, laughing, “Once I became a good player, Reggie was more apt to want to be nice and want to hang with me.”

Baker had a front-row seat in 1977 when Jackson became Mr. October.

Baker was an outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers and had played a major role in leading the team to the National League pennant and the World Series where the Dodgers would face Jackson’s Yankees in 1977.

Jackson turned in a legendary performance in Game 6 of the World Series when he hit three home runs to propel New York  to the championship.

I asked Baker how he felt about Jackson at the time and in the moment. Far from feeling resentment, Baker said, he was inspired.

“I wanted to be Mr. October,” Baker said. “I said, ‘OK, I can do this.’ Reggie motivated a lot of dudes. We couldn’t stop him. We couldn’t do nothing about him. You don’t dislike somebody because they’re good. You respect them.”

Jackson made his last MLB appearance in 1987 with Oakland. Baker had played his final game a year earlier, also with Oakland. Although their paths would eventually lead them to Houston, their post-playing careers took divergent paths.

Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker looks on from the dugout in the eighth inning against the Texas Rangers during Game 1 of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park on Oct. 15 in Houston.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

After a brief stint as a stockbroker, Baker was talked into getting on the coaching track and began his coaching career in 1988 with the San Francisco Giants as a first base coach. In 1992, Baker was hired to manage the Giants. That began a magical managing career that would lead to stops in Chicago with the Cubs, Cincinnati, Washington, and Houston. At each stop, Baker elevated his team. Last year, he became the oldest manager in any major sport to win a championship. He is also the first MLB manager to win a division title with five different teams.

Four years after Jackson retired, he joined the Yankees at the invitation of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner as special adviser to the owner. When Steinbrenner died in 2010, Jackson’s relationship with the team, especially with general manager Brian Cashman, began to change. In his documentary Reggie, which was released in March, Jackson goes to considerable detail discussing the fractured relationship with the Yankees.

“We didn’t speak the same language,” he said.

Jackson discussed the wound he believes has left the deepest scar: his failure to buy a MLB franchise. In the documentary and in subsequent interviews, including ours, Jackson has pointed the finger at Bud Selig, the former baseball commissioner who Jackson believes blocked his bid to buy the Oakland A’s. He said his group offered more money than the group that was eventually awarded the franchise.

Jackson said he is more hurt than angry, not because he did not become a baseball executive but because he was unfairly denied the opportunity to own a MLB team. “I’ll go to my grave with that,” he said.

I spoke with Selig last week and in a phone interview the former commissioner said he didn’t want to engage in Jackson’s accusation.

“I don’t really want to get into it,” Selig said. “He said this about six months ago, he was told by everybody that he was wrong. We’ve gone by, checked our files. He can talk about things all he wants, but he’s not right.”

Right or wrong, the fact remains that there is no African American ownership in MLB and diversity continues to be an issue. There has been a resistance to Black ownership in baseball that goes back to the 1920s when Rube Foster, the father of Negro League Baseball, wanted to bring an entire team into the MLB and was rebuffed.

All in all, Houston had been a better fit for Jackson.

“I have participation,” he said. “I didn’t get participation in New York.”

Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker (left) and Astros special assistant Reggie Jackson (right) look on before the game against the Oakland Athletics at RingCentral Coliseum on May 31, 2022, in Oakland, California.

Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Over the last two years, Baker said, he and Jackson have gotten to know each other much better. He has noticed a change in Jackson.

“Reggie’s always been intelligent, always,” Baker said. “Sometimes when you have high intelligence, sometimes you force your ideas and will on people. But now Reggie, from what I’ve seen since he’s been here, he’s learned to approach you at the right time, say things at the right time, or don’t say it.”

Baker said he never aspired to be an owner or a general manager. He wanted to be in the dugout and has developed a Hall of Fame résumé in that capacity. Jackson, on the other hand, never wanted to manage.

“I would basically say it was for him, it wasn’t for me,” Jackson said of Baker’s desire to manage. “I wanted to be in baseball as an owner because I had the ability to do it. I thought I had the ability to put a financial team together.

“Could I have been president of a team? Probably. Did I want to be a manager? No. Would I have wanted to be a general manager? Probably, yes. But what I wanted in life I couldn’t get a fair shot at. I was denied.”

There was a resistance to African Americans becoming major league managers. Baker and others have somewhat cracked that code.

Baker has achieved most of what he wanted from baseball. He enjoyed success as a player who has made the most of multiple opportunities to manage. All that is left is to be recognized as a superstar of managers and that’s not up to him.

For Jackson the final calculus is a bit more complicated. He achieved everything possible as a player — multiple championships and an induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But the crowning achievement he wanted has eluded him.

“I had a vision for myself that I thought I could obtain,” Jackson said of ownership. “Dusty had a vision for himself that I think he has obtained with the same obstacles.

“I firmly believe it was because I was Black — more specifically, I had too much to say as a Black man. And that’s why I did not get the baseball team.”

So here they are in Houston: Jackson and Baker, 56 years after their first meeting, with the opportunity to win a second consecutive championship together.

What they have learned over the years about persevering and prospering, absorbing slings and arrows, playing with scars, is that winning speaks volumes.

Success is often the best revenge.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.