July 15, 2013
This feature appeared in the July 15 edition of the K-State Sports Extra.
By Mark Janssen
Former Kansas State baseball coach Dave Baker is a model of someone who has seen it all, and, a perfect example of someone who has gone absolutely full circle.
Here are his two stories.
FROM BAT BOY TO COACH
Literally, Baker grew up on the north side of the tracks, but he spent a huge number of hours on the south side of those same tracks that separated his Yuma Street home with K-State's baseball home of Griffith Park.
"The Rock Island railroad tracks were where Fort Riley Boulevard is now, and every day K-State was practicing I'd hop over those tracks and hang around where K-State was practicing," said Baker in reference to the former Wildcat diamond home of Griffith Park in the 1950s and `60s. "I'd chase foul balls hit by Earl Woods (Tiger's father) and the others to get nickels, and then in the second through sixth grade they let me be bat boy for all the games."
Baker, who turned 70 last month, later became a good enough player to be offered a chance to sign with the Detroit Tigers out of Manhattan High School, but his father, Jesse - a Manhattan icon when it comes to youth baseball - said his son should opt for an education.
That education would start at Coffeyville Community College where in 1962 he was the 5-foot-8 point guard for Jack Hartman's 32-0 national championship basketball team.
"I was on scholarship and my aunt had a rest home two blocks from the school, so that's where I lived. I went to school pretty cheap," said Baker. "Jack is the one who gave me a foundation on discipline. He taught doing things the right way."
While Coffeyville did not offer baseball, Baker eventually returned to his best sport at K-State in 1965-66 when he hit .297 for head coach Bob Brasher's Wildcats. With his NCAA eligibility exhausted, Baker finished his career on the NAIA level at Emporia State.
During the summer months, Baker would play for the semi-pro Junction City Hawks, Manhattan Lumbermen, and even the NBC champion Wichita Dreamliners.
Oh, he also played for the legendary Kansas City Monarchs for a single game.
"I played for the Hawks and we beat them on a Friday night when I had a great game, so they asked me to play for them the next night in Manhattan," reflected Baker. "I caught Satchel Paige at Griffith Park and after the game they asked me to join them on a Canadian Tour, but I didn't do it."
After Emporia State, Baker began his coaching career at Liberal's Seward County Community College where he assisted in basketball and track. From there, it was on to Creighton, where he helped with basketball and was an assistant to eventual national championship winning head coach Larry Cochell in baseball.
When Cochell left two years later, Blue Jay athletics director and legendary basketball coach Eddie Sutton hired Baker as the head baseball coach in 1972.
Five years later, K-State athletics director DeLoss Dodds called on Baker to come home and coach the Wildcats. At the time, he would be the Big Eight Conference's first African-American head baseball coach. Today, 35 years later, Baker remains as the Big 8/12's only African-American baseball coach.
"Race wasn't something I thought about. I was coming here trying to win baseball games," said Baker, who had a salary of $45,000, which included managing the athletic complex ... which included cleaning up the football stadium after games and having his team help park cars. "Honestly, I can't remember any racial issues that I had at K-State with my teams."
But there were facility problems that Baker hadn't totally understood prior to taking the job.
"We didn't have facilities at Creighton, either, so it wasn't a big deal. But what I didn't realize is what other Big Eight teams had," said Baker. "I had part of a mobile home over by the track as an office, we had only five or six scholarships, and honestly, the playing field wasn't much. Compared to what Brad (Hill) has today, it was pathetic, but we competed the best we could with what we had."
He would add, "We didn't have football going like it is today. It's the finances of football that today is providing the opportunity for all of our sports to be successful."
Of his K-State experience, Baker, who posted a six-year 137-159 record, summarized, "I didn't win any championships, but I know in my heart how I did, and I did OK."
Pausing, he added, "From bat boy, to player, to coach ... and now fan. How many stories are there like that? It's pretty neat."
GOING FULL CIRCLE
Where is Dave Baker today?
After coaching stops at Oral Roberts University and Bacone (Okla.) College since K-State, for the majority of each day he's exactly ... and that mean's exactly ... where he was as a kid 60-plus years ago.
That's at the Douglass Center at 900 Yuma Street in Manhattan.
"When I didn't have any place to go as a kid, you could always find me at the Douglass Center," said Baker, who is now Director of Manhattan's Douglass Community Center. "It was like a home."
The predominately African-American recreational facility slipped badly in recent decades, so it was Baker who was hired away from the Muskogee, Okla., Parks and Recreation, to build it back up into a more diversified community recreation outlet.
Today, the Douglass Center has never been more vibrant with a complete refurbishing the building's interior, plus lighting the outdoor basketball court and AstroTurf on the adjacent playground. In addition, a "Hand-to-Hand" educational service is also being provided to all youth in Manhattan.
"My goal is to make it a fun place to be like it was when I was growing up," said Baker, who lists Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron as his childhood heroes.
While racial matters still exist in America, Baker says this: "You look at athletics today, and there aren't issues like there still are in society."
"That's the beauty of athletics where race goes away at least for a few hours. It's the team," said Baker. "You go away feeling good or bad depending on whether you won or lost. Athletics has a teamwork that society doesn't."
With participation being his creed as opposed to competition, today Baker lives by the following phrases:
"You don't grow old because you're playing, you grow old because you stop playing."
And, "Not every young person can play varsity athletics, but everyone can participate recreationally."
Baker adds, "The Douglass Community Center is here today to better the lives of young people like it did for me."